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.