What Becomes a Person?

Preaching, Theology

“He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…”

We are a people obsessed with personalities. We are a people who love to watch and read and think about special persons. We are also a people often uncertain of the specialness or rightness of our own personhood. Our politics are personal, receiving their highest ratings and attention when populated by personae non grata engaged in the sport of personalized attacks. Our justice is often best served personally, the issues of affordable housing and immigration reform all the more galvanizing when given the face of a personal story, someone we know, or could imagine knowing. And then there are our own selves, the persons we attempt to craft with meticulous detail and the persons we simply cannot help but be. What kind of person are you? Maybe I could answer this question from your Facebook posts, or from your record collection, or from what you wear or who you talk to. What is a James? A Chris? A Bonnie? Maybe we are accumulations of biblical-scholarly-articles, or the person you call when someone is sick or dying, or white-robe-wearers, or possessors of impeccably quaft and wildly flowing hair. Perhaps more importantly, is what I am as a person good, is it seen and known and approved of by the other persons whom I admire and respect? If God had a Facebook account, which of my posts would she like? The one about the Imams acting as vocal advocates for a theology of peace over and against the theology of violent extremists, or the one where I talk about how many times I’ve listened to the new Beyoncé album?

We are a people who are very interested in persons, the persons we believe ourselves to be and the persons whom we are either attracted to or repulsed by. And so it may interest you to know that our modern Western idea of personhood itself was actually invented by a bunch of Christian theologians in the fourth century. When these guys were attempting to describe what had happened between the human race and God in the person of Jesus, the idea of a person itself was something of a novelty, at least in the way they decided to use it. Up till then the idea of persona was mostly used in theatre, the persona of a Greek tragedy was it’s list of characters, the collection of large masks used to articulate relationships and emotional currents within the broader drama. It did not mean individual, it did not mean personal identity. The time was not so obsessed with the uniqueness of every individual, a good citizen of Hellenistic culture was one who upheld the common good and government, a good Israelite was one who embodied the holy laws of God’s people. Not uniqueness. But there was something unique about Jesus. Not that he claimed to be God, necessarily, many crazy people claimed as much, but that so many more people so many centuries later still believed him. What was more, there was something unique about Jesus from God. Jesus was God but different from God somehow, not just an appearance of God or a manifestation of God or a piece of God, but a distinct individual, still distinctly divine.

Plenty of easy explanations circulated about why this was so- like maybe Jesus was just God pretending to be human, or maybe Jesus was just uniquely possessed by God, uniquely channeling God; but each of these explanations too easily explained away something which was, essentially, inexplicable. And so, with a new meaning for an old word, these theologians described God and Jesus as distinct, individual persons who shared the same essential being. And if that doesn’t make sense, then it’s probably working; because any definition of the Trinity which seems easy to get a hold on isn’t doing justice to the incomprehensible mystery of God. By the next century the idea of personhood was extended to the Holy Spirit also, and then to angels as manifest expressions of certain spiritual realities, and last of all to non-divine beings, like humans -we came to think of ourselves as distinct, individual persons as well, not least of all through authors like Augustine, who depicted the interiority of individual personhood -the little inner conflicts and dramas we see played out in our own private minds- in radical new ways through works like his Confessions. (For more on this see Phillip Carey, Charles Taylor, or John Zizoulous.)

hildegard trinity

Sarah Coakley has also spent time exploring images of the Trinity which are not entirely anthropomorphic, one of her favorites is this one from Hildegard of Bingen.

The interesting thing to me is that for us, today, the idea of what makes a person great essentially revolves around this uniqueness, around this bold assertion of a distinct self, often loud, always powerful, set apart from all others. Yet the persons of the Trinity, the persons we originally spoke of and the persons which our own asserted personhood is a mere imitation of, were essentially selfless. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a person who will come not as a body but as a spirit of truth who will speak through and among other bodies not his own, who will speak words not his own but the very words of God. The Holy Spirit then is presented as a selfless person whose chief aim is to show God through someone else. If this sounds familiar it may be because Jesus is described by scripture in a similar way. Paul described Jesus as one who emptied himself of any pretense and all clinging to show forth God, and John says that when we saw Jesus we saw God’s light and truth and way. God’s very own self is revealed less often through personal appearances and more through interpersonal actions: justice for the poor, creation out of nothing, the sound of sheer silence like balm over a troubled soul, a friend who would sacrifice everything rather than forsake his love. Something in the selfless nature of the Holy Spirit shows us what Jesus is like and something in the selfless nature of Jesus shows us what God is like, a God who is in turn giving us the grace and company of the Spirit who brings us together in Christ’s body. For all our talk of personhood, the essence of the Holy Trinity is a kind of selflessness, each member showing forth the other two. 

Now, I want to be especially careful any time I stand up here and espouse selflessness as a virtue, mainly because for most of Christian history, virtues like selflessness and obedience and humility have been used to silence and submit people without power to people with it. Namely selflessness as a virtue has been used to silence and subject women, whether it is wives to their husbands or religious sisters to their superiors. The theologian Sarah Coakley has taken this issue head on in her writing (specifically in her chapter on Kenosis in the book Powers & Submissions.) She addresses the damage done to women and others through the kind of self-emptying which is demanded by force, and she holds up the possibility of real power lying in the kind of self-emptying which comes by choosing to not cling to the false power of this world, but remaining rooted in the one who is creating, nourishing, loving our very essence into being.  Perhaps then, our own definition of what makes a person good deserves some retooling. If the original persons of the Trinity were each pointing to one another, what are we pointing to most often? What are we showing forth? The selfless Trinity shows forth a way of being, a way of being in the world and a way of being with one another, a love which does not cling, a generosity which won’t resent what it gives, a wisdom which cannot be deceived or deluded. Perhaps we can simply begin by praying that this Holy undivided and selfless Trinity will show themselves to us, that ultimately God may show themselves through us to as well, to a world which desperately desires to be seen, and known and loved. 


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