Existence as Persons In and Through Others

The human family is the relational image of the relational Trinity, in which each divine person is distinct from the other while eternally one with the other in communion, community, and communication.


We are aware of ourselves as participants in an ongoing drama of existence that we did not originate, and that will continue after we are gone. We experience ourselves as sharing in a reality that is common to all, while at the same time recognizing that we are not identical. Our participation is not a matter of choice; it is simply given. So long as we are willing to regard the universe as a given, in the mathematical sense of “given” which presupposes no giver, we can take existence for granted as little more than a floor for anything that is. On the other hand, we may realize that a universe of givens presupposes the Giver, who is generously giving them, the One originating source of all that is, the principle of unity for a universe. Hence, the very to-be of creatures is to-be-related to the One from which our existence derives: our created to-be is a relation to our uncreated source, to-be-itself.

Created in the image of our creator, we are called upon to live a wholehearted response to the gift of life that we are. The creator’s free creation entails that our life is gift, not a gift which we were somehow around to receive; it is we ourselves who are gift, and so are called as creatures, aware of the fact to return with gratitude all that we are to the Giver. Gratitude is our appropriate response to the inner imperative of return to the One from whom we derive our existence. The initiative of the Giver of all that is has seen to it that we are constituted in a reciprocal relationship with himself. The creator-God’s initiative makes the reciprocity of divine and human friendship possible. The response of gratitude evidences God’s befriending activity in human life. Gratitude is a created participation in God’s love, orienting us to the source of all existence.

The Individualist Bias
American culture stresses the individualist rather than relational aspect of human life, emphasizing that we are the product of our choices rather than defined by our relational life as part of the human family under the sovereignty of God’s love. The human family is the relational image of the relational Trinity, in which each divine person is distinct from the other while eternally one with the other in communion, community, and communication.

Relational being defines who we are; we do not define ourselves. Individualists see relational life and relationships as just something added on to their individuality. Human life and development occurs within a network of given relationships; it is stunted and diminished to the extent it becomes alienated from them. We think of ourselves primarily as the product of our choices rather than as the product of our given relationships into which we are born. Relationships are primary; they exist before we know who we are. We cannot un-choose them. The Church exists to strengthen us within the relational networks in which we live, and move, and have our being.

The individualist ideal of the self-made, self-sufficient, person does not square with the reality of our relational existence. Reality is not subordinate to the human choice or wish-thought of the would-be autonomous individual. We recognize individuals and societies seriously out of touch with their relational life as delusional.  We are not the product of our choices; rather our relationships are primary. Before we know who we are, we are born into a web of prior relationships. We are related to God, Jesus Christ, our parents, relatives, and a universe before we know who we are. Because we are intrinsically relational, renouncing our relations is self-destructive. As Christians, we see ourselves as relational beings created in the likeness of an interpersonal God, Love Itself, who relates us to everyone, and loves everyone. The internal order of the Triune God creates, sustains, and encompasses the entire created and dynamic order, which is from Love, and of Love, and towards Love.

The Ongoing Challenge
As an ecclesial communion and network of relations that keep us in communion with Christ, the Church faces the ongoing challenge to its ministry of an individualistic culture that sees ourselves primarily as individuals rather than as related. We err in thinking of ourselves, first of all, as the product of our choices, and not as the product of the relations given us. That’s the difference that God makes. Relations are prior to, and more important than, individual experiences in defining who we are, and that the relation to God relates us to everything, and to everyone, God loves, and that means everybody. It takes a lifetime to grow into all these relationships, and the task is never completed. Unfortunately, the task will not be taken up if we imagine that we are who we are because of our choices, and that relationships are merely added on and can be rejected at will.

The Church’s ministry is related to both the good of the whole, and to that of ourselves as related. In his encyclical, “Charity in Truth,” Pope Benedict XVI articulates how this Catholic vision pertains to the most pressing social issues of our time, and how it ultimately has the power to unite the human race. He writes that “The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy, and communion” (6). Our faith itself unites everyone, and brings us into a relationship that has universal love as its source and goal.

There is a constant tendency to see God as just one more fixture in the universe, only bigger, and more important. Although present within his creation, God transcends it as the ultimate cause, ground, and purpose of its very being. The lasting peace of the human family flows from the recognition that the world is not our own, but rather the horizon within which we are invited to participate in God’s all-encompassing love, and cooperate in guiding the world and history under God’s inspiration. Our relationship to God brings us into relationship with everyone else, and with all of creation. This is accomplished through Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who enables us to understand how our neighbors are also our brothers and sisters.

Life’s Journey From and To God with Others
We are born into an existing network of relations, into a universe of universal relationships originating in a relational God. Relational being defines who we are; we do not define ourselves. Our relationships are prior to our individuality. We are born into relationships. We are born somebody’s child and grandchild, into a particular cultural, linguistic, ethnic community. We grow into our relationships in the process of human maturation and development. Renouncing our relationships is self-destructive. We are born into a human family, into an interrelated universe and cosmos.

The God of the Judeo-Christian revelation is the covenant-creating-and-sustaining God of our relational existence. This God creates, sees, knows, loves, and enjoys the all-together of creation. The way we see our God is the way we see ourselves and all creation. Christians see a relational God that grounds the vision of their relational life in a relational universe. We see things as interrelated, as a whole, in the light of the God who encompasses the whole as its origin-ground-destiny. The Ten Commandments express the imperative of love for God above all, and others as ourselves, as basis for our relational life.

Our life’s journey is from God, of God, with God, and to God, together with all others within the universal story. The coming and going of Christ, in the Gospel of John, evokes our own coming from God, and finding our way home to God with tears that in the Gospel of Luke are met with feasting and rejoicing. The “Follow me” of Jesus invites us to walk with him, and so to share the source and goal of his life story. Our response to his invitation “Follow me” … “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6), must be with his disciples, with friends who are friends in Christ. Here is where we identify the role which community and tradition play in our finding our way back to our Origin, and forward to our Goal, fulfillment, and destiny.

A Cardinal’s Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture
Inasmuch as our dominant culture privileges voluntary relations to the detriment of others, Francis Cardinal George believes that the evangelizer must work to strengthen relations that are given, rather than chosen: family, race, linguistic group, the land, and the nation itself as our home, rather than willed messianic project (The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, New York: Crossroad, 2009 p. 39). Within the context of these relationships, Cardinal George continues, the Church as gift, as ecclesial communion with her source of life in the love of Father, Son, and Spirit, becomes culturally possible. American culture reduces the Church to a voluntary association, and treats the nation itself the same way. Our cultural myths, by reason of our history, are inevitably voluntaristic. We are a people of choice, rather than blood. One can choose to become an American in a way that one cannot become Chinese, Eskimo, or Arab. Although the melting pot myth has enabled the United States to welcome almost anyone and everyone, at least in principle; and its inclusivity can serve the Gospel’s universalism, it cannot be allowed to destroy the public legitimacy of involuntary relationships and communities.

The Catholic evangelizer in the United States will cherish and strengthen the relationships that faith tell us we have no right to “un-choose.” If we are individuals for whom relationships are just added on, rather than being persons who are born related, then we start with rights, and not with duties or obligations to others. Since rights have to be protected, we get into a legal framework that is almost always adversarial. Society becomes brittle and violent. Natural community, such as marriage, is much weakened. People’s mobility and pursuit of one’s own dreams, even in conflict with others, have become something of a priority in our culture. That does not foster the kind of relationship that is necessary to live humanely.

We can see this in many ways. Violence is the most obvious. Modern culture is based on opposition and contention: the media needs oppressors and victims or there is no story; courts are set up for winners and losers; and politics is a question of those in power and those who have lost power. Conflict reigns.

The Church’s role is to affirm that, while there is conflict to a certain level, the highest level is one of harmony and peace, mutual love, and love of God.  The Church’s task is to call people to that level, which is not only higher, but also more global, broader, and universal. This is what is often missing in the public discourse and institutions of our country.

The relationship between church and state is a constitutional way of talking about what is far deeper, namely faith and culture, which is the way Pope John Paul II used to raise the question. If we forget that we are social beings, first of all, and we begin to think that we are antagonistic beings in competition with others in order to establish our rights, then the separation between church and state necessarily becomes antagonistic rather than one of cooperation.

Originally there was cooperation because the spheres were delimited, and the church was free to pursue its own life without interference from the state. In the last 50 years, there has been more interference by the state in the life of the church, and freedom of religion has been reinterpreted to mean freedom of individuals to express themselves using religious terms, but never to do that publicly, because it may somehow infringe upon the rights of others who want to be free of religion. This has created an antagonism that had not previously existed.

Evangelization as Global Vision in Action
The Church is always interested in seeing how we can foster a culture that is always most Gospel-friendly, because if we had that, many other things would take care of themselves. Evangelization involves not just converting individuals, but changing the culture so that society becomes more just, loving, and generous. The Gospel message is relational. The Church is not sectarian. It extends beyond every community, even national communities. Pope Benedict XVI made that clear when he visited the United Nations, affirming that the nation-state is not nearly as important as the global human family.  That is the sense of catholicity, of universality, and global solidarity that the Church has promoted for a very long time.

Unlike national identities, all of the great faiths are global. If we can cooperate on a social level, even though we are not going to believe the same things entirely, then the world will be a more peaceful place. We shall be able to create a sense of identity that transcends other divisions. The difference between religions will remain, but along with that sense of mutual respect comes a conviction that religion can never be used to justify violence. We shall become peacemakers even with differences and disagreements.

Evangelization is a global vision with activities that take place in homes, parishes, cities, and councils. The Church allows for subsidiarity among persons of faith, doing good things for the Church because they are good Catholics. Christ shapes the minds and hearts of all who are open to him in prayer, praying together to understand what our roles are for the coming of his kingdom. We study the Catechism, for example, so that we can be of one mind with the Church. For ordinary Catholics, religion is integral to their lives. They are living it, doing their best to build up their family and to contribute to society. Their Catholicism is a way of life, of thinking and of loving.

Growing to Live Through Others
There is a trend in seeing marriage and family as exclusively voluntary, rather than as natural institutions. It is true that you choose freely to marry someone, but once you do, that relationship is normative for the rest of your life. Marriage means growing not only to live with someone, but also through someone else, having their self-consciousness become a part of your self-consciousness.

The same is true of the Church, where we bring into our self-consciousness the mind of Christ, as St. Paul says, and therefore everyone whom Christ loves. The Church is a network of relationships, called communion, and the human race is a network of relationships, called solidarity. The two should complement one another. At that point, there is no separation; there is cooperation, a recognition of difference, and that difference is important. The Church is not just a department of state; and the state should not make itself into a kind of church, which is sometimes the temptation in America.

Meanwhile, many immigrants come here with a sense of family that is still very strong. They come so that they can send money back to their family, not in order to pursue their own goals. Underlying this is the sense that the family is the basic unit of society in ways that are not always true for Americans, who think that individuals and their rights are the basic unit.

It is a mistake to categorize Catholics as liberal or conservative; for liberal and conservative are primarily political terms. We must understand that Catholicism is not primarily political, although it influences politics, like any other realm of human experience. The Catholic is a part of a community formed by sharing the gifts that Christ gives us: the Gospel, the sacraments, the pastoral governance of the successors of the Apostles. The means of Christ’s grace that make us truly one are now present.  Although the way of life can differ within the Church, the goal of life is always sanctity.

Accepting Truths That We Have Not Created
Many people believe that we cannot accept a truth that we have not created for ourselves, and still be free. Unfortunately, people who try to live their own truths and their own dreams eventually recognize, when they attain a certain level of maturity, that this path is a trap. To be ourselves, we have to be something more than ourselves. We come forward with truths of who we really are in Christ, and our destiny for all eternity, and that is liberation. That is the truth that sets us free. Our mainstream culture understands freedom as the ability of individuals to be free of communal constraints. Understanding the human person as fundamentally a sovereign individual reveals a view of human beings as radically distant from God and one another; for human beings only exist as persons in and through others, under the sovereignty of God’s love and wisdom.

We must watch for people when they are ready to hear that message. It may be years, but we have to look for occasions when we can proclaim it. We must propose and never impose. Goodness has its own attractiveness. We are called to be better witnesses than we have been, and then enter into a dialogue that will draw some and, perhaps, repulse others. That is the Catholic way of life, what God expects us to do, and to leave the results in his hands.

Communion with the Source of Happiness
The Church Fathers noted that the beatitudes began with the term “happy.” To Christian thinkers, schooled in ancient moral philosophy, it appeared that, according to Jesus, happiness was the goal of human life in congruence with the Bible, and the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans.  In this interpretation, the beatitudes depicted the character of a person who was happy. At the beginning of his “Homilies on the Beatitudes,” Gregory of Nyssa explains that happiness is the possession of all things considered good. The practice of virtue has as its aim that the one who lives virtuously will become happy. Gregory describes the moral life teleologically, in terms of its goal. But Christian ethics was also formed by a distinctively theological understanding derived from Scriptures. The call to be as perfect as our heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:48) presents the moral life as oriented, not to a “supreme good,” but to God, the highest good, the source of our happiness and the goal of our striving. It is only in communion with God, whom Aquinas calls “Happiness Itself” (S.T., I-II, q. 3, a.2), that human lives are brought to fulfillment (City of God 10:3.2; 19.17). God’s very being is God’s being happy. Whatever God is, is God’s happiness; this is not something extrinsic to God, but the very life or eternal activity of God. Communion, community, and communication with God is communion, community and communication with Happiness Itself. The friends of God know, even now, but not fully, the happiness that is God. Their faith, hope, and love are, even now, the experience of original and ultimate Happiness Itself.

Happiness Itself is the interpersonal unity of communion, community, and communications of the triune God’s knowing its truth, loving its goodness, and enjoying/delighting in the beauty of its true goodness. The friends of God, therefore, participate, even now, in the happiness that is God’s knowing and loving and enjoying.

The Climax of the Universal Story
As Christians, we believe that God shall reveal the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal life at the Final Judgment, when we shall learn how God has been becoming “all in all” (1 Cor 15:23), working from the beginning in Christ, whom God “raised from the dead,” establishing him “head over all things, for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1: 20-23).

In his book Jacques Dupuis Faces the Inquisition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012, pp. 124-5), William Burrows quotes the following material from a letter I had written to Burrows (dated May 4, 2011):

The final revelation at the eschaton will simultaneously reveal who we are, and who God/Jesus, as the Christ, is. In the divine light, we shall finally discover our full identity in the universal creation, the particular sentence that we are in within the universal story that the Divine Word has fully told, the particular note we are in the divine symphony, the part we are in within the whole. The Last Judgment occurs only when all the evidence of world history, the universal story, is in. Only then, shall we fully know ourselves in the context of all the past that has poured into our lives,and the impact that our lives have effected in others, tingling down to the last moment/period of the universal story. We cannot truly understand anything taken out of context; likewise, we cannot truly understand ourselves outside our ultimate context: God and his universal story. Each human being is an irreplaceable element in the story that the Creator Logos/Word is telling. Ephesians implies this in affirming that the mystery of each human life is hidden in Christ, to be revealed at the end of time. Revelation implies this in the mystery of the white stone at the heart of each human life, beautifully brought out in the BBC special on “The Monastery”: The first word of God to us in the Bible, in the form of a question,”Where are you?” implies our lifelong quest to discover where/who we are. The Question-Raising Mystery of God at the heart of every human life is also the Question-Answering Mystery. To hear the Question is to be already in touch with the Answer. The dynamic of the question is the dynamic of all human moral, intellectual, cultural, and religious development/maturation. At the end of time, I believe all humans shall see what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. (Quoted by William Burrows, Jacques Dupuis Faces the Inquisition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012, pp. 124-5).

The ongoing challenge to the church’s ministry is that of sanctifying our lives within the ecclesiastical communion, helping us to love all others in the network of our God-given relationship as God loves them. In American culture, we tend to see ourselves as individuals, as the self-made persons, product of our choices, rather than as the product of the relationships that God gives us. The church is an ecclesial communion, a network of relations that keeps us one in Christ. Our relational life is primary: We are born into a network of relations: parents, siblings, grandparents. Before we know who we are, and who Christ is, we find ourselves in a network of human relationship through, and in which we learn who we are. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter. We are related before we are individuals. A relational triune God has created us in his relational image and likeness: The God of Israel is a covenant-creating and covenant-sustaining God. Renouncing our relations is self-destructive. Our relational God creates, sanctifies, sustains, fulfills, and redeems us in the network of our relations.

Fr. John Navone, SJ About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).


  1. Avatar Martin B Drew says:

    This is a wonderful article since it explains logical and necessary relationships in an ecclesial setting. And that each person is given from God, not from man, the privilege in freedom to choose a moral good (virtue ) or a moral evil ( sin ). Yet, the Holy Spirit gives divine help to love God completely, and any neighbor, similarly.


  1. […] The human family is the relational image of the relational Trinity, in which each divine person is distinct from the other while eternally one with the other in communion, community, and communication.   We are aware of ourselves as participants in an ongoing drama of existence that we did not …read more […]