Healing Society: Understanding True Personhood
The featured author article this month is an updating and reworking of the Society of St. John Chrysostom-Western Region’s President’s Message Light of the East Newsletter (Spring 2015) originally entitled PERSONHOOD: DISUNION AND UNION.[i] This article focuses on the need of the healing of society from making Christ and His Body the Church criminals and non-persons worthy of marginalization, murder and torturous execution, and recognizing that all of mankind, in fact are made up of ‘persons,’ and are of worth. Furthermore all Christians should join in prayer, witness and action to cure the increasing societal illness of depersonalization.
And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. (Gn 1: 27)
And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul. (Gn 2:7)
One would hope that the basis of union among those who acknowledge the transcendent personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be that of the worth and sanctity of personhood. It would appear, however, that rather than a reestablishment of cordial relations among those who acknowledge the sacredness of Scripture, and the Book of Genesis in particular, there is an ever growing divide. Understanding how the differing religious traditions view the genesis and development of the concept of personhood gives an insight of what fuels this ‘great divide.’ Spiritual and moral values differ among those who all consider themselves followers of Christ, and the difference in the understanding of personhood is not only a good reflection of the chasm, but may be in part what is fueling the widening of it. The Apostolic Churches view is that persons are known by God outside of created space and time. The Prophet Jeremiah (1: 5) tells us: “Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and made thee a prophet unto the nations.” The traditional Christian Churches understand that God created body and soul, fused together at the moment of conception. This is based on the Virgin Mary’s response to the invitation from God delivered by the Archangel Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee.” (Lk 1: 35) The ‘to be’ Mother of God (Theotokos) responded her fiat (“let it be done”): “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.” (Lk 1:38).
Dissident Christian Communities
Some Christian communities not in communion with the Apostolic Churches have not dealt directly with the issue of personhood. However, their understanding of personhood can be inferred by their stance on, for example, the issue of abortion. The view of such communities on this issue, placed under the guise of a ‘human right,’ is euphemized as a “right to choose” or a “reproductive rights,” instead of an act of murder, which, of course, it is. One ethicist put it this way: “…most Christian denominations center their support for reproductive rights on the grounds of a woman’s personal responsibility to make moral decisions in accordance with her faith.”[ii] This exemplifies the unfortunate and scandalous desecration of the human person by individuals identifying themselves as Christians.
Division in Islam
The critical importance of understanding the worth of personhood can be seen in the various interpretations or perspectives on personhood in Islam. Islamic scholar Peter Riddell points out that there are various interpretations or perspectives on personhood in Islam. One view is that “Islam holds that Man consists of two essential elements, one material which is the body, the other spiritual which is the soul.” This interpretation would respect the free will of the individual in following Allah’s (God’s) guidance. On the other hand, “non-formally trained” radical fundamental Islamists would say that “Islamic scripture allows for some humans to change from 'person' to 'non-person'.. . . . because they turn away from the guidance God has given them, and corrupt His word and thus their execution is justified.”[iii] The brutal barbaric killings of ISIS, at this writing now including the beheading of the 21 Coptic Egyptian martyr-saints so widely publicized in the media, would be justified in that they consider that their victims are ‘non-persons.’ In this regard, our duty as Christians, (and certainly as committed members and friends of the SSJC), is to despise the evil deed but maintain our love of the person. Consider the words of the angel of the Apocalypse who transmits Christ’s words to St. John the Evangelist: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaites, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:6).[iv] Thus we can strongly disapprove of the nefarious works or actions of others while still maintaining their worth or personhood.
The orthodox Church of Christ
Spiritual Church Father Nikitas Stithatos (c. 1005 – c. 1090 AD) provides the patristic, and thus the traditional and orthodox Christian, understanding of the meaning of personhood. An individual “is an image of God manifest in a spiritual, immortal and intelligent soul, an intellect that is the father of . . . consciousness and is consubstantial with the soul. . . and is regal and sovereign.”[v] Vladimir Lossky (1957, p. 201)[vi], a contemporary theologian writing on the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church puts it this way: “The most personal part of man, the principle of his conscience and of his freedom, the spirit in human nature corresponds most nearly to the person; it might be said it is the seat of the person, of the human hypostasis which contains in itself the whole of man’s nature---spirit, soul and body.”
Let us also consider the moral context in which any ongoing ecumenical efforts should occur. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, who recently said: “The task of restoring unity will always be the goal to which Churches and communities ought to strive. At the same time, however, we must remember that the attainment of unity is possible not by rejecting the fundamental norms of Christian morality, not by attempts to accommodate oneself to social currents and an ever changing social establishment, but is possible only on the foundation of [Christ]”[vii] As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor. 3: 11).
Without getting into the intricacies of the various patristic writings on the persons of The Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the relationship of the Divine persons to human personhood a summary statement, by Archbishop John Zizioulas (1985)[viii] is insightful on this matter.
Thanks to Christ man can himself “subsist,” can affirm his existence is personal not on the basis of the immutable laws of his nature, but on the basis of a relationship with God which is identified with what Christ in freedom and love possesses as Son of God with the Father. (p. 56).[ix]
This psycho-spiritual reflection provides us with the orthodox Church’s Christocentric anthropology of the worth of personhood. From this understanding each individual person known by God in eternity and known humanly on earth in space and time existentially-subsistent, has inestimable worth and value. It behooves us to heal society by putting into practice what is implied in the worth of person who is created in God’s image. This means an end to all abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, murder, torture and any other deed which defiles God’s image in man.
And Jesus looking on them, saith: With men it is impossible; but not with God: for all things are possible with God. (Mk 10: 27)
[i] The Society of St. John Chrysostom is an ecumenical group of clergy and lay people which promotes Eastern Christianity and Ecumenical Dialogue between the Eastern and Western Churches toward the healing of the sin of disunity. It has sponsored the Eastern Churches Journal and the annual Orientale Lumen & Light of the East Conferences. It has been in existence since 1997 in the United States and for over 70 years in England. (http://lightoftheeast.org...)
[iv] A 1st Century AD heretical Christian group.
[v] Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia, I IV. London: Faber and Faber. (V.4, p.116)
[vi] Lossky, V. (1957). The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Cambridge & London, England: James Clark & Co.
[viii] Zizioulas, J. (1985). Being As Communion. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
[ix] In a previous paragraph Archbishop John explains this in more theological terms. “ …the basis of ontology [being] is the person: just as God “is” what He is in His nature, “perfect God,” only as person, so too man in Christ is “perfect man” only as his hypostasis [existence-subsistence], as person, that is, he who subsists who possesses a mode of existence which is constituted as being in precisely the same manner in which God also subsists as being—in the language of human existence this is what a “hypostatic union” signifies (p. 55-56). As St. Paul writes: “For we are made partakers of Christ: yet so, if we hold the beginning of his substance firm unto the end.” (Heb 3:14)