Saturday, July 14, 2012

Christianity: Personhood vs Individualism

“Ever since the Enlightenment, people have assumed that to be a person is to be an individual, one who is defined by separateness from others, by categories of “I” and “not-I.”  Here we return to the primal experience of our infant, who smiles at her mother even before the discovery of her own hand – we are, in the first place, persons because we are towards others, not over and against them.”  From Ecstasy and Intimacy, by Edith Humphrey

Here we can see the chaos of defining human rights from the framework of individuals rather than persons; here we can see the angst of the youth trying to define themselves "over and against" the other; here we can see the tragedy of being alone, yet surrounded by people.

Personhood, not individualism is the heritage of Christianity, revealed by the Trinity, the Divine Community of Persons that are perfectly 'towards' the Other.  We are invited into the fulness of this life, of this personship that is the heritage of humanity being made in the image and likeness of God.  Thus Jesus says, "Love your neighbour as yourself," and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," revealing your personhood of being 'toward' the other.

Lord have mercy,  Brian+ 


  1. Thanks for this interesting post! I am currently enrolled in a college programme that prepares me to support persons living with various disabilities. During our courses we reflect quite a bit about our attitudes and assumptions on various issues pertaining to our role as support workers. We are encouraged to use "people first" language, an example of which would be saying " people with disabilities" rather than "disabled people" or "the disabled". We often refer to the "individual", and there is a strong emphasis on "person directed planning" and being "person centred". This is a response and a hopeful remedy to the dehumanizing treatment people with disabilities have suffered in the past, I believe.
    We also spend a good deal of time discussing community and the role of people in community. I have had the privilege of spending my practicum at L'Arche in London, which has taught me a great deal about community life. In our class discussions I can sense a real, though unspoken conflict in the class between individualism and community.
    Your post tied a lot of things of ideas together and gave me lots to contemplate, thank you!

    1. Thanks Ian, for your very thoughtful reply. It sounds like your are engaged in a very wonderful 'giving of yourself.' I am awaiting a book titled, "Personalism In John Paul II" by
      Kleetus K. Varghese. I have struggled with this 'truth' of personhood as being other oriented. I hope to learn more, and more importantly to live it more fully: "give, and it shall be given unto you." Bless you in your work. Brian

  2. That sounds like an interesting book, I was reading a bit about it. I just re listened to a podcast from Ancient Faith Radio called "Iconography, Iconoclasm and the Theology of Personhood" which was a recording of a lecture by Father Anthony Michaels. I listened to it again in light of what you had written here. I don't think it is still available on their archive, unfortunately.
    I often find that my intellectual life can lead me towards individualism. It has been part of the blessing to spend time with people with disabilities that often communication is not confined to intellectual concepts, but much more in the area of whole person communication and communion. This can be true also spending time with my children, although I admit I often want to impress certain intellectual ideas on them. Perhaps I do that at the expense of a deeper form of communion, I sometimes worry.

  3. I happen to be reading through Douglas H. Knight's "The Eschatological Economy" right now and what you mention here is the bulk of his first chapter. Going straight to Knight's thoughts:

    "The individual is defined in abstraction from the whole sum of the relationships by which he or she was constituted. As such the individual is a tragic being, even a demonic being. A person, on the other hand, is an intrinsically plural being, who sums up and makes present the whole world of relationships. The identity of a particular person is not to be found somewhere deep inside him or her; there is no self, center, soul, or other form of private existence prior to his or her entry to the world of relationship. The identity of each person is spread across the whole nexus of human personhood. It is not hidden in a single interior place; it is constituted and sustained everywhere and by everyone." [8-9]

    Good to find your blog, sir.


    1. Thank-you Caleb. I have had a brief look at your blog. Very impressive. I shall look forward to following your journey and reflections. Blessings, Brian