Are we persons, or do we have personalities?

The distinction seems trivial, but in fact cuts to the very core of our (theological) anthropology. In an excursus in Resurrection and Moral Order,, O’Donovan writes:

In modern idealism the term ‘person’ has lost the very element which once made it important for Christian thought, and is reduced once again to expressing an individuality which is rooted in generic attributes, either in ‘rational nature’ (Kant) or in ‘personality’ (Hegel). (The abstract form of the noun ‘personality’, replacing the concrete ‘person’, confirms this shift of understanding.) What the particular features of these attributes are varies from thinker to thinker; but usually they have to do with the exercise of reason, will and self-consciousness. It is, in fact, a return within the parameters of the pre-Christian conception of individual humanity as nous (mind). What is meant by ‘respect for persons’ is a regard for the highest form of being as it achieves concrete existence in individual humans. Kant’s famous formulation of the categorical imperative in its second form, bidding us to treat ‘rational nature’ as an end in itself ‘whether in your own person or in that of another’ ( Groundwork 429), presents an exact formal contrast with the formula ‘one person in two natures’. For the modern, as for the pre-Christian, world, individuality is the form in which rational nature exists. For the classical Christian world, on the other hand, rational nature is the mode in which the individual exists. It is not surprising, then, that for all the apparent seriousness with which the modern world has taken the human person, it has been constantly seduced by enterprises of totalitarian utility which subordinate the individual to the quantitative and qualitative betterment of a homogenized realm of personality.

In other words, O’Donovan contends that the individual person is more basic, more fundamental than what constitutes him. If persons is a more fundamental category, than ‘Respect for persons’ extends to those who do not, for instance, display ‘rational natures’ (such as those who are comatose, for instance).

What’s intriguing, however, is O’Donovan’s claim about the effects of making ‘personality’ the dominant paradigm through which we view humans. His claim that it tends to result in “totalitarian utility” which “subordinates the individual to… a homogenized realm of personality” initially made me think of viewing man as strictly an economic producer, as is so pervasive in modern thought (capitalism and communism are both guilty of this).

But one could just as easily point to the homogenization of the “Single Young Female” as exemplary of this sort of “totalitarian utility” that judges young women on whether they have adopted the “lifestyle.” A better example, perhaps, might be the modern dating culture, which understands the decree, “They’re not my type” to be a defeater for any possibility of relationship. The phrase imposes a standard of personality upon the world to which desirous suiters must conform (a standard which is less diverse than it initially seems, as a quick glance at womens’ profiles on dating websites reveals).

If O’Donovan is correct, the totalitarian presence of “personality” is deeply problematic for Christians who wish to have a thoroughly Christian worldview.

Exit question: to what extent has this mistaken notion influenced our Church and Christian leadership cultures?*

*HT to Hot Air for the “Exit Question” idea.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.