By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 7/21/12 in The Madera Tribune
“A person’s a person, no matter how small!” So wrote children’s writer Theodor Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss. That sentence has swelled beyond its illustrated frame and become a celebrated cliche… er… quote.
But what is a person?
The question seems simple enough. After all, we are persons ourselves, and we can hear echoes of that personhood in those we meet. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and fictional spy James Bond both famously said in 1964, “I know it when I see it.”
Admittedly, those two were talking about obscenity and gold.
I asked my dictionary to define a person and it replied: a single human being.
Surely we can do better than that. After all, would anyone argue that the television character Spock of “Star Trek” wasn’t a person because he was a half-alien Vulcan instead of fully human? If angels exist, are they not persons? Jinn? Hobbits? Our fantasies, mythologies, and religions abound in non-human persons.
History, in turn, shows us many alleged human non-persons. In the United States alone, some humans have been considered only a partial person at best in the eyes of the law because of their race or physical characteristics. Others have been stereotyped as beastly merely because of ethnicity.
So apparently those are a few ways to define a person… badly.
Video games, sports, schools, fashion, etc. may also sum up a person by statistics. Height? Weight? Runs batted in? Grade point average? Awards? Who you are is what you’ve done and how you measure up.
We ourselves imply this standard even to those we love. How many times do we ask children “what would you like to be when you grow up?” As if the job one does later in life is what we become as a person.
In fairness, we do this to ourselves too. Ask me what I do and I may say “I am a writer.” Yet writing is an action I do. Take away my computer, and amputate my hands and tongue. I don’t cease to be a person.
“Ah,” you might say. “But even crippled and silenced your mind can still string together words into eloquent forms.”
Yes, but batter my frail brain enough and it may become wordless too. If my intellect is what makes me a person, I can be easily robbed of it.
So how do we define ourselves apart from what we can do?
There is ample evidence we should. If we did, perhaps unemployment might not have so harsh a reach beyond mere finances. According to the American Psychological Association, unemployment doubles the odds of depression, psychosomatic ills, poor self-esteem, and more. The hurt ripples out to families and communities as well.
So what else is there to define us? There’s certainly one way our culture often decides who is worth our attention that doesn’t necessarily depend on what we do: beauty or sex appeal.
I once knew a young woman devoted to the singer Jeremy Camp. As she gushed about how wonderful he was, she mentioned that when he first began his Christian music career he looked scrawny and unimpressive, but he exercised regularly while touring and eventually became impressively muscular.
What was his music like back then, I asked.
The same, she said, but I didn’t really listen to him then.
Same voice. Different body.
Is that what defines our worth? Or is there a deeper definition?
Much to the chagrin of ardent skeptics and monotheists of other religions, Christians believe in a mystery they call the Trinity. We believe in one God yet three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rather than quibble about what all that means directly, which is something even Christians consider sublime beyond human reason, let’s look at what it means for a Christian’s understanding of personhood.
How is personhood defined in the Trinity? By relationship. Christians believe the Spirit comes from the Father. Naturally the Son is son by his relationship to the Father, and the Father is father by relationship with the Son. And so on.
If that is so for Christianity’s God, than a Christian should define his personhood by relationships (child of God and parents, sibling, uncle, aunt, spouse, mother, and more). Regardless of divorce or estrangements, true bonds remain.
But what can this say about what kind of person we are? For that, see what we make of our relationships.
Ultimately, for Christians, a person is defined by love.