Who? Someone - A Theological Account of Being a Person

September 26, 2022

Who? Someone - A Theological Account of Being a Person

Michael P Jensen

I Who?

A photograph of a face, unsmiling.

The black smudges of fingerprints in a series of boxes.

A line of DNA code.

A criminal record.

A curriculum vitae.

The name, and the dates, on a headstone.

Beloved wife of –.

II Someone

What is the difference between someone and something? [1]

We are aware (almost without being conscious of it) that there is a distinction between these two, and perhaps that is already significant enough. Someones are those we treat with a particular baseline of dignity, because as someones ourselves we can imagine that someone else is like us, with all our self-awareness, our hopes, our needs and our feelings.

Let me put it starkly: you can eat something, but you can’t eat someone—which is why it is difficult to think of eating an animal that has a name (unless perhaps that name is something like ‘Bacon’ or ‘Chops’). Who you can eat—sorry, what you can eat—is more than a linguistic trick of the light or the difference between a couple of letters. It is literally a matter of life and death, and one of the most complex philosophical questions of our times.

And what it comes down to is this: the category of being a someone means that you are not simply an object for the use of someone else. You are not merely a means to someone else’s end. You are, as someone, an end in yourself.

Now this is an extremely powerful statement for human beings to hear, because we so desperately want to be someones (and I am not talking about going on the X-Factor here) and not somethings. We long for our someoneness to be recognized by others. We are appalled by the atrocities that can be committed when we blind ourselves to the someoneness of other human beings, or restrict the category of someoneness to the members of a particular race or class.

The horrible thought, and one that we haven’t been able quite to hide, is that it is by no means obvious by reasoning alone what constitutes someoneness—other than acceptance and recognition by other someones. The quality we feel is so inherently in us is in fact subject to its recognition by others. Someoneness seems to be a kind of exclusive club. And perhaps the judgment of the club is faulty, even extremely faulty.

We can detect in a middle-aged, articulate, white, tax-paying male all the obvious features of someoneness. He is simply radiant with it. But where our vision is obscured and we can’t see[2]—into the womb, or into the ante-chambers of death (the aged care facility or the palliative care unit)—we lose our nerve, and start to bring out our calculators. Just what is that—person?—costing? What ‘quality of life’ can they have (as if quality of life had somehow become the measure of what it is to be someone and not an object, and as if this was measurable in any case)? We cannot, or dare not, imagine (another ‘seeing’ word, note) what it is like to be them, and so we are tempted to withhold someoneness from them. They are not present to us in their someoneness.

What this difficulty in trying to give a non-arbitrary, non-metaphysical but rational account of someoneness leaves us with is the problem of admitting that we can’t readily explain what someoneness is, although we encounter someones all the time. We have to make decisions about whether or not those we encounter are someones or somethings—in the abortion clinic, at the abattoir and on the battlefield. And yet, we struggle to come up with infallible and epistemically accessible criteria on which to do this; from which it follows that we risk making appalling mistakes.

III Who?

Tell me about yourself:

Coke or Pepsi?

Nike or Adidas?

Ford, Holden or Toyota?

Corporate or casual?

Skim or full-cream?

Mac or PC?

He or she?

IV A Person

The Latin word persona referred in the first instance to the masks that performers in the ancient theatre wore to represent different characters. A persona was literally a role—a part played by someone in a drama. Of course, when you are acting you simply pretend to be someone else. You might wear a costume, or fake an accent. But everyone knows that this isn’t who you truly are.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian (160-220) was the first to adapt the term persona for use in Christian theology. Later, great theologians like Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) admitted that this language made them squirm a bit, because quite clearly the ‘persons’ of the Trinity were not merely masks that disguised the real God. God isn’t an actor masquerading in a play. How he acts is who he is.

By ‘person’ Augustine meant someone who speaks and acts—especially in the great biblical story of salvation. Now, we moderns know of machines that ‘speak’ and ‘act’; so we might want to qualify this a little in terms of intentions and the will. A person is someone who expresses his or her intentions in words and acts, and responds to the words and actions of others. They are able to think about what they are doing, to feel regret, or nostalgia (which is not what animals do). They are a self-reflective agent of communication, we might say. 

This definition immediately shows that we are talking about an individual within a web (or potential web) of relationships. To apply the notion of ‘personhood’ to God means that God is a being who says and does things, and in saying and doing them, does them to and for others. God also (in some sense) responds to human persons.

This is a God with whom we can have a relationship in a similar way that we might have a relationship with a human being. And the Bible certainly uses the language of interpersonal relationships as a model for our relationship with God. The foundational biblical ideas of reconciliation, justification and redemption are all words drawn from the spheres of human relating. So it makes sense to think of God as a person, since it is these personal ideas that are at front and centre of how we are to think about what the Christian gospel brings about. 

But which came first? Do we think of God as ‘personal’ because that is a concept we know from human experience and seek to apply analogously to him? Or does it work the other way around: are we to understand our personhood—our someoneness, as I have been calling it here—as deriving from God?

We need to distinguish between the epistemology of the question and the ontology of it. The language of ‘person’, as we have seen, has a particular etymology and has been pressed into use in the service of theology—and carefully qualified and modified in the process. It is fair to say that we begin to understand God’s ‘personhood’ as in some way analogous to our personhood.

But, being theologians, we can’t stop at that point. The one of whom we speak is not finally to be understood in terms that we know from human experience with the volume turned up full. If that were the case, we would know nothing; for the one we so describe we know as the one who creates, redeems and completes the cosmos in which we live. He is the source of all life, and the source of all meaning, coherence and order. The biblical narrative shows us that our personhood derives from his as creator and redeemer, and not the other way around.

We share in his being, and not he in ours.

V Who?

Why did you do it?

-I was not myself that day.

-I was intoxicated. I can remember nothing.

-I deny it absolutely.

-It was out of character.

-I am not responsible for the things I did.

VI A Purpose

In the final weeks of his life in 2008, the novelist David Foster Wallace seemed to realise that he was never going to finish the novel he had been working on for a decade, The Pale King—at least not to his satisfaction. His biographer D.T. Max described the scene that greeted his wife when she came home to find that he had hanged himself:

In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Pietsch [his editor]. The story of ‘David Wallace’ was now first. In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it. Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel over the past decade. This was his effort to show the world what it was to be ‘a f*** human being’. He had never completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen. [3]

The novelist, as Max wants us to see, tried to make sense from the chaos of existence in his own humanity, his someoneness, as in his art—but failed, tragically. For a post-post-modern novelist like Wallace, hyper-alert to the fact that the order of a narrative is an artifice laid on top of the bits and pieces of real life, the challenge proved too great. The extra pages of the work strewn all around the neat pile of pages in the tidied-up manuscript couldn’t and wouldn’t fit—but there they were; and they were a metaphor for the many complications of a life story, not the least of which are the way in which parts of our experience appear to be an invitation to a kind of meaning, but then prove to be a mirage. What was that experience for? In trying to show the world what a ‘f-ing human being’ was, Wallace was shouldering an impossible burden for anyone. Suicide was, at least as Max the biographer hints, the rescuing of a tiny shard of meaning, if not dignity, from the rubble of existence.

That feeling of fragmentation was also expressed by the theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison cell. He could see his future slipping away—his talent unrealised, his fiancée unwed, his future children unborn, his books unwritten. What could be meant by such a life? Who was this person who he was—since clearly he had imagined another story for his own life?

He wrote with a barely concealed disappointment:

Fundamentally we feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle. It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death…we are too inquisitive for that—or, to put it more seriously, we should like to see something more of the meaning of our life's broken fragments.[4]

Using the pronoun ‘we’ concealed somewhat the emotion of this piece—what would put together his ‘life’s broken fragments’? He could not see how it would work, or what it was for.

Later, he wrote:

One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.[5]

Not ‘to make something of oneself’: that was the lesson he had learned, since it was simply a futile exercise. For Bonhoeffer, the only path a human being could really take is the one of denying the self: of ceding to the Divine Father the significance of one’s life and the meaning of one’s own personhood. He would write most powerfully of this in his famous poem ‘Who am I?’, a poem in which he plays with the various personae he could assume but finally realises that he is unknown even to himself: all he knows ultimately of himself is that he is God’s, in Jesus Christ.

What Bonhoeffer helps us to see is that the significance of who we are lies ahead of us and not behind us, in the past. We are accustomed to seek meaning and purpose in origins. But it is God’s promise to judge the world—to ask every human being to answer for what they have done—that underwrites the coherence of our existence as personal individuals. We think, speak, act and relate, and are held to be someones, because there is a divine judgment coming on these things. We have been asked to respond to him. As Hebrews 4:13 says

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Here is a promise that, though we experience things as aporiae, God himself does not. Though we do not see what the story is, God takes responsibility for tying up the loose ends, by holding us responsible for our lives.

This is a comfort in that even though I cannot see the sense in my existence, I must act as if there will be a sense one day revealed to me. My someoneness is not a factor of my acceptance by other like someones; it is given to me by the someone from whom my someoneness itself derives.

But it is also extremely disturbing: since taking responsibility for my life is something I cannot bear, even though I am called to. But Jesus, as ‘the one man for us men’ does bear the responsibility for human life, taking on himself the burden of human iniquity, approaching the Father as the one human being ‘made perfect in suffering’ (Heb 2:10). By completing in himself the story of all human being, Jesus makes available to us the fulfilled humanity of his own life.

This does not deliver us entirely from the wrestle we have in the present time with the question who are you? But it does give us the inkling that the promises of meaning we sense all around us and in us are not simply illusions. They are hints of more to come.


Finding the story of ourselves is elusive. The gospel declaration is of a coming judgment in which all will be called to account—it is meaninglessness that is the illusion, not meaning. The gospel also declares that God himself has provided, in the human sphere, an individual who—a someone whose someoneness is complete in a way no other who has ever been; and in whom we might have put together the pieces of our broken someoneness.                                                                                                                                 

[1] The phrase comes from the title of German philosopher Robert Spaemann’s book Persons:

The Difference Between "Someone" and "Something", trans O. O’Donovan (OUP, 2006).

[2] And I really literally mean ‘see’—our recognition of the personhood of others has to do with our looking into their faces and seeing something recognizably like ourselves.

[3] D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, 2012), p301.

[4] D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (SCM, 1971), p16.

[5] Ibid., p369.

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