Sofia #72 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

Is each human being born a person? If so, are we both born a person and a person in the making? Can a person be unmade?

This issue starts with Anthony Freeman’s article on consciousness. After giving a brief history, he looks at the fascinating theory of emergent properties. He considers first the human mind as an emergent property: ‘not an added ingredient to the physical body, but neither is it present in any individual brain cell.’ He then goes on to apply this theory to the old formula of Christ as one person, both human and divine. So ‘just as Christ’s human mind – and indeed any human mind – arose from the complex physiology of his body, especially his brain and nervous system, so his divinity arose from the complex system which was his total humanity... The divine element in Christ is now to be understood as an emergent property.’

‘God-consciousness’ is a property that can emerge in human beings. This bold and brilliant suggestion is a fruitful approach to SoF’s mission to explore gods and religions as human creations. And in this ‘evolutionary’ model humans are not split from the natural world. The human mind ‘emerges’ from living matter and ‘God consciousness’ from the human mind.

In the second article, Patti Whaley, former Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International, explores what it means to say ‘persons have rights.’ She begins with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ call for the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity … of all members of the human family’. She looks at dignity as something each person is born with (we could call it ‘ontological’ dignity) and dignity as requiring ‘the full and free development of our personality’, something to struggle for (which we could call ‘developmental’). For example, on their great march from the Lacandon Jungle in South-East Mexico to Mexico City in 2001, I saw young Zapatistas – mainly Mayan Indians – wearing paper headbands demanding PEACE WITH DIGNITY.

Whaley says this idea of human dignity has been criticised as ‘ineliminably religious’, because it implies a ‘worshipful attitude’ towards the human person. But, it could be answered, if we value human life, why should we not ‘reverence’ it? Another point Whaley stresses is that the human person exists in community with others. She says, ‘The UDHR has often been accused of being hyper-individualistic, of privileging the demands of the individual over the needs of the community,’ and calls this ‘a very Western and very male view of the self’. But she suggests ‘this might not be the whole picture’ if we look more carefully at the Declaration. ‘The community is actually the only medium in which the free and full development of [your] personality can take place.’ David Paterson has provided a note on Eastern Ideas of Self, which differ from the Western viewpoint.

David Bryant’s article on ‘Depersonalisation’ picks up on the double aspect of human dignity as something each person is born with and something requiring ‘full and free development’ and looks at how people can be ‘depersonalised’ by the way they are treated.

Inspired by Anthony Freeman’s article, I looked again at the definition of Christ’s person at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. I began listening to the Chalcedon statement as a kind of poem and made my version of a standard translation of it. On page 23 I have set out my English version side by side with the Latin. This statement stresses again and again that Christ, despite having both a human and a divine ‘nature’, is the same person. Listening to it aloud, you can’t fail to hear the thunderous repetition of ‘the same’, ‘the same’, ‘the same’ (‘eundem’ in the Latin, ‘ton auton’ in the Greek).

‘What the thunder said’ to me was two things. Firstly, about the self. I have always been puzzled at the postmodernist idea that we do not have a self or identity but are many selves, many identities. This is not my experience at all. I have felt myself to be myself as far back as I can remember. As John Gamlin said in sof 71 (about another postmodernist doctrine), it is ‘for most people a non-issue, a fascinating point of philosophical debate perhaps, but playing no part in their daily lives.’

In the Chalcedon statement, Christ is one person in two natures. Perhaps one of the most common human experiences which feels like having ‘two natures’ is that of being a mother and also trying to do other work, such as writing perhaps. Apart from the logistics of child-minding, it requires a total ‘gear-shift’ from one to the other. But through all of that I never felt I was ‘two selves’. I always felt I was the same person. Both ‘ontologically’ and (although life was often hard work) ‘developmentally’: this was also something I wanted to be, something to develop, integrity. I wanted to bring what I was thinking and writing to looking after my children, and my experience of them to my thinking and writing (though not necessarily by writing about them). I listened to the mantra of Chalcedon: ton auton, ton auton, ton auton, eundem, eundem, eundem, the same, the same, the same.

Moreover, it is not just the mother who is one person but also her child. In the Chalcedon statement Mary is called theotokos: ‘god-bearer’, ‘mother of God’, because you are not the mother of a ‘nature’ but a person.

The second thing ‘the thunder said’ to me was a ‘sofish’ thing. Although the old Church fathers who wrote the Chalcedon statement believed that God, including God the Son, existed ‘before the ages’ – eternally and independently of us – nevertheless that thunderous repetition conveys very powerfully that God and human are the same, the same, the same. Christ, who is both God and human, is the same person.

Finally, at the AGM, the Network will be asked to decide about the name of your magazine. In the column to the left I repeat some of the arguments for modifying the name to sofia, which you should have already received with the June Portholes. As one member of the Steering Committee said, ‘sofia makes a lot of sense and has a lot going for it’. It will mean a change of two letters, the addition of ‘ia’.

This reminded me that in the Chalcedon statement we also find, after a long and fierce dispute, the word ‘homoousios’: ‘consubstantial’: that Christ was of ‘the same substance’ as the Father, the term favoured by Athanasius. The Arians thought he was ‘of like substance’ (i.e. similar but not the same), in Greek, homoiousios: the difference of just one ‘i’. Gibbon famously sneered that the whole of Europe was fighting savagely over just one ‘i’. At one point Athanasius had been so threatened that he had to escape at night by boat. Of course passions run high, but your editor, who is coming to the Conference and AGM, sincerely hopes she will not have to escape at night by boat (or minicab)!