Chapter 3: The Human Person

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: The Human Person

None of us can live to, of, and for self alone. To be human is not only to “become” but also to “belong” — to belong with other people, sharing with them in the human situation, participating in their interests, receiving from them and giving to them. This is why talk about ourselves as “individuals” is misleading; we are not so much individuals as persons. The dictionary definition of individual is ‘one instance of a class, species, or type”; no mention is made of relationships. But the word person suggests — or ought to suggest, if we have regard for the historical development of its usage — just such relationships, contexts, and setting. When people speak of individuals, they usually imply a stress on the self alone, almost, if not always, in isolation or separation from others. When they speak of persons, they imply the notion of social belonging in which men and women are so related that one might very well say that personality and sociality are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same reality.

In this chapter we shall begin with exactly those ideas, first with reference to ourselves. Then the next chapter will be a consideration of the one other to whom we are most intimately related, be it wife or lover or husband or very close friend. After that we shall look at wider relationships, first with the family and then with neighbors. Finally, we shall discuss the “city,” or the broad and inclusive social group to which we belong. The purpose throughout will be to arrive at some understanding of what human becoming and belonging signify. It is natural that we start with our own self-awareness as this or that person. Yet we cannot remain there because (as I have urged) our specific human identity is largely dependent upon where we are, with another and with others and in genuine rapport with the human world as a whole.

I have just been speaking about our belonging; but we must also remember that to be human is to be becoming something or other. That is of first importance since in our self-awareness we do not feel as if we were “finished articles” but know that we are “on the move.” This fact of our experience is not always given the attention it deserves, and many times descriptions of humankind are produced that suggest a quasi-morphological portrayal, as if human existence were like counting the spots on some insect or were like a diagram of a dead cat as it is studied in a biological laboratory. This sort of description may have value in certain scientific contexts, but if taken by itself it can be radically false.

We have seen that the world in which we exist is itself a matter of becoming and belonging. The evolutionary nature of things is plain enough; so is its societal quality. Evolution in this sense is no longer a matter of opinion, despite the crazy program of the so-called creationists in the United States. Evolution is an established fact about the world. Obviously the sort of change and the time span in which such change takes place varies from level to level — a rock does not change in the same fashion as an animal does. But it would be wrong to think that this denies change, just as it would be absurd to assume that everything “moves” in a manner identical with everything else. Still, general principles can be applied as widely as our knowledge goes; I have already made suggestions about such principles.

Now in a world like that, the ultimate constituents are events and not “substantial entities” to which predicates may then be attached if we wish to do so. The reality is the process: that is the point of the title of Whitehead’s Gifford lectures, Process and Reality. Ordinary observation by a beholder might seem to give us a different picture. We speak of this table at which I am now sitting. Yet any informed person knows that the table is an astonishingly complex mass of whirling bits of energy or moments of activity. Its hardness and permanence are in one sense an illusion; to speak of them is convenient and important in some respects but misleading in the last analysis. In one sense, too, each of us has an identity; but that is to be found in a series of routings of events and experiences that are held together in some sort of unity of direction. These can appear to give us both permanence and some sort of fixity. There certainly is the identity; but it is not the kind that depends upon absolute changelessness.

In the world as we now know it to be, all the constituent events are held in some sort of continuity of aim or intention, whether this is consciously or unconsciously entertained. Of course, the potentiality for each given occasion may not be vividly realized. When things are going rightly, toward actualizing their potentiality, the achievement is not independent of other occasions but in real dependence upon them. There is an interrelationship here that impels us to think organically. Human existence is a clear instance of this social process. Thus, we must say that each human life affects and influences others, as it is itself affected and influenced by them. We know that we cannot escape our social context; it is an inescapable fact for us humans, as for all else in the creation. Hence, we find fulfillment possible in just such social contacts with others of our kind. And this business of fulfillment implies goals toward which our existence points. Here once more is a human application of a general truth. With it we know also that we are able to decide, in some genuine freedom, for or against these goals, in that we can cut off one possibility by adopting another. Basically, the goal for each one of us is to become, in our belonging, as completely human as is possible for us. Alas, it is also possible for us to opt for non-actualization of the goal and thus to fall into sheer repetition of prior states or to rest content with the status quo and thereby fail to advance at all toward this completeness.

For us humans, as in the world as large, persuasion rather that coercion is effectual in bringing us to our potential self-realization. Often enough it may seem that force is more likely to bring this about; but probably all of us understand that robotlike obedience to imposed coercive measures is likely to produce violent negation, once we have become mature enough to recognize what is going on. It may be possible to force somebody to do this or that, but the result is usually a mechanical response and not a fully human one. A young man may coerce a girl to go through the motions of lovemaking: what he cannot do is to force the girl really to love him, responding to him as a free human person and participating gladly in the enterprise we call lovemaking.

Obviously there are limits to what is possible on the human (and on every other) level. There is a patterning or ordering of the world and of human existence that prescribes such limits. But for the effecting of the free movement toward fulfillment, lure or invitation or attraction is the chief means for drawing existence toward its possible goal. Many modern people in the West have lost sight of this fact, although in other cultures (as in Chinese Taoism) it has been well understood. For those who accept a religious interpretation of the world and human life, as we are doing in this book, there is another and related point. God is in the picture. Yet God is not only the supreme irrationality (as Whitehead said) in that deity cannot be “explained” in terms of ordinary concepts — although deity can be seen as what Whitehead styled the “chief exemplification” of the principles required to interpret things. God is also the all-inclusive reality who is initiative of creative advance and (for our present purpose this is equally significant) receptive of what that advance brings about. It is God who is the supreme lure or attraction and who invites (for the most part through creaturely or “secular” agencies) the response of the creatures as they move from their initial possibility toward their concrete actualization.

This tells us also that God is affected and influenced by what happens in the world and in human life. I have noted this on earlier pages; here it is only necessary to add that precisely this fact gives existence, and for us a fortiori human existence, its value or what Whitehead called its “importance.” Human life is not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” On the contrary, as most of us know most of the time, there is a deeply felt sense of genuine value; this is what makes life worth living, as it is often said. So there is a dignity about the human enterprise. No man or woman is unimportant or pointless, however worthless he or she may appear to be. Thus, each of us, as a person, plays a part and has a place in the ongoing of creation — “we count” and what we do counts also.

We also, like every other bit of existence, have a certain real causative capacity. Our decisions, made in such genuine freedom as is ours, have their part in the wider and more pervasive creative advance. I have said that traditional theism usually considers God to be the only causative agent that has any great significance, everything else possessing what at best is a derivative and ultimately a “Pickwickian” causative role. That means that God has been seen as absolutely omnipotent or all-controlling, while creaturely agents have little if anything to do ultimately with what goes on. Furthermore, when God is thus conceived, God does not have a real, but only a logical, relationship with that creation; God is not affected by it in any important way. But if our argument in this book is correct, the real situation is very different. The creative advance depends in part on us, in our causative capacity. Not that we are all that matters and that there is no more-than-human agency at work in the cosmos; but rather, that the value of our existence is both an expression of, and an agency available for, what God is up to in the world. That world is still in the making; thus, we are co-workers with God, if we will allow this to be true, even as we may also be working against God when we reject our basic human potentiality and “do wrong.”

Now, since persuasion at the human level is the clue to the wider and all-encompassing cosmic aim or purpose, we can affirm that precisely as and when the human agent responds by deciding for, not against, the lure of love, the invitation comes to us to become more and more genuinely instrumental to that love — although “instrumental” is not exactly right, since our own self-realization is integral to the picture. It is too bad that some zealous theologians have tried to argue that this self-realization has been made (by those who talk in fairly secular terms) a substitute for the fulfillment of the divine purpose. But the truth is that talk of such self-realization is simply another way of stating what a Process theist sees to be God’s purpose for us. One sometimes suspects that those theologians are fearful of losing their distinctive role by surrendering to secular understanding, and as a consequence they set up an intolerable dualism or dichotomy. They are possessed of “faithless fears’’ because they are deeply afraid of what seem to them to be “worldly” values. At all costs they must retain their job!

When we humans decide against responding in love to the divine lure, known to us under so many incognitos, we are at the same time and by the same token, denying our own potentiality as human. On the other hand, when we respond in love for love, and with it for the establishment of the justice that love desires and enacts, we are on the way toward realizing our potential humanity and becoming more truly what we have it in us to become. We are also lending our service, be it great or small and under whatever circumstances are available to us, to the great cosmic thrust for good. That is, we are serving God. Our human happiness is found there, at a level much deeper than in a superficial “pleasant feeling.”

In such a religious context we can grasp more adequately what it means to be a human person. Scientific research and discovery, like everything else that we have learned about ourselves and the world, only gives this a wider setting and helps in deepening our genuine humanity. Thanks to work done in psychology and physiology, for instance, we know about ourselves as body-mind organisms; hence, we can understand more adequately the “dynamics” of personality. To think of ourselves as “souls” who happen to “inhabit bodies” for a short time is to deny the concrete reality of human existence. Incidentally, it is also to reject the biblical view, in which we are said to be made of the stuff of the earth, upon which God breathes to create “living entities” not “living souls,” as the Authorized or King James Bible inaccurately translates the Hebrew of the Genesis story. We are indeed possessed of “spirit,” but in the Jewish context this is not some object or “thing” but rather is a way of indicating relationships, with an openness of humans to others and to God. And to speak of “God’s Spirit” is to say that God, too, is open to relationships.

In our human situation or condition, we are greatly impeded in the move to self realization (or in religious idiom, to fulfillment in God) by the accumulated wrong doings we have inherited thanks to the causal efficacy of the past upon the present. Traditionally this had been called Original Sin. That is an unfortunate and misleading phrase. But the fact of that condition is very real, however unhappy may be the words used to indicate it. Hence, we cannot be cheerfully and easily optimistic about progress; it is not identical with process. On the other hand, we need not be entirely pessimistic. Good can be chosen and the right can be done. We need realism here, with due recognition given to both sides of the human story. We are responsible for the consequences of our decisions, not least as they have their affect upon how things go forward. Herein lies our accountability, both for our own becoming and for what we do with and about our belonging. Both our dynamism and our sociality or participation have their results. In our intimate contacts and in our wider relationships, what we do brings about a better or a worse situation. To be human is to be “on the way,” along with our brothers and sisters; yet this is not necessarily the “right way,” nor is our society necessarily a “good society” at any given moment.

Since human existence is a direction taken, rather than a point at which we have already arrived, further movement (together with an awareness of our human identity) will depend largely upon how we respond both to the past and to the impact of the present upon us. The future is in the picture, too, since inevitably we “project ourselves” toward the goals we have made our own. We have to decide how best we may arrive at those goals if they are good ones and avoid them if they are bad ones. In this, each one of us has his or her own speciality, since nobody’s past or present options or future aims are simply identical with those of others, In that speciality, once again, we are complex body-mind creatures. Not only that of which we are consciously aware or subconsciously accept but also what might well be called the “visceral” or deeply bodily inheritance go toward making us what we are and offering possibilities for what we may become.

At our best we take for ourselves the “subjective aim” of moving toward complete humanness. What begins as the “initial aim” given by God in our very existence can be adopted as our own aim, and toward its achievement we may strive. Yet we are not alone. Our fellow humans are there, too. Above all, God is there, with the lures that augment this striving — in religious language, God’s grace is working toward us, in us, for us, and with us. Or better put, God is thus working, because “grace” is nothing other than God in action and not something added onto or used by the divine reality itself.

In all this, the distinctively human quality is seen in our awareness and self-awareness. Whatever may be true elsewhere in the cosmos, the appearance of human life marked the emergence (after a long course of evolutionary development) of a kind of created occasion that can and does know itself and others, certainly with an intensity unparalleled (so far as we can see) elsewhere in the creation. Hence, we humans are to some degree “rational,” with a capacity for understanding, thought, and introspection, as well as for observation. Each of us is also possessed of a volitional drive or energizing ability. Above all, each of us has deep feeling-tones. This last has been forgotten in a good deal of traditional analysis of human life, and failure to see that we have those “feeling-tones” is bound to produce a sadly distorted idea of personality. The “aesthetic,” in this profound sense, with its expression in appreciation, evaluation, enjoyment or displeasure, and the like, is as much a part of our human experience as the rational and volitional aspects. Children whose aesthetic capacity is damaged or denied suffer tragically from this deficiency. This is why a sound education should have a place for the aesthetic (in this profound sense) to help the young person move toward real maturity, and all of us need to see and express this side of our selfhood. Alas, many men and women live impoverished lives because their aesthetic capacity has not been given much attention and they have not been helped to grow in an appreciative grasp of the world, of themselves, and of others.

Above all, however, human existence (whatever may and must be said about other levels of existence in the cosmos) is characterized by the possibility of loving. I mean here the conscious or partly conscious sharing or giving-and-receiving that marks relationship as its best. Sometimes this can be highly charged; often it may be fairly low-key. Depth of loving is our best human possibility — even if now and again (as psychologists tell us) it is of the love-hate variety. In this respect our humanness is a microcosmic expression of the macroscopic or divine reality of Love-in-action. In religious talk we rightly speak about our moving toward “the image of God” who is such Love-in-act. To become created lovers is to realize our human potentiality at its best. Thus, to be open to love is also to be open to God. Each of us, in his or her specific fashion, is intended by God to become a lover — and thereby to belong in a great cosmic society of loving of which human loving is a reflection.

What has been said thus far presupposes the freedom about which I have spoken so frequently. Granted that we do not have unlimited choice, we do yet have some such ability. All the arguments for determinism cannot convince us that we lack this freedom. Indeed, the most hardened determinists prove, by the very vigor of their effort to convince others of their case, the exact opposite of what they are seeking to demonstrate. As Bishop Butler said, it is silly to let arguments get in the way of this experienced fact. We all act as if we were free: that action is itself proof enough of our own genuine freedom. What we choose may be for right or wrong, as we all know; but this is part of what makes our human existence highly problematical for us.

The tragic truth is that to decide rightly is not easy. For centuries, as we have observed, the human race has had to accept the consequences of decisions made by those who went before. These often worked against proper human self-realization. The human race as a whole is in the situation that Paul Tillich described by the words estrangement and alienation. There are at least four aspects here. Each of us is alienated to some degree from his or her own proper destiny in the divine intention. Each of us is estranged, to a greater or lesser degree, from our fellow humans. Each of us is alienated, again in varying degrees, from the world of nature, which is our habitation and from which humankind has emerged. And each of us is estranged in some serious sense from the cosmic Love that would have us find our proper fulfillment in the accomplishment of greater good in the world. Such alienation or estrangement brings about a sense of human frustration, sometimes felt very keenly but more often and with most of us in something like Thoreau’s “quiet desperation,” known at moments when we cannot sleep or when we are not happy about what we have been doing or thinking. In religious language this is our condition as sinners. In secular idiom, it is our failure rightly to move on in our becoming and belonging.

Such a situation does not imply that we are totally corrupt, with nothing good about us and with no possibility of a change by which we may once again respond rightly to the circumambient lures and begin moving in the truly fulfilling direction. To think of ourselves as totally corrupt would be far too pessimistic: it would not take account of the patent fact that there is much goodness in the world and in human experience as we know it. In recent years some influential theologians have revived that negative view and have talked like the older Calvinistic scholastics about humans as “lost souls.” The wisdom of the race, however, both in its secular expression and in its religious teaching, has spoken otherwise. That wisdom has indeed acknowledged the problematical situation of men and women and has conceded honestly that “we are not able of ourselves to help ourselves,” if this is taken to suggest that we can change “all on our own.” Yet it has also testified to a residual goodness in the world and in human life, so that the situation is not hopeless.

In various ways wise men and women have shown their conviction, based on their own experience and observation, that the stuff of which humans are made is good stuff and that human potentiality remains a good potentiality. In traditional Christian teaching at its best, this is seen in the distinction that has been made between the “image of God.” in which we are made or toward which we are intended to move, and the “likeness of God,” which has been seriously damaged by us. To be sure, this distinction between “image” and “likeness” is based on a mistaken exegesis of the Genesis story. But Irenaeus of Lyons, who first made the point, may have been wrong in his exegesis but splendidly right in the point he was getting at when he made it.

Every area of human existence has certainly been affected by our human situation as well as by our own decisions and actions; yet this need not equal, and in the most characteristic Christian thought has never been thought to equal, a condition of “total depravity.” Decision for the good is not impossible, even if it is extraordinarily difficult in many circumstances. In any event, the love of God, working in and with us as a lure toward the right, is never absent. Of course, we shall make mistakes and in that way contribute to the further implementation of a bad situation. On the other hand, we may so respond to the lure of God (often enough in what I have consistently called its secular expression) that we may be enabled to make some contribution, however small it may seem, to the ongoing process toward greater good. Thus, we can both acknowledge our failures and accept our responsibility, while we are prepared to “stand up and be counted” for what we have been and done. We must do this bravely, with honest readings to admit imperfection and failure. But the cosmic process itself sets limits to our capacity to wreck it: this is where the cosmic thrust or dynamic we call God may exercise a kind of control beyond the usual persuasive mode of its expression.

Christian faith has something to add here. It speaks about our “redemption” by God. That establishes the high relevance of Christianity to human living. It asserts that the divine Love, operative at every moment and in every part of the creation, is always available to the creatures. But even more than that, it asserts that the divine Love is prepared to accept us as we are and for what we may become, to forgive the wrongs we have done, and at the same time to employ our obviously imperfect human existence for better and fuller realization of good in the future. The theological term for this Christian assertion is “justification by grace through faith.” It does not for a moment argue that evil is good. But it holds that even the worst decisions and actions of men and women, with the appalling results they have brought about, can somehow be used by God if what we do is offered to deity and, thus, can become the occasion for a deepening awareness of, and a better response to, Love’s demands and Love’s readiness to assist them in their human situation.

We humans are continually being challenged to decide as best we can, in the light of such knowledge as is available to us; to act upon those decisions; to be open to as many good possibilities as can be envisaged but not to hesitate to make necessary choices among them: and above all to trust confidently that God values both us and our contributions. So it is that the creative God is also the redeeming God. Humans may be “freed to love,” as I like to put it, although of themselves alone they find it impossible to do that. In spite of our inadequacy, as well as our repeated defection, there is still hope for us.

I have been writing in what may seem to some to be a highly abstract fashion. I do not apologize for this; but I admit gladly that W.H. Auden put the point in much less abstract, indeed in a telling and moving, manner when he wrote the following lines:

And to the good who know how wide the gulf, how deep,

Between Ideal and Real, who being good have felt

The final temptation to withdraw, sit down, and weep,

We pray the power to take upon themselves the guilt,

Of human action, though still as ready to confess

The imperfection of what can and must be built,

The wish and power to act, forgive, and bless.

(in Letters from Iceland)