April 4, 2021


The Christian Invention of the Human Person (CAMERON HILDITCH, April 4, 2021, National Review)

The advent of Christianity overturned this old order of the ages, which had reigned more or less unchallenged since the dawn of civilization until the first Easter morning in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. The proclamation of the first Christians -- that God had become man -- obliterated the conception of personhood that predominated in the ancient world. If Jesus is a "persona," as the apostolic and patristic fathers of the Church maintained, and he has died and been raised as a representative of the entire race, then we are all more than society and the state would make of us. A gap opens up between our identity and our social obligations. The individual sets foot on the stage of human history for the first time. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Or, as Siedentop puts it:

For Paul, belief in the Christ makes possible the emergence of a primary role shared equally by all ("the equality of souls"), while conventional social roles -- whether of father, daughter, official, priest or slave -- become secondary in relation to that primary role. To this primary role an indefinite number of social roles may or may not be added as the attributes of a subject, but they no longer define the subject. That is the freedom which Paul's conception of the Christ introduces into human identity.

It's almost impossible for us to get a real sense of just how earth-shattering the millennia-long aftershock of Easter has been on our civilization. We are all in our moral sensibilities and basic worldview creatures of Christianity to such a great extent that we cannot see it from the vantage point of a pre-Christian society without tremendous imaginative effort. We cannot feel in our bones the farcical, blasphemous lunacy of a criminal, a non habens personam, speaking to a powerful ruler the way that Jesus speaks to Pilate near the climax of John's gospel. As for the crucifixion itself, the theologian David Bentley Hart is correct when he writes that,

try though we might, we shall never really be able to see Christ's broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity: a sublime fragility, at once tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful.

The contingency of everything we think decent and valuable about ourselves and our society upon the sorrows and the triumph of this one man, in whose luminous shadow we have all lived for the last 2,000 years, consistently eludes us. We forget that in a historically demonstrable way, we in the West owe our sense of common universal humanity entirely to Jesus of Nazareth and his Church. Even the smallest details of the Easter story, like the tears of St. Peter after his betrayal of Jesus, signal the radical discontinuity of the Christian revolution from what came before to an extent that we're utterly blind to today. As Hart movingly points out:

What is obvious to us -- Peter's wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ's imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal -- is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter's tears. To us, this rather small and ordinary narrative detail is unquestionably an ornament of the story, one that ennobles it, proves its gravity, widens its embrace of our common humanity. In this sense, all of us -- even unbelievers -- are "Christians" in our moral expectations of the world. To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man's sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone's notice. . . . This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion.

As Siedentop recounts in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, the intervening centuries between the first Easter and today have seen a long, uneven, and imperfect effort to translate the Christian belief in universal human dignity into social and political realities. Contrary to what the enemies of Christianity allege, the Enlightenment was much less of a break with what preceded it and much more indebted to centuries of Christian moral osmosis: It was not a sudden kickstart of reason after ages of enforced ignorance. The scholar Brian Tierney notes that already by 1300 a number of rights were regularly claimed and defended on the basis of the Christian understanding of personhood: "They would include rights to property, rights of consent to government, rights of self-defence, rights of infidels, marriage rights, procedural rights," and also measures to make these rights enforceable against positive law. To the extent that we see ourselves as rights-bearing individuals with real responsibilities, we are all cultural artifacts of Easter.

Posted by at April 4, 2021 8:15 AM