Commenting on Metropolitan John Zizioulas' book on trinitarian theology [Being as Communion, © 1985, Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd.], John C. Polkinghorne summed up the main thesis this way: "Reality is relational, an insight that certainly accords with an increasing scientific recognition of the relational character of the physical universe." Such a relational understanding is commonly given precision in mathematics. [Polkinghorne, John C., Quantum Physics and Theology, An Unexpected Kinship, © 2007, Yale University, Yale University Press, New Haven and London; p. 103]
This book takes the view that it is possible to bring precision to the field of fundamental theology while avoiding the reductio ad absurdum that is so often the result of such exercises. Although theology is the study of God, and man's relationship to God, it is a human exercise, albeit one that is guided by God. It is therefore subject to all the limitations of any philosophical or scientific human enterprise. And, as history shows, efforts to ground theology in broader philosophical systems have universally proven to be problematic.
The most promising recent attempt at this, in the subdomain of moral theology, has been the work of theologians to lay a foundation in the philosophy of phenomenology1. Perhaps the best known example of this approach is the late Pope John Paul II's work, Person and Act. From my admittedly limited perspective on these matters, this work suffers from an overabundance of fluid terminology or giddiness of language, a stylistic fault, it seems, of all philosophers in the tradition of the German school of the 18th and 19th century, particularly due to the woeful influence of Hegel, and transmitted through Heidegger, Husserl and their many students (notably St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, or Edith Stein). I sometimes wonder if Nietzsche's rather misconceived rebellion was not largely motivated by repugnance at this sad record of unintentional obscurantism.
In defense of this school, however, I would add that its principal contribution appears to be a recognition that the complexity of life (and, indeed, of reality itself) must be approached and appreciated from an endless variety of perspectives, a fact which finds formal expression in Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and which was presaged in Hegel's theory of progressive enlightenment. Indeed, we find this confirmed in the history of the attempts of physical science to explain reality even at its most basic level. New "perspectives" in this sense, arise from the development of instruments for measuring phenomena that were hitherto unknown or inaccessible through prior technologies.
We find this fact also at the base of the approach of Pope John Paul II in his The Theology of the Body. Much of the difficulty that people have with his writings consists precisely in the fact that he approaches a subject from what seems like an endless variety of closely related perspectives. It's as if he considered life to be a diamond with an infinite number of facets, and the philosopher as playing the role of an appraiser with his lens. This assessment of the late pope's investigatory style is confirmed in a surprising way in his dramatic work, The jeweller's shop.
Some of the inspiration for the approach taken here can be traced to the work of mathematicians in the 20th century to found mathematics in an axiomatic framework, a framework that achieved substantive success largely due to an emphasis on the role of relationship in specifying meaning.
An associated inspiration from the field of philosophy comes from the work of Wittgenstein on the role of language games in establishing human knowledge, or, to put it another way, the role of formal linguistics in founding modern epistemology. Again, the role of analytical relationships is fundamental.
Finally, I also credit the work of Bertrand Russell, exemplified in Human Knowledge, It's Scope and Limits, to establish a rigorous relational approach to epistemology.
In contrast to these highly abstract efforts, however, I have also been inspired by the evident predilection of Jesus Christ to emphasize relationship in his teaching of the Gospel message, and my efforts to bring precision to the subject of theology will, I hope to show, be principally inspired in detail by the teaching of Christ.
The thesis of this paper derives from the fundamental fact that we come to know all of reality through our manifold relationships to reality. To sharpen our understanding of reality, it is necessary to both sharpen our appreciation of the precise nature of a given relational protocol (or experimental observation) and to investigate new ones, particularly in areas of "relational space" that have not yet been visited. Apart from mystical experience, all such relationships are, one way or another, mediated by or otherwise coupled with other relationships. From the fundamental relationships we have to the outside world that are mediated through our senses and interpreted through the relationships in our neural pathways to the extended relationships we have through the operation of human discourse and scientific instrumentation, the true meaning of reality itself can be best expressed in relational terms. The fact that there is a reality "behind" the relationships is arguably true, but that reality, as such, is inaccessible to us, apart from what is revealed to us by the one being whose relationship to all of reality is immediate, namely God. Furthermore, apart from mystical experience, even the revelation we receive from God is ultimately expressible in terms of these mediated relationships. Finally, all of these relationships are subject to God's choice.
The thesis of this paper also, as I have hinted, derives from the fundamental biblical fact that Jesus always adverted to the significance and meaning of relationships when proclaiming the Gospel. Indeed, the meaning of "gospel" itself is the "good news" that our relationship with God can be repaired through the mediation of Jesus Christ, because his relationship to God began as a dual relationship of Word to the Father and Son to the Father, characterizing his divine and human relationship to the Father, respectively. The former relationship, that of Word to the Father, was, is and always will be perfect, complete and unchangeable, while the latter relationship, that of Son to the Father, is best understood as incarnating the former relationship in human-divine form. This latter relationship was initially "very good" and was, through Jesus' voluntary and graced sacrificial obedience, perfected, completed and eternal, and it was and is, through his ongoing solidarity with humanity, sharable with us.
In the final analysis, it is our relationship to Jesus which is the key to unlocking our full understanding and growth of our relationship with God and with each other. As Jesus said to Phillip, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" It was no coincidence that Jesus always focused on relationships in helping us to fully grasp our needs and our salvation.