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Alice von Hildebrand

A short excursion into the metaphysics of the person

Jul. 6, 2009, at 2:51pm

To begin to answer to the question below, let me take a short excursion into metaphysics.

When we examine “Being” philosophically, we see that the first crucial divide is the one between Creator and creatures. On the one hand, Absolute Being, Infinite Perfection, on the other: metaphysical dependence and contingency. No creature can account for its own existence; it was God’s gift. The second most radical divide is between personal and non-personal being. On one side, we have the Absolute Person, God, but also angels and human beings. On the other, all impersonal creatures: animals, plans, rocks and minerals.

I recall once hearing Cardinal Schonborne give a talk on evolution in which he mentioned that the difference between a chimpanzee’s DNA and ours is minimal, but this “insignificant” difference is the abyss between someone who can say I, somethone who can pray, someone who can love another not because of needs, but because of his beauty and goodness. Because man has an immortal soul, every single organ of his body is elevated to a totally different level. This is why an eagle’s superb eye sight does not perceive and therefore cannot contemplate beauty. This is why the amazing sensitivity of dogs to “decibels” does not enable them to be moved to tears by sublime music.

When God created Adam and Eve, He made them kings of creation. They were masters over material nature. Nature was to feed them, and provide for their needs. All impersonal creatures were given to serve human ends (which of course, does not mean that this ownership could not be abused—something which happened, alas, after original sin).

Because of his dignity as a person, man can never be used as a mere instrument, a mere tool whose purpose is to “serve” others, as if he were a lemon that can be squeezed and its rind discarded. This is so true that God respects human freedom—taking the “risk” that men might abuse this freedom.
This was Kant’s great insight when he defined a person as a being who is an end in himself, never to be used as a mere means.

But from this, we should not draw the conclusion that man is his own end. Man, being an imperfect creature cannot be his own “fulfillment”. To be person is to be called to be in communion with others. Animals “flock” together. Man is called to love—which is not an instinct, but a sign of his nobility and capacity to transcend himself. He is called, primarily, to be in communion with His Creator, through adoration, praise, gratitude. He is called upon to “love his neighbors”—persons like himself made to God’s image and existence. By transcending himself, he fully finds himself.

To suppose that man “does not need” anything beside his own being, is to forget that he is but a frail and imperfect creature. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” (St. Augustine, Confession I, 1)


Warriorlover • Jul 7, 2009 - 9:52 am

Thankyou for your kind response!

To be honest i am still not quite satisfied! I don’t like the word ‘imperfect.’ If God is all perfect how can He create us to be imperfect? I don’t know what is actually trying to conveyed by calling persons imperfect. Doesn’t it diminish the dignity my being a person made in the mage and likeness of God? To be imperfect says to me that God is showing how powerless I am instead allowing me to share in His divinity and work of salvation.

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 7, 2009 - 10:25 am

Maybe it would help if you don’t think of “imperfect” as flawed, but rather as lacking in fulness.  We are of course flawed by sin, but that comes from us, not God.  A good and beautiful image does not have the same fulness of being that belongs to the one it images.  But there is no shame in not being God.  Our creatureliness, our dependence on Him and our impotence in relation to Him is the glory, not the disgrace of human persons. Don’t you agree?

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 7, 2009 - 4:02 pm

Warriorlover, here is another thought, which I get mainly from Karol Wojtyla, JP II:
In essence our dignity as persons comes from our being made in God’s image and likeness.  And what is God but a union and communion of love among three Persons?  Hence, we image Him fully not in our rational self-standing, but when we live in a union and communion of love with others.
Theology of the body in a thumbnail is that In our maleness and femaleness the incompleteness-in-itself of our being, our made-for-otherness, is made manifest.  We discern in our flesh a CALL to give ourselves to others in love.
In persons the incompleteness cannot be fulfilled with a mere bodily coupling.  For us, it has to be a free, that is, a fully personal, gift of love.
The total self-giving and other-receiving of spousal love is, then, a kind of paradigm for all acts of love.  All (if they are authentic) involve in a degree an other-receiving and a self-giving.
Am I making sense?

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 7, 2009 - 4:04 pm

I had meant to add to my comment above this quote from the encyclical released by B XVI just today, which points again to love being at the very center of our nature and dignity as persons:

“Charity is love received and given. It is “grace” (cháris). Its source is the wellspring of the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son. It is creative love, through which we have our being; it is redemptive love, through which we are recreated. Love is revealed and made present by Christ (cf. Jn 13:1) and “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity.”

Warriorlover • Jul 7, 2009 - 9:15 pm

It’s all starting to make sense! Especially when you said that we can only Image God fully in relationships of cummunion.

There are two things that come up though! First I feel Jesus becomes non-personal when He becomes bread to feed us in His flesh.

The other problem I have is with the words of Pope Ben quoted in your previous post,

“As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity.”

I dont like the words ‘objects’ and ‘instruments’ its quite impersonal and reveal a God who uses persons. Do you know what i mean?

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 8, 2009 - 10:30 am

I share your sensitivity to depersonalizing language.  I remember protesting a prayer of consecration to Mary that was recited daily at my childrens’ school because it included the line “make me your property and possession.”  That seemed to me all unfitting, when God Himself has said to us, “I no longer call you slaves, but friends.”
But in this case, I have no difficulty.  The Pope uses the term “object” in a technical sense to indicate that we are on the receiving end of the love.  Think of it like grammar.  In the sentence, “That dog bit me,” I am the object of the action, while the dog is the subject.  But that doesn’t change the fact that, metaphysically and ethically speaking, I am a person, a self, a subject, while the dog is not.
The Pope is saying that our receiving of God’s love renders us lovers, givers and doers of love.  This is eminently personalistic.  The term “instrument” there is clearly metaphorical and implies no illegitimate objectification.  God can not objectify us for two reasons: First, because He is the Author of our being.  He made us and we belong to Him.  And secondly because He respects our freedom.  He addresses us as free and responsible persons.  He doesn’t force us to do what He wants, but issues calls and invitations.  And we find that the more we conform to Him and His will, the more we flourish precisely in our personhood.  Who in human history can match the freedom and moral power and dignity of the saints?

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 8, 2009 - 10:58 pm

A friend reminds me that #7 of John F. Crosby’s series on personalism in Lay Witness Magazine, linked to the right above, addresses the question of the call to communion and self-giving.

EDIT: to make it easier for those interested, here’s the link to Crosby’s article: http://www.thepersonalistproject.org/...

Warriorlover • Jul 9, 2009 - 9:34 am

I know this sounds crazy but I feel Jesus becomes non-personal when Jesus becomes bread for us to eat. It’s as if he lowers Himself. Do you know what I mean?

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 9, 2009 - 11:25 am

I’m not sure I do. 
Of course, He doesn’t cease to be person when he becomes our Bread.  He is rather mysteriously and bodily giving Himself to us, and assimilating us into His own divine life. 
Notice the close analogy with the conjugal union, whereby the spouses become “one flesh.” 
Lovers often express their love and desire for a deeper and fuller union in eating metaphors.  They can’t help wanting to take each other into each other, to become thoroughly INCORPORATED with one another, in a way that is not possible, bodily, in this world.
But somehow the Holy Eucharist accomplishes it in our union with Christ.  We consume without destroying Him. His personhood, His mystical body remains alive and intact.  He enters us and takes us into Himself.  It couldn’t be more intimate.

It bears repeating that JP II defined love as “the unification of persons.”  Because human persons are incarnated in a body, our unification has to be a bodily one, ultimately anyway.

But I feel how drastically out of my depth I am here, and how easily I might say something that turns out to be off mark.

Warriorlover • Jul 9, 2009 - 10:09 pm

Thanks so much for your patience! My understanding of love has reached a new depth in my faith. I guess we will never know completely in this life since we only see darkly in a mirror.
Thankyou again
peace in Christ!

Teresa Manidis • Jul 9, 2009 - 8:27 pm

Reading along and you seem quite truly on the mark.

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