True Personhood

The person, in Christian theology, is more than merely an individual; he is an individual-in-relationship. From a slightly different framework, a person, when he tries to become autonomous, is reduced to a sort of sub-person – less than that into which he was created.

God created humans into community: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). This is why God created them male and female (Gen 1:27). This is also why the Bible doesn’t talk about salvation in terms of accepting Christ into one’s heart (although this is not a foreign idea in scripture – Rom. 10:8, for instance). Rather, the primary description of salvation is an act of faith by which we are engrafted into the living tree or through which we enter the Body of Christ. Christianity, and the salvation which initiates it, is a communal affair just as everyday life is a communal affair.

I would argue that one facet of the image of God in which we are created is our curiosity and expansiveness. One thing the 20th century Process theologians got right was their insight that humans are not only “beings,” they are also “becoming” and this process of “becoming,” is vital in understanding who we are as humans. (Where the Process theologians went terribly wrong is when they applied this trait of creation to the Creator, and thus reduced him to the status of just another being.)

The flip side of this human expansiveness is the unavoidable truth that we are not infinite, and therefore our potential for expansiveness can be as much a curse as a blessing. Air (or any gas) will naturally expand to fill the volume available to it. But humans are not a gas and our essence cannot be spread infinitely thin. We are not pure spirits. While we are inherently spiritual we are equally inherently physical … and this physicality necessarily imposes limits upon our expansiveness.

Ah, but we humans are a curious lot, and those necessary limits are therefore an inconvenient truth which we conveniently try to ignore. And here’s the rub. If we cease to be self-regulating, if we attempt to become expansive beyond our ability, the created order will put limits upon us without asking our permission.

This is one way of understanding compulsions and addictions. As John Médaille is so fond of saying, “While it is a free choice, it is not a choice of freedom” because our free choices are driven by other factors, some external and some internal. Communities (and here I am thinking broad enough to include families, organizations, associations, neighborhoods, and government entities of which we are a part) keep this expansive curiosity in check. These checks and balances include everything from an internal sense of responsibility to the community, to mores and expectations, to community rules, to laws. Without these various layers of limitation, we fallen and sinful humans, acting in our autonomy, can often justify just about anything and become very self-destructive.

For Christians reading this essay, the above hopefully sounds patently obvious. What may not be so obvious to us is that the above stands in stark contrast (and contradiction even) to the Enlightenment understanding of the autonomous individual upon which our American constitution is based. Enlightenment thinkers saw nearly all external limits as bad things, at the very best as necessary evils. Immanuel Kant, for instance, believed that the ideal condition was to be an “autonomous individual” and in contrast to this he fought against “heteronomy” which is the opposite of “autonomy” and, in his view, this meant that our actions were being determined by “alien causes” [Colin Gunton, Enlightenment and Alienation, p. 59). His program, and the program of the Enlightenment in general, was to throw off all those “alien causes” which limited us.

But the Enlightenment thinkers, being far from Christian in their framework, Deistic at best, failed to understand the curse of the limitless individual to which they aspired. “Free choices are not choices of freedom” in Médaille’s words. Heteronomy is good to the extent that we wisely submit to the outside limitations of God and communities and not to the outside limitations of compulsions and addictions. We can be truly free by being willingly and properly limited or we can become enslaved inside our own freedom gone amuck.

This is why being an individual (this is the autonomous ideal of the Enlightenment) is to exist in a sub-human state. Individuals are not truly free but are enslaved by the unintended consequences of their curious and expansive – and inevitably inappropriate – choices. And humans were not created to be slaves or automatons; to become such a being is to forgo our proper personhood for something more akin to mere animal existence. In contrast, when we knowledgably, willingly, and gladly forgo our seemingly limitless curious and expansive nature for the limitations of life together, we discover the true meaning of our identity as it bumps up against and become defined in the context of God, other people, communities, and the created order itself. True liberty is this freedom to move about and bounce up against other entities that are truly free. The false freedom of individuality ultimately results in movement that becomes increasingly constricted by the ropes of inevitable and unintended limitations created by our autonomous choices.


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