Nature and relationship

“Society is absolutely dependant for its vitality and existence on its ability to bring about adequate friendships among its people,” writes the Jesuit James V. Schall in his essay “The Totality of Society.” He’s writing about the commonalities between Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas in understanding how relationships—“friendships,” as a catchall term for all loving bonds—underpins what it means to be human.

Schall takes some of the best of pagan antiquity and Western medieval thought and finds them completing each other’s sentences. We learn that the human soul is made to reach outward, to be in relationship with someone else—ultimately and perfectly, we are only fully human when in relationship with everyone else.

Schall notes elsewhere that this grand, universal vision of relationship troubled Aristotle. But for St. Thomas, with his Triune God of relation and love—in whose image all humanity was created—such a vision made absolute sense. St. Thomas wrote that “all precepts of law, especially those ordered to the neighbor, seem to be ordained to this end, that men love one another.”

But people and cultures can choose not to love one another. Or they can order society to encourage the love of only certain types of humans, or, worse, the love of only one person. Societies can also order relationships towards pleasure alone, at the expense of sacrifice. All this reverses the natural course of humanity, which must be open to the universal.

I say the “natural course of humanity” because we are meant to be in relationship—indeed, all creation is. You'll find elements of this truth throughout nature, such as in this news story from about the fraternal socialization of Asian elephants. Here’s a clip of the story:
A new study shows that many female Asian elephants are more like social butterflies, with numerous pals. And they're able to maintain strong friendships even with those they have not seen in a year or more. 
The study adds Asian elephants to a short list of other species, including dolphins, that are able to maintain complex social relationships despite not having daily contact, an ability regarded as being cognitively demanding.
"People thought they knew what Asian elephants were doing [socially] based on what they saw them doing in captivity," says Shermin de Silva, a behavioral ecologist with the Elephant, Forest and Environment Conservation Trust in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the lead author of the new study.
One wonders what observers of the human race would discover about our relationships. Certainly, they would see much that is beautiful—affection, forgiveness, joy, camaraderie and sacrifice. But they may also observe class warfare (and warfare in general), loneliness, abuse, aggression, murder and many other crimes against relationship.

Indeed, over time they might even note that in some cultures (like in America and much of the Western world) we humans are re-embracing a kind of primitive mentality that, while needed during our species’ evolution, encourages isolation. We hear such isolation, for instance, in the common defense for redefining marriage, which is something to the effect that “no one else’s marriage affects mine.”

Sadly, we humans often fail to embrace our true, God-given nature—that is, to be creatures in relationship with everyone, not for sentimental and passing notions of earthly bliss, but because that's what it means to be human. Let us pray to the Triune God, then, that we ever more grow in friendship with Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as well as with each other, and with the entirety of creation that God has made and called very good.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.