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How to create a relational society - Comment

Andrew Basden

I was recently faced with the following challenge. In place of competitive economy we should aim for a 'sharing economy', and in place of a growing economy we should aim for a 'blossoming economy'. These are the views of Sir John Houghton, a major promoter of the need for responsibility in relation to climate change, and Prof. Bob Goudzwaard, Dutch economist, and a sharing-blossoming economy is seen as a necessary pre-condition to tackling climate change and a host of other ills. But how do we achieve a sharing-blossoming economy? It requires that the institutions of today, which force us inexorably towards unending, meaningless competition and 'growth', should be replaced by those which engender sharing and 'blossoming'.

'Economy' is defined very loosely, and overlaps with 'society' and even the whole of life. So it was with great interest that I read Michael Schluter's How to create a relational society: Foundation for a new social order, publ. Cambridge Papers, March 2007 (Vol. 16, No. 1). Schluter's notion of relationism is not unlike the notions of sharing and blossoming. I hoped that it might provide some insight into how to achieve a sharing-blossoming-relational society/economy, which could stimulate debate and help us forward.

Overview of the Paper: How to Create a Relational Society

Schluter's paper, of over 6,000 words, begins by clarifying the question the paper wishes to address: "How is it possible to design a society's institutions in a fallen world so as to maximise the likelihood of positive relational outcomes, and address the most fundamental causes of relational breakdown? Is it even worth pursuing such a vision in a fallen world?" He emphasises the question is not about how Christians should tackle the symptoms of relational breakdown, such as conflict, family breakdown, poverty; those issues have been well rehearsed. Schluter is to be applauded for tackling the more fundamental questions, which is too often ignored by Christians.

(He actually tackles the only design question but not explicitly whether the vision is worth pursuing; the latter is addressed in such works as Bob Goudzwaard et. al.'s Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises [2007] and Paul Marshall's recently re-published Thine is the Kingdom [1984 and 2002].)

Following this are two very useful sections. The first clarifies what institutions are, differentiating them from social relationships on the one hand and organisations on the other: institutions are "the rules of the game in society" - rules, traditions, regulations, laws, etc. - and they are more important in determining prosperity even than trade and geography, because they "create appropriate incentives for desirable economic behaviour". So we need to find out what shape institutions should take. The second reviews which parts of Scripture provide useful teaching about what shape institutions should take: mainly the mosaic law, but modified by the teachings of the prophets, of Jesus and the New Testament letters.

Then follow three sections which provide the detailed proposals, mostly by reference to Scripture. The first considers the structures - religious, family and political structures. The second considers resources - people, land and property, and capital. The third considers processes - criminal justice, welfare and education. This is followed by a short section which suggests that the final goal should be tsdq ("righteousness in all relationships": respect for God, love, justice, truth, forgiveness, etc.) and tries to argue that 'intermediate goals' such as "low divorce rates", "loyalty among members of extended family groups", "a weekly shared day off", "almost all punishment in the community" will lead to this final goal.

These sections contains the bulk of the argument in the paper. A lot of it is very helpful, because in many places we are stimulated to think in new ways. The reader will find a smattering of interesting insights (such as why it is reasonable that the priests should not own land). But in other places, the content is rather conventional and even questionable. Many important topics are completely absent. In my view, the paper is far from being a comprehensive blueprint, even in summary form. Rather, its true, and very important, usefulness is as something to begin the much-needed, Scripture-oriented, Christian debate about societal structures. I discuss these sections below.

The paper finishes with a 'Conclusion' which is (quite usefully) structured as a sequence of bullet points. Several of these contain useful insights, including: that "Prosperity is a consequence, rather than a pre-condition, of relational well-being" (so 'trickle-down economics' is a false hope), that concentration on economic growth and income distribution is not enough, and that we must weigh up tackling the causes as well as the symptoms of injustice and exploitation.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Conclusion is rather disappointing. The Conclusion should, self-critically, recognise its usefulness as a debate starter, should acknowledge that the proposals are only tentative and partial, should position the paper in the wider (mainstream) debates about societal structures, and should invite readers to begin the Christian debate. It does none of these and shows no sign of self-critique. Instead, while it does briefly call Christians to develop new strategies and campaigns and to draw up a body of knowledge for training, the need for substantial debate about structures, resources, processes and goals is not recognised. Moreover, the Conclusion breaks what I was taught was a fundamental rule: it introduces new topics not covered in the bulk of the paper: the environment, technology, insufficiency of economic growth, evangelism and church planting. Very brief claims are made about each (such as "The environment ... is derivative rather than a primary issue."!) but they are not justified. It feels almost as though the author used the Conclusion as a place to put all those things which did not fit into the bulk of the paper, but which he felt obliged to at least mention.

However, the bulk of the paper itself is very useful, and it is this on which I now wish to concentrate, using it to foster debate about structures, resources, processes, goals and other things.

Designing Better Institutions: Structures, Resources, Processes and Goals

Three types of each of structures, resources and processes are discussed briefly (as space allows; see the Jubilee Manifesto, from which much of the material is drawn, for more). Here I select a few examples to give a flavour of what the paper says.

(Structures, resources and processes can be accepted as a useful top-level categorisation for now, but it is not clear why they are the key headings, because there is some overlap (for example is education a process, a structure or a resource?); how to deal with such overlap and whether there are other top categories are two issues that requires debate.)

The discussion of structures (religious, family, political) seeks to "consider how these institutions [found in the Old Testament] would have shaped patterns of relationships, as well as their relevance for the way societies are structured today" and tries to "tak[e] into account how these have been modified by the coming of Christ." Presumably, the hope is that if we can understand how the OT institutions shaped relationships, then we can, by similar reasoning, work out what types of institutions we should aim for in today's world in order to move towards righteousness in relationships.

Resources of society are said to be:

Some radical but workable ideas are given, but it gives little indication of what shape institutions might take today to foster right use of these resources, though it does suggest that tax regimes in high-income countries should be changed.

The section on processes is again limited to some of those found in the OT. It includes:

The section contains some radical ideas which could be worked out into institutions. But it is a bit inconsistent in the guidance it gives on how closely one should follow the Scriptural pattern: both welfare and education are mainly provided by the home, in the OT, but paper implies that today one should be and the other need not be.

Finally, a short section on how the final goal of "'Righteousness' (tsdq) in all relationships" might be achieved in one structure, one resource and one process. It suggests that this might be achieved via intermediate goals. For example, intermediate goals related to good family structure might include "loyalty among members of extended family groups, low divorce rates, socially sustainable birth rates ...". Unfortunately, there is no explanation of how such lead to the final goal, nor of how to select these intermediate goals, nor how they relate to the Biblical norms for family structure. (Confusingly, the Biblical norms for family structure inexplicably differ from the principles outlined in the Structures section.) However, it is a very useful attempt to show how we might proceed.

The suggestions the paper makes vary in both depth and practicality and can in no way be seen as a blueprint. But it does begin to show how principles can be found in Scripture and how their relevance to today might be seen. The way Schluter works these things out could be taken as an exemplar, a demonstration of how to proceed if we wanted to create a blueprint. But to come to concrete proposals in even one area requires considerable work and effort. One might be forgiven for wondering whether it is really worth the effort trying to work all these institutions out.

But there are also problems with Schluter's approach, which we should discuss next, which might lead us to a version which is worth the effort.

Problems with the Above

The first problem is that there are many aspects of life, especially modern life, about which almost nothing is said (except perhaps in the conclusion):

Why is this? Part of the reason might be that the paper restricts itself to structures (and resource, and processes) found in the OT - but why then does the paper claim to address "the way societies are structured today"? The latter is surely what we need. Not only the structures, resources and processes discussed in the paper, but also these and many more need to be discussed in depth to ascertain what might be their biblical norms or principles, what might be their intermediate goals, and how these relate to the 'final goal' of righteousness in all relationships. A huge amount of debate and exploration needs to be done for this; that one reason why I found the Conclusion disappointing.

The second, third and fourth problems are found among the topics which Schluter introduced in the Conclusion and had not woven them into the main argument: especially the environment, technology and evangelism and church planting. If they are truly important in God's eyes, then should be an integral part of the whole picture, rather than tacked on at the end. Each is introduced very briefly, with unjustified claims. I will consider three, in reverse order, and bring out a different issue from each:

The Relational Approach

One reason why these topics are not integrated into the main argument might lie in his relational approach itself, which I see as the fifth problem that requires discussion. I do not believe the relational approach is wrong, but rather that it does not go far enough and would benefit from enrichment. It assumes only human relationships, but could expand to "right relationships between all things in the created order" - which is Paul Marshall's definition of tsdq (translated 'righteousness' and 'justice'; see my tabular explanation).

What mandate or vision lies behind our discussions about how to design societal structures? This is tied up with the answer to the question: Why did God create the world, and why did he act to save it?

An all too common answer, assumed and taken for granted when not explicitly stated, is that God wanted a host of people around his throne, worshipping and enjoying him forever, after Christ's final victory. This vision implies that structures of this temporal world are almost irrelevant in the long run - and this is perhaps why too little Christian thought has been given to it.

That does not seem to be the vision which inspires Michael Schluter; his vision is relationism - that there will be a world in which all human relationships are 'righteous' as God intended. Human relationships is the motivation behind his 'relational' approach. It is far better than the individualism of many modern and postmodern Western Christians - and non-Christians.

But if only human relationships are important in God's eyes, then the environment is nothing more than a resource for our use or enjoyment, or a "backdrop for the drama of human salvation" as someone once put it. So it is no surprise that Schluter sees the environment as derivative. The only value in preventing climate change, for example, is to assist the human relationships of "our children and distant neighbours."

But suppose that the relationships in his approach extend to all creation, not just humans. Then what we call the environment - the rest of creation - will become integrated into the main argument, and structures, resources and processes will be designed which enhance our relationships with it as well as with ourselves.

I have been struggling to understand whether there is a Scriptural basis for this that is more than merely my own preferred interpretation. I have found one (as have others). As I argue in ""'A New View in Theology', the Genesis mendate (1:26-28) is not merely to enjoy and use the rest of creation, not even merely to steward the rest of creation, but to shepherd the rest of creation. Just as shepherds are there for the sake of the sheep, rather than the other way round, so humans are there for the sake of the rest of Creation. This brings together the notions of radah (having dominion) and being the image of God: We human beings are called to exercise dominion specifically so that we represent God to the rest of creation so that it experiences something of God (joy, care, love, excitement, fulfilment) when it experiences us. We humans turned away from God, but God saves us, as Romans 8 shows, in three stages: 'no condemnation', the Holy Spirit's indwelling, and our becoming mature 'sons of God' who will treat the rest of Creation like their Father would - and this is why the rest of creation "waits with eager longing" for such people. This restores the possibility of fulfilling the original mandate - and so "all things" will become complete in Christ, not just human relationships (Col 1:20, Eph 1:10). (Follow the above link for more.)

Working for 'righteous' relationships and institutions is part of this radah. This becomes a glorious vision which makes it all worth the effort. Evangelism is no longer in a separate compartment, but is arm in arm with radah in fulfilling God's purposes for his creation. (Indeed, I argue that environmental responsibility might be a key to effective evangelism today.) Moreover, this opens the way to recognising many diverse spheres of meaning in God's created order, each of which it is humanity's mandate to 'open up' for the blessing of the whole creation, including some that had yet to be opened up in OT times, such as technology and modern transport.


Thus I believe that Michael Schluter's paper, How to create a relational society: Foundation for a new social order, offers a very useful first step towards debate about how to bring the world's societal institutions more in line with Biblical norms, so that the whole world may be blessed (and incidentally climate change may be averted). It shows how Scriptural principles may be found and applied in culturally-sensitive ways to inform our design of structures, resources and processes. But the paper as such is very incomplete, and some of the proposals it makes are questionable. So debate is needed. Much debate, if we are to expand its scope out to all the aspects of life that the paper omits. Moreover, it is based on a vision centred on human relationships, which makes it unable to incorporate a number of issues people might consider important. Schluter's relational vision might be usefully enriched to include our positive responsibility to the rest of creation. In that case, his paper is an extremely useful first step towards a massive enterprise in which Christian thought, in God's will, is applied to the structures of society.


Goudzwaard B, Vander Vennen M. Van Heemst D. (2007). Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Academic.

Marshall P, (1984) Thine is the Kingdom, Marshalls.

Marshall P, (2002) God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics Rowman and Littlefield. ;; a rework of Thine is Kingdom

Andrew Basden is Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems in Salford Business School, University of Salford, Salford, M5 4WT, UK.

This page is designed to stimulate discussion on various topics, as part of Andrew Basden's pages that open up various things from one of the Christian perspectives. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2007. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 5 August 2007. Last updated: 17 August 2014 dealt with all '../../'.