Dogmatic Theology Homily: Einstein, Jefferson, St. Gregory the Theologian and You

What follows what might be termed the “release candidate” 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 and about momentum, that resistance 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 thing in the universe your speed, your inertia, and many other properties we ascribe to objects and their motion would cease to exist or at least would be meaningless, which is the sort of the same thing. 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, if not thousands 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). Finally, I might add that my choice of simple yet subtle ideas which have profound consequences was not entirely accidental as we shall see.

In the first centuries of the Church after Pentecost the idea of God as Trinity became doctrine. Coming to a good idea of what three persons in one Godhead meant that a lot of thought went into what person as a concept really means. Well, that’s not exactly right. The Church as a whole sort of came up with two ideas of the person. One idea expressed most clearly by Augustine and expanded by Boethius and the other concept expressed by the Cappadocians St. Basil and St. Gregory and expanded by St. Maximus. 

We live in the West, and understandably, the western notions of person are perhaps more familiar to us, and alas influence us the most strongly. Augustine’s idea of person in Trinity in brief saw God’s unity preserved by the unity of substance and the persons identified by aspects or features of identifiable individuals. Translating that idea to human persons, personhood is defined by features or aspects of self. Continuity of consciousness of an individual, possession of particular features like quality of various cognitive faculties define the person. Descartes cogito ergo sum and modern psychological identifcation of self as mind are direct descendents of this Theology.

In the Eastern theology however, this was not the case. The unity of the Godhead is held by the monarchy of the Father. The persons of the Son and Spirit are defined relationally, the Son is begotten by the Father and the Spirit likewise proceeds from the Father. The Father and Son eternally face each other in the midst of the Spirit. Translating this in turn to the human sphere, our personhood is defined not by qualities of our self, but by the nature and particulars of our relationships with each other. You as a person are defined by your relationships, to others, to the world, and with God (through Baptism, Eucharist and prayer). You are not defined by what you are, but by the particulars of the network of relationships with those around you. Here we get the first big hint why I used Mach’s idea that fundamental aspects of matter are depend on the relationship with other matter for its existence. 

The differences between these two notions of person have consequences. Thelogically speaking for example, 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 and His unique natures are one of a relational aspect to God. 

Similarly in the ethical and legal realms definitions of what constitutes a person are fundamental at the edges of life. This much is pretty clear on inspection, consider for example questions ethical and legal matters relating to euthenasia and abortion. These depend on when that human organism becomes or ceases to be a person. Clearly notions of what constitutes personhood direct your thinking in this regard. 

Another concept grounded in personhood is freedom. A Western, individual based, notion of personhood locates freedom primarily in the individuals ability to make choices and to make them effective. The Eastern, relationally defined, notion of personhood by contrast locates freeom in communion and love. At the center these ideas are in harmony, Western freedom allows a person to make choices and this is the same as the relational notion in which your choices are supported and made effective because they are in harmony with those in communion surrounding you which enable you to actualize those choices. As an aside, you might reflect for a moment on our national founding principles of Life, Liberty and (pursuit of) Happiness and how that identical with the eschatological promise of the Church, of Life (Eternal), Liberty (as communion with God and each other is true freedom), and of course Happiness within that communion. We might also reflect how the relational communion by which we might define freedom is met in big and little “c” communion. 

This example of freedom should demonstrate that much of the ethical thought, those patterns of thinking about ethics, moral, legal and ethical ideas are recast when person becomes relational not individual. This becomes problematic 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/individual, not relational manner.This seems like a horribly huge task, to revisit and consider which and how Western thought which depends on definitions of person and individuality in the light of the “new” notion that person is defined in a fundamentally different manner. While I’m not going to suggest this isn’t a large undertaking, we should take heart because we aren’t working from a blank slate. We are not without resources. We have all of Orthodoxy, 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. We need to begin by rejecting 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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