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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Christianity and the concept of "person"

I recently had the chance to read a book lent to me by Professor Lucian Turcescu, a colleage at Concordia University (love the bow tie, Lucian). It is based on his doctoral thesis, and is entitled Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons. While his work is necessarily quite technical, the theme itself is quite fascinating, in that he argues that our modern Western concept of "person" depends on an intellectual tradition that flows directly from Christianity.

The concept of "person", of course, is extremely important for (among other things) human rights theory. If we get this concept wrong, in other words, we risk seeing a degredation of a proper respect for our fellow human beings. So what is a "person", anyway?

As it turns out, the ancient Greek philosophical tradition did not actually have a well-developed concept of "person". The root word of "person" is the Greek word prosopon (in Latin, persona), which meant the mask worn by actors in the theatre to represent the different roles they might play. This view is wholly unacceptable to establish any sort of human rights concept, however, because it implies that the value of an individual is not based on who he is, but simply on what he does. It eventually leads to a utilitarian view of the human person, in which those who are sick or otherwise weakened lose some or all of their dignity has human beings.

Enter the Greek-speaking Christians, particularly Gregory of Nyssa and his fellow Cappadocian thinkers. Debates were raging around the nature of God at the time, particularly the concept of the Trinity. How can God be one and three at the same time? The eventual formula agreed at the council of Nicea (325 A.D.) was "One God in three Persons". But what, exactly, did this mean? The defense of this statement of Christian faith required the Cappadocians to clarify the concept of "person" itself — and in doing so, they laid the foundation for all of modern human rights theory (and, I might add, the notion of the solidarity of the human race).

The first thing that was rejected was the word prospon to describe the concept of "person", primarily because it was too easy to misunderstand in the concext of the Trinity. It would be too easy, for example, to declare that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were merely different roles (or masks, if you will) exercised by God depending on his current activity. This is heresy called "Sabellian modalism", and it effectively denied the Trinity as such. Of course, a side-effect of this theory has been already described above, in which this theory reduces the source of dignity of persons to merely the roles they play (a very dangerous notion).

The Cappadocians strongly supported the Nicean formula, which described God as three individuated substances (one could say as three individuals) sharing one substance/nature (in Greek, ousia). Each Person could be understood as fully divine because each possessed the divine nature, without somehow "dividing up" that nature. Think of cats: what makes a cat a cat is that it shares that nature of cathood with other cats. At the same time, I can look at this cat or that cat without somehow thinking that the nature of "cathood" has been divided among them (that would be silly). The birth of a new cat does not somehow make other cats less "catty". In an analogous way, the presence of the three Persons in the One God does not diminish God in any way, and what permits each to truly be divine is that they share the divine nature.

So far, so good. The basis of human rights is now set, in that the dignity of a person depends, not on what he or she does, but what he or she *is*. "Human" describes a nature, not an activity, so "human rights" are rights that flow from sharing that human nature, first and foremost. The Cappadocians, however, develop their concept of "person" even further, and in doing so diverge from some elements of the modern version of the concept. Or, more accurately, it is the modern version of the concept that has diverged from theirs, with potentially nasty consequences.

In our modern mindset we tend to think of a "person" not simply as an "individual human", but as an "autonomous individual human". There is some truth to this idea, in that to be an individual anything means to be this thing and not that thing. Again, think of cats: to be an individual cat means to be this cat and not that cat. However, for this "not-thatness" of an individual to be a truly defining element of its existence requires that it be completely distinguishable from the other, i.e. that its existence be independant. For humans, because we have free will, this independance means (in part) living with personal autonomy. Again, there is some truth to this notion, in that if we are not autonomous then we are not really free, and if we are not free then we are not really capable of choosing to love (which is our highest vocation).

What Gregory of Nyssa and his companions recognized, however, was that the concept of autonomy needed to be completed by the concept of relationality. For the Cappadocians, to be a true "person" meant to be in relation with others. If the concept of autonomous individuals, for example, were to be applied to the Trinity without this concept of relationality, then the Trinity would actually consist of 3 separate gods. What keeps the three individuals of the Trinity in their profound union with each other is their mutual relationality, lived in an autonomy that finds its perfection in eternal mutual love.

The Cappadocians, therefore, present a concept of person that necessarily includes an openness to relationality. In doing so they actually present a stronger foundation for human rights than the notion of mere autonomy. Some, of course, do not agree. For example, some argue that the reason we need human rights is so that people can truly become autonomous and this truly become persons, thus placing autonomy as the core concept for human rights. The problem with this argument, however, is that it once again reduces a human being to what he or she *does*. Granted, it is not exactly the same as the prosopon problem, in that what is at stake here is not what is done so much as the autonomy with which it is done. Nevertheless, it still boils down to action over being. What about, for example, people suffering from coma or mental illness? They are not totally autonomous, and may never be. Are they therefore less human?

By opening the definition of "person" to include relationality, therefore, the Cappadocians recognize that the dignity of human nature rests not only in autonomous loving, but also in the capacity of being loved. Relationality possesses both an active and a passive dimension, and as such it includes the good ideas of the concept of autonomy while preserving the idea that human rights reside in the very nature of humanity, rather than simply in the activity of its individuals.

Where this concept of relationality becomes really important, however, is in the attitude of mutual responsibility it engenders. Why, for example, should I love my neighbour? Because he is of the same tribe? Because he is of the same religion, or nation? Because I hope to gain something from him? The Cappadocians would answer: because he shares the same human nature as you. And since this nature includes relationality, it means that all human beings are, by nature, necessarily in a relationship with all other human beings, a relationship that finds its perfection in love.

Translation into regular English: if the Cappadocians are right, then charitable organizations like Doctors without Borders are among the peak achievements of civilization, because they exercise care for others simply because they are fellow human beings.

I think the Cappadocians are right, and I think their theory is actually empirically verifiable. Just think of the typical relationship between a parent and child. A newborn child is far from autonomous, and yet I have had many parents tell me that they never knew how much they were capable of love before their first child was born. It was like a "rush of love" as a new relationship was established — and a relationship with a highly non-autonomous being.

And there is one other empirical verification that I think is possible. I think it is inarguable that Western civilization has the most developed notion of universal (i.e. non-tribal) charity. Each culture has its organizations for the mutual assistance of the members of that culture, but very few have similar organizations for the aid of strangers. The West does, and I consider these organizations to be the true peak of Western civilization. I find it interesting that, as we in the West have tended to emphasize autonomy and self-determination, we have also tended to become more "tribal". Still, even if it has forgotten it to a certain extent, the West is a highly Christian society in its origins, and those Christian origins include a concept of persons developed from theological debates concerning the Trinity. That concept of persons allowed the West to develop a more and more universal concept of charity, found today in groups like Doctors without Borders. So ask yourself: do you think that charitable organizations with a universal character are the signs of healthier side of a civilization? If you do, then you think the Cappadocians were right.

One final point, though: if the Cappadocians were right about the concept of persons, then it necessarily implies that they were right in understanding God as a Trinity. It is a sign that Christianity is truly a force that inspires civilization to be the best it can be. And it means that every time you give money to a charity with a non-tribal outlook, you are actually professing the belief, or at least the hope, that God is a Trinity after all. Let us therefore pray that the West may continue to have this Trinitarian outlook, that it may become more and more explicit, and that it may spread throughout the world as a more perfect basis for the love of God and neighbour.

The nature of free will

I just got off the phone with Dr. Scott Hahn a few minutes ago. I had called him up to discuss some ideas in his book Reasons to Believe, which I had reviewed a few days ago on this website. We started discussing salvation history (particularly the priestly kingship of Adam), jumped over to the idea of natural evil as understood by David Bentley Hart (whose book The Doors of the Sea I also once reviewed), got into discussion of Maximus the Confessor how parallels between his ideas and those of Cardinal Ouellet, and then rounded it off with a good discussion of ecclesiology. Whew! It was...exhilarating!

One key part of our discussion had to do with the exact nature of the sin of Adam and Eve, and just how free they would have had to be truly capable of whatever sin it was that they committed. Dr. Hahn made a passing reference to the monothelite heresy, and just how deadly it was to a Christian understanding of salvation. I could not agree more.

Just what was the monothelite heresy? It taught that while Christ had two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, he only had one will. In some ways, the argument makes sense. After all, if Christ had two wills, a divine will and a human will, doesn't that mean that he could have, at some point, made contradictory decisions? For many, it seemed that the only way Christ would possess unity in his action is if he had only one will (obviously, the divine one).

And yet...as I teach my students, if monothelitism is correct, it implies that human free will is actually a kind of disease. Having free will would actually be a kind of defect present in human nature that can never be truly elevated within the context of our divine adoption in God. Indeed, it would imply that human beings aren't really capable of true moral goodness. After all, if Christ must exclude having a human will as part of his moral perfection, it implies that human free will never be capable of truly perfect love, *even if aided by grace*. In other words, according to monothelitism, all human love is somehow necessarily counterfeit.

Yuck.

What is worse, since Love is the very essence of the divine nature, it implies that we can't ever *really* possess the indwelling of the Trinity in our souls, and we'll never *really* be capable of participating in the divine nature when we are in Heaven. The best we'll ever get is a kind of natural goodness, a kind of eternal "consumer love", rather than a real participation in the total self-giving sacrificial love with which God loves us (and which was shown to us in Christ on the cross).

Double-yuck. Personally, I want the glory! And, happily for me (and all of us), God wants it for us. For the Church rejected monothelitism as a false vision of Christ's nature. Jesus had a divine will, but he also had a human will. In this way we catch a glimpse of what it means to truly be free. Real freedom is the capacity to act in the most loving way possible, all the time. The divine will only ever points to that, and by having a human will Jesus also shows us that we humans are not automatically cut off from being able to act in the most loving way possible as well. Oh, it sure isn't easy: that's why we say that saints lived lives of "heroic virtue".

Yes, my friends, Christianity is a religion for people who want to be heroes! But what is amazing is that this teaching of the Church actually means that, even in what appear to be just the simplest things, we can already live true heroism. Stuff as simple as telling the truth, staying faithful to your spouse, being moderate in your diet, not getting envious when good things happen to others, keeping your temper, and so on, are elevated to the status of true acts of worship of God.

Wow.

And that means one last thing: that holiness of life is for EVERYBODY. Not just for the nuns in the convents and the priests in the pulpits. If any life situation can be lived heroically, then we have a great opportunity — but also a great challenge. For if we can, in theory, love perfectly, then why don't we?

Time to put our human will in Christ's divine will! Amen!

Book review: Opus Dei, by John L. Allen, Jr.

I have reviewed books by John Allen before on this blog, and I have come away with a deep appreciation for his work. It isn't just his style, which is very accessible and down to earth: his research and analysis is consistently thorough and balanced, and he does not draw conclusions without thinking things through. In short, he is the perfect candidate to undertake the investigation of controversial matters — and, since its very beginnings, Opus Dei has certainly fit that particular bill. In fact, the subtitle of Allen's Opus Dei is "An objective look behind the myths and reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church".

I must confess that I did not know a lot about Opus Dei before reading Allen's book. I had heard of it, of course, and I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding it. Opus Dei has been accused of many terrible things, some even by brother priests in this diocese, and in a very public way. On the other hand, one of my closest childhood friends had family members in Opus Dei (although she herself never joined), and they were among the more devout and sincere people I had ever met. I therefore found myself in the odd position of knowing and trusting people on both sides of the debate, and having precious few facts to be able to "choose" between them. What was the rule, and what was the exception, to Opus Dei? Were the accusations the rule and my friend's family the exception? Or vice-versa?

Allow me to switch gears a moment and discuss Allen's book itself. First of all, it is long. Sometimes it is also really dry, like when he discussed Opus Dei finances in great detail. But there is no question that it is thorough. After giving some necessary background to the group Allen does not shy away from addressing every major controversy about Opus Dei, probing in great detail all the issues that make Opus Dei such a tempting target for the ink-stained wretches of our world. I mean, how can you resist a book with chapter titles like "secrecy", "mortification", "women", "money", and "blind obedience"? All humour aside, though, there is no question that Allen has written what will be the definitive work on Opus Dei for years to come. This will be the standard by which other books on the subject will be judged — and I suspect most will be judged wanting.

In the end, I have come away with a much greater appreciation for Opus Dei and its place in the Catholic Church. As much as it is accused of being arch-conservative, there is actually a lot within the spirituality of Opus Dei that is very modern and open to the world. For example, did you know that Opus Dei was one of the first Catholic groups in the world to allow non-Catholics (heck, non-Christians!) to become affiliated with it in a formal way? The spirituality of Opus Dei can be summed up as "even the most ordinary stuff of life can be lifted up to God", and the stated purpose of the organization is to teach people how to do exactly that. I was particularly impressed by the figure of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, and I must confess that I probably agree with his outlook on many things (for example, he was opposed to the Church creating "Catholic" political parties, as am I).

Still, while I may appreciate the core spirituality of Opus Dei more, I also know it is, as an organization, not for me. That's ok too. After all, I appreciate the spirituality of St. John of the Cross a great deal, but I'm not a Carmelite and have never felt called to be one. I appreciate the Rule of St. Benedict and the example of St. Francis of Assisi, without having become a monk or a friar. And, of course, I do appreciate that Opus Dei is filled with imperfect people and sinners — but then again, the same can be said for the Catholic Church in general. The only real issue is: is this fundamentally a work of the Holy Spirit, or not? Allen does not answer this question in his book, of course, as that is not his place. But after having read his book, I feel I am closer to my own personal response, and if you want to see what your answer might be, this book is essential for you as well. My rating: B+. It gets a 'B' simply to indicate that, because of the narrow range of the subject, it probably isn't a 'must read' for your spiritual growth, while the '+' is to acknowledge the overall excellent quality of the research and writing. In short, for what it does, is does it extremely well.

Book review: Reasons to Believe, by Scott Hahn

I've heard it said that theological orthodoxy is fundamentally creative, while heterodoxy (i.e. heresy) simply says the same old things over and over. The difference is in their appreciation of mystery. Heresy gets tired quickly of the great Truth, and seeks to replace it with something else. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, tends to stay where it is, but that does not mean it is static: a truly dynamic orthodoxy is always exploring the mystery of Truth more and more. Those are the discoveries worth making.

With regards to Scott Hahn's book Reasons to Believe, I knew ahead of time that it would be orthodox (i.e. faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church). What I did not know was if this book would be dynamically orthodox. In other words, would Hahn simply re-cover material already examined elsewhere? That would already be valuable, assuming he did it in his characteristically palatable way, as good introductions are always useful. But I was really hoping this book push the envelope — and I was not disappointed. In fact, Hahn has managed to accomplish both.

The purpose of Hahn's book is to help the reader to "understand, explain, and defend the Catholic faith". The first two parts, therefore, are really an introduction to certain basic elements of theology and apologetics. Part I covers the philosophical background to the Catholic faith, and this is important, because a conversion of the heart to Christ often first requires a conversion of the mind to the possibility and content of Truth. Part II then tackles some specific Catholic doctrines, like the Church, the Eucharist, the Papal office, etc., and shows how the Catholic teaching is rooted in the Bible. I'll be honest and say that, up until this point, the book had not "wowed" me. Again, it was covering a lot of the "same old" material, and in fact there was a lot of even more "hot-button" material it was not covering. For example, it would have been nice to have a section on explaining the Catholic teaching on human sexuality — a very, *ahem*, touchy subject at the best of times.

But Hahn's book got lifted from "B" to "A" status when I began to read part III, which covers what is called "salvation history". Simply put, Hahn masterfully presents a big-picture outline of God's plan for human history. He weaves together Biblical "threads" to form a narrative "tapestry" that is just brilliant. I have been reflecting on these questions for years now, and I learned something new page after page. For example, did you know that in the early days of the dynasty of David, King Solomon established an exalted place for his mother? The "Queen Mother" was a member of the royal court, with the right to the ear of her son. Given that Jesus is actually the several-generations-later successor of David and Solomon, it certainly puts a new spin on the role of Mary as an intercessor in Heaven. For myself, I know a book is good when it nourishes my prayer life, and I can tell you that I have not prayed the 5th glorious mystery of the Rosary the same way since.

In the end, the interesting thing is this: if you are not too confident of your intellectual grasp of Catholic teaching, this book is actually a really good and simply-written introduction. And, on the other hand, if you *are* blessed with a certain amount of theological culture, this book has the possibility of taking you even further in the exploration of the mystery. So what can I say? Get it and read! My rating: A