by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
The story is false if you get God wrong. If you get God wrong, you are sure to misunderstand the nature of judgment. Though folks often don’t think too deeply about it. “It’s too much,” they say. “Entirely, too much. Who can know and who has time for such things, pass the butter?” Or they peruse the scriptures and try to puzzle it out. Or they look it up in the catechism. The curious might ask their pastor or priest, someone professionally obliged to search out the ineffable. Whatever they do, the question of God is at least ostensibly an inquiry that tests the limits of man’s capacity to know and understand. In contrast, lots of people think they have first-hand experience of what it means to be a person. If it’s mysterious, something the philosophers scrutinize, it’s also something we know about, isn’t it? And so, even while intellectuals ponder if person might be ascribed to an animal or an artificial intelligence, we know enough to say, really, what it’s like, enough to know what it means. Whilst folks argue about this and that, how much we are responsible for our actions, that sort of thing, it’s clear that you’re you, not me, that much is evident. And if folks are religious, when they think about persons and judgment and eternal destinies, they bring this knowledge with them. It stands to reason, we know what’s what, at least when it comes to ourselves, these selves we’ve known all our lives, even if, in the beginning, it’s a bit misty, that childhood bit, though others have told us, the old ones, the ones that birthed us, they were there and they remember for us. And yet, here too, it’s possible all that is rot. Maybe here, too, we know less than we think, or, if you follow a certain path, you know different, understand differently, in a way that makes it difficult to speak to those who do not know they do not know.
And so, Hart invokes the wisdom of Gregory of Nyssa who recognized that “the human totality is a living unity” and that “the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 141). Fallen individuals encounter one another as potential threats and even under amicable conditions, as those who share resources, who sometimes benefit by our relegation to those unprovided for and outside the circle of the beloved. Sartre’s bleak assessment that “hell is other people” is not mere misanthropy, but a clear perception that our relations to the other, unlike the unique perichoretic event of divine Personhood, entail genuinely alienating constraints and antipathies not to be overcome on the ontic level of nature alone. There is something haunting, touching upon our deepest desires, in Hart’s proclamation of Nyssa’s keen awareness of both our calling and destiny. “Humanity, understood as the plērōma of God’s election, never ceases to possess that deathless beauty that humanity, understood as an historical community, has largely lost” (p. 141). Hence, Hart draws attention to how we are metaphysically constituted by our relations:
No soul is who or what it is in isolation. (p. 149)
Finite persons are not self-enclosed individual substances; they are dynamic events of relation to what is other than themselves. (p. 152)
A person is first and foremost a limitless capacity, a place where the all shows itself with a special inflection. We exist as “the place of the other,” to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. (p. 153)
And truly, none of this requires a retreat into rarified religious consciousness as some might propose. It is evident in the calling of the self by the mother’s smile (Balthasar), the careful nurture of family that initiates the fragile ego through distinct developmental stages into an emerging self (James Loder), in the manner in which languages live in and through us, carrying a mysterious origin transcendent of mere history (Johann Hamann), in the innumerable ways in which being approaches us and enlarges our vision through perplexity and porosity (William Desmond), in the manner in which we are not buffered selves (Charles Taylor), but the concrete and dynamic encounters of enfleshed being (Merleau-Ponty), substance-in-relation raised to the level of spiritual insight and intellectual acumen (Norris Clarke), speaking forth incantation that is both historical memory and eschatological expectation (Péguy). Hart recalls language that reminds me, at least, of Charles Williams: “we belong, of necessity, to an indissoluble coinherence of souls” (p.154).
And yet, Donne waxing eloquent about how no man is an island notwithstanding or Dostoevsky’s Zosima declaring that “each is responsible for all,” a nice sentiment, if you like that sort of thing. Hardly anyone believes, for instance, that the fate of a malnourished child in the Sudan and Joan of Arc and say, one of those fellas found mummified after centuries in a bog pit and memorialized by Seamus Heaney are truly connected, or that your own destiny and therefore also your unique identity is tangibly tied to whether or not everyone comes to a good end. It’s because we think they are metaphysically separate, we die alone, after all don’t we, the pain of our flesh, the pleasures, too, those are our own, but death, yes, no one, not even the Christ, does that for us, does he? Our common sense is one of isolation, of an atomized individual, where the collective is an ideological imposition, a political choice or coercion, but nothing ontological. To speak like that is mystical mumbo-jumbo, and so, when we theologize, we try to speak plainly, and the best theologians, following Aristotle, understand individuation to be literally a matter of matter, and so the body is what distinguishes and certainly, your noggin is yours alone, and my belly, alas, is mine. However, if Balthasar is correct, if human personhood is truly attained by participation in Christ, if Bulgakov is right and “one must understand not allegorically but completely realistically and ontologically those discourses of the Savior in which He identifies Himself with every human being” (Icons and The Name of God, p. 150) so that, indeed, every true name comes as command and gift from the generous storehouse of Christ’s own being, and Rosenstock-Huessy is trustworthy when he announces that authentic names are always theophoric, then one must discard the indifference of the nominalist for whom the name is a useful convention, and also every ideological notion of humanity that, as Péguy recognized, took over the immemorial sacrificial economy and permitted the desolation of every person in the past and present in the name of a fantasy of autonomously achieved paradise, a never arriving immanent eschaton feasting vampirically upon all of history as a city of the dead and dying. Rather, one must live in the tension between Sherrard’s iconic prototypes which are both protological and eschatological and one’s empirical, temporal, developing self which is in status via.
In this respect, part of the healing of final judgment is to be enlightened as to one’s irreplaceable uniqueness, and to know that to participate in Christ is to be given an eternal revelatory task, to unlock divine treasures for the joy of all that only you are summoned to release. It is also to understand that the divine-human reality is a priesthood that brings together all of the cosmos, raising what to the ontic realms looks like an insignificant, mathematical unity, one grain of sand is much like another, into a degree of care that must appear madness. “Christianity … is the salvation of the whole world,” says Berdyaev, “of each and all, down to the last grain of dust” (The Meaning of the Creative Act, p. 266). Ecclesial reality is meant to entail the entire divine-Humanity, the Nyssan unity. This is not, as one fella (I suppose it was Douglas Farrow) rather casually dismissed as a subjective idealism equal but opposite to nominalist error. Rather, it is to discern, as Yannaras indicates, that “the Church … does not simply represent a sociological or moral fact or a ‘religious’ manifestation of fallen humanity. The Church is an ontological reality, the existential fact of a ‘new’ human nature, which communes wholly with the Godhead” (Person and Eros, p. 270). The result is an annulment of the insular self, the Enlightened rational individual, and many other mythological chimeras. “It realizes existence as love and eros, not as survival as an atomic individual” (p. 270). Person is fundamentally a divine mystery, but insofar as we approach our calling to become sons and daughters of the Father, we approach that sacred gift which is also a mission and the joy of creative freedom. Surely this is the essential point in Hart’s explication of Pauline typology in the story of Jacob and Esau. “Esau have I hated,” grumbles a bad reader. Hart reminds us: “Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled to the increase of both” (p. 136). Furthermore, there is a hint of divine glory that comes to Esau – “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s” (p. 136). Yet note, it is the speech of Jacob that announces the gift. Grace comes through Israel to the late arriving brother. Whatever person signifies, it is nothing so mean as the finite ego anxious before mortality and concerned that measures conformed to its imaginative limits define the reality of eternal identities.
* * *
Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.