Dogmatic Theology Homily: Working Notes

What follows is the first draft (probably too short as yet) of a homily for my dogmatic theology class. It is on personhood. Suggestions, remarks and discussion is of course very very welcome.


Ernst Mach in 1883 had an idea. He was thinking about the source of inertia, that resistence that an object gives to speeding up when it is pushed. His idea was that an object has inertia on account of all the other “stuff” in the universe. That is to say, if you were the the only think in the universe your speed, your inertia, and many other properties we ascribe to objects and their motion would cease to exist. Just a score or so years later another man, Albert Einstein was thinking about Mach’s idea. The consequences of his thoughts are quite famous, and known to us today as the two theories of Special and General Relativity. In turn, those ideas have been developed by hundreds of people and their work and the results of that thought have a lot of consequences intervening century because these ideas provided the basis for much of our modern technology. 

There are two lessons that I’d like draw from that little illustration in the history of science. The first point  that simple, yet subtle, abstract ideas can have important and far reaching concrete consequences. And there is a second as well, and that point is that unless those simple abstract ideas impact your life in important ways then they should remain of interest to academics and those interested in inquiry for its own sake (which of course isn’t to say that’s a bad thing … it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea). 

How the Church understands person within their concept of God as Trinity is similar to the idea of Herr Mach. Trinity and holding to the Trinitarian concept of God is an is a fundamental and central aspect of Orthodox theology. Consider the liturgy, things done three times, and “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” come up more than a few times. Our liturgy, our prayer life, our every attempt to touch God embraces and is surrounded by Trinity. There is much to be said about God and Trinity, but I’m going to focus on just one facet. That is specifically within Trinity and what how the different “persons” meant in the context of that Trinity is, as we shall see, a simple abstract idea which has concrete important consequences. This is the first way in which it is very much like the description of Herr Mach’s ideas and its subsenquent impact on modern science. 

Two of the words you find when reading in the works of the Fathers are ousia and hypostasis. These words came up a lot in the first four or five centuries of the Church’s theological development and their meaning underwent some development. The first of these words “ousia” means something like “substance”, and the terminology arises in the Creed, of one substance. That is to say, Father, Son, and Spirit share their substance. Hypostosis came to mean person.  [Edit: this needs to be expanded with details on the development] 

And, here we get to the big idea that is similar to Mach’s notion that motion is depends on other masses in the Universe, so those of you dozing off in the back can wake up for this part. For, the definitions and thoughts of the Cappadocian Fathers and what followed in the Orthodox Eastern Fathers (esp. St. Maximus), was that personhood is defined as a relational characteristic not one of properties. Your personhood is defined not by what you are but by your realtionships with other persons. In that way, it is notcogito ergo sum, but instead who I am is defined essentially through my relationships with others. Think about that. Person is not about the stuff of you, the aspects of you, your thoughts and dreams and your continuity of thoughts and self, but it is a thing define and constituted by your relationships with others. 

Now as it turns out Western theology and Eastern theological thinking diverged on the point of how person might be defined. This is really quite important for us today, here and now, because we are surrounded and bombarded by Western influences all the time … and this idea of person is really very important and are awash in the influences of a culture which has a different belief in person than that of our Church. Western notions of the person, following Augustine and Boethius, centered on the idea that personhood is centered in qualities or aspects of the individual. Descarte’s cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am” and Freudian psychology encapsulate the ideas of the person being centered in and defined by features of the individual and one’s own mind. 

When we think of Jesus as human then also as part of the Trinity, this definition of his Godhood does not depend on qualities of Jesus as himself, but on the nature of the relationship he has with others, particularly the Father and Holy Spirit. In the 19th century, Catholic doctrine came to require the virgin birth (a quality) of Mary in order for her be the Theotokos. This in turn was a direct as a consequence of their notion of person. They need this quality or aspect to be attached to Mary in order for Jesus to attain to the qualities or aspects of being God and Man at the same time. This, for us, is not needed because her specialness is one of a relational aspect to God. 

But the consequences of person as begin defind by relationships instead of qualities goes far beyond just relatively abstract theology. Law and ethics in our culture depend and rely critically in many areas on a notion of person. One obvious part of that is at those boundaries of the law which deal with beginning and endings of persons, birth, life and death. How you think about abortion, euthenasia or other medical end-of-life decisions depend critically on your notion of person. 

But it goes further than that. Much of the ethical thought, those ways of thinking about what is right to do as well as poltical thinking of a person fundamentally as an individual. Polticial thinking consideres questions like: What are your (individual) rights? What are your (individual) responsibilities or freedoms? These notions about these matters for those of us born in this land and this culture are steeped in and assume fundamentally that the individual person is defined in a Cartesian, not relational manner.This seems like a horribly huge task, to revisit and consider all of the standard Western thought which depends on definitions of person and individuality in the light of the non-Western notion that person is defined in a fundamentally different manner. While I’m not going to suggest this isn’t a large undertaking, we aren’t working from a blank slate. We are not without resources. We have the Church, its Liturgy and Traditions. We have the Saints and the example of their lives. We have the writings, theological, pastoral, and ethical of the Fathers. These were patterened in a culture not based on this Western notion of person and can be used as a template.

So in conclusion, to be Orthodox is to reject the Cartesian affirmation, “I think therefore I am” and replace with a notion of being which is tied to relationships, something more like, “I am loved, therefore I am.” 

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