Relationships and unity

Last week, in my on-going exploration of unity in The United Methodist Church (and, by extension, contemporary society more broadly), I introduced a model of unity based not on some shared characteristic that applied to all in a group, but rather a bunch of overlapping characteristics.  I called this model unity through relationship and networks, though it might also be called the aggregate model of unity.

This week, I want to say a little bit more about the role of relationships is promoting and sustaining unity.  While this role holds true for unity in general, it will set up what I want to talk about next week, which is the role of networks in the aggregate model of unity, a topic which depends on recognizing the relational nature of all unity.

The picture I showed last week for how the aggregate model of unity works looked like this:

Overlapping circles

As I talked about them last week, the smaller circles represented shared characteristics.  Yet it is perhaps more appropriate to think of them as social circles or social groups.  Such groups may be (and often are) defined by shared characteristics.  Yet merely having a characteristic in common with someone else is not always enough to foster some sense of togetherness or unity.  For instance, “innie” and “outie” bellybuttons can be shared characteristics, but do not usually form the basis for social unity (though I realize that somewhere out there, probably on the Internet, there may be an “Innie Bellybutton Club” that is based around just this thing).  While this is a somewhat flippant example, the point remains that unity is not merely a function of having some shared characteristic.

That’s because unity is a relational quality.  United describes the nature of people’s relationships with each other, and it is ultimately relationships was form the basis of unity, not shared characteristics.  People are thrown together by sharing some characteristic (whether it’s rooting for the same sports team, attending the same church or school, working at the same job, living in the same neighborhood, or something else), and that shared aspect of their lives may be enough for them to develop some sort of relationship (classmate, coworker, neighbor, etc.)  Nevertheless, one can have a relationship with someone without it being particularly characterized by unity.  How many people work at or live in places where they feel little attachment to those around them or, worse, find themselves at odds with those around them?

Hence, shared characteristics can serve as the basis of unity only in so far as they can create substantive similarities that lead people to really relate with one another in a positive way.  These relationships then add up to community.  Thus, shared characteristics can create communities, but they are (as all communities are) imagined or constructed, not given by the mere fact of sameness.  It’s the relationships that ultimately make the community, not the common characteristics.

Fortunately, finding communities or social groups united through relationships by some characteristic they consider salient isn’t hard to do.  Such groups are all over in the church and the world.  In The United Methodist church, there are congregations, conferences, and caucuses.  In the world, there are clubs and organizations, friend groups, fan clubs, neighborhoods, etc.  Not all may give each of these groups the same degree of salience, but usually there are some groups people feel an affinity toward.  Yet all of these groups, to the extent that they are salient, are so because those who are members of them have taken a shared characteristic and turned it into the basis for real, positive relationships, which are the context for unity.


David Shane posted on September 11, 2011 at 11:37 am

This may only be somewhat related, but your point that “merely having a characteristic in common with someone else is not always enough to foster some sense of togetherness or unity” reminds me of a sermon Mark Driscoll gave on loneliness and friendship: (Yes, I know he is probably not your cup of theological tea!)

Driscoll’s sermon is partly about how to develop real, deep, unifying, lasting relationships. He says that for many of us, even with our “friends” we have very shallow relationships, because those friendships are merely the result of proximity or affinity. Then we move, our interests change, and within a few years we can’t even remember the names of our one-time “best friends”. (I think you’d agree so far.)

The answer, he says, real relationship, comes via a “gospel-centered partnership”.

“Jesus is the center of the relationship between you and someone else. This could be a friend, a parent. This could be a spouse. That Jesus is between the two of you because sin will come between the two of you and sin leads to spiritual death, disconnection from God, physical death. We actually die. And relational death. It separates people.

And so, Jesus dies to forgive – take away sin. Now, we can have a reconciled relationship with God and with one another.”

Driscoll sees making Jesus the center of a relationship the only way to have real and permanent unity with another person. Not only does this give two Christians a common goal in life in addition to everything else they may share – to advance the gospel – but it also gives them a way to deal with the sin problem. We sin against each other, we let each other down – Christians know about forgiveness and grace, they know how to deal with that problem better than the world does.

Unity is a relational quality. Fortunately for us, Jesus shows us how and enables us to have real relationships. (I realize your post is more about taking advantage of relational groups that have already formed than forming them in the first place, but it brought this sermon to mind!)

David W. Scott posted on September 12, 2011 at 8:02 am

Thanks, David. I take your point that Jesus’ atoning work which takes away sin is ultimately what allows us to be in real relationships, which otherwise get messed up because of sin.

marriage counsellors posted on September 28, 2011 at 3:08 am

It is nice to have read this today, I truly believe that unity can be fostered from different groups however unity is best fostered with people you have similarities with. In high school, I was active in being a scout (Rover Scouts), and the friends I made during that time who I share the many similarities with are still my friends until today.

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