Fr Billy Swan
Up until the last century, the concept of relationship and language of relationship properly belonged to the spheres of human interaction and social science. Therefore, we spoke (and still speak!) about the relationships between people, groups and nations. This was not true in the world of the physical sciences. For many decades, the dominant influence of Newtonian physics led us to see the world as made up of basic units or building blocks that made up material things. Atoms were made up of protons, electrons and neutrons; compounds were made up of atoms and everything in the universe was made up of elements and compounds. And in that neat system of understanding, what was underappreciated was how something related to everything else in the physical world.
In the early 20th century, that all changed with Einstein and his theory of relativity that proposed that energy, mass and time are not separate entities but are intrinsically related (E=MC2). Einstein’s discoveries implied that science needed to pay closer attention to how the units or building blocks of the universe are not just held together like LEGO bricks but how material things exist thanks to the relationship between the parts that make them up.
Take for example the two ways in which atoms come together to make compounds and the relationship between them that keep them stable. One way this happens is when atoms give or receive electrons one to the other in a relationship known as an Ionic bond; it also happens when atoms share electrons in a way that stabilizes them both – a relationship known as a covalent bond.
One of the best-known examples of a compound held together by an ionic bond is Sodium Chloride, otherwise known as common salt. On their own, both the elements of sodium and chlorine are highly unstable. In the case of sodium, it seeks to give an electron away and in the case of chlorine, it seeks to receive the electron it needs for stability. On their own, these elements can be dangerous and destructive but when they come together in an ionic bond, they form something very stable that doesn’t destroy but preserves life, namely salt.
Perhaps the best example of a covalent bond is that between the two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen in a molecule of water. In the case of oxygen, it needs two electrons to stabilize and in the case of hydrogen, it has only one electron which it seeks to donate. And so, two atoms of hydrogen happily combine in a covalent bond with an atom of oxygen to form a liquid that is essential to all life.
What all this amounts to is that all matter in the universe is held together by two types of bonds or two types of relationship – one where stability is achieved by giving and receiving; the other by sharing what the other has. Yet when we examine the nature of the bonds and relationships between us humans, they too are characterized by the twin dynamics of giving/receiving and sharing what the other has.
A few examples to illustrate. Take a couple who are dating and are getting to know each other better. Each of them are attracted to the other and experience what we call ‘chemistry’ between them. Each becomes aware of the gifts each possesses but also the gifts or qualities they lack. Then they begin to notice something strange but exciting. One possesses the gifts the other lacks and vice versa. For each party, they receive from the other but they also give to the other as well. And it is in that dynamic of giving and receiving that their relationship grows and deepens in love. Here we have what we might call an ionic relationship that mirrors the ionic bond that connects the salt in the container on the table of the restaurant when they go out for dinner. Just as a sodium atom needs to lose an electron to find stability, so we need to learn the art of losing, letting go and giving to another in order to connect with others: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). Conversely, if all we did was give away then there would be no one to receive. So, like an atom of chlorine, being fully human and connected means that we need to receive as well as to give. And when we learn to graciously accept the gift of the other and of God then our connection with them grows.
Then there exists between the same couple what we might call a covalent relationship where they share values and interests in a way that makes their relationship stronger and more stable. This could be a shared interest in sports, art, drama, movies, politics or something else. It also could be the gift of faith in God that both people are blessed with that unites them to the Lord but also brings them closer to each other. Here we think of the two hydrogen atoms that are united together in the atom of oxygen. This gives us the analogy for what Aristotle deduced, namely that the love between two becomes stronger in the measure that both love a transcendent third. And so, the relationship between the couple could be described as being both ionic and covalent, just like the bonds that connect the water and salt in their bodies and the material world in which they live.
Of course, these ionic and covalent relationships are not limited to romantic couples but extend to friends, family members, societies and nations where relations between peoples are stabilized by mutual giving/receiving and sharing what is held in common.
This discovery that the natural bonds in the material world mirror human relationships should not come as a surprise to believers in the God whose essence is love - a love that is creative, mutual, reciprocal and generative in all creation – a love that is shared between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. St Paul tells us that: “Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen in the mind’s understanding of created things” (Rom. 1:20). Therefore, given that the material world is composed of things held together in relationship, this points to a Creator whose essence is relational love. God has left his fingerprints on what he has made and continues to sustain. Because this is true, it means that the dynamic of relationship at the heart of the material world is what also characterizes the immaterial world and all reality.
To use the image from the Fathers and saints of the Church, the two books of creation and Scripture correspond because both come from the same author. In the fourth century, St Augustine talked about the “vestigia Dei” present in God’s created world and invited us to “consider the whole of creation, regarding God as its author, by reading so to speak in the great book of nature” (Contra Faustum, 32, 20). Likewise, for Hugo of St Victor: “the whole of this sensible world is like a book, written by the finger of God, being created by its power. And the individual creatures are like symbols or letters that are not invented in an arbitrary way by man but ordained by the will of God in order to demonstrate his wisdom” (Didascalicon, VII, 3; PL 176, 873). For St Bonaventure, the reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened” (Quaest. Disp. de Myst. Trinitatis, 1, 2 concl.).
What ought to fascinate and excite believers is the growing appreciation in science of the of the relational nature of the material world. This is something that theology insisted on centuries beforehand – that all creation contains images of heavenly realities and is marked by the relationality that is the essence of its Creator. God has left his fingerprints on what he has created thus tracing a pathway that leads us back to Him.