I have been inspired over the past week by a few TED Talks. For those who aren't familiar with TED talks, these are presentations by leading technologists and scientists which are video taped and posted online. Many of these talks are fascinating, and one I saw recently by Nicholas Christakis got me thinking about how we as Christians can better understand healthy social relationships as well as the divine relationship in social context.
We are used to thinking of social relationships as centering around a single person, and in personal terms, that center person is us.
Our social group, then, at its most basic is me and my closest partner, a spouse of family member. From there, the people we know well cluster around us, siblings, family/friends, and on out to their friends and our acquaintances, and to more of their friends and people we don't even know.
We think of this as pretty straightforward, me at the center, and others at the center of their networks, without much influence one way or the other.
But in fact, the way social relationships are organized are much more like a kind of a jumbled mess. If there are a lot of little pairs out there, and singles, too, they do not simply coexist, but they are related to each other and influence each other. So instead of a lot of little pairs or islands of people who think they are in separate relationships, we instead get a big mass of relationships with everyone participating together.
In other words, we are all influencing each other through networks of relationship all the time.
This influence is measurable. We know the things we do influences our friends, our friends’ friends, and even the friends of our friends’ friends--people you don’t even know and have never met.
This influence extends not only into the relationship we recognize as belonging to us, but also into the relationships of our friends and their friends.
We are so integrated, in fact, into this network of relationships that you have to get all the way to friends of friends of friends of friends (the white figures below) before there is no longer measurable relationship between you and them. So, what you do influences people you don't even know because of the way human beings organize their relationships and how those relationships are networked together.
Here's another aspect of relationship we tend to think about as being one way, when it is not particularly so. We tend to construct ideas of authority and influence by thinking of one person as a kind of "Big Cheese" and this is the person who does the influencing.
But the work of Christakis seems to throw doubt on this old idea. Instead of imagining influence handed down by a Big Cheese, think about how the true influence structure shows us to be influenced by many networked relationships. This kind of network places the source of influence not on some intellectual or athletic giant, but as being spread from person to person, from group to group, moving through the network without any Big Cheese dictating anything at all.
As Christians, this science offers some wonderful ways to think about social relationships and the role of the Divine in those relationships. As a people of God, we acknowledge that our Cosmos are not simply centered around our own human DNA or our cultural and social structures. We recognize the presence of God (or lack of it!) in our lives, within us, in our relationships, and our organizations. And in delving into structures of human relationship--how it actually works--we are challenged to move beyond simply imagining God as another Big Cheese handing down commands. Instead, we are offered the opportunity to recognize and respond to a God fully present in all our relationships (in all human relationships!), and working in all our communities.
As such, we can even then recognize that we are called not simply to relationship with each other, but we are called to live those relationships centered in the recognition that the Divine is fully and wonderfully present and networked with us. As we learn more about how humans organize and influence themselves and each other, we learn how God responds to and guides those relationships--and this includes all relationships, even ones that we don’t usually recognize as “church” or “religious” relationships. Why? Because when we enter into relationship, we bring all of who we are, and all that influences us, with us.
Where do we go from here? We can recognize that we exist in a set of social relationships. As such, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves if we are living those relationships in recognition of the presence of the Divine, or not.
As Christians, asking these questions allows us to reflect on how our lives might be enriched by recognizing that our God enters into our lives through relationships and the influence of those relationships. And we can strive for the “completeness” that comes from our commitment to living our lives with Christ at the center. We do this in part by recognizing that a good part of that completeness is expressed not just through us as individuals (or through God as individual), but also through community (with God among us). Take a moment, then, and recognize how beautifully wrought is our humanness for relationship with others in Christ. For the Divine isn’t just good FOR relationship, it IS relationship.
I encourage you to see the TED talk that inspired all this reflection. It can be found here: The Hidden Influence of Social Networks, speaker/researcher Nicholas Christakis
And, if you are really interested with that, here is a TED talk that you might also like: Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria "talk" Why, you want to know, am I suggesting you watch a talk on bacteria?! Because once you recognize the richness of the Creation you also recognize the work of God present in every living thing. From there, you see not only how deeply we ourselves are related to the Creation, but also how we are engaged in relationship to God through the Creation. (Is that cool, or what.)