True Religion and Personalism
by Dr. Gary D. Knight
Abstract: Religion, especially the mandate “act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly before God” is personal and personalist, indeed Judeo-Christian humanist, in a sense that encompasses the philosophical. Philosophy has long had trouble receiving from religion (“we will hear from you again”), in part from a preoccupation with reductive science. We undertake here to reconsider how rich is a religion ‘of the Person’ stemming from the personhood of God, and outline how that perspective helped forebears like the Magi, or St. Augustine or St. Anselm - on their own search of ‘science’ as philosophical knowledge - to realize much more than they might without it.
Aside from logic and mathematics, the mind of ‘science‘ is less receptive today than a century ago to philosophy, forcing a self-conscious uphill trek to speak to physical science. The mysteries of relativity and of quantum theories seemed to invite the philosopher: time-space marriage, symmetry, causality, simultaneity, ghostly Casimir forces, Fermi repulsion or Bose condensation, vacuum states and entanglements with action at a distance, showed promise for metaphysics to raise its reputation from academic disputations. But as physical science came into greater need of philosophical clarity, interpretations became dismayingly hazier, from multi-world instantiations of selves, to retreats to empiricism.
With the value of natural philosophy in the balance, it is rare for the philosopher to aver that religion, a mistress from previous generations, may have much to say, and not only to the ‘semiotic’ contests of ethical systems.
It is fruitful to revisit encounters between religion and philosophy as science in the general sense of derived knowledge. For especially in a quest to understand the nature of persons and personalism, religion has much to say to a philosophy that risks becoming too attuned to the strictures of physical law and surface consistency.
True religion undefiled is: to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly before your God. It’s fair to exclaim, what could be more personalist?
As woven together [James 1:18 and Micah 6:8], James addresses what is pure and undefiled, especially justice and mercy to the most vulnerable; while Micah declares what God wants extended to all and everywhere: vulnerable or strong, near or far.
We will see that every part of this counsel expresses personalism in a pure form, not only because it comes from the mouths of prophet or apostle, personally addressing readers of scroll or letter. Personalism is at the message's heart, the heart of the Lord.
A philosophy is personalist to the extent of its interest in the nature of persons. But all wise counsels of the form ‘people are more important than things’ or ‘the sabbath was made for man’ are personalist: they elevate man in man’s eyes.
In the paradigm considered: to humbly love and act justly, the second term unlocks the rest. ‘Love tenderly’ is certainly personal, and it expresses personalism at its best. Nearly all Bible redactions have “love kindness” or “love mercy” in translation of ahavat chesed: the embrace of lovingkindness (cf. Micah 6:8, Orthodox Jewish Bible: OJB). Lovingkindness endears all humans, not just those near in relation or in body.
The bracketing terms are less obviously personalist. Justice can be viewed in a retributive sense (do the forbidden and face consequences), or a distributive one (give to each what is due, or to all what is indebted). The first is imposingly personal; the second if arguably personalist is not especially personal in its scope.
Humility before God, to a reader of Micah or James, is a no-brainer. What right mind would vaunt itself before its maker? Yet however; where lies this caveat’s personalism?
Delving further will bring a recognition that true religion is a religion of the Person. Acceptable to God is less a religion of book, creed, code, rite and ritual, bell and candle, than true religion of Personhood.
Religion in seven paragraphs
It is apt to ask what is ‘religion’, prima facie, and what comprises its truth as opposed to say guile, conceit or sophistry which may win acclaim even in a pulpit. If a political cause is religiously pursued, what distinguishes its verve from patriotic pluck: when is patriotism a pious civic virtue or a mass trust in fad? Are social ideologies religious, or are they mandates of an imperative whose category is social credit or contract?
A brief essay on personalism cannot treat the vastness of political theory, still less philosophy of religion. But for our purpose religion, operating even within political or secular ideologies, has an accepted meaning.
What binds in concord of mind and fervent belief we call religion. Its root, ligare connotes interpersonal bond, with implicit commitment and faithfulness. These implicates are personalist: for even if the object is ‘gods’ to whom fideism is paid, what draws persons to the shared ideal perforce ties them together, in dedicated relation.
A ‘god’ in religion can be the impersonal state, as in atheistic materialism, no less subject to a personalist evaluation. Secular ideologies tend to be held religiously, have their ardent adherents and priestly classes, and undertake to proselytize. Some posing as indifferent to religion, are fervent in this indifferentism. Pope Leo XIII equated indifferentist pluralism to atheism, which too is a religion: its non-theist ideal being the adherent’s or some other’s paradigmatic brain states.
As religion is necessarily broad, little or nothing at the heart of human culture is absent religious fervour: to reduce culture to language or shared racial memory is thus radically impoverished. Nations are built on religious glue, and dissolve with it too.
Religion enjoins personal devotions that signify covenantal commitment, swearing to “cross my heart and hope to die”, or to “seven myself”. The latter renders the Hebrew root for ‘seven’, ‘sabbath’, ‘swear’, ‘satisfy’, and ‘complete’, calling every seventh day to mark completion in God’s rest. Jesus underscored it at the bloody culmination of His redemptive work, saying ‘it is complete’. Augustine marked it saying “we are restless till we rest in Thee”.
There are then degrees of truth and purity to religion, and the highest standards if personalist. To minister to others morally at least as well as physically is key to its value. The Samaritan exemplifies it in salving wounds, but not only: also in affirming his charge’s humanity.
With a broad scope of religion so essential to human concourse, what God propounds is ‘true religion and undefiled’. Implicitly, some is truer, some purer, some fuller. On these scales, what in religion is less personalist is less complete and more impoverished.
Resting at Jacob’s well, Jesus adduced that God will have heartfelt worship neither there (alone) nor Jerusalem (alone), but from every person “in spirit and truth”. Jews in diaspora have long known this, as have so many Christians in missions or prisons.
Jesus qualified: “not those who say Lord, Lord, will enter, but those who do God’s will.” His will, declares Micah and James, is humbly to be just and loving to persons. “Be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy” cites God’s own Personhood. Whatever is less, in notions of good and right, depreciates what is achievable with grace: it ‘defiles' true devotion to persons. It sullies the Name to whom all should be drawn by the ministrations of persons.
That God has a Name to be glorified needs remembering; because a name, not an idea, is personal. To show abroad God’s personal love, one must undertake to love as He. In exemplary love, He acts not only justly but goes so far as to ‘justify’ others whom no-one else is able, or wants to.
Justice .. its personalist connection with lovingkindness
The mandate already seen is to be not minimalist in kindness, but to embrace lovingkindness. The phrase ‘love tenderly’ relates ‘tenderness’ as not only gentle (and certainly not diffident) but carefully tendered. It is full of assiduous care, born of empathy for another; and it is tendered: readily offered to any.
“Who is my neighbour?” was the question. A foreign alien who with compassion went to galling cost to wash the wounds of an assaulted traveller not even friendly to him, was his fellow. The paradigm ties caring directly to justice: it’s what God considers as owed to persons.
Justice zealously guards natural rights, the remnant of order in men’s souls. After lost rectitude of appetite, clarity of mind, and soundness of will, natural law is but a remnant order. Natural it is, not as pertaining to proclivity (which isn’t saving), but inasmuch as what’s left of innocence is embedded in the conscience.
Pleas to justice presume an awake conscience where debts of compassion speak loudly and cannot be ignored. Unsurpassed was Jesus’ own compassion, weeping over the slumber of conscience, doing all He could to revive it before sleep might snatch it away. Conscience is a vital faculty of the created soul; being kept awake is its due.
A thief embraced the Lordly words “forgive them, they know not what they do.” In repenting he ministered to Christ, as person ought to do to person, and heard “today you will be with me in paradise”. Assiduous care and balm of Gilead was laid on this livid soul of Dismas !
Mercy we almost expect or presume-on; but aversion to injustice is required. If personhood puts everyone on mutual account, it’s no different with God. The loving heart of the gospel has a key: the return of love, out of aversion for what injustice offends the Beloved.
Justice is a sine qua non whose neglect must be repented. A narcotized conscience, like the unrepentant thief, is lethal; but worse yet is to neglect a conscience that’s awake. For then it cannot be said “they know not what they do”.
To give what is due, care is needed to discern what, in God’s eyes, is due to someone of whom we think less. A tycoon thought Lazarus was due what he could scrape from gleanings at his door. He didn’t cast the beggar from his street; that should be worth something. But no, Lazarus was due a compassionate and generous spirit.
Justice is alive if personalist, lest law shame its Author by amounting to a dead letter. When retributive, it requires moderation by equity, a juridical virtue. If distributive, payers of tax or civic duties should find respect and appreciation for their part, even if enforced as a penalty.
At a minimum any system of levies must be humane and fair: to God is due our mutual affection, to Caesar his stamped coin. Thus lovingkindness justly applied: from contract labour to debt repayment, demands relief to mitigate all taint of slavery.
The law was to relieve a debt’s dues on its seventh year, and all indebtedness after seven sevens. The injunction to “lend without interest” didn’t obstruct trade, a force for employment: indeed astute investors with money exchangers were praised. But a dire peril lies in individualist interests: reason enough that pursuit of one’s fiduciary goals is discountenanced on the sabbath.
Jesus went on, enjoined forgiveness of moral dues until the debt might not even be claimed. Certainly that was a rebuff of ministrations whose purpose is not brotherly aid. Lawyers were shown up who ducked behind ‘policy' to abrogate the divine and natural law, overseeing the needs of elders (no state policy under natural justice can take precedence over personalist moral obligations).
In summary, justice before God is fully personalist and keeps persons ever forefront in mind. States who neglect to support and encourage it, pridefully dismissing natural rights, cannot long stand. All states, made and remade, are creatures subject to Personhood, especially God’s.