The Problems with Blessing II

The problem with blessing is, above all, a practical one. It’s about living in a particular kind of relationship with the world into which I’ve been thrown. Well, ‘world’ is a bit abstract. No one ever has a relationship with ‘the world’. Let’s say ‘neighbourhood’ and mean the series of more or less proximate and interdependent relationships through which I navigate my daily way.

Among my neighbours are the people with whom I make a home behind the door of Unit 3 of our building, as well as the broader set of strangers with whom we share a roof. My neighbours are the people with whom I share the road, the cafe, the internet, the footpath, the park. All of them different kinds of neighbours and neighbourhoods. I can go on until I specify ‘all people’ as in some way my ‘neighbour’. It was this procedure, ‘universalising’ my neighbourhood, that led to the invention of the concept of ‘humanity’. It is one of the distinctive marks of the influence of Christianity upon Western culture: a habit of thought particularly attributed to the writing of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament and driven by the Christian understanding of the universal significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It may have lost connection with its original theological roots, but the idea of Humanity expresses a belief in some form of shared moral community even when the individual under contemplation is a stranger or, indeed, hostile.

‘Neighbour’ is a wonderfully subtle and expansive biblical word, almost a form of perception rather than a specifiable quantity (Luke 10:29-37) … but I’m getting distracted.

Whether I like it or not, I’m a neighbour: the practical ethical question is ‘what is the character of my neighbourliness’? Relationships are ontologically basic. Saying, ‘I am in relationship’ is to say nothing more than ‘I am’. While this insight might compel us to engage in a thorough revision of Western metaphysics, something more needs to be supplied before we have an ethical norm. What we need is an answer to the question, ‘what kind of relationships ought I be in?’My answer is ‘Blessing’.

I suppose I should defend that answer. But honestly, it arises from an gut level intuition, a desire. I want to bless my son. I want to bless my wife. I want to bless my friends. I want to bless my church, my neighbours. I feel that whatever I do in life, doing that matters. I feel that blessing them would be the fullest discharge of my humanity, it would be the apotheosis of my relationships: father, husband, friend, brother.

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. (Hebrews 11:21 NIV11)

That strikes me as a good way to die.

I think I have a good story to tell about why that intuition is sound. But much harder is the task of specifying exactly what that practice of relation involves. What is the practice of blessing?

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