In my “Christianity’s Odd Place in the World” entry last week, I commented upon Metropolitan Jonah’s talk at vespers that centered upon a discussion of the human person. Indeed, the metropolitan’s pastoral message for the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and address at the March for Life used similar language.
Being Jesuit educated and having swum in Roman Catholic intellectual waters for some time, I am very familiar with the language of “the human person.” You can smell its traces everywhere—from university mission statements to Orthodox hierarchs’ homilies. I suppose that the features of such talk originates in Personalism, taught by French thinkers such as Emmanuel Mounier and Gabriel Marcel and made globally popular by Pope John Paul II. Such language has entered Orthodoxy through the French-Russian Orthodox axis, epitomized by L’Institut Saint-Serge in Paris. Metropolitan Jonah’s remarks have their genealogy in that post-war cross-pollination that figures so prominently in the Orthodox Church in America.
I do not know how to assess all of this talk on “the human person.” I do not detect anything wrong or heretical in such teachings, but the novelty of the language troubles me. To my knowledge, one cannot find such a fixation on the human person per se before the twentieth century. I grant that Christianity has always been the religion of love, where God wants all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. We Orthodox Christians call Jesus Christ philanthropos—the lover of mankind. Moreover, all political and ethical thought obviously involves the human person. The ancient Greeks concerned themselves with the order of the soul. Christians some centuries later pondered the appropriate hierarchy of goods and loves, the disorder of which leads to lust and to all the trials of a fallen world. Early modern philosophers debated how best to deal with divergent wills in a human community. In all of these ages, the fundamental issues involved the question of man. Yet, one does not find therein an emphasis on each man’s being a man.
As I listened to the metropolitan’s talk at vespers, I wondered if the prophets and thinkers of our age were simply addressing the pressing problem of our time. For philosophy and theology are always largely reactive. Each age has its own set of necessary questions, and it is up to the minds of that age to provide the answers. Perhaps, with the advent of totalitarianism, mass culture, new technology, and the dehumanizing understanding of man in economics, biology, history, and art, what we have now is a veritable crisis of seeing man’s humanity. During the last two centuries, reductionist views of human beings with man as appetite, man as an economic being, man as the result of irrational chance, and man as will have become the air that we noetically breathe. Yet, to some extent, wasn’t it always so? Couldn’t we justly include Protagoras or Hobbes with Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche? Maybe the difference in the contemporary world is the widespread ascendancy of such reductionism in all domains of human life.
Andrew suggested that the recent genesis of Personalism may have to do with modernity’s obsession with individualism. If such is true, it would be highly ironic, as those who worry about the human person endlessly trouble themselves with the ills of individualism. Could it be that they are philosophical parricides?