Participating Persons: Reciprocity and Asymmetry

By Wondra, Ellen K. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Participating Persons: Reciprocity and Asymmetry


Wondra, Ellen K., Anglican Theological Review


Where once the person was autonomous, now persons are relational. A fundamental shift in how personhood is seen is taking place as the contemporary world and contemporary society become more aware oi the implications of pluralism and diversity in "the global village." Westerners are no longer able to see themselves as individuals largely responsible for their own fates. Instead, we are increasingly aware that our lives are constantly interconnected with others, both near and far, and are much less of our own making than we have liked to believe.

A major characteristic of the modem period (beginning with the Enlightenment) is the claim that the human person is autonomous and independent. Critique of this claim is perhaps as old as the claim itself. Certainly Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche-those "masters of suspicion"-countered the notions that any person might be an unconHicted rational self separable from social structures and ideological interests. And a central element of what postmodemisms postdate is precisely the illusion of the autonomous self. Moving beyond the problems posed by the notion of the autonomous self, contemporary Western theologians are giving renewed attention to the interrelatedness of things, along with pastors, church leaders, and the many others who are concerned with the health of the church, its role in society, and its mission in the world. The relationships of humans with each other, of humans with the environing world, of those "inner" and "outer" worlds that make up a human lire, of human and divine, oi the divine life ad intra Mira: all these have been focal points as theologians seek to articulate the Christian faith in the world in which we currently live. Concepts of relationality are very much in development, in response both to a wide variety of contexts and to some of the pitfalls that have become apparent in the formulation of relationality itself. With Martin Buber, contemporary theologians may affirm, "In the beginning is relation."1 But they also recognize that not all forms of relationship are as healthy and generative as others. And to the extent that relationality itself is a major theme in contemporary theology, making distinctions of value between forms of relationship is necessary.

It is the purpose of this essay to sketch one possibility for such development as it affects theological understandings of persons, both divine and human. First, I will highlight the classical Christian notion of participation in order to show a contrast with modern notions of the person as autonomous. I will then outline the implications of the claim that persons are autonomous, and indicate some oi the problems with such a claim. Next I will briefly discuss the idea of mutuality as one way to construe relationality, and then turn to what I think is a needed and helpful modification of that idea. I will argue that greater attention to difference, to "the other" as other, is needed in contemporary theology both as a corrective and as a constructive possibility in understanding what it means to say that the very being of persons is inherently and unavoidably constituted in and through relationship. Without explicit focus on both reciprocity and asymmetry, I believe, theology runs the risk of perpetuating some of the very problems a focus on relationality wishes to address, most particularly those of responsible relationship with the other, whether divine or human. Construing relationship as always asymmetrical keeps in view the tendency in Western thought, culture, and practice to deny, suppress, or subsume difference. At the same time, emphasizing reciprocity keeps in view various disparities of power and the need to attend to them carefully. This approach also addresses a fundamental problem for modem and postmodern theology: how to draw on human experience in a way that affirms connectedness (relationality) between the divine and human and preserves the Otherness of God.

How theologians speak of persons is crucial to Christian ethics and the Christian life. …

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