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Theonomous Personhood

As I've been reading about the Trinity, I've found myself admiring the community orientation, relational closeness and effective communication among members of the Trinity. God desires that we share in the Trinitarian life but we must first understand of what that life consists. It is one thing to admire a good relationship from afar and quite another to be invited to become part of that relationship. Already we've seen some features of Trinitarian life: love, reciprocity, equality, responsibility and recognition of what it means to be a distinct individual.

In chapter 3, entitled "Bonded In The One Love: A Share In The Divine Life", Michael Downey asks us to consider, "What is it to be human?" How we answer that question determines how we will think that we're supposed to enter into a Trinitarian spirituality. Downey reminds us that in the life of the Trinity there are no inferior persons and that the basis of their respect for one another is rooted in their uniqueness and distinctiveness. The closest example for him is to speak about the personhood of people with difficulties, especially in the mental realm.

Immediately I had a reaction to this. I had a rather uncomfortable experience with a person with Down syndrome the last time I went swimming. Danny came up to me with outstretched arms and a broad smile on his face, screeching with joy telling all in the changing room that I was the fat guy that he had seen on TV the other day. As I read Michael Downey's remarks on the exquisite humanness of the mentally handicapped, I wondered how this was representative of being human, embarrassing the crap out of someone else.

What a selfish thought! Danny had no intention of embarrassing me. What he wanted was a connection with me. His dad told me that he really loved watching a particular TV program and the funny large man made him laugh and feel at home. He was identifying me with that man. Had I been able to look past my own social embarrassment, my own arrogance that needed to define myself in terms of how I looked, I may have recognized this invitation to relationship. Instead of smiling nervously, and probably displaying my embarrassment, I could have opened my arms to Danny's expression of love. It was the reason that I couldn't do this that points out a significant barrier to my entering into the Trinitarian life.

I do not define being human primarily in terms of being with and living toward other people. I have opted for a culture-centered definition of what it is to be a human being. Being a human to me first of all means being intellectually capable. Secondly, it is something to do with making a contribution to the lives of other people. Thirdly, being human to me means being able to make choices and to carry through on my commitments. These are probably wonderful things in themselves but they're certainly not a Trinitarian understanding of being human. My definition centers on autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Were I to adopt Downey's understanding of humans as participating in the Trinity I would have to begin to see and respond to people from a different point of view. I would have to see people as primarily recipients of God's gift of life and that they are human only because of that. Just as with the Trinity, each person is a distinct part of the great variety that makes up one humanity of which we are all part. Here is how Michael Downey puts it:

But the mentally handicapped serve as a catalyst in the recognition that one's personhood is not grounded in what one does or achieves. They remind all of us, highly intelligent, strong willed overachievers, that our basic humanity, who we are as persons, lies elsewhere... the capacity to be toward others in a relationship of one, mutual love.

That day in the locker room it was Danny, not I, who exemplified the characteristics of being a human being open for relationship. Although neither he nor I recognized it then, that relationship is a relationship provided us by God, for God and toward God and others. I will have to remember this next time I'm feeling insecure because of my deficiencies, or feeling superior to other people because of my talents. It's a new way to look at being human, a much better way.

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