The Call to Personhood

In The Call to Personhood Alistair McFadyen expresses concern about two unsatisfactory conceptions of individuality and personality, these two conceptions are Individualism and Collectivism. Individualism attempts to maintain personal freedom and autonomy and Collectivism tries to take social relations and institutions seriously. However, when each of these two conceptions of personality get pressed too far in either direction there are damaging effects. Thus, McFadyen attempts to chart a via media between these to options. He attempts to construct a third conceptuality which “can do justice to personal freedom and autonomy whilst simultaneously acknowledging the role of social relations and institutions.” (5)

In his attempt to construct a third way McFadyen ends up drawing from a number of theologians and philosophers including Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Habermas, Miklas Luhmnann, and Karl-Otto Apel. Most significantly, however, McFadyen’s conception of personhood is shaped by Martin Buber’s philosophy which conceived of personhood in terms of dialogue, i.e the “I and Thou” relation. As such, McFadyen claims that “Individuality, personhood and selfhood do not…refer to some internal independent source of identity, but to the way one is and has been in relation.” (18) This claim is grounded in his understanding of Christian theology. When God created human beings, God created them in his own image. For McFadyen this means that God created them in such a way that they are dialogue partners in God’s address to them. A human being, theologically conceived, is the kind of being characterized by being in a personal relation of “call and response” or “gift and return” of dialogue with God. (19) A human images God’s word by responding to it. (21) Using Buber’s language, McFadyen says that “We are addressed as the Thou corresponding to God’s I. We are called thereby to become, in our turn, is Is in response, to enter personal relationship – a relationship in which our distinct identities are a requirement: Dialogue.”  (22) The “vertical” I-Thou relation with God is reflected in our horizonatal I-Thou relations with other created beings.

The notion that personhood is an I-Thou existence is built upon McFadyen’s Trinitarian theology. The Father, Son, and Spirit are “Persons in relation and Persons only through relation.” (27) God’s ontology is foundational for all ontology, “Persons are what they are only through their relations with others.” (27)

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to unpacking the implications of this conception of personhood. For example, McFadyen develops a theory of the persistence of personal identity and of the self in light of this relational ontology. If Being a person means existing in relation, then for example, personal identity cannot be asocial. A person’s identity is the sedimentation of “moments of moral responsibility within concrete relations.” (73) Embodiment plays a significant role in the formation of identity, since each individual – while being related – is distinctly located in a particular space and time. Thus in some sense identity is a “location” which is related to other “locations.” McFadyen explains, “The body is not, then, a closed boundary between exclusively private and public life, but a field of communication, a point of punctuation.” (89) One implication of his view of identity is that there is no need for some substance which identity attaches itself to. Identity, and the self, simply is how this particular body relates to other bodies. When a person distinguishes between the unique space-time location of the “I” and sees how it is differentiated from other space-time locations, a theory of self emerges, and thus a personal identity emerges. When significant reflection about how the “I” exists in relation to other “thous” or “its” a more robust sense of self develops. The self’s reflections of the I, however, are not transparent or accessible to others (directly), so in one sense the self is closed to the world. Yet at the same time, the self is determined by the network of relations that it exists within, thus the self is ex-centric. What this means is that persons “are punctuated open systems.” (106) The rest of the book is dedicated to developing what this conception of personhood and the self would mean for the Christian understanding of the gospel and for social institutions, including the church, personal relations, and political relations. In this way, McFadyen accomplishes his goal of developing a concept of persons and the self which is neither individualistic (in an atomistic sense) nor collectivist (in the sense that personal identity is diminished).


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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