The Personalist Project

Member Peter asks a question that deserves an answer:

Can someone please explain to me how the personalist project concludes that no other persons besides Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons? 

He is referring to the essay laying out our sense of personalism composed at our request by John Crosby. It includes the following paragraph:

According to our personalism, this sense of personal existence has emerged in the encounter with the living God of Judeo-Christian revelation. It can be sustained and deepened only by continuing to live in this encounter. Those who repudiate God cannot preserve the personalist affirmation of the incomparable worth of each person, though they may for a time live by the light of a setting sun. Nietzsche understood this; he understood that, once God is dead, we are at liberty to acknowledge real worth only in a few human beings of exceptional quality and to contrast these with the vast run of deficient and misbegotten human beings, whom we are at liberty to scorn as having relatively little worth. Only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.

When I first read this paragraph, I balked a little. I was afraid it bordered on fideism  and sounded offensively arrogant. But the longer I sat with it, the more uncontestably true it seemed to me, and then the idea of leaving it out seemed to come from fear and false modesty (which is arrogance in disguise.) So, it stayed in.

Does anyone want to dispute it? If so, on what grounds? Is it not true that personalism, in the sense we use the term here, emerged, as a matter of historical record, in the encounter with the living God of Judeo-Christian revelation? The western concept of "person" came from the Christological debates of the early Church, and developed in and through the theological, philosophical and legal traditions of Christendom.

Does any other religion have anything that compares to it, either in their doctrines or the legal tradition of their societies?

And while individuals who are not Jews or Christians (having benefitted from Revelation nonetheless) may grant the truth of such claims as

- Every person is absolutely unique and of incomparable worth and value

- A person is an end in himself, never to be used as a mere means

- A person is created for his own sake, and in such a way that he can only fulfill himself by making a sincere gift of himself in love

they will have difficulty justifying and sustaining those claims conceptually, without granting such things as the existence of an Absolute Being who is a Person in whose image we are made.

It should be clear to anyone who attends a little to the underlying metaphysics that only absolute being can ground moral absolutes. Likewise, "Personhood" is what is known in philosophy as a "pure perfection", viz, the kind—like Beauty and Justice and Love—that belongs by its essence to the Absolute Being. Love, by its essence is interpersonal.

And then there is moral experience. In the experience of conscience, for instance, we find, as Newman shows, not just Law, but a Lawgiver. We find that the roots of our being as persons are mysteriously not in ourselves, but beyond ourselves. We find that the way of life we are meant to live as persons is beyond our power. We find that we only fully flourish as persons when we live in conscious relation to God. And we find all this confirmed in the witness of the saints, as well as countless negative examples of the moral effects of the rejection of God. It evidently leads, inexorably, to contempt for individual persons. (Where is the atheistic society that embodies respect for individual rights?)

I am being horribly piecemeal and cursory, I realize. But that's the benefit of blogging, isn't it? We can be piecemeal and cursory and still say something that might be helpful to someone, somewhere, or that at least might serve to get a conversation off the ground.

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Comments (20)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Oct 13, 2014 10:37am

I agree, Katie and Peter, that this is a good question that deserves a more thorough answer. Perhaps we can find some good readings on the topic.

For now, I would just like to emphasize the element of "encounter" that is present in Judaism and Christianity.  The "I-Thou" relation here is shown to be not merely temporal and relative, something which will eventually be absorbed by a more ultimate reality. The face to face encounter between persons is part of the deepest and most ultimate reality.

Also, it seems clear that the infinite worth we discover in finite persons, must in some way flow from an infinite God. It is not just a matter of being created by God, like plants and rocks, but of being called into being by God. This call is ongoing. We are continually addressed by, held accountable by, loved by, and esteemed by God.

That last word, esteem, does not apply, as far as I can tell, to the Islamic conception of God's relationship to human beings. That explains why it is not included with Judaim and Christianity as a religious soil in which genuine personalism can develop and thrive.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Oct 13, 2014 11:48am

Thanks, Jules. That's a much more satisfying way of putting it.

I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible ultimately, to maintain and live from a conviction that every person, no matter how apparently unlovable, is worthy of love and destined for love without a lived experience of ourselves as infinitely loved.

Peter

#3, Oct 13, 2014 7:03pm

Jules, I really like this idea:

"For now, I would just like to emphasize the element of "encounter" that is present in Judaism and Christianity.  The "I-Thou" relation here is shown to be not merely temporal and relative, something which will eventually be absorbed by a more ultimate reality. The face to face encounter between persons is part of the deepest and most ultimate reality."

When we can see ourself in the face of another and treat them lovingly as we would ourself, we are encountering the One True Personality.

But I have some qualms with counting any one person or spiritual tradition out of attaining Personhood.  But before I get to that, I would like to address the paragraph referenced above that lays out your sense of personalism.  

Katie, it seems that their are two arguments in the paragraph referenced above which as stated are not straight forward and are jumbled together.  I arrived at these arguments by parsing them out in aristotelian fasion.  I would like to see if you agree with me that these are the arguments being proposed in the paragraph.

Please forgive the rigidity of this presentation as I will post the arguments below:

Peter

#4, Oct 13, 2014 7:15pm

Argument #1

Premise 1:

Jews and Christians have been availed a certain kind of personalism.  True

Premise 2:

This certain kind of personalism was availed to Jews and Christians as it emerged in the encounter with the living God of Judeo-Christian revelation.  True

Conclusion:

Therefore, this certain kind of personalism can be sustained and deepened only by continuing to live in this encounter.  True

 

Argument #2

Premise 1:

Jews and Christians are the only persons to have encountered God’s revelation of Himself through the living God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  True

Premise 2:

Persons who have encountered God’s revelation of Himself are persons who have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.  True

Conclusion:

Therefore, Jews and Christians are the only persons who have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.  False

The conclusion of argument #2 is false because even though Jews and Christians are the only persons to have encountered God's revelation of Himself through the living God of the Judeo-Christian tradition there are persons who have encountered the living God of their own traditions and therefore have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.

Peter

#5, Oct 13, 2014 7:27pm

Here is a final argument that is not directly related to the paragraph, but that substantiates the conclusion of Argument #2.  This argument concludes that any person who is faithful and observant to the One True God may recognize Personhood:

Argument #3 

Premise 1:

Personhood is an absolute attribute of the One True God.  True

Premise 2:

Personhood is recognized by persons by virtue of their encounter with the One True God’s revelation of Himself.  True

Premise 3:

Any person who is faithful and observant to the One True God may encounter the One True God’s revelation of Himself.  True

Conclusion:

Therefore, any person who is faithful and observant to the One True God may recognize Personhood.  True

Peter

#6, Oct 13, 2014 7:44pm

I would like to correct the following sentence from comment box #5:

"Here is a final argument that is not directly related to the paragraph, but that substantiates the conclusion of Argument #2.  This argument concludes that any person who is faithful and observant to the One True God may recognize Personhood:"

The sentence should read:

"Here is a final argument that is not directly related to the paragraph, but that substantiates the falsity of the conclusion arrived at in the referenced paragraph of Argument #2.  This argument concludes that any person who is faithful and observant to the One True God may recognize Personhood:"

Thanks for your time in re-reading this.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Oct 13, 2014 7:47pm

Peter, I agree with you that my argument was jumbled. But I can't say I recognize my meaning in your retelling of it.

Can you point to non-Judeo Christian traditions that acknowledge both conceptually and in practice the unconditional worth of all human persons as individuals?

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Oct 13, 2014 8:23pm

Maybe it would help if I add that statement in manifesto isn't meant to be taken as a syllogism. It isn't strict conclusion from indubitable premises. It's more like an insight or an observation into the way things are.

To challenge it then, I would be good if you could provide counter-examples.

Peter

#9, Oct 13, 2014 9:22pm

I goofed on Argument #2.

Argument #2 as it appears in the referenced paragraph should read:

Argument #2

Premise 1:

Persons who have encountered God’s revelation of Himself are the only persons who have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.  True

Premise 2:

Jews and Christians are the only persons to have encountered God’s revelation of Himself.  False

Conclusion:

Therefore, Jews and Christians are the only persons who have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.  False


The conclusion is False because it is assumed in the referenced paragraph that Jews and Christians are the only persons to have encountered God's revelation of Himself.

This is important because by making this false assumption the author of the paragraph concludes that only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all persons.

Peter

#10, Oct 13, 2014 9:37pm

The reason I write it in syllogistic form is because you have a written paragraph explaining circumstances that lead to a conclusive statement.  I think its important to evaluate these claims as they are written in order to uncover unclear thinking.  Please look at my arguments and see if they make sense now.  Argument #1 and Argument #2 (revised).  Please let me know if these are the arguments used to make the conclusion:  Jews and Christians are the only persons who have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.  That is a strong statement and needs clarification as to how you arrived at it.  I goofed on the first round on Argument #2.  I corrected it.  That should not be grounds for throwing these arguments out the window.

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Oct 14, 2014 9:10am

Here is how I would express my premises:

1. Personalism emerged historically from the encounter with judeo/christian religious experience and doctrine.

2. Personalism thrives within that tradition

3. No other tradition has the conceptual framework to sustain it.

4. No other tradition centers both doctrinally and experientially on the mystery of human life as made in the Image and Likeness of God and called to a communion of love with Him.

5. The religious combination of doctrine and experience nourishes in the judeo/christian tradition, constantly deepens and sustains the personalist understanding of and approach to human life.

6. Personalists experience in themselves the necessity of that religious orientation for setting the parameters and grounding the experience of the incomparable worth of persons.

7. When we look around, we see that philoosphical personalists are all Jews or Christians.

8. We see that prime insights of personalism (such as that each individual is of incomparable worth and dignity) are rejected by the other major religions and by atheistic materialism.

9. We see that in the post-judeo/christian culture of the secular world in which we live, the sense of the incomparable dignity of the person has been lost.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Oct 14, 2014 9:19am

Those are some of the premises, or rather, a sketch of some of the premises, on which I base the conclusion that leads me to agree with the claim I first heard from John Crosby, viz. that only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to grasp, appreciate and develop a personalist approach to human life.

None of this is to suggest that a non-believer can't have an individual experience of God's love that might lead him to conclude that human life is infinitely precious. But such an experience is not enough to sustain a demanding philosophical enterprise.

For that, a conceptual framework is wanted—an intellectual tradition—as well as a religious mode of nourishing the experience in the regular encounter with the God who is the ground of our being.

And not just any tradition or religious practice will do. It has to be one that maintains the particular truths in question.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Oct 14, 2014 7:52pm

I just came up this passage in Roger Scruton's Soul of the World, which seems to me apropos somehow.

Whatever we think of the evolutionary significance of religious belief, and its role in natural selection, we should recognize that there is another and far more transparent function that religion seems to perform: the maintenance of the life of the person. Every aspect of religious belief and obedience contributes to this. Religions focus and amplify the moral sense; they ring-fence those aspects of life in which personal responsibilities are rooted—notably sex, family, territory, and law. They feed into the distinctively human emotions, like hope and charity, which lift us above the motives that rule the lives of other animals, and cause us to live by culture and not by instinct.

I think it goes without saying that not all religions do this equally well. Insofar as a religious doctrine is false, for instance, it can serve to distort or constrict the moral sense, rather than amplify it.

Peter

#14, Oct 14, 2014 9:07pm

In the paragraph I am talking about that is in your essay laying out your sense of personalism you say that  "Only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth of all human persons." which I believe to be false.  I see that most of the paragraph was devoted to atheism and I wonder if the last sentence was meant to apply to persons who repudiate God instead of to other spiritual traditions, but the author used Jews and Christians as a counterpoint which begs the question.  If this error is not based on an implied false premise as I demonstrated and is instead an "insight or an observation into the way things are" then it requires evidence for this to make sense.  If you have not investigated the evidence in support of what you say about other persons but feel free to say it anyway, then that is bigotry.  If your evidence is the origin of the word "person" and its formation within the crucible of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is something, but it does not disprove that other faiths have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth of all human persons as well. 

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Oct 15, 2014 8:43am

Peter, as I said, the claim is not a strict logical conclusion from indubitable premises, but more like what Newman called "a convergence of probabilities"—a summing up of what I see and experience. 

If I observe that the philosophical enterprise of personalism depends on 1) a conceptural framework present in the Judeo/Christian tradition and not present in others, and 2) a lived personal relation with the Divine Person who is the ground of our being as persons, then it is not bigotry to make the claim I make in our essay.

If you want to dispute the claim, why don't you try providing evidence that other traditions do, in fact, have a conceptural framework and a mode of religious existence that supports the essential claims of personalism.

So far your disagreement is no more than an ungrounded assertion that the claim is false.

Peter

#16, Oct 15, 2014 7:08pm

It is written in your essay that, “Only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons.”

This sentence states that all persons of other faiths do not have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons.  The meaning of this is derived directly from the words used in stating it, that is:  all persons of other faiths do not have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons.  This is the meaning I dispute. 

Why have you intentionally tried to divert my attention away from this written statement that I believe is untrue by using red herrings in the form of:  

"Can you point to non-Judeo Christian traditions that acknowledge both conceptually and in practice the unconditional worth of all human persons as individuals?"  

and  

"Maybe it would help if I add that statement in manifesto isn't meant to be taken as a syllogism. It isn't strict conclusion from indubitable premises. It's more like an insight or an observation into the way things are.  To challenge it then, I would be good if you could provide counter-examples."

and (next comment box)

Peter

#17, Oct 15, 2014 7:12pm

adding your interpretations of the written statement described in different terms than what is written in your essay such as that it is an “observation or insight”, or “a summing up of what [I] see and experience”, or as what Newman called, “a convergence of probabilities”?

Why all of these red herrings.  Why are you trying to lead me away from my point of contention?

In addition, you introduce straw men such as “only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to grasp, appreciate and develop a personalist approach to human life.”

and

I observe that the philosophical enterprise of personalism depends on 1) a [conceptual] framework present in the Judeo/Christian tradition and not present in others, and 2) a lived personal relation with the Divine Person who is the ground of our being as persons…”. 

These are straw men that you have set up as representing the actual written claim in your essay that I dispute and you distort my argument in doing so, then you say my disagreements with the straw men you have set up are “no more than an ungrounded assertion that the claim is false.”  

Peter

#18, Oct 15, 2014 7:22pm

You say this as if you have proved a point. 

If you would stop with committing fallacies, you would encounter the truth of what I am saying, which is that it is not only ungrounded but offensive to state as you do in your essay that all persons of other faiths do not have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons.

You have essentially agreed that the written statement in your essay is false by making the statement:

"None of this is to suggest that a non-believer can't have an individual experience of God's love that might lead him to conclude that human life is infinitely precious."

but then you add another straw man:

"But such an experience is not enough to sustain a demanding philosophical enterprise."

which has nothing to do with my contention.

If you agree with me on this particular contention, then why do you keep adding straw men and pretend to have proved a point?

Peter

#19, Oct 16, 2014 10:54am

Jules I disagree with what you stated:

"That last word, esteem, does not apply, as far as I can tell, to the Islamic conception of God's relationship to human beings. That explains why it is not included with Judaim and Christianity as a religious soil in which genuine personalism can develop and thrive."

Here is my reply:

Esteem is actually an emotional quality almost identical to respect.  To take it one notch deeper and still be considered esteem would be an emotional quality of reverence.  Reverence is the emotion one feels when they have reached the state of being of God's Love.  

An expression of loving acceptance and inner peace is actually the centerpiece of the Islamic faith.  If Islamic persons are faithful and observant to the One True God then they may experience God's love and therefore reverence for and from God and therefore esteem from God.  

Islamic persons who are faithful and observant to the One True God know that God loves them and therefore know that they are esteemed by God.

 

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Oct 18, 2014 8:44am

Peter, I'm sorry we don't see eye to eye. You see me throwing out red herrings and trying to prove something. I see myself explaining my reasoning and the meaning of the claim in our essay.

I'm afraid there isn't enough common ground to make the discussion fruitful.

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