Personalism Rather than Foundationalism

Beginning with the Person of Jesus Christ as ultimate reality, the center of understanding of ourselves, the world and God, means that this particular Person, in whom reside both the divine and human, is our logic and point of departure. Though we might infinitely multiply the seeming alternatives to Christ, these alternatives boil down to one. The symbolic order, the world as we have it, natural law (or simply law), rationalism, human nature (or just nature), foundationalism, karma, being, etc., consist of the same impersonal, flat, closed system. Principles and theories replace the Person. Or in philosophical terms, the Unmoved Mover replaces Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or in more prosaic terms, in the church, grand buildings, elaborate hierarchy, ornate symbolism, (which may not be inherently problematic) tend to replace Person and personhood as primary.

What is left out of these systems or the system, is the God/man, personhood, absolute hospitality, unconditional forgiveness, unconditional love, or simply the primacy of relationship. Christ is not a first principle, a law, or a doctrine, but a Person. We do not know this Person primarily through propositions, doctrines, or theories, but in relationship. He is relational by definition, as is God the Father and the Holy Spirit. These three Persons are who and what they are in relationship. The Person, Christ, is not a type or genus or species, reducible to an already existing form, but Person is the shape and form of reality. All things hold together in him, both in heaven and earth, meaning that the incarnate Christ precedes creation. He is divine and the very definition of Creator and creation. If we do not begin with the incarnation, God made human, the danger is that we lose both God and humanity.

Beginning with being or creation subjects God to what is. Likewise, in Christology, to begin with the preincarnate Christ rather than the incarnation, the Logos is a cipher which can and has been filled in by philosophy and human speculation. God, as an abstraction, is inevitably bound up with conceptions of being. For example, there is the positing of the economic and immanent Trinity, in which we can only know of the economy and not the reality of God. The distinction between God, in God’s self and God for us, through abstraction and intellectual speculation, has effectively meant the loss of God. To affirm with Karl Rahner, that “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity,” the abstraction and speculation must be displaced by the incarnation as starting point. Who God is for Himself, He is for us.

In turn, where the image of the incarnate Christ is set aside, the human image or the human mind is made its own mirror. Rather than the historical other of Christ, interior reflexivity is presumed (explicitly or implicitly) to contain and capture the divine. It is presumed this image presents a ready coherence or access to God by virtue of human self-consciousness. Rather than God made accessible through the Person of Christ, God is equated with the structures and functions of the mind. The Platonic Forms, the Cartesian cogito, the Anselmian word, the self-positing I, the inner dialectic, or human self-awareness are divinized. Augustine’s psychological analogy of the Trinity, perhaps unintentionally, began the process of abstract speculation about God grounded in the human mind. The end result is that mind (“nous”) is equated with the being of God. Human nature becomes the interpretive means of grasping God, displacing the divine nature, the enhypostation, of Christ. There is no fully human one apart from being joined to God in Christ. Humanity is made for deity, and this is the order established in Christ.

As the council of Chalcedon defined it:

One and the same (Person) Christ only begotten Son […] acknowledged in two natures, without mingling, without change, indivisibly, undividedly, the distinction of the natures nowhere removed on account of the union but rather the peculiarity of each nature being kept, and uniting in one person and substance not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son only begotten God Word, Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

The bringing together of two natures (the human and divine) in one Person, is the very essence and end of human personhood. Human nature, in this understanding, is not a given which Christ assumed, rather he is the exemplary human. Certainly, human nature has parameters and necessities, but in Christ we recognize this finitude and delimitation is not definitive of what it means to be a person. Personhood, in its fulness is in and through his Personhood. Participation in the divine is not innate to human nature, but it is that for which human nature was made, as realized in Christ.

Christ as the “new Adam” does not simply restore the nature of the first Adam, but recreates or brings human nature to its proper end, with participation in the Trinitarian relationship. While nature may be plottable and definable, this Christic notion of personhood is beyond nature in its indefinable eternal depths. As Romans 8 describes, those in Christ take on a Divine consciousness, as in the Son, and by the Spirit we are brought into an Abba relation with the Father. The relation with the world, human nature, law, the symbolic order, are no longer definitive. God Consciousness (knowing Christ) is distinct, (for example, from knowing the Unmoved Mover). This is a holistic, subjective, personal, and relational knowing.

Knowing may be the wrong word, as this is trusting, believing and having faith. While we may commonly speak of knowing a person, there is a sense in which this is an endless process. We can know scientific facts. We can know mathematical trues, but “knowing” persons is no longer an objective but a relational order. The depths of this experience are more like trusting, relating, loving, believing. This may be inclusive of knowing, of propositions, of natural trues, but this relationship passes beyond full comprehension and is an ever-unfolding dynamic process.

This Personal constitution of reality brings a depth to all of nature, including human nature, such that psychology and physiology only begin to touch on this mystery. A person is more than their constituent parts and this form of reality is only apprehended relationally rather than rationally, psychologically, or propositionally. Thus belief, devotion, meditation, community, communion and prayer, are the proper modes for entering fully into this relationship.

This entails a continual openness to an ever-unfolding reality in which final apprehension is an impossibility. There is no end to knowing persons, and a reality that is Personal, has eternal depths for ever-renewed understanding. There is not a final knowledge allowing for a definitive set of propositions. If nature were the final “given” of reality we might expect a closed and rationalistic approach to be sufficient (foundationalism), but nature fused with Divinity, as in the Second Person of the Trinity, opens up a new order of understanding. Reality has no limit, no bottom, as it is an ever-unfolding Personal mystery to be explored and approached in a relational (Personal) rather than a foundational understanding.   

[1] Colin Patterson, Chalcedonian Personalism: Rethinking the Human (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd, 2016), n. 148.