Personhood Series: Introduction to the Relational Self
Introduction to the Series:
This post begins an ambitious project, one which will engage the theological concept of personhood. I readily admit that I am in way over my head on this one. While the topic excites me (in a scary nerdy way), it is a theological behemoth. Yet, my hope is that, after years of study, I can unpack and promote ideas that bring clarification, instead of confusion, to the discussion table. Many theologians and philosophers have written on the notion of relational being in recent times, and I engaged with the implications of some of these works here. Much of what is out there, however, deals with theoretical theological concepts, rather than concrete applications for daily life. As this series progresses, I will attempt to unpack how a theological understanding of the person practically impacts aspects of daily life for us. In other words, I hope to answer some of the common “so what?” questions that accompany the underlying theological perspective.
This first post will succinctly articulate what is meant by personhood, by way of a few different theological lenses. It will simply be a summary of what has already been said by key thinkers in this field. After this post, however, I will break off and explore the implications of this theology for other spheres of life (for example, how does a theology of personhood challenge popular views of mission? Or, how does it shape an understanding of the ascetical life?).
For a more expansive introduction, my first series for Conciliar Post tackled the issue from a different vantage point, and with a different set of presuppositions (the series was originally one lecture given in a heavily non-Christian setting). That material can be found here, here and here.
The Disembodiment of the Person:
“Respect for man’s ‘personal identity’ is perhaps the most important ideal of our time. The attempt of contemporary humanism to supplant Christianity in whatever concerns the dignity of man has succeeded in detaching the concept of the person from theology and uniting it with the idea of an autonomous morality or with an existential philosophy which is purely humanistic. Thus, although the person and ‘personal identity’ are widely discussed nowadays as a supreme ideal, nobody seems to recognize that historically as well as existentially the concept of the person is indissolubly bound up with theology…The person both as a concept and as a living reality is purely the product of patristic thought. Without this, the deepest meaning of personhood can neither be grasped nor justified.”1
Ours is an age of great paradox. Individuals are more connected than ever before in this technological era. Yet, something is amiss. A teenager can have thousands of friends on social media but feel like a total stranger in their own home. A father, in order to show love and devotion to his family, works so much that he barely sees them, believing that what his family needs the most is not his presence, but the material support that he can provide. A celebrity or person in a position of leadership may have millions of people who love and cherish them for what they have done. But, they can still feel as though nobody really understands them, really sees them, or knows them for who they truly are.
It has become awkward to introduce ourselves to, or converse much with, our neighbors. Domestic interaction is seen as an inconvenience, as an imposition on our terribly important lives. We are easily flustered whenever an unexpected stranger knocks on our door, invading our personal time and space. A city resident can live right across the hall from someone, but still never get to know their name.
People hardly talk on elevators. Awkward silence is preferred over momentary dialogue with a stranger. Have you noticed how many people don’t really like to receive phone calls anymore? They prefer texting because it is more convenient. Phone conversations are too difficult to fit into the hustle and bustle of a busy schedule. Teenagers are not only engrossed in video games, but additionally prefer to play with their friends online rather than together in person. Families sit around tables in restaurants in silence, each member being more preoccupied with their mobile devices than with the company around them. It is also even becoming more and more acceptable to participate in a church service from a distance. For a person who just doesn’t feel like going week in and week out, there is the convenience of having a churchy experience right from the comfort of their own couch, as they tune into live services online. Certainly, this is the unintended byproduct of innovative evangelistic efforts.
Ours is an era where it is becoming easier and easier to relate to a disembodied person (via social media, texting, etc.) than it is to engage with and live into the physical relationships that actually surround us. As all of this is happening, and as technological advancement continues to de-incarnate the ways in which we interact with people,too few of us are actually asking the question, “Is all of this actually good?”
What are we sacrificing in the name of progress? Have we actually considered the social cost of the technological advancement that leads to physical disassociation with others? What will be the byproduct of the entrenchment of isolationism? Are there theological implications for such things? Where is a disembodied, impersonal reality projecting us?
The Origin of Personhood:
The theological answer, and especially the patristic answer, would be that all our new technological powers are not leading us to the fulfillment of humanness, but to the disintegration of it. To paraphrase Metropolitan John Zizioulas, our being is indispensably bound up with our relationships. This would mean that, in man’s attempt to detach himself from the world and natural embodied relationships, he is on the brink of destroying himself, because it is the world and the network of people around him who actually help shape his essential being.“There is no person outside relationship with other persons, so one person is no person at all.”2 The way to human maturation is not through isolation and distancing oneself. Rather, it comes about in and through the relationships we inhabit (with God, the world, people) and to which we respond. As Colin Gunton has said, “To be a human being is to be created in and for relationship with God and with other human beings.”3 Cocksworth and Brown attest that, “Made in the image of God, we are created as relational beings whose full human identity can be realized only through open and respectful relationships with others.”4
As such, individualism is perhaps the greatest heresy of our time, not always for what it says, but always for what it implies. Those who desire to be self-made deny both the Trinity and the Incarnation simultaneously. If “God is what he is only as a communion of persons,”5 and if human nature has been assumed by the second person of the Trinity, and if God has become one of us in order to “make us what he is in himself,” then individualism is the living denial of these central teachings. It is a denial of the image of God in us, and a denial of its restoration via the Son of God. If God the Trinity said “let us make man in our own image” and, after doing so, said “it is not good for man to be alone,” one can easily gather that, to bear the image of the Triune God, man needs communion. He needs relationship not just with God or the creation or animals. Rather, he needs a relationship with someone who is of his own human nature to satiate the not-goodness of his loneliness. People make us persons.
Ours is the era of Adam’s loneliness. Ours is the era of unfulfilled humanness. In denying others relational proximity, we deny the image after which we are made. In rejecting God and others, we reject our own human potential and telos because others do not simply help to reveal who we are. Your you-ness doesn’t simply distinguish my me-ness, my otherness. Rather, your you-ness creates my me-ness.
“Otherness is by definition referential. It is always defined ‘relatively’ (en schesei), and absolute otherness can only be experienced as unique, dissimilar and unrepeatable relation. This means that in the case of the person, reference of relation is not simply a matter of comparison. It is not just a way of understanding otherness as the differentiation of ontic individualities. It is that mode of existence which is actualized as relation, not merely disclosed as relation. The person is only as dynamic reference, only as ‘opposite-something,’ only as unique, dissimilar and unrepeatable relation.”6
As Gunton says, if “God is what he is only as a communion of persons,” then it means the Father is irreducibly the Father, and the Son irreducibly the Son, and the Holy Spirit irreducibly the Holy Spirit. The members of the Triune communion are who they are in and through their relationship to one another. The Father cannot be conceived of apart from the Son, for example: the Son defines him as Father. The Father has never existed without the Son, thus, there was never a time where he was not defined by the Son. The relationship he has with the Son is intrinsic to his very being.
A similar sort of relational reality carries over onto a human plane, though our mode of embodying it is broken. Nonetheless, we are not born in a vacuum. The very fact that we have mothers and fathers, and can trace our genealogies, means that we come into this world via relationships. We do not exist first and then commune later. We are not born first and then have mothers and fathers later on. All of life for us is life in relationship and life reacting to relationship. At most, we can choose not to be in a relationship (proximity-wise) with a particular person anymore. Even at a distance, though, that person will continue to define us. We are still choosing to specifically live with their absence. We are still opting for a relational negation. We can run from the relationship, but we can never run from their absence, which means that the relationship is still shaping who we are.
Thus, personhood is a relational category. You can define it grammatically, as Yannaras does:
“By the word prosopon (“person”) we define a referential reality. The referential character of the term is revealed fundamentally by its primitive use, that is, by its grammatical construction and etymology. The preposition pros (“towards”) together with the noun ops (ops in the genitive), which means “eye,” “face,” “countenance,” for the composite word pros-opon: I have my face turned towards someone or something; I am opposite someone or something…The word’s primordial semantic content does not allow us to interpret personhood simply as individuality outside the field of relation.”7
Or, you can define personhood theologically, as Zizioulas and others do:
“The person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The person is an identity that emerges through relationship (schesis, in the terminology of the Greek Fathers); it is an ‘I’ that can exist only as long as it relates to a ‘thou’ which affirms its existence and its otherness…The orthodox understanding of the holy Trinity is the only way to arrive at this notion of personhood: the Father cannot be conceived for a single moment without the Son and the Spirit, and the same applies to the other two persons in their relation to with the Father and with each other.”8
However you choose to define it, personhood is inevitably and inescapably a relational reality. A person “is an intrinsically plural being, who sums up and makes present the whole world of relationship. The identity of a particular person is not to be found somewhere deep inside him or her; there is no self, center, soul, or other form of private existence prior to his or her entry to the world of relationship. The identity of each person is spread across the whole nexus of human personhood.”9 As such, the human person is always in flux. She is constantly in the state of becoming, because she is either consistently introduced to new relationships or ever growing in the relationships she already has. Relationships never reach a terminus because they never stop deepening. Thus, “human beings are not yet themselves, mature or free.”10
The next article will pick up right where we’ve left off. We will explore the idea that people are not quite persons yet in the perfected sense, and what this “not yet” means for Christian spirituality and maturity. To do so, we will engage with Douglas Knight’s teaching on “doxological ontology,” and use his thought as our launching point into further ascetical explorations.
1. Zizioulas, Jean. 1985. Being As Communion : Studies in Personhood and the Church. Contemporary Greek theologians, no. 4. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 27.
2. Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. 2008. Lectures in Christian Dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 25.
3. Gunton, Colin E. 1993. The One, the Three, and the Many : God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 223.
4. Cocksworth, Christopher J., and Rosalind. Brown. 2002. Being a Priest Today. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 13.
5. Gunton, Colin E. 1993. The One, the Three, and the Many : God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 191.
6. Giannaras, Chrēstos. 2007. Person and Eros. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 18.
7. Giannaras, Chrēstos. 2007. Person and Eros. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 5.
8. Zizioulas, Jean, and Paul. McPartlan. 2006. Communion and Otherness : Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. London: T & T Clark, 9.
9. Knight, Douglas H. 2006. The Eschatological Economy : Time and the Hospitality of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 9.