The Counterfeit Religion of Relationships

relationship, n. the state or fact of being related. [RandomHouse]
related, adj. 1. connected by nature, origin, marriage, etc. 2. connected in thought or meaning.


Everything and everybody is connected to everything, by at most (as one theory puts it) "six degrees of separation." Therefore, everybody is in relationships. God made us, so at least by nature and origin, we are connected to (that is, we are in a relationship with) God.

I live and move in a minority demographic subculture of the USA, whose leadership insists that Christianity "is a relationship, not a religion." For most of the people in their churches, however, Christianity is something they do on Sunday morning, and otherwise they live lives indistinguishable from the rest of the country. A much smaller fraction include Sunday and Wednesday nights, but again without further distinction. As far as I can tell, the leaders themselves differ additionally from the rest of the population only in the performance of their (paid or volunteered) duties. But they and their immediate disciples insist on calling it "a relationship."

When a man is in "a relationship" with a woman, whether by marriage or pseudo-marriage (also known as cohabitation), he is constantly thinking about her, how he can please her or (more often) how she can gratify him. If the marriage persists beyond its modern cultural limit, his thoughts of her tend to be more negative, but there is still a significant difference in his life from that of a man with no such relationship. Does a Christian experience that kind of different life, compared to an unbeliever? I see no evidence of it.
 

Affirmation

There is another sense of the word "relationship" in common use, but you will not find it in any dictionary. Applied to people, it refers to a particular kind of connection, that of unconditional mutual affirmation. This is the most important value to MBTI Feelers, as distinguished from the top value for a Thinker, which is moral absolutes like truth and justice. Thinkers make good technologists, because technology is driven by external (absolute) physical laws. Feelers seem to excel in activities involving relationships with other people, most notably leading voluntary associations of people like churches, and they do this by exercising their natural preference for affirmation. As a result, the people in the churches hear and begin to believe this non-dictionary definition of relationship = affirmation.

Does this new sense affect their lives? Not significantly. The Feelers in the church (most members) continue to give preference for their top value, for which they now have a new label. Their reluctant husbands and a few people I call "Feeler wannabes" politely disengage their own actual (Thinker) values for one hour on Sunday morning, then go back to being who God made them to be the rest of the week. But they also have this new lexical term to use against their critics.

The evangelical church leadership mean this new sense of "relationship" almost exclusively when they discuss the nature of their brand of Christianity. The more thoughtful of them, when pressed, will go to a dictionary and try to explain how that definition is what they mean, but it makes no sense in context. "God loves you," they say. That's an affirmation, nothing more, and you are expected to love God in exactly the same vacuous way: by saying so. What you actually do is unimportant, because God loves you and forgives all sins, past, present, and future. I have a problem finding that theology in the Bible, but they seem to believe it's there, along with the "relationship" thing.

He who writes the dictionary wins the debate, and the most skillful debaters seek terminology with multiple incompatible senses (such as "relationship" as here noted), which they can trade off unannounced to sow confusion in their opponents and delight in their supportive (affirming) audiences. This deception offends me, and for the purpose of this essay, I will completely refuse to use the ambiguous word "relationship" except to quote its proponents and note its problems, as above. The two senses can be adequately communicated and distinguished using unambiguous synonyms "affirmation" and "connection."

I coined a new word "Relationshipism" to refer to the religion practiced in these churches, and its cognate "Relationshipist" to refer to a practitioner of the same. It is a religion of mutual affirmation. They can tolerate disaffirming truth only in vanishingly small doses. "Never criticize," one pastor preached. They all believe it, even if they cannot in good conscience say so quite as openly as he did.

Affirmation is so important to a Relationshipist that they also teach self-affirmation ("self-esteem") as a positive virtue. Pride (another word meaning self-esteem) is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but they don't let that stop them. The Relationshipists have taken over the public school system in the USA, so that we rank first among all nations in student self-esteem, but dead last (among industrial nations) in math and science. The self-esteem has no connection with reality, we have nothing to be proud about, but we are proud anyway.

"Relationship" meaning affirmation is apparently a reciprocal condition, for who ever affirms their enemies? God loves everybody, they tell us, but they also insist that the unbelievers are not in "relationship" with God. When you have an affirming "relationship" with one of these people, and you do something disaffirming, the connection is broken and they start disaffirming you in return. Some of the more "co-dependent" of them will continue to attempt to maintain the connection, but it is self-destructive as everybody but the victim can see. Even the co-dependent person no longer calls it a "relationship" while the connection clearly remains in its negative and disaffirming state. But it's not a "relationship" in the sense that those who use the term mean it.

The Relationshipists often insist that their affirmation is unconditional. That's a lie. They say God loves you unconditionally. They probably even believe it, but they cannot find any such sentiment in their Bibles (except perhaps in the editor's notes). With the aforementioned exception of the co-dependent, when a "relationship" turns sour, when one partner ceases to affirm the other, the condition for its maintenance has ceased, and the "relationship" is over. Both parties actively seek to terminate it. The connection is "unconditional" only on the condition that the other party actively continues in affirmation.

My friend and sometime intellectual sparring partner "Dan" is a Relationshipist. He becomes hostile (disaffirming) when I expose the problems in his religion. I guess that's why there are so few religious Thinkers: Thinkers by nature accept and act on uncomfortable facts, but the religious leaders are unwilling to seek out the uncomfortable (disaffirming) facts in support of a Biblical faith, which differs significantially from their preferred Relationshipism. As a consequence, the Thinkers hear only the atheist perspective in public, plus a religion of mindless mutual admiration that is abhorrent to their values.

There is objective truth out there. The atheists don't have it, and the "Christians" don't want it.
 

Relationshipism

Relationshipism has several problems, both logical and Biblical. In another essay, I discussed the Biblical support for Relationshipism. There is none. Instead the Bible teaches what I call "1+2C", the First and Second Great Commandments. The first is to love God above all else, and the second is more generally known as the Golden Rule (GR). More on them shortly.

The most blatant logical problem with Relationshipism is that it turns out to be tautological. My friend "Dan" the Relationshipist is in sales support, so he tends to think of his faith more in evangelistic (sales) terms than the average believer. He told me "effective teaching or discipleship happens in the context of a relationship." To a Relationshipist everything happens in the context of a relationship. What exactly does that mean?

Consider for a moment a parable, a parallel analysis of inflamatory claims in a different context:

Global warming causes hot summers.
Global warming causes mild winters.
Global warming causes mild summers.
Global warming causes cold winters.
Global warming causes floods.
Global warming causes drought.
Without getting into the evidence (or non-evidence, as the case may be) for these claims, let's look at their form:
G => P|~P
where P is any particular environmental condition, and G stands for "Global Warming" which is said to cause both that condition and (on other days) its negation. Either the condition or its negation is always true, so (P|~P) is always true by definition, irrespective of any cause or lack thereof. Furthermore, the definition of implication (X=>Y) is that either Y is true or X is false. So, because global warming is said to cause both any particular weather condition and its opposite, the claim is tautologically true (by definition) regardless of whether the globe is warming or cooling, and regardless of whatever weather condition we are experiencing at any particular moment. Thus these claims are completely worthless and tell us nothing at all (about climate or weather, although they might tell us something about the mental state of the person making such claims).

The claims made by Dan and the pastors about "relationship" turn out to have the same form. "Relationship" is necessary for anything to happen. That follows tautologically from the definition, and that everything is connected. If instead we suppose they are referring to mutual affirmation, then we still have the tautology from the form. Dan cannot sell anything (whether his employer's product, or Christianity) by insulting the customer. Thus we still have learned nothing at all about his requirement for "relationship" in marketing.

Thinkers will not buy a product or idea or religion that violates their understanding of truth, no matter how nice and affirming the salesman appears to be. If this snake oil "will cure what ails you," but the Thinker knows from modern medicine that neither snake oil nor apricot pits nor soft words and an affirming manner will cure cancer, then he's not buying. If modern science tells him that the earth is billions of years old, and the Relationshipists try to tell him it's only 6000 years old, science wins over religion. Both the Darwinists and the Relationshipists are telling stories without any foundation in truth, but the Darwinists claim that their stories are based on scientific facts, while the Relationshipists only offer affirmation. If there is any conflict, the Thinkers want facts, not warm feelings of affirmation.
 

1+2C

The curious fact I see in 1+2C is that the person who dilligently follows these two commandments -- or more specifically, the second (GR) -- will generally be perceived by Relationshipists as conforming to their (unconditional mutual affirmation) Relationshipism. It's not that the GR imitates Relationshipism, but rather that Relationshipism is a counterfeit and partial imitation of the Golden Rule. Do you like being insulted? If not, then don't insult people. In other words, affirm them as much as possible. That's the Golden rule. But it's not the affirmation which is absolute (as in Relationshipism), but rather the perception and performance of what does good to your neighbor.

Sometimes (not very often) doing good to them is apparently disaffirming. If a person is sick or injured, the doctor might inflict temporary pain in the path to ultimate recovery. The Relationshipists must twist their value system into something contrary to what it appears, in order to make that come out right, but the GR gets there directly with no such exceptions and circumlocutions.

It gets worse. When two people disagree -- perhaps over the weights to be applied to conflicting data in order to infer from them a plan of action, the kinds of differences which are very difficult to disambiguate logically because they often involve differing values -- the GR might lead its follower to admit that no joint resolution is possible, and to part company with a minimum of hostility, while the Relationshipist must abandon his principles (connectivity and/or affirmation) to sever the connection. The Relationshipist gets the wrong answer from his value system. Fortunately, there is only one reasonable outcome, and both followers of the GR and the Relationshipists get there; however, only the GR successfully led logically to it, while the Relationshipist is forced to violate his principles to do what he knows he must.

There is no corresponding scenario where Relationshipism gives the right answer and the GR gets it wrong. There are a couple reasons for that. First, God is Good, and God teaches the GR, not Relationshipism. That should give us a reliable clue. Secondly, the GR always seeks the best for the other person, which morally trumps any other rule, whether inferred from Relationshipism or otherwise.

It may be that doing what is best for the other person requires building connections and/or affirming them gratuitously. It is not that Relationshipism gives the proper direction, but rather that (unlike the disagreement above) there is only one Good response and Relationshipism accidentally found it. Indeed GR will tend to seek such opportunities before Relationshipism points to them, because the initial conditions are disconnected and/or disaffirming.

Relationshipism substantially overlaps 1+2C, but there is no containment either way. There are significant factors in 1+2C which are most certainly not good Relationshipism, and Relationshipism makes important decisions that violate 1+2C. We have seen that 1+2C gives good direction in places where Relationshipism gives wrong answers. These are points of non-overlap. Both religions claim to be Biblical, but the Bible teaches only 1+2C, not Relationshipism. Dan the Relationshipist points to numerous places in his Bible where there are "relationships" (by which he explicitly means connections), but chooses to ignore the fact that connections are everywhere, so of course he can find them in these Biblical texts; that's not what those texts are teaching. The Bible does not use the word "relationship" nor any immediate synonym, because it is never the Biblical Author's intention to teach the primacy of connection nor affirmation, nor Relationshipism. The Bible does explicitly teach 1+2C, and virtually every chapter teaches some important aspect of either what it means to love and serve God, or else how to follow the GR, or both. Often that teaching explicitly and unambiguously points to those commandments.
 

God Is Love

The word "Love" is the biggest problem Relationshipists have with the Bible. There are several Greek words that might reasonably be translated "love", but they mean different things, and giving them the same English translation confuses readers. To a Relationshipist, "love" is the warm fuzzy emotion they experience when receiving affirmation. There is some of that in the Bible, but not much. Most of what gets translated "love" in modern Bibles is self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other person. Did God experience a warm fuzzy emotion when His son Jesus was dying on the Cross? Hardly! Relationshipists must do a lot of explaining to get from "God loved the world," past the Cross, to that warm fuzzy feeling we get when we hear and/or sing praise songs in church or at a gospel concert.

1+2C needs no such special explaining. Self-sacrifice is built into 1+2C from the top down and from the bottom up. Self-sacrifice is what God did for the world in sending Jesus, and self-sacrifice is what God commands us to do in return, both (and primarily) to God (1C), and also to the people around us (2C or GR). God did it for us on the Cross to erase the karma of our past failures, so we can do it in the present and continuing into the future without apology. There is no plan nor provision for future sins, only repentance, which is choosing not to repeat the past mistakes. Mistakes happen, but when you look back on them, you can choose to make the future different, which God made possible on the Cross. It's called "repentance" and "forgiveness" and (as I show elsewhere) there can be no forgiveness without repentance, which means there is no forgiveness of present and future (unrepented) sins. The Roman Catholics invented Purgatory to deal  with past unrepented (minor) sins, and while the Protestants explicitly deny such a place, they clearly need something like it to cope with the problem of deprecating repentance.

Notice that the message of repentance is very disaffirming to the person who persists in sin. Relationshipists cannot do that. They say they accept you unconditionally just as you are, but it's a lie. They cannot accept your sin, because sin harms innocent bystanders. They cannot accept you personally while you persist in harming people (especially them personally). So they have this conflict between their claimed unconditional affirmation, and the practical matter of your disaffirming behavior. Guess what? God has the same conflict! God tells us He does not hear the prayers of sinners. Repent! Choose to stop sinning (with God's help), then you will not be a sinner. The past (but not the future) is forgiven. If you look honestly (not through Relationshipist glasses), you will see this message all through the Bible. It also makes sense: we can live it. The Relationshipists cannot live their religion consistently, and they cannot find it in the Bible.

Repent!
 

Tom Pittman
Rev. 2011 December 19
 

Links

The Counterfeit Religion of Relationships (you are here)
The arguments (For and) Against Relationshipism
Relationships, concluding that people mean "affirmation" by that word
A Case Study in Moral Ambiguity
Why Relationshipism is so popular among conservative Christians
Relationshipism, defining the term (2008 October 31 blog post)
"Love" in Fiction, how men understand "love" and "relationship"
God of Truth, a draft of what might eventually become a book
Men Are from Mars, a list of specific Thinker/Feeler differences
The bottom of my home page, a challenge to do something about it
Thinker/Feeler Distinction (October 27 blog post)