Archive for category Concept of “Person” (series)

The Concept of “Person” 1

“… “individual” and “person” do not mean the same thing…” 

Contemporary Western culture, especially American culture, idolizes and idealizes the “individual”.  In my generation, we admired the “rugged individual”; the “John Wayne” or “Clint Eastwood” image of toughness, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance.   Unfortunate side-effects of our society’s fixation with “individualism” have also led us to become alarmingly self-centered, self-indulgent and narcissistic, with a growing sense of entitlement.  It is the ethic of the “me” generation; it’s all about “me”, self-fulfillment, “do your own thing”, you can have it all, you deserve it all.  Secular science, the economy, and politics all support and pander to the “cult of the individual” because they have no inherent moral compass of their own and, in order to survive themselves, they can only focus on what “pop culture” will support and pay for.

In contemporary Western society, “individual” and “person” are used as synonyms; to most people they mean the same thing.  But, “individual” and “person” do not mean the same thing and the difference between them is crucial to a fundamental understanding of Christian theology and the work of salvation.

There are pockets within Western Latin Christianity which have recently “re-discovered” their long-lost contemplative Christian tradition.  Whether it’s called the “perennial tradition”, centering prayer, or Christian mysticism, all of them recognize, to a lesser or greater extent, the distinction between the “individual” and the “person”, referring it them as the “False Self” and “True Self” or by some other descriptive labels.

Although I think these movements to re-capture our contemplative Christian prayer tradition are good and positive, I do not believe that we need to re-invent the wheel.  The answer is staring us right in the face in our ancient Christian theology and tradition itself.  It didn’t go anywhere, it just has been ignored by Western Latin (Roman Catholic/Protestant) Christianity over the past five centuries, give or take.  This series is designed to re-acquaint Western Christians with the ancient Christian concept of the “person”.

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The Concept of “Person” 2

“… this idea of person comes to us from Christian theology.”

In discussing the concept of “person”, I will refer to the work of the church Fathers, especially the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century, through the collective wisdom and insights of four prominent contemporary theologians and mystics:  Vladimir Lossky, Christos Yannaras, John Zizioulas, and Hierotheos Vlachos.

The great twentieth-century Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958), in his seminal work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, tells us that, “We commonly use the words ‘persons’ or ‘personal’ to mean individuals, or individual.  We are in the habit of thinking of these two terms, person and individual, almost as though they were synonyms.  We employ them indifferently to express the same thing.  But, in a certain sense, individual and person mean opposite things, the word individual expressing a certain mixture of the person with elements which belong to the common nature, while person, on the other hand, means that which distinguishes it from nature”.

Lossky goes on to explain this distinction between “individual” and “person” in more detail:  “The man who is governed by his nature and acts in the strength of his natural qualities, of his ‘character’, is the least personal.  He sets himself up as an individual, proprietor of his own nature, which he pits against the natures of others and regards as his ‘me’, thereby confusing person and nature.”  This is the condition of fallen man, best described in English as ‘egoism’.

Lossky continues to further contrast “individual” and “person”:  “However, the idea of the person implies freedom vis-à-vis the nature.  The person is free from nature, is not determined by it.  The human hypostasis [person] can only realize itself by renunciation of its own will, of all that governs us, and makes us subject to natural necessity.”

Lossky goes on to tell us that the original idea of the “person” was conceived by, and can only be explained in terms of proper Christian theology:  “…the theological notion of hypostasis in the thought of the eastern Fathers means not so much individual as person, in the modern sense of the word.  Indeed, our ideas of human personality, of that personal quality which makes every human being unique, to be expressed only in terms of itself: this idea of person comes to us from Christian theology.”

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Concept of “Person” 3

“To help explain the difference between “individual” and “person”, the model of the Holy Trinity is useful…”

To help explain the difference between “individual” and “person”, the model of the Holy Trinity is useful because it establishes a truth beyond the regular meaning of secular philosophical concepts. Two of the key terms in trinitarian theology are ousia and hypostasis; essence (nature) and subsistence (person).  Just to confuse things, even in Greek, these two terms can be used as synonyms.

In terms of trinitarian doctrine, Vladimir Lossky explains to us in his book, In the Image and Likeness of God, that “… according to the doctrine of the Fathers, there is between ousia and hypostasis the same difference as between the common and the particular…”.  Lossky continues his line of thinking with a complex thought, “The hypostasis is the same as ousia; it receives all the same attributes – or all the negations – which can be formulated on the subject of “superessence”; but it nonetheless remains irreducible to the ousia.”

Lossky tells us that the church Fathers of the fourth century worked diligently to develop and articulate a complete theology of the Holy Trinity.  This was especially true of three men who became known as the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa).  They struggled mightily to articulate and differentiate between theological terms like hypostasis and ousia: “It was a great terminological discovery to introduce a distinction between the two synonyms, in order to express the irreducibility of the hypostasis to the ousia and of the person to the essence, without, however, opposing them as two different realities.  This will enable St. Gregory of Nazianzus to say, ‘The Son is not the Father, because there is only one Father, but He is what the Father is; the Holy Spirit, although He proceeds from God, is not the Son, because there is only one Only Begotten Son, but He is what the Son is’ (Or. 31, 9)”

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Concept of “Person” 4

“…’person’ signifies the irreducibility of man to his nature…”

While Lossky warns us that we cannot make a complete and direct analogy between “hypostasis” or “person” as it applies to the Holy Trinity to the idea of “person” in humankind, some useful conclusions can be drawn.  He tells us that, “Under these conditions, it will be impossible for us to form a concept of the human person, and we will have to content ourselves with saying: “person” signifies the irreducibility of man to his nature— “irreducibility” and not “something irreducible” or “something which makes man irreducible to his nature” precisely because it cannot be a question here of “something” distinct from “another nature” but of someone who is distinct from his own nature, of someone who goes beyond his nature while still containing it, who makes it exist as human nature by this overstepping and yet does not exist in himself beyond the nature which he “enhypostasizes” and which he constantly exceeds.”

O.K., so Vladimir Lossky can be a little deep and dense at times.  Let’s get some help from some other very gifted contemporary theologians who can help explain and round out the concept of the “person” for us.

We’ll start with contemporary Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras (1935 –    ) to further explain and expand on Lossky’s thinking:

“In everyday speech, we tend to distort the meaning of the word ‘person’.   What we call ‘person’ or ‘personal’ designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms “person” and “individual” as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, ‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning (see V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London, 1957), p. 121f.) The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man’s common nature, and quantitative comparisons and analogies.”

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Concept of “Person” 5

“The demand of the person for “absolute freedom” involves a ‘new birth’, a birth ‘from on high’, a baptism.”

So, Yannaras adds to our concept of “person” the necessity of “personal immediacy” and “direct personal relationship”.  At the zenith of this immediacy and relationship, of course, is love.

In his book, “Being as Communion”, Studies in Personhood and the Church”, Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John ( Zizioulas) of Pergamon (1931-    ), maintains that the theology of the person would not have been possible without the mystery of the Church.  Zizioulas maintains that humanity, being made in the image of God, has an inherent God-given drive for “absolute freedom”.  However, existing as an “absolute freedom”, completely free and independent of its nature, is humanly impossible.  He tells us that, “the being of each human person is given to him; consequently, the human person is not able to free himself absolutely from his “nature” or from his “substance”, from what biological laws dictate to him, without bringing about his annihilation.”   To Zizioulas, deification and union with God involves escaping this “given” and sharing in the “absolute freedom” of divine existence; not after death, but beginning in this life.

Zizioulas tells us that escaping our “given” being, or nature, can only be accomplished through a “new birth”:  “The demand of the person for “absolute freedom” involves a ‘new birth’, a birth ‘from on high’, a baptism.  And it is precisely the ecclesial being which ‘hypostasizes’ the person according to God’s way of being.  That is what makes the Church an image of the Triune God.”  God’s way of being, Zizioulas notes, includes that “absolute freedom” which humans seek, and the Christian shares in this way of being even during his/her earthly pilgrimage.

This is the way in which a concrete, free “person” can emerge. Our “person” can emerge due to the fact that Christ deified our human nature through his incarnation.  His perfect human nature deified humankind’s fallen nature.

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Concept of “Person” 6

“…because humanity is created in the image of God with the drive for “absolute freedom”, it ‘is able to carry with [it] the whole of creation to its transcendence’.”

The Incarnation of the Logos, the Son, the Christ, created the possibility for humankind to attain by adoption, what Christ is by nature.  Zizioulas tells us:

“Thanks to Christ man can henceforth “subsist”, can affirm his existence as personal not on the basis of 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. This adoption of man by God, the identification of his hypostasis with the hypostasis of the Son of God, is the essence of baptism.”

“The ecclesial hypostasis exists historically in this manner as a confirmation of man’s capacity not to be reduced to his tendency to become a bearer of individuality, separation and death. The ecclesial hypostasis is the faith of man in his capacity to become a person and his hope that he will indeed become an authentic person. In other words it is faith and hope in the immortality of man as a person.”

Zizioulas concludes his thoughts on the concept of “person” with the vision of humanity in communion and in an intimate love relationship with humankind, all creation, and with God:

“It becomes a movement of free love with a universal character, that is, a love which, while it can concentrate on one person as the expression of the whole of nature, sees in this person the hypostasis through which all men and all things are loved and in relation to which they are hypostasized. The body for its part as the hypostatic expression of the human person, is liberated from individualism and egocentricity and becomes a supreme expression of community – the Body of Christ, the body of the Church, the body of the eucharist.”

Zizioulas tells us that the concept of person, “implies the ‘openness of being,’ and even more than that, the ek-stasis of being, i.e., a movement toward communion which leads to transcendence of the boundaries of the ‘self’ and thus to freedom.”  Moreover, because humanity is created in the image of God with the drive for “absolute freedom”, it “is able to carry with [it] the whole of creation to its transcendence.”

This is some pretty awesome spiritual thinking and imagery, isn’t it?

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The Concept of “Person” 7

“… a person is one who has passed from the image to the likeness [of God].”

Theologian Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos (1945-    ) in his aptly titled, “The Person in the Orthodox Tradition”, brings us back full circle with his exposition and analysis of the thinking of the church Fathers on the concept of “person”.  He summarizes his thoughts by concluding:

“All of this shows that the holy Fathers used the term ‘Person’ to point to the particular Hypostases of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But they more often use the term ‘anthropos’, man, for people. Yet there are some indications that the term ‘person’ is sometimes also applied to a man. But this must be done with special care, for it is possible to give a philosophical and abstract character to the term ‘person’. Properly a man and a person is one who has passed from the image to the likeness. In the teaching of the holy Fathers, to be in the image is potentially to be in the likeness, and being in the likeness is actually the image. In the same way the man created by God and recreated by the Church through Holy Baptism, is potentially a person. But when, through his personal struggle, and especially by the grace of God, he attains the likeness, then he is actually a person.”

This means that the idea of the emergence and perfection of our “person” is integrally connected to the spiritual process of purification (katharsis), illumination (theoria), leading to union with God (theosis); or deification.

In summary, clearly there is a massive difference between an “individual” and a “person”.

The great Cappadocians first distinguished between “essence or nature” (ousia) and “person” (hypostasis) for us.

Vladimir Lossky then explained the idea of a “person” in terms of the “irreducibility of man to his nature” and its ability to transcend its nature while still including it.

Christos Yannaras introduced us to the idea that a “person” is necessarily relational; in “direct personal relationship and communion”, participating “in the principle of personal immediacy, or of the loving and creative force which distinguishes the person from the common nature”.

John Zizioulas then explained that it is only within the context of baptism, or new birth, that fallen humanity can achieve the “absolute freedom” to love and unite itself and creation with God.  It is this “ecclesial being which ‘hypostasizes’ the person according to God’s way of being”, becoming “a movement of free love with a universal character”, “able to carry with [it] the whole of creation to its transcendence.”

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