It is becoming increasingly clear to me, as I watch developments in political philosophy, the developments in the churches regarding women’s ordination, and in the most recent developments this week in the Episcopal Church, that there is great confusion about personhood.
In a real sense, beginning with Descartes, and with powerful impetus from Kant’s moral philosophy, modernist thinking has understood personhood in terms of radical individuality. The “person” is the individual, the singular being. Because of this orientation of singularity, it is quite natural that in terms of political understanding, the individual is viewed primarily from the vantage point of rights.
Don’t mistake me. It’s not as though I’m not glad that the U. S. was founded on the notion of “inalienable rights.” Although I need to think throug this a bit more clearly, at least at first glance, talk about rights insofar as it relates to the person seems potentially compatible (though with significant revision) with the Christian understanding of the person.
But here’s an important weakness of the modernist understanding of personhood in terms of individuality: it cannot offer true communion because it establishes at the foundation of human relating an adversarial stance. My rights have to be balanced against someone else’s rights. So long as you and I have pretty much the same understanding of what those rights are, the conflict inherent in our relationship is put in abeyance. But when one of us begins to understand our rights in a way different than the other, conflict arises. One must hierarchicalize rights. Is it a greater right to have autonomous control over what happens to one’s body, or to live? Is it a greater right to exploit the bodies of women to sell products, or to communicate without restraint?
Though recent developments in political philosophy have brought class back into political consciousness, though under the rubric of group rights, this development merely exacerbates the tensions just noted. It multiplies them.
Another reason the modernist conception of the individual as person cannot deliver on communion, on relationship, is that one may only attain “community” by adding up discrete units. If I am an autonomous individual, I can have no connections, other than as a self-contained entity, with other autonomous individuals. Thus a community is little more than an agregate of “persons,” who can be organized and delimited into subsets. So we have African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, gays, lesbians, straights, Jews, liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims. Each autonomous individual is simply regrouped with other individuals. But there is no community, no union, for the autonomy must be impermeable. This is the Kantian, as well as the legal, paradigm.
This modernist understanding of personhood is not changed in its essence even within postmodernist thought. If anything, it is strengthened. Though one might consider the discussion surrounding group rights as something of a postmodern development, it doesn’t really change the equation. It is still individuals, just merely reorganized.
There is what one may, perhaps, call an ultramodern understanding of the person, in which autonomous walls are dismantled. But this understanding is problematic in that it first of all arises out of the conception of the autonomous individual and merely takes it to its logical conclusion, and that secondly the dissolution of the individual is never total in that relating is now understood in terms of power, as in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
The Christian understanding of personhood, founded on Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, is far different. Here there is personhood that is grounded in Trinitarian understanding. There is distinction but not one that divides. There is unity but not one that reduces everything to an impersonal essence. There is submission, but it is mutual. There is hierarchy, but it is not cancelled out by equality. There is absolute patriarchy, the foundation of being, but there is absolute communion. There is unity that is transcended by threeness, and threeness that does not degenerate into plurality. This is the image of God, in which humans were formed. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, this image can be restored to the likeness of God.
Regrettably, the present state of the Christian churches in the U. S., seem not to reflect the Christian understanding of personhood. Instead, there is the fundamental adversarial relationship of rights based on the autonomy of the individual. It would seem to me that koinonia will never be attained, or at least not fully, since we cannot deny the reality of true personhood, within this paradigm. It is why there is and will continue to be schism.