Conversatio Divina

Becoming a Theological Person in a Postmodernist World

James M. Houston

Yesterday it was easier perhaps to describe one’s identity, for a simple question was usually asked of the stranger: “What do you do for a living?” Citing one’s profession was enough to open up the conversation. But with the disjunctions of postmodernist society, layoffs, failed institutions, professional changes, a functional identity leaves one much more vulnerable, if one’s identity relies upon what one “does.” Even more so, if in a fiercely democratic society, my identity rests snobbishly in the fact my father was a distinguished Republican Senator, you may dispute any claim to fame I might boast about. But suppose my identity is that of a woman, and I am being addressed by a male chauvinist, then already the manner in which you speak cracks me open to pent-up feelings of political indignation, living in a world still gripped by gender issues. Then you may further notice I am dark-skinned, my forebears coming from the Near East. I may sense you are already wondering inwardly, “Are you a Moslem,” so dare I trust you at all? For suddenly, since September 11, 2001, national identity has taken on a new seriousness never experienced before in an ‘open society’ that North America prided itself to be, yet now is all the more vulnerable to attacks upon its liberal values. But you are practiced perhaps, much more than the stranger may know, in answering the more complex question, “Who are you?” For you have had a therapist now for several years —don’t we all need a therapist nowadays?—who is your “soul archaeologist,” digging so deeply into your psyche that you have fully explored below its foundations. Indeed, perhaps you now need to keep your therapist on, just to hold the walls of your identity from falling into a deep hole.

01.  Identity Crisis in Postmodernism

Perhaps you are vague however, not only about your identity, but also in being within a post­modernist society. This is not surprising because the term expresses fluidity, slipperiness, and open-mindedness. Historically, it cannot be beyond modernity chronologically, because it still has many features that are at least “late modern,” such as its strongly technological bias, its rationality, and its secularism. Yet it is a society rapidly becoming disenchanted with being modern, and fearful of some of its threats, ecocatastrophe, urban alienation, and living by abstractions and universals, such as life before and after Coca-Cola. So we may say the postmodern condition sobers us up, to become critical enough to be called postmodernists, reflecting upon our status quo, that is to say, the mess we’re in. For postmodernism is around us everywhere now, though the term was first widely used at the coffee tables of restaurants in Paris. Actually, inventive artists first asked what comes after Impressionism in the 1870s, as literary critics began asking similar questions in the 1930s, followed by historians, architects, philosophers, politicians, and now everybody else.

Certainly there is no longer faith in progress, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there is no longer any faith in ideologies like Communism. The era of “grand narratives” is over. So postmodernism is creating ripple effects, if not a cultural storm, across all our values today, producing a multiplicity of new outlooks, meanings, identities, and questions. It suggests we shall never be normal again! As the cartoon depicts two psychiatrists walking through a public park, they are accosted by a friendly stranger, simply saying, “Good morning!” Turning earnestly to each other, they ask, “What did he mean by that?” Yes, we have lost our innocence, as we live with multiple meanings and realities.

02.  The Changing Nature of the Self

In pre-modern communities, everyone had his place, within predestined roles. Identity was not an issue, when each “knew his place.” But perhaps modernity began when René Descartes initiated the self-conscious revolution in his simple formula, Cogito ergo sum, “I think; therefore I am.” The thinking self was further reinforced by the Enlightenment, and the rejection of traditional values had begun, perhaps nowhere more so than in North America. There, individualism has intensified more than in any other culture. Later, it inspired Victorian novelists in the urban jungles to create survivalist heroes like David Copperfield, to show how self-assured our identity needed to be just to survive. But as women entered into the manufactures of the war machine, of two world wars, the male identity received a challenge it had never faced before, gender competition in the workforce. After the Second World War, manufacturing potential was converted into domestic consumerism, hand in hand with the rise of mass advertising. In the ‘50s, the therapeutic revolution began with the theories of “the empty self” to create a new culture of “self-fulfillment.” For you owe it to yourself, to associate your identity with your wants, that the post-war world was promising you should have.Philip Cushman, Constructing the Self, Constructing America (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995). The intensification of consumerism has now produced a whole new expanding stylization of life. So in postmodernism, we forge our identities by using goods both as signals of individuality, as “I dress differently from you,” as well as for socialization, for “I buy the same trade-brands as you do.” Image is now all that matters, both in lifestyle shopping, as well as ­living in the electronic culture of television.

Social theorists now tell us our identity never was substantial, unified, and stable as we thought it was. But certainly television has created an illusion about what is real, while cultural mediators populate the media to offer advice on anything we need or want, suggesting that whatever is substantial about our identity lies either in roleplaying, or else in desires. Boundaries become increasingly blurred between fact and fiction, what is right or what is wrong, even what is sexually identifiable. Cyborgs, like astronauts, become an amalgam of the human body with technological equipment, and are the new icons of our youth. They express the new transcendence being sought beyond the boundaries of what may be called human, or indeed male or female. In the airwaves are constructionist theories that instead of inheriting a particular built-in substance called “me,” conceive the self as becoming fluid, wholly derived now through social interaction. You are constructed by the social, and you are ultimately determined by it. An alternate version is that you can fabricate your identity, like Madonna or other stage icons, so that you never reveal who you are, only images you choose to masquerade. In the end you do not remember who you were or know now who you are.Glenn Ward, Teach Yourself Postmodernism (Lincolnwood, IL: NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1997).

The Christian is by no means exempt from these distortions. Many pastors today have played the role of being pastor so long that they have forgotten or perhaps never really knew who they were. Church members succeed most effectively in being church members when they live happily on the same level of consensus, rather than experiencing how honestly they can express their innermost thoughts and feelings.

The evangelical equivalent of a “saint” is “being in leadership.” Being a good committee member is the only way to succeed institutionally. Such forms of identification are bland, consensual, and indeterminate. They are what Paul Tournier called a “personage,” the mask provided by a role played.Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (London: S. M. Press. 1957). As the sociologist Erving Goffman has reflected, this “face,” or mask, is sited and shaped in a “place” appropriate for the mask, whether from the social expectations of others, the profession represented, the personality projected, or the kind of relationships we are comfortable with.Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 1969). Yesterday the Christian identity was much simpler: “I don’t smoke, drink, nor dance.” Today, it is more likely to be “I am engaged in ministry.” Behind these facades the idea of a real or deep self tends to vanish. Test it out for yourself by going on a three-day retreat of absolute silence and solitude, and face the inner emptiness of your life without an audience or action. This is awakening some of us to ask, is “being a Christian” more significant than “doing Christian things”? Or are we afraid to “be” when we don’t now what our “being” is. Or more practically, am I most tested how “Christian” I am in the home or in the church? Or have we even reached the point in affirming, “It’s true I am a Christian, but in spite of that I want to be an honest person.”

It is not surprising then that low self-esteem and its corollary of a narcissistic self-preoccupation are as widespread today as poor eyesight. For identity has become one of the great bug-bears of postmodernism. Freud had taught us to see our neurotic conflicts from within our families, into our conflicts within ourselves. More recently, Jacques Lacan has questioned whether Freud was radical enough, for he sees no fixity or structure in the human condition. The human infant has no bodily nor emotional coordination, what he calls an “hommelette” (a scrambled little man). But seeing itself in the mirror of the mother’s eyes, then later in other mirrors, the child sees itself (mis)represented as a whole entity for the first time. This is when the ego begins to form in reaction to the gestures and actions of others. So we learn to see ourselves from the outside in. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying and failing to make ourselves whole. For this influential interpretation implies only alienation, division, and fragmentation are inbuilt into the human identity. Other psychotherapists and philosophers have added to this Neo-Marxist pessimism about how hopelessly we are shaped by our social conditions.Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwells, 1996).

03.  A Christian Response on Human Identity

It is impressive how the lineage of Marx-Freud-Lacan, and now an increasing crescendo of postmodernist voices, all focus on the intrinsic sociality of the human being. For Marx the social self meant being shaped by capitalism; as for Freud it was being shaped by the Oedipus complex; or for Michel Foucault it was being shaped by professions and institutions; or for Lacan by envious desires; or indeed for Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan, and other media experts, being (re)shaped by the fashions of the media in mass culture. Are we then so intrinsically social beings, and if so, why?

Von Balthasar, a wise theologian, has stated, “We cannot ask of man about his essence, other than the realization of his existence.” For only the biblical revelation allows us to believe God has created us in his image and likeness. Our intrinsic sociality is in God’s covenant purpose of love, to relate with us, which he has fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The essence of our humanity is a divine mystery, for irrevocably God has chosen humanity of all his creatures to be his companion. This astonished the psalmist, in exclaiming, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). It goes on amazing us, every time we concede that God changes a lonely “I” into a glorious “we.” Yes, we are social beings more than we can tell or know. So the arrogance of the isolated Cartesian self is like an ice sculpture, now melting away under the scrutiny of postmodernist critics. Inadvertently, they are also revealing the dire, despairing consequences of seeking our human identity without reference to God, and indeed in defiance of our God-given sociality. We could say that God turns his judgment to be contingent to the very ways in which man rebels. For postmodernist rebellion is to believe in plurality instead of the One God. This then turns out to be a melange of “difference” in diverse norms, standards, and viewpoints, all contributing to the endless confusion of the individual human identity. It is the Tower of Babel all over again.

John MacMurray began his Gifford Lectures in 1957 with this prophetic statement: “The cultural crisis of our time is the crisis of the personal.” He meant by “the personal” both the sense of personal dignity and worth, as well as personal unworthiness, both of which will atrophy with the decline of religious life, and the secular growth of the state instead. For then the pressures of functional preoccupations remove the ideals of sanctity, holiness, reverence and wonder, and with them the mystery of personhood.

Then he added, “Christianity, in particular, is the exponent and guardian of the personal, and the function of organized Christianity in our history has been to foster and maintain the personal life and to bear continuous witness, in symbol and doctrine to the ultimacy of personal values”.Philip Conford, The Personal World of John MacMurray on Self and Society (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996), 55. Since the “person” is indefinable in the social sciences, because of its sheer mystery, it has been overlooked by them. For as Michel Foucault has pointed out, every science has its own agenda, into which its subject matter has to fit. But as personalist philosophers like Mounier and Lacroix have argued, “the personal” is not objectifiable, for it is expressive of aspiration, of relational capacities, of the quest for transcendence.

Even our European languages recognize this in distinguishing savoir—to know something, from connaitre—to know some person. So when Boethius gave us his infamous definition of a human being as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” he was more Greek than Christian.

The classical world spoke of the person as prosopon in Greek, persona in Latin. It may have originated with the Etruscans, as persu, reflecting on the shadowy existence of the spirits of the underworld under the guardianship of Persephone, the goddess of death. For the Greek dramatists, the prosopon was the voice speaking through the mask, perhaps of human defiance against the fates, but it could only be a momentary gesture in an impersonal, hostile cosmos. The Romans legalized the persona, to reflect the male rights of citizenship, not shared by women, children, or slaves. Nothing in this classical heritage could communicate the Christian foundations of personhood, anymore than the secular notions of the “individual” can still provide.John D. Zizoulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985). It was the great Western theologian Tertullian who first spoke of the mystery of God, as “one being in three persons,” giving “the personal” a divine connotation for the first time. Not even the great Augustine reached that, when he later spoke of God as “one essence in three substances.” So how did Tertullian reach this deduction?

He noted that the ancient poets of antiquity gave dramatic life to events, not by simple narration but by allowing persons to make their appearance and speak, putting words into the mouths of divine beings. “Prosopographic” exegesis brings this literary device to light. Early Christian writers recognized the same device in the Old Testament. God speaks in the plural in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image and likeness,” or God’s statement in Genesis 3, “Adam has become like one of us.” Again in Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord,” which the exegetes interpreted as a conversation between God and his Son. So already in the mid-second century, Justin stated, “The sacred writer introduces different prosopa, now recognized not as a literary device of roles which are played, but of divine Persons.”

So half a century later, Tertullian is ready to take the divine Persons seriously. In Adversus Praxean, he writes, “How can a person who stands by himself say, ‘Let us make man in his image and likeness,’ as someone who is single and alone by himself?” Commenting further on Psalm 110:1 he states, “Take note how even the Spirit as the third person speaks of the Father and the Son, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put my enemies at your feet.’ So the concept of ‘Person’ developed from Biblical exegesis, out of the role of dialogue, and of a God who can speak to mankind dialogically.”Joseph Ratzinger, “Retrieving the Tradition: Concerning the Notion of the Person in Theology.” Communio 17, 1990, 439-454.

About two centuries later, the Church theologians are now able to articulate fully that God is a being in three persons, not as three substances but as persons existing in relations, and that the person implies self-donation, though the substance is one God. Now the Johannine texts become illuminated, as when Jesus says: “The Son can do nothing of himself” (John 5:19), and “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). This divine relational life is being given to us, as believers, when Jesus prays, “That they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). Thus on the pivotal identity of the “person,” theology and anthropology are now interlocked. John extends this saying of Jesus’ commission to his disciples: “As my Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). In Jewish thought, an emissary is like the one who sent him, representative of all his kingly nature and authority. Likewise, the personal God has sent us to be “ambassadors for Christ,” argued the apostle Paul. As Christ could confess, “My teaching is not my teaching” (John 7:16) so Augustine can now give his commentary, by asking, is this statement a contradiction —“Not my teaching”—when it is Christ who says so? He explains, Christ’s doctrine is he himself, and he is not his own, because his “I” as the Son of God exists entirely from the Father as “you.”Ratzinger, “Retrieving the Tradition.”This, then, is the original theological source for the Christian meaning of persons, of divine relations and their pure relatedness.

But the early Church also wrestled with the issue, who is Jesus Christ? The response grew convincingly: “He has two natures, one divine, the other human but one Person.” But this generated many heresies when the assumption was that as a person he is divine, but as a human being, he lacks something. So Arianism and Apollinarianism argued Christ had no human soul, while monophysitism denied he had a human nature, while the monothelites denied he had a human will. Behind all these distortions lay the assumption that as a person, Christ had an “individual substance,” as Boethius spoke of, in his definition. Only at the end of the twelfth century did Richard of St. Victor define “person” as the incommunicably proper existence of spiritual nature, not of “essence.”Ratzinger, “Retrieving the Tradition.” Beautifully, he interprets the Trinity as the manifestation of perfect love, as the Father initiates love, the Son receives love, and the Holy Spirit shares love, each mutually existent in the Other.

The reality of the triune God as a “we” is expressed in the threefold formula of Christian devotion: “Through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father.” This implies three things. First, personhood applies absolutely only to God’s own being. So we can use it only analogically of human persons. Only in Christ has the divine purpose of being “the image and likeness of God” become fully realized and manifested. Likewise, we are not in ourselves “persons,” but as “persons-in-Christ.” If participation and communion are of the essence of divine existence, then becoming a Christian “person” is only expressive of the mediatorship of Christ in his grace.T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988). It is expressive of Christ’s role in our life. As the Apostle expresses it, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me,” so that ultimately I do not live by my faith only, but in sharing the relationship of Christ with the Father by His Spirit (Galatians 2:20). Second, only the Holy Spirit can endow us with the capacity to reach outside of ourselves, to see ourselves as God sees us, and to see God as His Spirit does. For this is the retro-transcendence of the Spirit, of both existing in itself and yet also in the Other. The Spirit’s relatedness to the Father and the Son, is what empowers us in his love, to reach outside of ourselves, to have a new identity “in Christ,” which Paul is so fond of expressing. Third, while Paul bows in prayer “to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth are named” (Ephesians 3:14–15), that is, as source of all relationality, human language fails us to describe this “source.” This is the mistake of some theologians, to create some hierarchical divine ranking, as of an emperor, that may interpret Christ and the Spirit in personal terms, then overlook the Father’s own relationality. For the Father also exists as a “we.” It was Cyril of Alexandria who safeguarded the coinherence of the one identical God, according to which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually indwell and contain one another, while remaining three distinct persons, or hypostases. So that what God is in himself, he is also ad extra in what he is to us. This would place the Monarchia as identifiable with the triunity of God, as three perfect, coequal, coeternal Persons.Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith.

04.  Becoming a Theological Person

Whenever we get into theological depths unfamiliar to us, it is natural to react and respond, that is only just theology, implying it is theoretical, not practical. As the Latin Persius observed, “Your knowledge counts for nothing unless your friends know you have it,” meaning you “have it” in the way you live its truthfulness before others. As Bernard of Clairvaux observes in one of his sermons, “There are some who long to know for the sole purpose of knowing, and that is shameful curiosity; others who long to know in order to become known, and that is shameful vanity. . . . There are others still who long for knowledge to sell its fruits for money or honor, and this is shameful profiteering.” He concludes that those who seek to know to serve others express charity, while those who know in order to benefit for themselves show prudence.Bernard of Clairvaux. Sermons on the Song of Songs, Vol. 11,  trans. Kilian Walsh  (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1976), 176. This is certainly true of our motives to explore the meaning of our Christian identity. The only reason we should pursue this subject is to become passionate about our own Christian identity.James M. Houston, The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2001).

First, we begin to recognize that this quest opens us to the future, between the “not yet” and yet the desire for such clearer identification. Second, it has then an eschatological orientation, making personhood our final destiny. It does begin with being true to our baptism, but it remains a lifelong journey. Third, there may be a temptation to make it an archetype rather than a personal reality, such as when Roman Catholic writers see only Mary as the truly human “person,” the responsibility being hers, not ours, to be so.La Santisima Trinidad Mysterio de Vida (Salamanca: Secretariado Trinitario, 2001). Or we hand it over to the charismatic experience of those who speak in tongues, or have other spiritual charisms. Fourth, since the inner changes of our identity are largely hidden, as the fruits of communion and inward participation, we can become impatient of its slow changes and seek more visible, external means of sanctification. For it is all about the pursuit of godliness and holiness of life, what the Eastern Church has called theosis.

Perhaps what is needed is the recovery of sanctity with scholarship, so that the mark of the true theologian is that he is a saint. This was certainly the way of life for the Church Fathers, living out what they knew. Postmodernist disenchantment with the Enlightenment is about “thinkers” living in an abstract universe of thought without action. Even the classical pagan philosophers used to say that thought without action was meaningless, as was action meaningless without the cultivation of friendships. To know a person is to be changed by one’s knowledge of that person. How much more then does true theology imply being open to changes by the persons of the Holy Trinity? More than any postmodernist critic of the “power games” of knowing, we should be much more in revolt against Cartesian knowledge as the way of communicating our witness. For its abstractions and alienating spirit contradict the true knowledge of God.

As contemporary Trinitarian ­writers are reorienting our Christian thinking today, our awareness and response to the triune God of grace is by participation and communion, not by abstract thought. Reason is more vital than ever, to be critical of the way we use reason, but it is love that knows more profoundly. The end result of theology should be doxological, not further academic studies. Becoming a theological person is more profoundly a pastoral concern, as wrong relations are more extensive and insidious than wrong ideas.Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000). Or rather, they are more interrelated than abstract thought would recognize. So our seminaries need to become pastoral centers for the nurture of theological persons, learning to see the discord between personage and person, to promote the integrity of the unique self God has given each of us to be, while learning, too, to be transparently open to the other in attentiveness, self-­sacrifice, empathy, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion. Community can only be expressive in interrelatedness, not individualism, so a strong sense of a God-given identity is what makes possible the equally strong sense of self-giving to foster koinonia. All this should be expressive of being a Christian theologian!

Finally, we need to be cautious we do project upon the mystery of God, our human understanding of personhood. The doctrine of the Trinity did not evolve in the early Church from observations made about God, but from the communal experiences of God’s love and salvation. It was by participation in God’s grace as the economic Trinity, of God active in human affairs as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that led to theological reflection about God’s uniqueness and the beauty of his holiness as incomparable. Likewise, it is not talk about becoming “persons-in-Christ,” as in reading this essay, that will make us persons. It is our engagement with God in prayer, scripture, community and mission that will lead us to participate more deeply into the mysteries of divine life, and engage in his relations of divine love. It is our Enlightenment view of things, to subject objects to our own control, by seeing them with the eye or the mind, and exalt the mind’s prowess. But “No man has seen God at any time, nor can do, for God to be known has to be participated with, and in, his infinite relationality.” As John of the Cross argued, we do not “desire” God, as if we could ever possess him as the object of our desire; rather, we desire in God with the desire for God, as the Son desires the Father, and the Spirit is the desire of the Father and the Son.Fiddes, Participating in God. So John of the Cross leads us to worship ­lyrically:


There to be rapt as God is

Seized by the same delight—

For even as father and son

And the third, not less in might,

One in the other endure,

So with the fond and fair—

Caught into God’s great being,

Breathing his very air!Fiddes, Participating in God, 45



About the Author: James Houston is the Board of Governor’s Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. He also recently authored The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood. (NavPress, 2002).