by Dr. Gary D. Knight
We are persons entirely and only because God is Person (‘three times for emphasis’ said an elementary school teacher). Since personhood’s greatness is self-evident, He “than which no greater can be conceived” [the ‘nomen’ in St. Anselm’s Proslogion] must certainly have it.
God, if indeed He spoke to Anselm, could have said “that than which nothing greater exists”. But in Proslogion the nomen’s self-divulging mode addresses the lofty capacity of the human mind as something shared. This personal tone of ‘accompaniment’ is in stark contrast to a totalitarian state that says rather, it is that “than which nothing greater is permitted to be conceived”.
Implicit in the nomen is that God knows all conceiving, has rather much in His mind, and knows nothing greater than himself who has no knowable upper bound. As persons we can at least grasp the lower bound: such is the nature of mind: the image of mind God placed in persons.
The greater attributes of Himself that God does know become receivable in any mind that can conceive Him. Knowable perfections, truth, beauty, goodness Anselm placed con supremae in God. But that God would be at least as merciful as He must be just, could not be guessed (if Adam perhaps hoped it). A thought requiring it would be guilty of presumption, for it is deposited only in faith.
God’s excellence is so full and subtle that it is surprising how much does follow with contemplation of Anselm’s nomen, leading many to call it a ’proof’, explication or demonstration of God ontologically. But it is equally a deeply epistemic analysis and synthesis of what might even be sayable as ontology. If the nomen is a sort of code for the highest thing, its content is something knowable.
It is greater to create and define existence than to ‘have existence’, somewhat as defining beauty excels the having of it. So even the word ontology as science of the ‘given’ is hobbled in respect of the supreme Person. Better might be ontonomy of the First Person’s ways (used somewhat in this way by John Crosby), which guide us epistemically to infer a theonomic ontology.
In having unique place as the pinnacle of real, great and conceivable things, God inasmuch as giving a cognomen for Himself is in effect revealing as much of man to himself. To the claim that man is anthropomorphic in devising a personal God, God here shows Himself deopromorphic in making a mindful man after his own personal likeness.
Others in history
To guess this little about God, Anselm was not the first in history, and that only substantiates that it was evident if not patent. Seneca in Rome said the same thing about what Paul had called in Athens ‘the unknown God’: known-of but not known. To Seneca this must be the highest being above which nothing greater can exist.
So thought Zoraster, albeit that some gnostic anti-God was at work, destined to be bound. Before him Noe knew it in his heart, or he would not have acted so doggedly over many decades under promptings incomprehensible, for which others declared Noe mad. Our ‘father in faith’ must have known it. What but the greatest of Grandeur could have a right to take from Abraham the son miraculously given, or cull all but pairs of animals and eight humans including Noe?
God’s inimitable greatness was often guessed, and confirmed by revelation. Eternal greatness had to entail our personhood here-and-now, as a deposit of deifying promise and glory (Irenaeus). But if Irenaeus’ insight seems too lofty, Micah’s “walk .. before your God” uses the personal possessive. Undefiled before the God of persons is the religion of the Person.
Back to Anselm: God’s existence is knowable beyond guess, for we perceive the illimitable greatness of love. Mercy too might be divined, but its power to moderate justice, a ‘Goedel-inconsistency’ for those interested in logic, could not arise in the mind of man: the incom-prehensible, crowning divine attribute had to be revealed.
Augustine, whom Anselm adopted as a teacher, was blessed to distil the nub of this revelation saying: “You have created us for Yourself o Lord, and restless we are until we rest in You.” The nugget of mercy may not be quite obvious on the surface, but this insight claims that by gratuitous grace God’s upward-pull is felt as a charge or polarity in each person. Gratuitous grace is mercy; and mercy is proven by one brought home after wandering.
It turns out that to see this much is to grasp the full meaning of personhood. The part not strictly requiring revelation (though helped by Anselm’s summation) is the share that man intrinsically has with a mind and Person than which nothing greater can be conceived. That share for each person is uniquely human. But the other part: that each soul is destined for God by mercy, needs revealing: it is the soul’s identifying share in the divine nature.
Each person’s share in divine nature, including the pull still present in the absence of that nature (by sin), is called grace: a very fine reason for Augustine, formerly so reprobate, to have the title ‘Doctor of Grace’. And our ever-limited understanding of grace derives only from God revealing it: not only to the personal mind but, more often, experientially in gifts of compunction, contrition, consolation and communion, leading the soul to ponder.
What Augustine is saying about restless motion is that all roads or ‘spiritual flux lines’ are directed to God. Mercy is seen in that: although the wandering of some is lamentably eternal, the counselled choices by others are fulfilled by arrival. Warmth for these, a burning cold for the others.
Thus persons are godly (or god-like) beings who by given nature are oriented to approach God. Those infernal spirits that hold to an opposite undirected orientation are still vested with the polarity for God, and are ever in torment - a perversely chosen torment, for the sake of ‘owning themselves’.
This charged meaning is defining for the human. It’s easy to suppose I’m unto myself in principle, but as Paul says: “you are not your own”. Each is God’s first, and that defines irreplaceable identity. Electrons and like particles, God’s gift to physical reality, are indifferent to exchange, but for Himself did He create and redeem me, above the constituent atoms that come and go throughout life. That means I cannot be exchanged for anyone else.
Only persons minister to each other. Animals feed, preen, and signal one other, but not in pursuit of moral or abstract truth: the soul and mind’s staple food. Animals, required to look out for themselves or, at most, their den or flock, can hardly displease God (albeit that a reticent fig-tree stood condemned). But persons can and do displease God by failing to live up to their caring nature.
This too is defining as persons, for we even minister to God, this Person quintessential ! “We thank You Lord for counting us worthy to be in Your presence and minister” to Christ on the cross, Who so much desires our presence and embrace of His sacrifice. And what we do to our least, we do to Christ, as He said.
Now, when Micah, Isaiah and other prophets convey God’s counsel to tend to the infirm, lame, widowed, orphaned, poor and powerless, calling it true religion undefiled, they are saying something that’s less than miraculously revealed. A warm-hearted humanist can achieve true religion so long as his posture to God is also humble. But the recognition that God is in the other because the other, like me, is restless till he or she rests in God, and has no meaning outside of God; comes only by supernatural revelation in the Person of Jesus.
The religion of Jesus is to go beyond even Micah, past what James will call a necessary minimum or sine qua non, of humble care and justice, till we “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Being impossible to unaided nature, never could it have been guessed - without this revelation in Christ - that by grace it is made possible.
Even for sincere nonChristian religion, ministering affirms wounded personhood. But our ministry to Christ embraces and affirms - even for us - His saving person; while His ministrations to us redeem our lost dignity.
Thus ministering at any level expresses the moral charge drawing all to ‘rest in God’, as the God-charge awakens conscience. If personalist philosophers vary on the irreplaceability of persons to ’save the phenomena’, supernatural revelation (supported by true religion) informs it univocally: I’m irreplaceable because no-one else fulfills God’s eternal purpose.
What unbelieving ethicist can deny the right of others to believe and practice what they know? The truth cuts both ways: to diminish my concern or empathy is to demean the dignity of (or my asserted dignity of) personhood, pleasing God less. Acts less just or loves less tender walk in hubris before the God of persons, betraying only a conviction that everyone else is just wrong.
Natural law - a consequence of religious personalism
Personalism, or true religion as bond of lovingkindness lived with boots to the ground, is Judeo-Christian humanism. It is made Christian when we include grace or, what is the same thing, the answer to the question “Who is the meaning of life” - that being Jesus Christ. Classical philosophers were asking what: the wrong question, which never found a settled answer.
Secular humanism for its part is far afield, lacking a just humility before God called-for by Micah. Even so, of two secular trends: one stressing humanism, another skepticism, a person embracing the first can, like Seneca, or Anthony Flew, arrive at faith’s doorstep.
Consider the patient who nail-bitingly awaits a biopsy pathology report. Above all what he or she does not want is false negative, in other words a hidden positive. Few doctors are concerned by negative biopsies, so a false negative means having a medical condition without the interest or attention of medicine to pursue it.
How harmed is man where a thing seditious to truth or treacherous to life, even inner life, is held of no account. Positive rights may be assigned for noxious things taken as innocuous; and if any humanists inclined to redress this are ‘religionists’ silenced by the state, who can save? Can niggling doubt? By skeptics doubt is sore rehearsed till, as prevenient grace, it is lost. It then cannot move anyone to a higher humanism properly ready to credit natural rights.
Natural rights are a rule of law, however opaque its ‘jurisprudence’ may seem. It is no abstract rule, although it gained the moniker from long scholastic bouts: full humanity is necessarily personalist, and not in the weak arms-length sense as in: ‘to each his own’.
The ideal of natural law is the person. An ideal is that for which all effort, time and attention is spent: thus the ideal of theology is Christ. Personalism, as engaged by Micah and James in declaring for true religion - the thing needed for free and happy society (if Aristotle didn’t quite get to that realization) - has natural right as its ideal. Thus natural rights and personhood are in near equivalence: to demerit one is to detract from the other.
Humanists — even who respect natural rights — may claim the ideal redounds to the horizontal. If precepts that emerge from some introspected lawfulness are best for human peace and concord, why need religion be part of them? That question, failing to see that religion is not the part but the whole, will overlook the third leg: “humbly walk before God”. Skeptics downplay the “supremacy of God” predicative of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the ‘trust in God’ as America’s grounding.
Are pious phrases like “in God we trust” or “semper fidelis” in other words window-dressing, or does natural law (and common law principles which stand on it) fall apart without them? If I am not irreplaceable, will ‘no man’ really be left behind? May a spina bifida fetus not be aborted to try for another!
The difficulty is that on its own, natural law is hard to plumb or fully discover in terms that everyone finds consistent and inescapably true. The hard reality is that without many or all cooperating with grace, even advocates of natural law may adopt perspectives in accord with the survival of the fittest. They can define ‘fit’ as most able to contribute to common humanity in this life.
Another source of diffidence towards Christian-sounding natural law lies in awareness that the encyclopedia for this law is the human conscience. If it is not recognized as a central faculty of the immortal soul and place where God speaks unbidden, conscience is thought to be relativist, unreliable, individualist and even egotist. In some irony, secular persons embrace individualist situation ethics; but irony alone is no answer to their diffidence.
On hearing a witticism in common law: “hard cases make bad law”, or “I must face my accuser and not to be subject to entrapment” (arguably a defence against photo radar), it is conscience that assents to the adage’s aptness. The word ‘right’ is coined from the assent of conscience: “that’s right”. In French, tu as raison means literally, “you have reason”, and ‘droit’ (right) means not sinister. A reverse implication: “if you are not sane or sound you will not agree” is what annoys the secularist.
Implicit parallels between impeccable sanity and true religion put any skeptic off. He considers himself saner than anyone else: especially any believing what they cannot prove. He demeans or forgets what ‘proofs’ might have persuaded him of so little in the first place, soon doubting that he knows anything at all. To know nothing rather puts you out of a conversation about it.
The other retreat for the secular humanist is to claim that law and policy must support the freedoms of all, none of whom agree on what is ‘true’ or ‘pure’. If all have divinely breathed consciences, how is it they variously hear competing principles? One says that life is inviolable in all circumstances; another says it can be improved by killing, as part of evolution. Albeit that threatened babies can never evolve into self-defenders, where is the insanity in the latter view; or the compelling absolute of the first?
A resolution lies in the pure religion precept, as it always favours the sacred human before us, and is not framed on an ideology that pits, for instance, a mother’s aspirations against her child’s. Ideological dialectics like that are artificially, artfully contrived to make bad law.
The absurd dilemma of a wife of seven on the last day started with disbelief in the resurrection, to embarrass it. Ideological dialectics like the vying of labour against management, women against men, or preferred gender against nature’s given all start from disputation of creation itself, presuming to remodel it. Even so, a power to change nature is not some ‘common humanity’ - the leitmotif of humanism. Still less is it individual irreplaceability.
Secularists would manage the variance in human belief by enforcing a ‘highest law‘ of ideological pluralism. It sees in itself a superior indifference, but in reality radical intolerance is its downfall. Religions with great humanity, who openly and with apologetical effort proselytize, are anathema to ideological pluralism. “Thou shalt not say.”
Pluralism’s first commandment is, in other words “be it ever thus”. No preaching is allowed; and that of course is radically antithetical to the heart and soul of major world religions, not just Christianity.
A religionist who ‘acts justly, loves tenderly, and walks humbly before his God’ is doing what is best in fact, in God’s own eyes, just because he or she is fully invested in personhood. Proclamation is an act; and what you believe with warmth and zeal, shared kindly and with respect, betokens humility before God. One may be sharing a truth and conviction which can save another whose view or practice misses the mark of truer life and ministry.
The genius of James and Micah is that in an open forum, never neglecting to respect the human person made in God’s image, and even irreplaceably destined to Him, ever showing kindness to aliens and opponents, an unbloody contest for proselytizing can only lead to enlargement of the good. If a religion has a greater hold on the truth of man and his destiny, then its practice, making every effort for others to avail of it, should to itself attract the many.
For the Christian, this counsel for pure religion of the person is pivotal, because those humbly ministered-to in justice and lovingkindness are without blemish shown the God for whom they are made. Until one feels ministered-to, he or she will less likely know they are for God.
Jesus’ saying “if I am lifted up I will draw all unto me” entails that if we fail to draw others, then some motive or practice is not pure and undefiled. Somewhere we are not acting justly (eg. to occlude the saving truth is to vitiate it), or loving tenderly (leaving people to their own opinions may be callous), or being humble (supposing received graces are for me alone), perhaps not believing that we are irreplaceable for God.
Faults in all this mandatory love for one another are for us to own and correct; it is not for a state to expel religions from it, for that would be adding final insult to the injury of poor religious witness. Following Justin the martyr, it is not for a state to declare what is better religion; it is for the state as an impartial referee to allow the best to prevail.
In the present post-modern world it is easy and perilous for the state religiously to arrogate to itself the superior office and stance of a social order that claims being better off without religion. A simple example shows this divergence from sanity. Only months have passed since Canadian supreme court justices unanimously ruled as if there were a tacit right to suicide. Legislation followed.
So much as even to entertain a right of a subject to remove himself from subjecthood by suicide is radically to undermine that in which a state consists, and to whom it owes protection. The damage is manifold, not least the vitiating of interests in the suicidal, or research in treatable mental health. Suicide prevention has taken a nosedive, with thousands of subjects positively assisted to kill themselves, with pressure now extended to minors.
If a state does not stand to protect its weakest and most vulnerable from bad and seditious ideas, it is no state at all. Knowing that, it will have to preserve whatever it is by totalitarian means, dismissing the expressive freedom of religions. It must suppress the conscientious objections even of humanist, let alone religionist, or doctors paid by the public to assist at suicides or refer the suicidal to a willing euthanist.
All of this is intractable opposition to natural law, the undoing of the essence of what it is to cohere as a free state. It cloaks seditious and treasonable thought behind the errors of an illustrious judiciary. Nothing could be darker, or more beg for spiritual reparation.
If Natural Law is saving, why the bloody 20th Century?
This is a scandal that has unfairly undermined all respect for natural law. An anecdotal reason consists in the story that satan boasted in 1874 to destroy the Church in a century (and with it, civilization). It would seem the infernal goal was nearly met.
The destruction visited on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ world in the past century, was not limited to the horrors of antisemitism. Nietzsche had said he despised Judaism because it gave rise to Christianity; and the nazification of Germany stood as stark testament of masses entranced by this nihilism, who held the survivor as fittest. As soon as objectors arose citing Newman’s views on conscience, they were tried and summarily executed, even as teenagers.
Before those days, the view became prevalent of man as grist for mills — whether industrialized mills run by arms makers, or a revolutionary mill of state owning resources and souls. Armaments, said Bernard Shaw (seconded by JRR Tolkein), promoted bloodbath; and desensitized language for bloodshed came from socialist revolutions, as Orwell saw later. Both inhumanities remain with us.
Eugenics too did not have its raw beginnings in Germany under Goebbels and Mengele, who worked its dark art. Margaret Sanger and her present disciples brought it to a lucrative art, now taken as stewardship of the planet. What the ‘high ground’ of pluralism is today, was the ethos of ‘racial hygiene’ yesterday: to be a proselyte draws the same anathema now as being poor and fecund then.
It does remain that natural law is salvific, if attended-to with all the ardour called for by Micah and James. But because of the obduracy and high-mindedness of sophisticates, something more needs to be grasped.
Clever ethicists today will feign to accept what natural law, or even Anselm’s nomen suitably plumbed has to say about the unique humanity of every person. Yet, they argue forcibly that inconvenient persons are replaceable in the grand view of things, purportedly in line with ‘natural law’ as expressed by impersonal ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘natural selection’.
Recapping: a role for personalist philosophy
What needs to be realized again is that every human being is irreplaceable, not from a perspective of nature in the raw, but from the perspective of the God of nature, who gives each person (even the ethicist) their meaning most essentially. Despite the fact that this claim does not belong to philosophy, and philosophy is the only voice that sophisticates will pretend to heed (because they can manipulate it), there is but one answer. The ethicist himself has no natural right to impose on society the consequences of denigrating the firm belief of a religionist that both the religionist and the sceptic are created for eternal life. Out of that might flow dialogue.
As to the findings of personalist philosophy from its own humanist resources, Anselm (unwittingly) charted the whole territory. But Augustine before had scoped key elements of revealed mercy that fully inform personalism - such as personal irreplaceability - from the perspective of informed faith: a faith in-formed by grace.
It is not that a theology of the person could have little to say to human philosophy: on the contrary it gives to the philosopher the stone through which even what stands in apparent contradiction (eg. divine mercy moderating perfect justice) is amenable to discussion and consequences in the mystery of man. So it is a matter of the lacuna of philosophy itself.
Unaided, philosophy cannot or will not broach mystery. St. Paul rightly said “by philosophy I cannot preach Christ crucified” - a sharp indictment. It means that philosophy cannot save, and is a peril in its appeal to mental pride. But accepting the ‘aptness’ that Anselm used as his heuristic, philosophy and humanist ethics can at least be made open to a full in-formation by the saving Truth. Then philosophy can try to act as handmaid to theology - but even then only if the theologian is a believer first.
a sequel to: True Religion and Personalism