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  • Writer's picturePetre Maican

The Notion of Personhood in Modern Orthodox Theology

One of the highest achievements of modern Orthodox theology has been the development of the notion of person.[1] This notion can be traced back to the fourth century when, in the heat of Trinitarian debates, the Cappadocian Fathers needed to distinguish between two synonyms: nature (ousia) and person (hypostasis) in order to defend the consubstantiality between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and the oneness of God. In the past two centuries, under the influence of various philosophical movements, this notion’s centre of gravity shifted from the Trinitarian to the anthropological realm. Theologians began to ask what does it mean to be a person and they often answered by differentiating between person and individual. The individual is just another member of the human species caught in the monotonous fight for survival and selfishness. By contrast, the person is unique, unrepeatable, and spiritual. Yet someone like me, who reads these various descriptions of personhood in the attempt of developing a theology of cognitive disability, realises quite quickly that the anthropological imaginary of Orthodox theologians does not include the entire spectrum of human existence. To be a person can refer at times at the ecstatic state of a creative genius or to the ascetic fulfilment of our likenes to God or even be a divine attribute that God imparts to us through Baptism and Eucharist. None of these views of personhood, as I will explain later, is easily applicable to persons with cognitive disabilities. By cognitive disabilities, I refer to “the so called global developmental delays, typically associated with diminished adaptive function, problems with memory, language use, presenting and following arguments, and forming and enacting plans.” (Andrew Sloane, Cognitive Disabilities in the Hebrew Bible). In the following, I would like to explore the limits and potentialities of the main conceptions of personhood in Orthodox theology, precisely through the lens of cognitive disability. At the end, I will sketch the delineations of a more inclusive understanding of the notion of personhood. According to my taxonomy, there are four main conceptions of personhood: the ascetical, the apophatic, the ecclesial, and the hypostatic. The most known is the ascetical, which in its actual form can be associated with Vladimir Lossky. In the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Lossky argues that in our fallen condition we are ruled by passions of the flesh, selfishness, and the desire of being recognised as unique individuals. Personhood is thus the better spiritual stage of human existence. It requires the control of one’s body, self-sacrificial love, and humbleness or in one word: ascetic practice. It seems obvious to me that to apply this view of personhood to someone who has a diminished level of rational agency and introspection could be at least questionable. Persons with cognitive disabilities could struggle to control their bodies or to deal with abstract notions such as humbleness or self-sacrifice. This does not mean that they cannot act caringly and self-sacrificially, but simply that their status of persons cannot be conditioned by ascetic struggle. The second approach to personhood, the apophatic, is also associated with Vladimir Lossky. When dealing with the content of the imago dei, Lossky enumerates its various interpretations offered by the Fathers of the Church: rationality, freedom, dominion over nature. He does not find this his lack of consensus disconcerting, but rather a proof that the image of God is reflecting His apophatic character. Just as God cannot be pinned down by rational concepts, neither can the human beings who reflect Him. This mystery of being is what constitutes personhood. The potential of this apophatic perspective for disability theology has already been noticed by Linda Woodhead. For many persons with disabilities, one of the most difficult things they have to face is the medical gaze: to be constantly treated as a diagnosis and not as human beings. Instead of being John or Mary, they are “the guy with Down Syndrome” or “the schizophrenic woman”. If personhood is the mystery of being created in God’s image and not a positive set of characteristics then nobody can fall short of this definition and nobody can be reduced to her diagnosis. The downside, however, is that in more practical contexts, such as pre-natal screening or abortion, a positive account of personhood can be actually very useful. The third conception of personhood as relational and Eucharistic belongs to the metropolitan John Zizioulas. Zizioulas defines the person as a being free from all necessity including that of its own nature. In this sense, only God is a person because only God is not determined by anything else, not even His own nature. Human beings are not persons but individuals existing according to their physical and biological characteristics, submitted to death, and repetition. To raise above their condition and become persons, the individuals have to enter in relation with the Trinitarian God who possesses personhood. The basis of this relationship between God and humans was established at the Incarnation and is continued by the Church, through Baptism and Eucharist. This relational definition of personhood has been found extremely helpful by certain disability theologians. Hans Reinders uses it against those who consider that human beings become persons only when they act in a way that fulfils certain social expectations. Starting from Zizioulas’ vision, Reinders argues that personhood is a gift from God that has nothing to do with one’s capacities or potentialities. What Reinders does not mention, however, is that if Zizioulas logic is taken to its conclusions, then the persons with cognitive disabilities who, without a fault of their own, are born in non Christian families and are not baptised remain individuals. Personhood begins only at the door of the Church. The last perspective on personhood might be called the classical one and it sees not difference between the concepts of individual and persons. It has been recently stated polemically against John Zizioulas by Jean Claude Larchet, but it can also be found in a more irenic key in the theology of Dumitru Stăniloae. According to this view a person is just another member of a specie. Paul is a persons not because he was baptised or because of his asceticism, but because he is born of human parents. This classical view is beneficial in any bioethical debate, because it draws very clear lines. All human beings are persons and should be treated as such, even if we are talking about an embryo or someone in profound coma. The downside is that in most cases this definition of personhood is accompanied by references to rationality, self-consciousness or even freedom. Certain passages from Stăniloae’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology can be easily read in this way. Consequently, it can be interpreted that anyone who has diminished cognitive capacities has also diminished personhood. The solution I would argue for is conceiving personhood in the framework of Stăniloae’s cosmic dialogue between God and the world. Personhood, I would suggest, refers to the human hypostasis that bears witness to God’s dialogical engagement with humankind not through a certain action, but through the mystery of her being. For Stăniloae, the entire humankind has been created to be God’s dialogical partner. This dialogue is meant to be fulfilled through moral responsibility and the transfiguration of creation into a place for communion and love. Those who refuse to reply to God’s call do not lose their status, nor is this status dependent on their ability to act in a certain way. New born babies are still considered God’s dialogical partners. Of course, it can be objected that a dialogical partner who does not fulfil her role is less of a dialogical partner and by syllogism less of a person. To this I would reply that since God’s dialogue takes place with the entirety of humankind in Christ, then the status of dialogical partner refers not to one’s ability to act, but to that of witnessing to others God’s call for this dialogue and this witnessing happens especially in reference to the apophatic mystery of being that persons with disabilities unveil to us more often than others. To summarise, it can be said that despite its incredibly rich theology of personhood, modern Orthodox theology has neglected persons with cognitive disabilities. The four conceptions of personhood I have identified so far have their own strengths and weaknesses and I suggested a definition of personhood that would synthesise most of their strengths, by mixing the hypostatic and the apophatic views on personhood and then placing them in the framework of the world as a dialogue with God. This suggestion is of course in its infancy and should be developed more. Hopefully, it will look appealing enough to other theologians in order to engage it constructively. [1] This text was first published in Romanian on the website

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