A few years ago, I picked up a book by the Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas entitled, Being as Communion. It was not an easy read, and as a consequence, I have probably read it three times over the years. I was drawn to what the book was trying to express, even though I found it difficult to penetrate.
On a basic level, what I now understand that book to in part be saying is that each of us is brought into being as and through communion with God and the human family. That is, our “self” is given to us through an inevitable act of communion between us and the community of which we are a part, including God. Indeed, Zizioulas points out the the Christian vision of God as Trinity is a vision of God’s being as communion. In the Christian vision, the oneness of God arises from communion. Existence is communion. Everything is communion.
As we have begun at my church to explore the work of the theologian James Alison, we have encountered a line of thought which he has borrowed and adapted from the philosopher Rene Girard about the social other. Alison defines the social other as everything that exists, everything that has been created (God, therefore, is not a part of the social other, since God is not a creature of creation). He argues that for each of us, our “self” is given to us by the social other. We come into being through the social other, beginning with the actions of our parents which begin to bring us about, and continuing after we are born and encounter our families and, as time goes by, wider communities. In other words, none of us exists in and of him- or herself. We exist, each of us, because the social other has brought us into being.
As we mature, the self that is given to us by and through the social other begins to interact and negotiate with that social other in important ways. As we encounter new people, new communities, and new cultures, new possibilities of being are offered to us and we must make choices. But all the choices come to us from the social other, even though we may appropriate them in new and creative ways.
In some respects, this is dense stuff, and I don’t pretend to yet understand it perfectly or represent it adequately. But what is clear to me is that John Zizioulas, James Alison, Rene Girard, and probably an abundance of other thinkers are pointing to what seems to me a fundamental truth of our humanity: that our notions of our individuality are illusory. Rather, we are brought into being by and through communion, by and through the social other, and the self that we know and take such pride in is a self that arises from a complex web of relationships. Indeed, this is a truth that is expressed in various ways through nearly all of the world’s religious traditions.
To put it as simply as possible, there is no “I” outside of relationship. Relationship is life, and life is relationship. Another reason, perhaps, why Jesus was so keen that we should love our neighbors as ourselves — because it is our neighbors, broadly conceived, that are bringing us into being every day.