Human identity is one of the big questions – and the second question posed to Prof. Heidi Maibom (Philosophy, University of Cincinnati) and Prof. N. T. Wright (Theology and New Testament Studies, University of St. Andrews) in their 2017 Veritas Forum dialogue A Courageous Conversation About Life’s Biggest Questions. The opening exchange in the discussion of this question is embedded below. The clip opens with Prof. Maibom. Prof. Wright’s comments start at about 3:48.
As he did in response to the question on knowledge, N. T. Wright comes back to the importance of love. We are shaped by community and relationships. Love is a key component of Christian community – although certainly not unique to this community alone.
I want to say again, at the risk of sounding like a cracked gramophone record, … I am loved, therefore I am. And I put it that way, rather than I love therefore I am, though I would say that as well, because it seems to me that as humans we discover who we are when somebody loves us or some creature loves us, it might be a dog, it might be some other nonhuman creature, who makes us feel more truly who we are. But ideally in some kind of family or friendship or ecclesial or communal context we discover who we are because of other people’s love at whatever level. And it seems to me that has to do with the Christian idea, which in the nature of the case is not just a Christian idea, but sheds light on other things, of being made in order to be part of community, of discovering who we are in and for a community. Because, of course, if you are loved, then the most natural thing to do is to love in return and in turn to be part of that wider community of love.
Now one of the biblical phrases, which sums up a lot of what it means to be human, is a rather odd sounding technical phrase called the royal priesthood. The priests and kings in the ancient world were the crucial mediators between the divine and human, between the transcendent and the immanent, or whatever. But in the book of Genesis, the idea of this hierarchy, these very few people in a society who mediate between God and the world is democratized and all humans are to be people who stand in between or at the convergence of heaven and earth. With heaven seen here … as the thing which is the other dimension, which is mysterious, which is around us and which actually desires to make its home with us. So that as Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” So, for me humans are discovering constantly who they are by loving, and particularly by being loved, and in that process stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, with responsibilities as it were in both directions. And the responsibility of caring for other creatures … for me it is more about actually discovering the extraordinary value of a self, but the paradoxical value because the most important thing you can do with your self is to give it away. And that is what love is all about.
In the conversation that follows it is clear that Prof. Maibom, while disagreeing with the role of God, agrees on the importance of community in making us the creatures we are. Wright goes on in response to discussion of identity reflecting on the pain caused by dementia and other mind-altering diseases.
Just a bit into this segment (44:48 in the full video) Wright comments:
There is continuity, such that if that continuity is broken by a terrible accident of another sort which results in somebody having, as we say, a different personality then there is a real shock wave goes through the community of other lives that person then touches or is touched by where they don’t know who this is any more. When somebody has had a real serious illness that is a problem. And I think one of the reasons we find dementia so difficult to deal with in families and so on is because this doesn’t seem to be the same person we have known and loved. And that’s part of the brokenness of the world, to which the only answer of course is more generous love more ability to go out and meet this person where they now are and assure them of safety and love and so on, though that’s tough. … Some of the most alive people I have ever known are people who in that sense make sure they are going out and living for others and looking out for others. And who as result, seem to grow in themselves, precisely because they’re not taking themselves in a selfish sense seriously.
As our parents age – and even on occasion as our children move out on their own – this one hits home. The only answer is more generous love – reaching out to people where they are now. Change is inevitable as we live, grow, and eventually die.
Love, of course, runs through the Bible, and especially the New Testament. As we read in 1 John 4 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Love shapes us and forms us. The absence of love has devastating consequences in human development and human society.
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