I have written often on the subject of “personhood,” drawing to a large extent on the writings of the Elder Sophrony, and to a lesser extent on the theology of Met. John Zizioulas. The heart of their thought is to direct us to the reality that to exist as “persons” is precisely the same thing (or similar) when we speak of the “persons” of the Holy Trinity. And further, that this is true existence for human beings.
In our popular speech, we use the word person in a manner that is interchangeable with individual. This is to equate personhood with a word that stand for its near opposite.
We are used to thinking of ourselves in individual terms – terms which emphasize our role as active, choosing agents. A collection of individuals is especially a collection of unique and competing wills. Thus it is always possible that the competing wills with whom I associate will be in direct competition with myself. Their good and my good may not be at all the same thing.
Thus we wind up with various versions of the social contract, in which we agree by various means, to give as much room to other competing wills as possible, while allowing sufficient attention to our own. It is like belonging to a merchant’s organization.
These social contracts exist primarily to keep us from killing each other and to help maximize one another’s profits, whether they be profits of the material kind or otherwise. It is so strong a force in our culture that even Christians, within the “mega church” movement, speak of their “target” congregation as a “market.” We are defined by the market to which we belong. We are the consumers of religious product. This has a way of working and even of prospering, in that a market approach tends to separate Christians from one another before they become “competing agents.” A congregation that is a statistical slice of our culture would argue over music, sermon, reason for existence, etc.
Of course, regardless of the rhetoric used to support a marketing approach to human beings for religious ends is simply sinful. It is disrespectful of the purpose of Christ’s body and erects monuments to human sin (as manifest in our marketing choices). Such efforts, regardless of intention, are simply not the Church. They are anti-Church.
Among many things for which Christ gave us His body, our growth and fulfillment of our lives as true human persons is among the greatest. To exist as person is to exist as free, as loving, as sacrificing of self, as having an existence which can only be defined by its relational existence to others. So St. Paul uses the metaphor of body parts. We are like hands and feet, ears and eyes. We have a true existence, and yet that existence only makes sense because it is part of something else. An eye by itself does not “see.” An ear by itself does not hear. We are members of the Body of Christ and we only have true existence inasmuch as we are functioning members of that Body. It is in this manner that we are persons.
Personhood is not a moral goal – it is not a description of how we “ought to behave.” We do not live “as if” the existence of others were an inherent and necessary part of our proper existence. Personhood is a description of what it is to truly exist. To live in a manner that is not properly personal is not an “immoral” existence, it is a falling away from existence itself.
It seems to me that this distinction is important. I have written elsewhere that Christ did not die to make bad men good but to make dead men live. Our living in communion and participation with others is not a metaphorical act of moral behavior but a description of the manner in which we truly existence. Forgiveness of my enemy is more than an act of kindness – it is a recognition of the proper mode of my existence.
I love my enemy for he, too, is my life. These are not choices we make – or rather they are not things that are true because I choose them to be true. They are simply true. My choice is whether to accept them or reject them. This is our salvation by grace. By grace we have been given an existence that is greater than we might ever have morally wanted (apart from this grace). It is the feast God has set before us. It is the richness of life in His image. It is what salvation looks like.