True Harmony: The Person and the
Near Evansville, Indiana, there is a town called "New Harmony" where the cemetery is a grass-covered field with no marked graves. I suppose the idea is to show that death eliminates whatever separated us as individuals threatening the "harmony of creation." After death, we are finally all equal.
The idea that individuality or diversity threatens the harmony of unity is not new. This was the dominant religious thought before the Christian faith appeared in the Greco-Roman pagan world. Pagan culture experienced diversity and unity as opposites. Harmony was sought in the "absolute unity" of being beyond individual differences. Individual things were held to exist as long as they are rooted in Being’s one-ness. Diversity, therefore, was experienced as moving us closer to non-existence.
Whatever threatened this cosmic harmony made no sense. It was contrary to that "rationality" or "logos" which draws all things together into the one "cosmos." Of course, no diversity means no freedom, since in the end all is the same. Nothing really new can exist. If rationality is absolute oneness, freedom is irrational. But, even if it was seen as a source of disharmony, the experience of being a person, of being a "someone" unique and unrepeatable and not just a replaceable individual sample of a generic category, could not be destroyed from the human heart.
Unable to reconcile this uniqueness with cosmic harmony, the Greco-Roman world saw it as a tragedy. The very word that was to designate a unique, irreplaceable being–the word "person"–came from the world of the theater, of drama, of tragedy. The Greek word for person was prosopon, and it designated the mask that actors wore to differentiate the roles in a performance. The prosopon was the mark of individuality and difference, but it was just a mask. It was not real. In the end, absolute unity prevailed. Personhood had no reality. It possessed no "hypostasis," as the Greeks called what was real. More or less the same situation prevailed in the Roman world. Persona (a word also coming from the theater world) possessed no substantia, no substance, no reality. Only unity really existed. Diversity was an illusion.
The Christian faith totally destroyed this view of harmony. As Christians in the Greco-Roman culture sought to find the words to express their experience of the encounter with Jesus Christ, they had to totally transform the ancient view of the relationship between diversity and unity. They had to bring together the word person (which suggested diversity) with substance (which designated real existence).
The first expression of this amazing transformation of culture was the Christian creed’s confession of the Trinitarian reality of God, of the Absolute. The "trinity" of the God experienced in the encounter with Christ was not a matter of appearances or roles, hence initially the word "person" was rejected. But the word "hypostasis" had to be rejected too, since it implied that there were three Gods! The "solution" to this dilemma is a fascinating, but often very complicated story that we cannot review here.
What concerns us is the conclusion. In the end, Christian thought completely redefined the pagan concept of "person" by equating it with hypostasis, that is, by eliminating from it all suggestion of appearance, mask, or role-playing, and making it belong to the world of Being, by giving it an ontological basis. That is, Christian thought eliminated the opposition between diversity and unity, between difference and harmony.
In the book, Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press) Joseph Ratzinger shows how the credal proclamation of the Trinitarian God required a revolutionary change in the way we experience unity and plurality. Plurality can no longer be considered the disintegration of unity. The divine lies beyond the categories of unity and plurality. The divine is what allows both creaturely unity and creaturely plurality to be, in the same degree, image of God. It is Love that creates unity within plurality by rejoicing in the existence of the truly "other." It is Love that makes freedom possible.
Ratzinger also shows that the Trinitarian doctrine forced a change in how the absolute and the relative were viewed. They are no longer to be experienced as opposed to each other. Instead, we must acknowledge the "absoluteness of the relative." It is this "relatedness" that allowed the use of the word "person" to designate the Three in God. Divine persons are pure relations. (As St Augustine wrote, "in God there are no accidents, only substance and relations.") Relations are a mode of reality as primordial as substances. It is this that allowed the "discovery" of personhood, not as a mask or a role, but as a reality grounded in relations.
Christians did not arrive at these insights through philosophical analyses. The experience that generated this way of thinking was the encounter with Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ disappears from experience by becoming an abstraction or an inspiring figure from the past, the world becomes once again a world without real persons and without freedom. To be human becomes a tragedy. The universe turns into a cemetery without flowers.