Monday, February 4, 2008

about being persons

Let me introduce you to three influential thinkers who shape what I do.

The first one I’ll speak to is John Zizioulas. John Zizioulas is a Greek Orthodox theologian who wrote a book called Being as Communion. The basic thesis of this book is that when we talk about what it means to be a person, for God, it is not tied up with bodily being, but it’s tied up with that being of God that is known in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, where each person of the Trinity is not a person merely by virtue of having a face. The word person comes from the word procopo, which is like a mask or a face that one would wear in the Greek theater. But there’s something more essential to who we are; there is a going out from within one’s self that meets another in conversation, who is also going out to meet you. That’s the transcending of the self -- to go beyond one’s self as your words go and meet another. It’s not just words; it could be any nonverbal being of one’s self, but to say that the whole being of the Son goes out to meet the Father, who is going out to meet the Son, and the same would be true of the Spirit. That whole life of the interrelated going out to one another creates a mutuality between them, an irreducible connectedness, that is the very constitution of God’s life, and John Zizioulas identifies the most basic thing in the universe as this personal being in communion. So, largely based on John Zizioulas, my vision of God is a relational being.

Karl Barth is the second person who is very influential for me. And his basic task in the twentieth century is to say that if we’re going to do good scientific theology, we have to let God speak. And God speaks where? God speaks in the person of Jesus Christ. So all of our theology has to continually go back and ask who Jesus is as the One who fills out all of our terms of God and our terms of humanity. So we can’t ask what it means for a human to be free without asking what it means for Jesus to be free and to actually give content to the meaning of that word. Webster is not the authority, nor any other dictionary, not even Wikipedia. Jesus is the One who truly defines, by living out all of the words of the Christian faith. And so Karl Barth sets us on a whole theological methodology that stands over against filling out our terms with human experience. And the nature of human experience is that we all have different human experiences and therefore we end up with different theologies of what it means for God to be Father and to be loving and all those things, so to not have any of those be our starting point, but to let God be the starting point, as witnessed to by Scripture, looking at the Father-Son-Spirit relationship, opens us up to what Barth calls the happy science of theology.

The third person is John Macmurray. John Macmurray was a Scottish philosopher who studied on the nature of what it means for us to be persons. He was a Christian, and his basic thesis is, once again, that the very form of what it means to be persons is not to be merely bodily or to be separate from one another, but it is being in relation. Macmurray said that the whole Western mode of thought is built on thinking or rationality as the basis of what a person is, building on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” and Kant’s concepts of the transcendental unity of apperception, which gives the human a priority in all knowledge, and merely attempts to fit God within the limits of human reason. Macmurray suggested that what he calls an act, the act of a human being, precedes any thinking about that act. And so if we are going to really understand the nature of who we are as persons, it’s an acting, and that acting is not something that’s done apart from others, but we grow up from the very time we are babies in the context of relationships. So what it means to be a person is to act in the context of relationships. And so, “I relate, therefore I am” would be a basic thought within John Macmurray’s thought, and that shapes my thinking about the nature of how we work out a God who lives in relationship, who’s revealed to us (Karl Barth) in the person of Jesus to understand that relating on Planet Earth in a way that defines our ethics and our very understanding of being a person in a term that John Macmurray calls friendship. One of his most famous quotes is “All meaningful knowledge is for the purpose of action, and all meaningful action is for the purpose of friendship.”

These three thinkers were focal in my doctoral work and still heavily influence the way that I think as a relational theologian.

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