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Personalism in theology


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor at School of Theology

Perhaps personalism is the philosophical movement with the greatest impact on theology in the twentieth century. A few but important ideas about the relational aspect of persons influenced almost all theological treatises. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with many nuances and exceptions, it can be said that the dominant Philosophy in Catholic circles was Thomism. And the strong point of this Philosophy was metaphysics, that is, the doctrine of being. 

Metaphysics of being

It is an important doctrine within Christianity that confesses a creator God, supreme being that makes from nothing other beings that are not part of Him. They have their own and real consistency, but they are not self-explanatory and contingent. This underlies both the demonstrations of the existence of God and the analogy, which allows us to attribute to God, as ultimate cause, the perfections of creatures and especially of the human being, "image of God". 

This "metaphysics of being" received a valuable impulse in the twentieth century with the work of Gilson (1884-1978) and what he called the "metaphysics of the Exodus," inspired by the declaration of God himself "I am who I am" and by his Name, Yahweh (Ex 3:14-16); with that Hebrew form so close to the word "is". Truly, God is "he who is". A powerful affirmation and difficult to answer, even if it does not always please the exegetes, who tend to prefer less philosophical translations. 

Moreover, in parallel, during the twentieth century this metaphysics of being was completed by various philosophical inspirations with what could be called a metaphysics of the person. In reality, this is a small set of ideas, but since they highlight a capital aspect (the relationality of persons), they have had repercussions on almost all aspects of theology. 

Common inspirations

More than a single line, it is a confluence of thoughts, caused by the common ideological status . After World War I, in addition to a strong inclination towards scientific materialism, there was a fierce confrontation between communist movements and societies and liberal thoughts and regimes. Classical liberals and capitalists were accused of creating a classist and exploitative society model which, with its industrial revolution, had led many to uprooting and poverty (proletariat). The communists, for their part, as soon as they could, created police states, supposedly egalitarian, where enlightened minorities trampled unashamedly on the most fundamental freedoms of the people. 

Very different authors, with Christian or Jewish inspiration, perceived then that, in reality, there were two opposing anthropologies that needed to be corrected, balanced and overcome. In order to do so, it was necessary to understand in depth what a person is, as defined by the Christian theological and philosophical tradition. 

Three currents converged, almost contemporaneously. In the first place, what we could call "French personalists", starting with Maritain. Secondly, the "philosophers of dialogue" with Ebner as their inspiration and Martin Buber as the best known. Thirdly, several authors of the first group of phenomenologists that surrounded Husserl, especially Edith Stein, Max Scheler and Von Hildebrand; they are often called the "Göttingen Circle". 

The personalism of Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) is probably the most important Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century, both for his pathway staff , as well as for the extent of his work and his wide influence. 

Faced with the dilemma we have described, between an unsupportive individualism and an overwhelming socialism, Maritain recalled the definition that St. Thomas offers of the Trinitarian persons as "subsistent relationship". Each divine person exists for and in relation to the others. And, although not in the same way, relationship also belongs to the essence or definition of the human being. The human being is both a distinct individual with his material needs and a spiritual person who grows in relationship with God and with others. And so he is fulfilled. This idea would directly influence the political attempts of Emmanuel Mounier, and the personalist thought of Maurice Nédoncelle, The Reciprocity of Consciences. And it would rebound in all fields of theology.  

I and you, by Martin Buber

The inspirer of this current, often called "Philosophy of dialogue", is a modest Austrian teacher, Ferdinand Ebner (1882-1931), in love with the Gospel of St. John (the Word made flesh), who used this vocabulary and developed it in his book The Word and Spiritual Realities ( 1921). But the great disseminator was the Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, with his book I and Thou (1923). We celebrate the centenary.

Like Ebner, Buber put together a series of loose reflections, with a certain poetic and evocative air, which have the virtue of highlighting the importance that relationship has for the human being. A different relationship with things (it) than with people (you). With its aspiration to the fullness of knowledge and love that can only be given in the relationship with God (the eternal You), but which is longed for in every authentically human relationship. Buber had a great influence on Guardini and, later, on the Protestant theologian Emil Brunner and Von Balthasar, and with them on all the theology of the twentieth century. 

The phenomenologists of the Göttingen Circle

It is a less localized influence. Those first philosophers who followed Husserl focused on the fundamental experiences of the human being. And among them, the most proper to people, knowledge and love. Edith Stein (1891-1942) did her thesis on Empathy (1917), i.e. the capacity of the human being to recognize the other as other, while at the same time attuning with him. Max Scheler (1874-1928) expanded on the Essence and Forms of Sympathy (1923). For his part, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), disciple and friend of Scheler, would focus on The Metaphysics of Community (1930) and later on The Essence of Love (1971); he would also study the change of attitudes that occur in the person when assuming a truth. 

With a long chain, many of these ideas reached Karol Wojtyła (1920-2005), and would receive the impact of his personality, especially after he was elected Pope (1978-2005) and developed his theology of the body and of love. Also his idea of the "rule personalist": the dignity of persons, as Kant pointed out, means that they cannot be treated only as a means, but at the same time and always as an end; moreover, Christianly, they always deserve love. For John Paul II, love staff, called for by Christ, is the proper way to treat a person, because it is how God treats him or her. Anyone can refuse to reciprocate that love (it will be hell), but it is what he aspires to from the depths of his being and what he is made for, and what is most definitive of his personality. 

Theological influences on Moral

It is evident that these ideas renewed, in the first place, theological anthropology. And immediately morality. The main German inspirers of the renewal of morality towards the following of Christ, such as Fritz Tillmann (1874-1953) and Theodor Steinbüchel (1888-1949), were well acquainted with and inspired, respectively, by the thought of Scheler and Ebner.

For his part, John Paul II, who had done his doctoral thesis on Scheler, in addition to anthropology, influenced important themes of fundamental morality (conscience and God) and human fulfillment in love. 

The understanding of the human being as a being called to a relationship with others and with God naturally connects with the two main Christian commandments, which form like a cross, with their vertical towards God and their horizontal towards others. And which are fully realized in the heart of Christ. This double commandment of love staff is the main aspect of the growth of persons, the main virtue. And, therefore, the axis of Christian conduct, posed positively and not as a mere avoidance of sin. Thus we pass from a morality of sins to a morality of fullness, ordering also the morality of virtues that only in part we share with the Stoics, since the Christian reference letter is the donation in love. 

Eschatology and the Christian idea of the soul

Thinking of human beings not only as beings dear to God, but as persons called to an eternal relationship with Him, also gives a new coloring to the Christian idea of the soul. The human soul is not just a spiritual monad that lasts eternally because it has no subject. 

This Platonic view can be accepted, when the human being is observed "from below". But the complete perspective is theological, from the perspective of God the Creator, and for this reason the argument must be turned around. The human being is spiritual, capable of knowing and loving, precisely because he has been destined from his origin to an eternal relationship with God. The foundation of his eternal existence lies in this vocation to meeting with God. This affects everything that refers to eschatology staff. And Joseph Ratzinger took this very much into account when he elaborated his small and beautiful guide of Eschatology. 

In Ecclesiology

In ecclesiology, too, this personalist approach was immediately connected with fundamental aspects. The Church is, above all, a mystical phenomenon of "communion of persons": it is "communion of saints", communion of Christians in holy things; or as the very name of the Church indicates(ekklesía), it is the assembly called together to honor God. That mystical union among human beings is caused by the Trinity and, at the same time, is a privileged image of it. And it results in a certain expansion and participation in the Trinitarian communion by the action staff of the Holy Spirit, who unites the divine persons of the Father and the Son, and, in another way, incorporates the human persons into that communion. On the other hand, the idea of "communion" also connects with that of covenant: every human being is constitutively called, from his origin, to a covenant staff with God that is realized in the Church. 

In Christology

For a Christian, Christ is the model of being human, the image that must be realized in each person. For this reason, the new ideas eventually influenced Christology and then flowed into anthropology. Influenced first by Buber and then by Von Balthasar, Heinz Schürmann (1913-1999), for many years professor of Catholic Exegesis in Erfurt (then East Germany, under communist rule), presented the life of Jesus Christ as a pro-existence: a living for others, or on behalf of others. Since he also had a strong spiritual sense, he showed that this "pro-existence" is the purpose of the Christian life as an imitation of Christ. The well-reasoned proposal was well received. Among others, by Joseph Ratzinger, who contributed to its expansion (also in Jesus of Nazareth). 

In the Trinitarian doctrine

Precisely because the human being is "image of God" a better knowledge of what is the divine person leads us to recognize the importance of the relationship (first with God) in the realization of the human person. 

But it also happens that a greater awareness of the meaning of relationship, love and communion of persons leads us to see the Trinity in a much more "personalistic" way, completing the metaphysical aspects. It is true that God is One and Being, but He is also communion of Persons in knowledge and love. And it is very inspiring that the summit of reality, the absolute Being, is not a transcendent monad or an immobile motor, but the living communion of the divine Persons. Mystery in which, as we have said, we are called to participate. This perspective gives a much more vital and attractive tone to the treatise on the Trinity. 

Fecundity and discomfort

This quick review will suffice to show the theological fruitfulness of these few but important ideas. They allowed Christian thought to position itself against the great models of political Philosophy , and also against the growing reductionism to which many were pushed by the best scientific knowledge of the subject and the fact of knowing that everything is made of the same thing and comes from the same thing. It was and is very necessary to give to this kind of metaphysical materialism a personalist counterweight that contemplates the human being from above, from the spiritual, as the only way to explain his intelligence and freedom and his aspiration to knowledge, justice, beauty and love. 

Like other legitimate currents of 20th century theology, personalism was received with antipathy in some of the stricter Thomistic circles. Perhaps because of an understandable "defense of territories". As if one theology competed with another, when it should be done as the "sum" of all that is good, and so it was in St. Thomas. But antipathy turned to suspicion, even though these new ideas had so many and such clear connections with such themes of St. Thomas as the person in the Trinity, creation by the loving will of God, existence staff as the fruit of God's love, and the eternal destiny of contemplation to which humans are called. 

Some who inherited this suspicion still defend that this "personalism" is one of the intellectual causes of the crisis of the Church in the 20th century. The crisis, of course, cannot be denied, but if the diagnosis is not correct, the solution cannot be correct. It is an untenable judgment historically, as well as an injustice in valuing other honest intellectuals. The past cannot be remade, but the future can be made with the means we have. First, the grace and help of God, and also the spiritual, intellectual and moral treasures that he has raised in his Church.