The Restoration of Personhood

Many of our faculty and staff will have had the honor of knowing the late Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, former professor here at the Seminary, two-time President of Asbury University, and the founder of the Francis Asbury Society.  He was gifted with a keen theological mind and there are certainly hundreds of men and women throughout the larger Wesleyan world who count him as a mentor.  I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Kinlaw during the last eight years of his life.  I would go by and see him and we talk about theology and about challenges in serving as President of these two historic institutions.  One afternoon when we were visiting I asked Dr. Kinlaw what, in his view, was the most important theological issue facing the church today.  He smiled and quietly laughed with that signature twinkle in his eye and he then he said just one word… Personhood.  Personhood.   My central question in this, my 13th convocation message at Asbury Seminary is this:  Why did Dr. Kinlaw answer my question with the single word:  personhood?

This notion of personhood was raised in a more graphic and pointed way in the first sentence of Carl Truman’s 2020 landmark book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.  He opens his book like this:  “The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has become regarded as coherent and meaningful:  “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.”  This sentence to our grandparents would appear to be nothing less that nonsensical gibberish, but today it is not only regarded as a meaningful, authentic statement, but as Truman points out, to deny such a statement today is to be regarded as stupid, immoral or subject to some irrational phobia.  Why is that?  As theological students it is vital that you are able to look beneath the presenting issues of our day – whether it be transgenderism, the deep divisions in our society, the scourge of racism, or any other – and understand and perceive the deeper issues at play.  That is what a theological education is for.  There is a classic line in Sherlock Holmes where Watson is amazed at Holmes’ ability to deduce things and Sherlock Holmes famously says to Watson, “you see, but you do not observe.”  As future leaders of the church it is not enough to simply see what is going on in our culture and around the world, we must observe, i.e. we must come to understand deeply what gives rise to all that is happening in our day.  At the heart of this statement put forth by Truman “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” and dozens of similar statements emerging across the cultural landscape in our day, is the unspoken deeper issue of personhood and the very nature of how the self is understood in late modernity.

Let me say to the community at the outset, that this is an academic piece, not a sermon.  There are huge pastoral implications in the message which would call for not one, but many sermons which should explore what the historical shifts this message outlines requires for effective and loving pastoral care in the real and challenging world of the church and the larger society.  We have enormous pastoral challenges which require thoughtful reflection, but we must first understand historically and theologically what lies beneath the presenting issue of our day before we can best outline our best pastoral responses.  This is primarily a descriptive piece – seeking to understand what is happening historically.  A pastoral response will necessarily call for a whole range of prescriptive solutions which lay beyond the purpose of this post.  In a broad way, let me say that Asbury is committed to both a radical, loving embrace of people, as well as the clear call to biblical fidelity and a vision for wholeness in every area of our lives.

Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian philosopher in his book, Sources of the Self:  The Making of Modern Identity points out that we are experiencing a radical new form of individualism which he, following sociologist Robert Bellah in his classic book, Habits of the Heart, calls “expressive individualism.”  This is a fundamental turn which is different from the normal kind of individualism which has always characterized American society.  We are witnessing a whole new vison of human identity which is marked by several key features.  I will note five of them.

First, this new vision of human personhood has created a seismic dualistic separation or fracturing of the human will from the physical body.  In this twist of neo-gnostic dualism, our bodies become moldable, like plastic, contingent instruments which must be conformed to the intuitions, feelings and whatever social constructions we may dream of in order to conform to our best understanding of ourselves.  Alsdair MacIntyre, the Scottish ethicist, calls this dualistic view of personhood as a view of self which is, and I quote, “forgetful of the body.”   Expressive individualism is one of the leading terms for this phenomenon, but others, like Michael Sandel have called this the “unencumbered self.”  The common point, however, is that the self has been severed from the body and this new self is the self-originating, socially constructed source of all claims.  Again, our hearts go out to anyone who is experiencing gender dysphoria and great pastoral care is needed to help anyone navigate this challenge to the very nature of personhood.

Second, this new vision of human personhood has moved us as a culture and society from what Charles Taylor calls a “transcendent frame” to an “immanent frame.”  By this he means our society has fully jettisoned any transcendent moral or ethical foundations or boundaries to our existence or our decisions which either refers or defers to God or any other authoritative source, whether the Oracle of Delphi, Confucian ethics or the God of biblical revelation.  The “immanent frame” refers to the solitary, socially constructed self, leading to a new view of human personhood.  It renders us forgetful of the image of God as that which frames both our dignity and our identity.  John Kilner, the Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and I might add, former professor of ethics here at Asbury Seminary, in his magisterial work on the image of God, Dignity and Destiny, points out that the image of God is not merely that which marks us as individuals (though it is never less than that), but the whole of humanity in community is collectively marked by the image of God.  Therefore, the loss of this is profound and touches on not just the ground of individual dignity, but the capacities and destiny of the whole human race as it is embodied in society.  But, today, it is not just the loss of the image of God, but the whole reference to God himself, as creator and redeemer, has been lost.  This complete independence from any sacred order, the utter loss of all foundations and external reference points, and even the loss of the image of God, is unprecedented in human history.  In a culture where all that is left of personhood is the atomized self, ethics becomes nothing but a function of feelings or what Alsdair MacIntyre called “emotivism” which I addressed more fully in an earlier address.  This trend has been coming for some time as noted in previous popular books such as Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism and Tom Wolfe’s The “Me” Generation.  But, these predictive trends finally seem to have reached the mainstream.   For example, it was the actor Brad Pitt who summed up this quite well when he said, “When I get untethered from religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me.  It was a discovery of self.  I have faith that I am capable enough to handle any situation…”  Without any external or stabilizing reference points our culture has become increasingly volatile, unstable, and on the verge of collapse.  This is why chaos, turmoil, fragmentation and incessant division has become the order of the day.  There are no shared external reference points in making any ethical or moral statements.  Thus, a statement like, “one should not change one’s gender” is taken to mean nothing more than “I personally disapprove of transgenderism.”   As Keith Stanglin has argued in his new book, Ethics Beyond Rules, contemporary ethics has become nothing more than personal preferences.  Even the church has shifted its language from that of divine, objective revelation, to that of the Christian “perspective.”

Third, this new vision of human personhood marks the rise of the therapeutic self.  The once particularized language of therapy has now become the common language of social discourse.  One of the reasons for this is that the very notion of personhood today is essentially a socially derived psychological construction. The sociologist Philip Rieff called this “Psychological Man” intentionally framed in that way as a way of showing how it has displaced Karl Marx’s “Economic Man,” not to mention John Wesley’s “Evangelical Man.”  Let me say that we deeply indebted to the remarkable work of Christian psychologists and counselors who are providing pathways to vitality for millions.  Indeed, counseling has helped us with the very language we need to understand much of what is happening in our day.  The challenge I am referring to here is when our deepest identity is no longer in relationship with God or even within external structures such as family, church or nation, or even the economics of class and trade.  Our very personhood is now defined internally by our perceived ideal psychological state driven by social media.  This inward turn prioritizes the inner psychological self, placing it at the heart of human personhood.  Augustine is the one who, in his classic City of God, identified one of the key features of the sin nature as incurvatus in se, the heart turned in upon itself.  The late John Paul II called this, more simply, the “interior gaze.”  I recently saw a Christian Sunday school program which was designed for children.  The curriculum was designed around the seven dwarfs of the Snow-White story.  It asks the children to look inward and identify which of the seven dwarfs they were… sleepy, bashful, sneezy, happy, grumpy, and so forth.  What the curriculum never did was to summon the children to look upward and out of themselves and see the glory and majesty of God.  Brothers and sisters, this is not just a pop culture problem.  This inward gaze has sunk its tentacles deep within the church itself.

Fourth, this new vision of human personhood has rendered one’s sexual identity and socially constructed gender as the locus for one’s deepest identity.  This is far more than just another step down the road of moral relativism.  I grew up in a world where moral relativism was expressed by such statements as “what does it matter what two consenting adults do in the privacy of a bedroom?”  We have now moved from the bedroom to the public square and social media.  Today it increasingly evident that your identity as straight, gay, bi, queer, and so on is highly connected to who you are at the deepest level and, therefore, must be publicly declared. This past June, Cal Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, became the first active NFL player to declare that he is gay. In early July, Andrew Cuomo’s daughter, Michaela Cuomo came out in an Instagram post that she now considers herself demisexual (earlier, she reminded us, she had publicly declared herself to be at various points in her young life a lesbian, bisexual, queer, but is now “evolving” into demisexual).   Both of these recent examples were, of course, heralded as a profoundly brave and authentic public statements.  But, we must ask why has it become so important for everyone to declare their sexual orientation or socially constructed gender, or any number of other identities publicly?  Why did Facebook go from two identities, to over fifty enabling you to declare to all your friends who you assert yourself to be?  Even Zoom allows you to clarify in the subline whether you want to be referred to as “he” “she” or “they” since your inner self may not at all correspond to any biological markers of identity established at birth.  Once gender becomes socially constructed, rather than biologically given at your birth, then we are quite along the road to the complete fragmentation of personhood.  Indeed, the whole notion of “coming out” tells us that the public declaration of one’s sexuality or gender identity somehow touches on our deepest identity, our truest self.   Let me say, that, pastorally speaking, it is often vital for those who are struggling with their inner identity to confess this to the community as a part of the healing process.  I believe that we need to embrace the difference, for example, between someone committed to celibacy who confesses their same sex attractions and someone who is seeking to normalize same sex behavior in the church.

Finally, this new vision of personhood reveals the profoundly anti-historical bent in late modernity.   History today is the story of corruption and oppression.  History no longer anchors us in shared values and even aspirations towards “a more perfect union.”   We are not the source of our problems because “our hearts are always in the right place.”  Society is the locus of all ills, chained to the cruel taskmaster of history.  The Western world credits youth with wisdom and those older as naïve, un-woke and with little to offer us as we traverse the contours of this Brave New World.  This overthrow of history is, of course, not really about what really happened at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., or any other historical event per se, but about the overthrow of historic institutions like family, church and marriage.  These kinds of embedded histories represent external impositions on the freedom of our atomized will and autonomous self.  The expressive self wants no history but our own history.

These five aspects of personhood in late modernity are not trends and writings found only in the faculty lounges of ivy league schools, or the writings of Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.  Rather, this new vision of personhood has become deeply embedded in the social awareness, the social imaginary of our day-to-day plausibility structures found in countless examples across mainstream America, pop culture and social media.  We do not have time to explore how these themes have worked their way deeply into our legal system in countless ways which affect the day to day lives of Americans.  One of the best books to explore the legal ramifications of contemporary views of personhood can be found in Carter Snead’s book, What it Means to be Human:  The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.  It was Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, who wrote in the majority opinion in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 that, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  This is not Hollywood or Peter Singer, this is a Supreme Court justice speaking on behalf of all of us in this new legal definition of personhood which now undergirds our laws.

Now, in surveying these five features of this new view of personhood, it might be easy to succumb to despair or feeling immobilized in the face of these seemingly intractable trends.  Truly the zeitgeist of our age can, at times, take your breath away.  But, all such trends and trajectories have a life-cycle which cannot stand up in the face of the veritable truths of God’s self-disclosure in the Word of God and in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  The church has faced many formidable challenges in our long history and this new view of personhood does not represent the death of God or the shadowy sunset of the church of Jesus Christ.

We must not just “see” but “observe” all of this within a broader historical context.  In some ways, all five of these trajectories can be summed up in the classic tension seen in Raphael’s famous fresco called the School of Athens painted between 1509 and 1511.  This fresco was one of several painted by Raphael for Pope Julius II.  The School of Athens is Raphael’s summary of the entire import of philosophical wisdom.  The painting includes such famous philosophers as Archimedes, Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes.  But, at the center of the painting are two figures:  Plato and Aristotle, the greatest of all western philosophers.  Plato is depicted, quite predictably, with his finger pointing upwards – pointing to the transcendent ideals, the forms of which are only found as reflections in this material world.  Aristotle is shown with his hand downward pointing to all the particulars of human life and discovery: zoology, natural law, rhetoric, psychology, and so forth.   Raphael captures in one image the great tension between universals and particulars.  If Plato’s finger were to rise a bit higher we might move beyond mere platonic forms and non-personal transcendence.  As Christians, we could see him pointing to God both personal and embedded in his own community of the Trinity.  But, on the other hand, we also know that God is the author of all the material particulars of this world.  So, we cannot let Aristotle’s hand pointing downward be lost, or we only end up with some deistic, removed God, or the so-called “god of the philosophers.”  Aristotle points us to vital, grounded embodied truths of our universe, the creation of his handiwork, a vision for science and exploration and medicine and classification of the material world.  Yet, if Aristotle’s hand were to reach a bit lower, he would begin to capture in some way the trajectory of the very world-view we have been depicting, where the transcendent frame is completely lost in the immanent frame, and, if his hand goes low enough we are left with nothing but an autonomous self, the atomistic will disconnected from all restraints whether God or history, and even all boundaries inherent in creation itself.  How is this tension resolved?  Human history shows that we have moved back and forth like a pendulum, and like all pendulums it swings and back and forth, ever longing for a resolution and rest.

Raphael resolved this tension by a fresco painted just opposite of the School of Athens and intentionally designed to resolve the tension and to show us the way forward wherever in the course of history we may find ourselves on this pendulum. Directly across from the School of Athens Raphael painted what is known as the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.  The word “disputation” here does not mean a dispute or argument about the Eucharist, but rather a formal examination or declaration about the meaning of the Eucharist.    Raphael intentionally painted both frescoes with a similar overall frame.  The pavement, the four steps leading upwards, the vaulted ceiling.  But in this fresco the transcendent is manifest.  The veil is lifted and we see God himself enthroned in his heavenly abode surrounded by saints and angels. God the Father is at the top, Christ, or God the Son, is enthroned as the king of the universe, and God the Holy Spirit is depicted as a descending dove.  This is the transcendent frame which has been lost in late modernity.  Below are the peoples of the world: peasants and kings; bishops and laity, rich and poor, men and women.  If Raphael was painting it today he would have joyfully included Asians and Africans and Latinos, but he was a man of his own time and we have to understand that he was trying to depict the world in all of its diversity as he knew it.  But the knot which ties the heavenly and the earthly together and is the centerpiece of this fresco, in the place of Plato and Aristotle in the School of Athens is the Holy Sacrament.  The sacrament, of course, represents the incarnation which is the knot which ties heaven to earth and brings final resolution to the upward pointing finger of Plato and the downward hand of Aristotle, and gives us the true understanding of personhood.

Let us explore how this amazing fresco resolves each of the five aspects of the self of late modernity which we now inhabit.  First, we explored the dualism which separates our personhood from the physical body.  Brothers and sisters, at the heart of the fresco is the bodily incarnation, the second person of the Trinity made flesh who suffered and died for us, of which the sacrament is emblematic of.  The transcendent God of the universe becomes flesh in Jesus Christ who entered into the very particulars of his creation.  Second, we explored the tragic loss of the transcendent frame for a solitary immanent frame which says that this world is all there is.  Yet, here in the fresco, we see the glorious transcendence of God revealed in all its glorious majesty.  The Triune God enthroned in the heavens, along with all the angels, and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and the redeemed people of God here and in the church triumphant.  Notice that Raphael depicts the external reference point of divine revelation, both in Moses holding the Ten Commandments, as well as the cherubim holding forth the word of God, the revelation of God’s self-disclosure of himself and his will and divine purposes for his creation.  We see glimpses of our own transcendence rooted in the imago dei, and yet our own immanence in our earthly, bodily habitation, the reconciliation of the greatest hopes of Plato and Aristotle.  Christ as the Second Adam, the perfect image of God, made possible through the incarnation, comes to fully restore our destiny as bearers of the image of God and icons of his resurrection.  Once again, drawing from John Kilner’s beautiful phrase, Christ represents the “blueprint for humanity”.  Third, we noted the loss of personhood into the therapeutic self which is the self-collapsed in upon itself – incurvatus in se.  It here that in the fresco that we see depicted our deliverance from the inward gaze, the endless self-psychologizing as our eyes are drawn outward and upward to these transcendent realities.   Here in the fresco we see that all personhood is externally rooted in the One Great “I Am” of the Trinity!  Isaiah rightly rebuked Babylon when twice (Isaiah 47:8 and 10) Babylon declared with the spirit of all the ages, “I Am and there is none besides me.”   The spirit of our age is no different than that of Babylon and the same headlong destruction which they received will fall upon us if we do not affirm that He alone is the great I Am, the one Person from whom the dignity and true identity of all personhood must flow.  Fourth we highlighted the loss of any transcendent identity outside of publicly declared sexuality.  The Eucharist represents the knot which ties heaven to earth through the incarnation.  Jesus Christ is depicted as sitting on the throne of the universe.  Our greatest identity is not anything which frames modern cultural identities, whether ethnic, or economic, or racial, or sexual, but our deepest identity is in Jesus Christ.  Sexuality in the biblical vision is linked to fruitfulness.  The family is the icon of the Trinity, just as our bodies are icons of the incarnation.  Finally, our loss of history is finally restored in the truest lens of history which is redemptive history.  Here in the fresco we see the whole history of redemption displayed before us – God’s great metanarrative which frames history as God reveals himself to his people, through Law, through the prophets, and ultimately in and through Jesus Christ, all gloriously displayed.  Here we are reminded of the sure historicity enshrined in Jesus’ passion where he suffered not just generically in some timeless void, or in God’s own internal psyche, but in the real history of Pontius Pilate.  Jesus’ suffering on the cross is the lens through which we understand our own history and the healing of the nations which is extended through the gospel.

Brothers and sisters, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, that priceless treasure which you have been given by the grace of God, which is the definitive response to the so-called “cultural moment” we are in.  My brothers and sisters, there is no greater time nor more urgent necessity today than in the faithful preaching of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ, not merely some transactional message which leaves most untouched, but that sanctifying transformative message of the gospel of holiness which changes everything.  Don’t let this culture, that spirit of Babylon make you flinch or run for cover.  Stand boldly in the marketplace of ideas equipped with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This calls for compassionate pastoral work to reach out with love to all those who are struggling with any of these challenges to personhood.  Asbury’s ethos statement stands firmly on the grounds of both a fully biblical vision of personhood, as well as the equally strong call to fully embrace all people without hesitation into the church as the locus of healing and redemption.

This summer we all witnessed the tragic collapse of the Champlain Tower condo in S. Florida.  The collapse is known as a “pancake collapse” as each floor fell it collapsed the floor beneath it.  But, remarkably structural engineers believe that the reason it fell was not because the upper floor or any of the floors were particularly weak, but because the foundation of the entire building was compromised and that ultimately the upper floors had no proper foundation to hold them up and so they collapsed.  In the same way, it is important that we look beneath the collapsing structures of our society and discern the deeper foundational erosions and cracks which is the deeper source of our cultural malaise.  Your task, through the preaching, teaching, and radically embracing pastoral care to reunite heaven and earth and restore to this culture the only true foundation for personhood; namely Jesus Christ, the incarnate One who came down from heaven for us and for our salvation.

So, Dr, Kinlaw, thank you for your wise and prophetic comment to me when I asked, “What is the greatest theological challenge we face in our day?”  Personhood.  Personhood.  May God grant each and every one of you the courage, wisdom and love to stand in the midst of this culture and recall, recover and remember a deeper vision, a more profound vision for life and identity and personhood which is only found in the Triune God.  Amen.



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