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Religion and Society

Notes on Christian Anthropology

There is no other man than man who acts in the world and in history. This reflection on the impact of Revelation on the concrete individual, on the individual that I am, begins from here. The experience of the 'dual unity' of the individual and the community.

The recent debates on multiculturality reflect the difficulties that are encountered in relating, in a satisfactory way, the individual aspect and the communal aspect of human co-existence. At times the social disciplines emphasise the importance of the individual dimension of the human subject with his or her universal rights, but at others they stress the communal dimensions (language, nationality, ethnic group). Frequently, both these aspects overlap. What kind of man can give rise to social experiences in which both dimensions refer to the goal of promoting a true cultural interaction? (1)


Here I will offer an anthropological reflection based upon certain contemporary philosophical currents, beginning with the specific approach of the Christian experience. This paper revolves around two objectives. Firstly, I will examine the human condition so as to understand in what kind of relationship the individual and the community find themselves, going beyond the opposition of these two dimensions which often prevails in the multicultural debate. Secondly, I will illustrate through the use of reason that this relationship implies at its origins an 'ultimate' reference to transcendence, without which the personal and social subject weakens to the point of fragmenting. We will see, as presented by Biblical revelation, that it is not only the individual person but also and above all the human community that is seen as imago Dei.


The first anthropological problem that we have to address is that of demonstrating that the individual-community polarity is constitutive of the human being and that therefore the dialectic between both terms, as a result of which these tend to reject each other, is sterile as regards the creation of a human society.


The Christian anthropological experience can be characterised as an experience of 'dual unity' (identity-difference) between the individual and the community. I will proceed to engage in a description of its factors and its particular unity, but first I should throw light on the category of 'anthropological experience'. I will employ this category to refer to the specific structure of man, in that he has a metaphysical root and he expresses himself in an existential way in history. I will then describe in a summarising fashion what man is and how he comes to be such in time and space. If we were to separate both points of view, on the one hand we could encounter an anthropological theory that is able to demonstrate the fundamental elements of the human as essential and a-temporal signs, but lacking in the concreteness and the dramatic with which every person recognises and experiences his or her own humanity, and on the other we could encounter an anthropological vision that is sensitive to the phenomenological expression of human living that is underway but which is unable to establish its ontological foundation and is exposed to psychologism or subjectivism. I will attempt to avoid both these risks and propose a unitary vision in line with what is called 'meta-anthropology', that is to say, that reflection which begins with the existential description of the concrete reality of man underway and reaches the metaphysical level.


I will do this beginning with the anthropological experience as expressed in Christian revelation. I will argue that it is experience because the approach that I will describe with reference to its universal elements is accessible beginning with the factuality and the historicity of the special event of Jesus Christ. Only in him is the otherness and the communal aspect that characterises all men discovered. This is a reality that really took place and which can be identified in history and which can be thought about and offered in terms that are communicable at a universal level. Paul VI employed the phrase 'ethnic entity sui generis' to allude to this people which for millennia has been experiencing and transmitting this vision of man.


The history of Western thought shows to us the efforts that modernity has engaged in to explain the true consistency of man, who moved to occupying the centre of the scene with his 'anthropological turning point' and who subsequently ran the risk of seeing himself sidelined, dissolved into structures that replaced him as the protagonist of history. The question of the identity and unity of the human being is not, despite everything, the exclusive heritage of modernity. Indeed, it appears in the history of thought from classical antiquity onwards. Both in the political order and in the philosophical order the ancient Greeks offer us many examples of discussion of this question. Partial solutions were not absent and this indicates that we are touching here upon perennial questions about the nature of life and human culture. This continual need to return to the human condition, in my judgement, bears witness to the fact that the polar tension between the individual and the community must always be explored. However, without the possibility of being solved or being subjected to any a priori schema. As such, it is a sign of the transcendence in which the dignity of every person is rooted. Indeed, we are often attracted towards asking questions that place us in front of the enigma of the human: does 'man' as an individual and irreducible subject exist or does 'man' exist as a universal category? And if both dimensions have to be taken into consideration, does one come before the other, and which one: the species or the individual? We cannot neglect the question of the Psalmist that was rich in amazement and admiration: 'what is man that thou are mindful of him thou hast put all things under his feet?' (Ps 8:4-5).


An anthropology is adequate if it has its roots in the evidence that there exists no other man but man who acts in the world and history. In this way one does not deduce a priori what man is, detaching oneself from experience, but one reflects beginning with the consideration of concrete man in action, of the man that I am, in order to arrive at all his dimensions.


An anthropology of this approach sees every individual man and every individual woman as a perfect member of the human species, because of the fact that he or she contains in himself or herself everything that expresses the concept of 'human being'; in this way every individual participates in the human species in line with a personal exclusiveness. Every individual who has consciousness of self and freedom forms a part of this notion of 'human being', which is something unique that cannot be the object of a collectivist reduction. The concept of 'man' captures at one and the same time that which is shared and that which is exclusive in relation to others. When one defends the impossibility of a repetition of the singularity of the individual one is not denying the mutual communication of different spiritual and free subjects. This incommunicability that is to say its non-exchangeable irreducibility constitutes the premise of communication through knowledge and freedom.


In experience the incommunicable 'being it itself' understands the 'being of and for the other', or, to employ the definition of José Ortega y Gasset, 'man is a nativitate open to the other in himself'. Man becomes a conscious and free subject in the world not in a way that is isolated from himself but through the other. Nobody on their own awakens self-consciousness just as nobody learns on their own to speak; he or she must be helped, as a mother helps a child. Consciousness of self is seen, so to speak, to be called into play by the attraction that something else, the other, exercises on it. The pathway of the discovery of oneself inevitably passes through the call of the other, who treats you as a 'you', thereby provoking the response of a free and conscious 'I'. The identification between 'being in itself' and 'being for itself' always consists in the experience of an identity that is given, that is provoked, by another. For this reason, the consciousness of the 'self' recognises that it is dependent, a participant in a mysterious 'otherness' in the deepest part of itself. We can employ the category of 'membership' to express this anthropological aspect, according to which man has his own consistency but he does not have in himself his own origin.


If the subjective relationship is intrinsically implied in the spiritual subject, we can speak about a constituent sociality of man. Only in this way are the reasons to found by which to overcome the paradox according to which the 'being for itself', with the irreducible exclusiveness that it involves, implies that which by definition seems to be extraneous: the 'other'. This intrinsic bond does not apply only to the notion of 'man' as a species but is specific to each individual subject.


In this perspective, the point of departure for a mature and responsible dialogue must be a critical acceptance of one's own tradition. This category of 'tradition' has provoked rejection in the modern mentality because it is perceived as being irreconcilable with the full autonomy of the individual. Indeed, it seemed that tradition (or traditions) placed human reason and freedom within overly particular and contingent forms, thereby depriving them of their universality. This is why very often one can observe in the multicultural debate an opposition between particularistic positions (tradition, ethnic group, nation, language) and universalistic ones (freedom, equality, justice for every individual). In the light of what has been said about the constitutive sociality of the self, we can understand that 'tradition' is a central category in understanding the historical dimension of man. We see how one can understand this category by redeeming it of reductive meanings, and for this reason I will draw upon the thought of the philosopher Xavier Zubiri.


This thinker believes that tradition is first and foremost a transmission of life, but not as mere 'force' of life but as transmission of the 'forms' of life based upon a 'taking responsibility' for reality on the part of each and every man. These forms are not specified beforehand and are only transmitted through direct delivery by means of tradere (traditio). Man has not received solely his natural intelligence, with which he begins from zero, but forms of life are conferred upon his intellective faculties within reality: this is the historical character of human history whose active subject is not every member of society but a community. In this frame are included the various dimensions of the transmission of forms of life: certainly language but also thought, love and work, which are phenomena of this living transmission which makes 'going forward doing' possible.


To state that history is tradition does not mean that history is conforming oneself to what one receives because tradition is not equivalent to conformism. It is advisable to modify completely what one receives but this does not alter the fact that without tradition history does not exist. This is because what is transmitted radically in tradition are forms of self-possession of every man, and thus every man 'goes forward doing' in his own reality according to a concrete form of which tradition is one of the dimensions. It will always be necessary for the personal assimilation of what one receives, as acceptance or critical rejection, to respect the complex story of the individual-community polarity which is entrusted to the person as a gift and a task, and which thereby acquires an ethical value for the person both in the 'I-you' inter-subjective dimension and in the social dimension, in the dimension of the common good.


It is helpful to stress the inevitable need for a 'historical test' of traditions that are given as facts in history. This test requires the courage and the intelligence that are needed to know what to keep and what to abandon out of love for the vitality of tradition. With respect to our topic of inquiry, we may suggest the keeping of the aspects of tradition that most help man, as a dual unity of the individual and the community, to 'go forward doing' in the present. In particular, those cultural aspects of tradition that most foster the 'ultimate' interpretation of man according to his transcendence. If the category of traditio is related genetically with the categories of culture and cultus, the whole of anthropological tradition should measure itself in a reasoned way with these criteria: what capacity does it have to overcome the dialectic between particularity and universality, what capacity does it have to structure an ideal that is fully respectful of the transcendence of man.


Beginning with this analysis of the constitutive sociality of the human subject, we can venture a description of the dimensions specific to the community. This does not only involve referring to the material fact of co-existing and operating in the world with many men but also involves pushing oneself to the specific unity of this multiplicity. The constitutive openness of the person is manifested as 'tending towards' others as others, and can have various dimensions. Firstly, it can be 'community' if the propensity is towards other men as men, but it can also be a propensity towards others not so much as other individuals but in their character as persons, and then one is no longer dealing with community but with 'communion' (family, friendship). The intrinsic unity of these two forms of 'tending towards' others, namely communion and community, is what can be called human society, to employ the phrase of Zubiri.


In line with what has been argued in this paper hitherto, it is of decisive importance to broaden this reflection on 'I-you' and 'we' in order to include the fact that the original inter-subjective relationship is not purely binary or dialogic but ternary. In 'we' not only is a 'third' within the constitutive relationships always assumed, but more precisely one is referring to the co-presence of 'Third', without whom the phenomenon of the triad in the purely inter-human order is not explicable. Through the inevitable relationship with the finite 'you', one recognises the gift of the world and of being which cannot have been produced by the other limited 'you', but through it: they are the gift of an infinite and communitarian 'You'. Precisely when man recognises that he is bound to this (tri)personal Infinite is he free in the face of all impositions of worldly ties of power. Now, given that this free giving, which in its turn frees, reaches everyone through other finite relationships, it is necessary to appreciate to the utmost the relationships that communicate the transcendent Mystery. In this way one comes to understand more easily that all constitutive human relationships (family, culture) adequately carry out their mission when they introduce the Mystery and not when they replace it by erecting themselves into false absolutes, into idolatries. One thus understands why it is so urgent for cultural and social relationships not to censure the relationship with the Mystery within the anthropological experience, and why it is extraordinarily beneficial for there to be men and cultures that manifest it.


Christian revelation clarifies this dimension of communion of being as a constitutive note of the 'image of God'. Through Holy Scripture constantly resonates this original sociality of existence. Man is never alone in his relationship with God because the Creator has given him woman so that he is not alone and He calls both to be one flesh (Gen 1:27; 2: 23-24). This relationship played a decisive role from the beginning in man's communication with God. However, sociality is not only a fact of the origins of man but continued during the subsequent stages because if we were to depart from this we would not be able to understand in a clear way God's relationship with man in the history of Israel. It is not in the least accidental that they acquired the form of a Covenant by which God called and chose man and the people (cf. Gen 12,1-3; 17,1-8; Ex 19,1-8). God calls man to live in communion with Him and with his fellows within a people. Because of this there is no weakening of the personal and non-transferable character of the relationship of God with each person, and indeed this is the case to such an extent that the Prophets had to employ the image of the conjugal relationship in order to express it adequately (cf. Is 62:5; Os 2:21-22). This dynamism was emphasised even more in the fullness of the New Testament when Jesus completed the New Covenant in his flesh and blood, achieving intimate union between God and man. In him men are granted in the same way the gift of living in communion with each other (cf. Eph 5:25-32).


Jesus lived in a paradigmatic way the tension between 'I' and the 'other' and in the historical fact of his life and his freedom it is possible to recognise that both dimensions refer to each other. On the one hand, Jesus amazes friends and enemies by his personal consistency, we could say by his 'being for himself', by his self-control (cf. Mk 1:27; Mt 7:29; Lk 19:5-8; Jn 9:32-33). At the same time, Jesus refers to Another to explain the very consistency of his person and his actions. He never tires of repeating that his life consists in doing the will of his Father (Mt 26:39; Jn 7:15; 12:49), and he identifies with the task that the Father has given him (Jn 8:38), and to the point that Jesus is the 'envoy' par excellence (Heb 3:1).


Whoever wants to share in the life of Jesus is called to share in this behaviour before the Father, and it is from there that a new way of relating to oneself, to one's brethren and to God is born, a way based upon reciprocal love (Jn 13:1-3; 17:20-21; 2 Cor 5:14-21). The action with which his life of dedication to the Father culminates is the Paschal Mystery (death and resurrection), in which he completes the communion of the disciples with himself (communio eucharistica) and establishes the bases of the unity of the disciples with each other and with him: communio sanctorum (cf. 1 Cor 10:16; 12:27). Within this life in communion, God attributes to each person a mission, a task that changes at the same time both the person and the community (Rom 12:3; Eph 3:8-11). As the vocational experience (in consecrated life or in marriage) demonstrates, there is nothing so non-transferable and which personalises more than the call of God, in which is outlined the whole of the meaning of life, its very face (cf. Mt 16:18), thereby redeeming the person who is called from a merely anonymous chain of individuals. In the face of the call the most intense and true 'I' that a man can imagine is called forth. Now it is this unrepeatable singularity that helps to enrich the whole of the ecclesial body with that richness that has been of that body alone: every vocation is developed in mission. At the moment when he identifies with Christ through the gift of his call, the believer shares in the unique mission of the Son, to the point of giving all of himself for the good ' of the many' (Mk 14:24), so as to build up the Body of the Church.


The ultimate foundation of this dynamic of ecclesial and Christological communion is the life itself of intra-divine communion. The Christological event allows access to the mysterious relationality that is the identity of God. Indeed, the missions of the Son and the Spirit beginning with the Father express in history their eternal origin and their relationship with the Father in the intra-divine life. In the Trinitarian communion is revealed the fullness of human communion: to understand to the full the meaning of our nature which tends to communion we must contemplate this unique event not only as something that is admirable but as a real possibility for the lives of the person and society, sharing in the special mission of Christ. One well understands that a God, whose essence is love (cf. 1 Jn 4,8), in communion with the three Persons, and in which otherness is not only not a limit but constitutes a fundamental element of its full Trinitarian definition, can never be invoked to legitimate the exclusion of the other, the absolution of oneself, and or even to legitimate the absolutisation of the self-sufficient individual.


What is the key to establishing the specific identity of the human? In what terms can one state the difference between man and culture? How can one conjoin identity and difference? In this paper attention has been paid to certain founding questions of an anthropological-theological character in order to contribute to a clarification of the terms of the debate. The anthropological experience that describes concrete man underway was taken as a point of departure and this was identified in his special and incommunicable characteristic, and at the same time, in his constitutive otherness. On these premises it has been possible to address the anthropological value of 'tradition' by overcoming its dialectical opposition with the universality of reason. It was then seen how the specific dimensions of the human community are not sufficiently outlined until one comes to perceive the constitutive character of the 'third', that is to say the recognition that human otherness is not simply dialogical between an 'I' and a 'You' but constitutes a 'we'. Now this 'we' originally implies a 'Third' (God) who expresses the constitutive religious transcendence of the human being, as a dual unity of the individual and the community. The Judeo-Christian tradition has affirmed this human sociality since the first pages of Genesis onwards and has seen it as an expression of the image of God. The full realisation of this anthropological dual unity was fulfilled historically in the life of Jesus Christ and is continued in the experience of ecclesial communion.



(1) This article presents in summarising and adapted form the material collected together in J. Prades, 'Multiculturalidad, tradición y mestizaje en un mundo globalizado. Fundamentos antropológicos-teológicos', Studium Veritas, Lima, 2005.

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