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Perspectives

from the Secretary General

Relations

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

“What are little boys made of?” goes the nursery rhyme, “Frogs and snails, and puppy–dogs’ tails.” While, “What are little girls made of?” gets answered by “Sugar and spice, and all that’s nice.”

What is it made of? What makes it tick? Questions like these are asked by everyone, from little kids to research scientists.

However, just knowing the component parts of something doesn’t entirely explain what it is, what it does or how it came to be.

To make a cake, you need more than flour, eggs, yeast and sugar; you need to know how much of each ingredient to use, how they affect each other, and how to put them together in the baking process. The finished cake is much more than its ingredients.

Knowing details about arms and legs, head and torso, fingers and toes and their interconnections doesn’t explain a human person. The study of the constitutive parts of chromosomes, genes and DNA doesn’t adequately explain the growth and development of a living being.

Physicists are on a never–ending quest to find out what matter is made of, constantly discovering more and more minute subatomic particles. Even so, learning about the nature and behavior of individual particles doesn’t adequately add up to explaining the characteristics of an atom, much less of a compound.

The whole is always more than its parts. We know that intuitively, but it’s hard to explain precisely in what sense it is more. At least it has to do with the pattern of the arrangement of the parts, what holds them together, and their dynamic interaction.

The best explanation physical science gives — since it is primarily concerned with what is tangible and measurable — is the concept of force. Physicists study large and small forces, strong and weak forces, how they affect matter, how they hold it together — or how they blast it apart.

Philosophers and religious thinkers offer an explanation as well, but use different language. Their word is “relations.”

Everything and everybody can be described by their relations with everything and everybody else. Relations are an intangible, key “ingredient” of everything from subatomic particles to human society.

The notion of relations doesn’t exclude the concept of force but goes beyond it. Relations include the forces of gravity, electricity and magnetism; they also involve the forces of conventions, customs and friendship.

What builds and holds families, tribes, organizations and cultures together are relationships, the more spiritual the better. Blood ties, physical closeness, control and dominance are trumped by collaboration, teamwork, marriage and parenthood.

Some of our better modern developments involve establishing relations — for example, the worldwide web and internet, the use of mobile communication devices, greater opportunities for international travel, increased trade and globalization, the United Nations, the ecumenical movement and peacemaking.

Each of us grows and matures by building better and better relations and constantly improving their quality and depth — and so does each nation, country, church and organization.

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