Monday, September 25, 2006

The Mystery of the Person

In his meeting today with Muslim leaders and ambassadors, Pope Benedict XVI quoted his predecessor, John Paul II.
As Pope John Paul II said in his memorable speech to young people at Casablanca in Morocco, "Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favor peace and agreement between peoples"
The word reciprocity has been central to Benedict’s approach to the Muslim world. In an earlier post, I suggested that the absence of such reciprocity is glaring and that a quick look at religious freedom as found in Detroit, Michigan (which has a large and active Muslim population) and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia would be instructive in that regard. But the hope for such a reciprocity, as Benedict knows so well, lies not with some balancing act. Rather it lies with the anthropological presuppositions with which one’s religious view of reality is suffused.

Benedict then went on to say this to the assembled Muslim leaders:
Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that in the current world situation it is imperative that Christians and Muslims engage with one another in order to address the numerous challenges that present themselves to humanity, especially those concerning the defense and promotion of the dignity of the human person and of the rights ensuing from that dignity. When threats mount up against people and against peace, by recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them.
The problem, however, is with the word person, a word whose moral and spiritual pedigree is lost on virtually everyone who uses the term today, but which is by no means lost on Benedict. He has written brilliantly on the Christian provenance of the term. If the reciprocity with respect to religious freedom, which is so glaringly lacking in the Muslim world today, is to be achieved, some sense of the (uniquely Christian) mystery of the person will need to be assimilated by our Islamic brothers and sisters.

The word “person” entered into the vocabulary of Western culture only after Christian theologians, in speaking of the three Persons of the Trinity, gave the word persona a philosophical profundity never before associated with it. In bringing about this theological revolution, the theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries laid the groundwork for a revolution in human self-understanding which has yet to be fully appreciated, and which it may be the special privilege of 21st century Christianity to rediscover.

It is hardly a coincidence that the mystery of the person was discovered by those who were trying to understand the mystery of Christ – the mystery-of-the-person in-Person. This mystery was largely lost on the key pioneers of modern psychology, however, for they regarded biblical anthropology as intellectually passé. Faced with a rising tide of psychological distress, they theorized about the modern self, mistakenly assuming it to be a synonym for the person, and failing to realize that the task was, as the future Benedict XVI put it some years ago, to find “the true self elsewhere than in its empirical counterpart.”

As the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov insists, “the revelation of the person is the event of Christianity.” At the heart of Christianity, writes the theologian J. B. Metz, is a “revolutionary formation process for a new subjectivity,” a “new subjectivity” that it is especially important to understand today as the spiritually bereft post-modern self turns to increasingly desperate and despairing antics of self-redemption. The time has surely come to take a fresh look at the biblical understanding of the mystery of the person.

The work of René Girard now makes it possible for us to realize that what Karl Rahner said about non-biblical religions, namely that they are “christologies in search of a subject,” is true as well of the increasingly de-centered secular self. Like the Christian mysteries generally, the mystery of the person is deeply paradoxical. While it is unquestionably true that the sacramental understanding of the person is born of Christian experience and rooted in Christian scripture, Girard’s insights into the mimetic nature of human subjectivity now make it possible for us to recognize how anthropologically astute was Tertullian’s second century intuition that “the soul is naturally Christian.” That is to say, Christian anthropology – properly grounded in Trinitarian theology – accurately portrays the universal human dilemma. The Gospel knows us better than we know ourselves.

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