The question of identity — of what constitutes personhood, of what drives our deepest selves, of what the self is, if there is such a thing as “self” in the first place — has always been one of the fundamental questions of philosophy. For various reasons, the question of identity has seen a resurgence in popularity in the past decade, particularly among millenials, who have shirked the metanarratives of their parents in search of other, more satisfying explanations. Speak with a handful of intellectually-minded young people, and chances are you will receive wildly different answers on what is found at the centre of the human spirit. It is this clash of philosophical anthropologies that has created the sexual confusions, racial obsessions, and psychological divisions that are plastered on social media sites and in news articles. This leaves the reflective person feeling relatively hopeless that we can come to any kind of agreement on human personhood and its telos, that is, a being’s ultimate purpose.
The question of identity is of particular importance to Christians, not only because a proper understanding of personhood will deepen our comprehension of the thorough redemptive work of Jesus Christ in our lives, but also because we will find it next to impossible to engage the current cultural milieu without such an understanding. Inadequate ontologies will keep us from making a societal impact and will, ultimately, diminish God’s glory.
“Well and good,” you say. “But we know what personhood is. The Bible clearly states it. Humans are made in the image of God.” But what is the image of God? What does it mean to be made in His image? And if all humans are made in His image, saint and sinner alike, then what is foundationally at the core of being-human which can be identified no matter one’s salvific status?
In the first volume of his Cultural Liturgies trilogy, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith answers this question with a provocative thesis: humans are lovers, liturgical animals, driven by their desires. We are what we love. According to Smith, the best, most accurate way to think of humans is not as thinkers, not as believers, not as any-other-imaginable-ers, but as lovers. If God is Love, then humans are lovers — and it is through this lens of love and desire that we view and interact with each other and the world.
Before exploring the concept of human-as-lover, it would be helpful to explain how other models, which place thought or belief at the centre of ontology, are inadequate. This assertion — that faith or thought/worldview are not the essence of personhood — is undoubtedly scandalous to some. Both evidential and presuppositional apologetics, popular in Protestant intellectual circles, argue that humanity is essentially a cognitive creature — primarily driven by knowledge. Evidentialism posits that worldviews characterize humanity; our thoughts shape our understanding of the world, and whatever system of thought we adopt will frame our experiences and processing of events in both an individual and societal sense. It is from this that human nature is formed, that the essence of personhood is established. No, says presuppositionalism. Behind those systems of thoughts and worldviews are basic suppositions about how the world works, beliefs that fuel whether or not one subscribes to a natural or supernatural view of the world. These presuppositions are brought to the table before worldviews; they inform them, and as such they are the basis and essence of one’s humanness. Ultimately, everything comes down to faith, to what we as humans believe about the world and the actions, interactions, and lives that flow out of those modes of faith – fundamental heart commitments.
Both of these forms of apologetics take as their basis the assumption that man is essentially cognitive, that what drives him is his mind. Says Smith, “as a result, significant parts of who we are — in particular, our non-cognitive ways of being-in-the-world that are more closely tethered to our embodiment or animality — tend to drop off the radar or are treated as nonessential” (Smith, 46). The fact that we are embodied persons dwelling in the world with needs and desires and appetites does not seem factored into the cognitive philosophies of personhood. Or, if it is factored, a sort of lopsided duality is put into play, where physical, sensual appetites are seen as per se corrupt manifestations of nothing more than the flesh which Paul instructs the Galatian believers to crucify (5.24). One has to wonder, of course, what is made of Jesus’ more “earthly” activities, such as drinking wine, in this view of personhood.
There are a number of other demonstrable issues that arise from what we will term the “cognitive view” in addition to downplaying the significance of the fact that we are embodied creatures. One of the most prominent issues is the reduction of faith to intellectual assent: both belief in God and secular belief are presented as little more than the acceptance of a list of propositions. This is the “objectivity” which Kierkegaard so vehemently opposes in his pseudonymous work on the nature of faith, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. To view faith as merely a cognitive movement is to essentially reduce God to an object who can be grasped as other objects in the world; He is then just another phenomenon to be processed by the consciousness and categorized alongside other phenomena.
One is also required, in either one of the cognitive views, to downplay the reality of emotive experience. This can lead to the false repression of emotion and, if one is not careful, the persuasion that emotions are “weak” or even evil. This is often seen as a repudiation of some of the more fantastic elements of charismatic theology, an admittedly misguided hermeneutic that does, at least, understand that emotions are to be subsumed in one’s encounters with the Divine. But in attempting to shy away from those charismatic elements, one runs the risk of inadvertently blotting out portions of the greatest command to love the Lord with all of one’s being.
The third, but certainly not last, problematic concept arising from the cognitive view is the notion that all human motivation can be boiled down a worldview or framework of beliefs. There is certainly some truth to be found in presuppositionalism’s claim that the individual’s interpretation of reality rests upon the bedrock of particular, ingrained beliefs about the world, metaphysics, et cetera. But to stop there is to disregard the affective drive that pushes those beliefs as desirable to the individual, the desire that casts them into an alluring or horrifying light and causes Person A to accept them while Person B violently rejects them.
To conclude Part One of our examination — consider a simple thought experiment regarding choice. If you were to conduct a quick assessment of the choices you made today, asking what prompted you to choose whatever it was you ate for breakfast, the socks you are currently wearing [or not wearing], the route you took to work — the answer would be desire. You wanted to eat the particular food you ate, wanted to wear those socks, wanted to make that drive. The want, the desire, may have been so miniscule that it hardly registered. But the fact that you chose what you did is an indication of what you desired. Even the faintest impulse is still an impulse. Behind all choices we make are desires, and these desires, from the most reflexive to the most calculated, expose what is found at the core of our personhood: the truth that we are, in the words of Smith, “desiring animals.”
Smith, James K.A., Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, 2009.