This is a guest post by Homestead: Theatre of Words.
All that is pressing in politics, religion and art arises from a single question: What is it to be human? There is no final answer and no possible end to asking the question. The more we know of ourselves, and the more we respond to that knowledge, the more mysterious we become. The Bible tells us within its opening verses that to be human is to be made in the image of God; the thousands upon thousands of verses that follow set out to show us some of what that may mean, and they close with yet a new creation.
Second to that question is this: what is to be a particular human? What is it to be you? To be a person?
This is not abstract anthropology. The way we grasp the nature of personhood has endless ramifications. If a person is a fragment and possession of a society, then he can be used differently and will think of himself differently than if a person is a discreet self capable of free will and possessed by no one but equipped to give his loyalty wheresoever he will. Among other things, we today are beginning to understand a person as an expression of a sexual behaviour, as though the behaviour is true and the person merely a part of it. This is how we think, for example, of homosexuals (once ‘homosexual’ referred to a type of act, not to a type of man). In the same way, we often think of a person as an expression of a ‘meme,’ rather than the ‘meme’ being something that a person thinks. These issues make up a concrete anthropology.
This is an anthropology that is particular to our lives. We know the people that surround us as persons. How we understand ‘person’ is critical, because it will affect how we treat our spouses, our children, our neighbours, our fellows and our enemies. It will determine our religious behaviour, our politics and our artistry.
The New Testament was written in and tells of a time in which the pagan idea of a person – as a fragment of society – was giving way to a new idea – that a person was free-willing, self-recognizant and owned by himself alone and thereby free to enter into relationships. This latter idea has received many subtle reflections and retellings since. Among the most acute is found in The Dobell Poems by Thomas Traherne.
Traherne was an Anglican priest serving in England during the Restoration. For the latter part of his ministry, he was chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, The Keeper of the Great Seal under King Charles II. He died young and passed into obscurity until his writings were rediscovered from the late 19th century onward. Now, he is regarded as a rich theologian, a challenging poet and a profound mystic. None of his poetry was printed in his lifetime – his manuscripts have been found in the oddest of places: in the backs of old cupboards, misfiled among the papers of various other families and even, dramatically, burning on a rubbish heap. Much of this work had been edited, with varying degrees of fidelity, by his executors. The Dobell Poems, however, exist in his own hand and are therefore regarded as authoritative where much of the other manuscript material is suspect. (‘Dobell’ refers to the antiquarian who first identified Traherne as the author.)
The lyrics in The Dobell Poems make up a complex accounting of personhood that depends first upon the experience of awareness.
Traherne takes us to the mind of a child that knows nothing except for wonder at what he sees: “The earth, the seas, the light, the day, the skies,/The sun and stars are mine…” This is Traherne’s central idea, and was probably the most profound of all his emotional experiences. He refers all his doctrine to the vision of a child looking in innocence and love upon an infinitely wonderful world. It gives him his images for salvation, for purity, for heaven and, in the negative, for the fall and for death: “Only what Adam in his first estate/Did I behold…”
God addresses himself to the child:
Those thoughts His goodness long before
Prepar’d as precious and celestial store,
With curious art in me inlaid,
That childhood might itself alone be said
My tutor, teacher, guide to be,
Instructed then even by the Deity.
The child has two profound experiences: he discovers his spirit (his mind) and he meets God. He sees that his spirit is in the image of God, and in this act of grace he discovers that he is a person.
When he falls, it is from this state that he falls. Later, God reaches him by grace and teaches him through his earlier, childhood experiences what it is to be prayerful and godly and brings him to the point at which he can accept salvation. Life becomes an act of prayer in which blessing circulates from God into the saved man, who gives it back to God as worship and thanksgiving.
In this new state of blessedness, the man, now fully a person, looks out upon the world and sees it as if from a centre. All is for him. But he sees, too, that all the people around him are also persons, are also at the centre of the world, and also enjoy the fullness of creation as being ‘all for them.’ In their joy, he receives his final and greatest earthly joy.
The bliss of other men is my delight
(When once my principles are right):
And every soul which mine doth see
The face of God is goodness unto all,
And while He thousands to His throne doth call,
While millions bathe in pleasures,
And do behold his treasures,
The joys of all
On mine do fall
And even my infinity doth seem
A drop, without them, of a mean esteem.
This, then, is Traherne’s anthropology. The person, in the graceful knowledge of himself as an image of God, a fully self-aware and self-recognizant individual, is found at its fullest participating in the joy of all people.