‘Persons and Individuals’ – Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Theos Lecture

Last week I had the joy of attending the 5th Annual Theos Lecture in Westminster Central Hall, given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on the topic of ‘The Person and The Individual’.  I must admit, after the first few minutes, I wasn’t entirely clear at all what he was talking about, however as time went on things started to take shape and make sense, leaving me with lots of swirling thoughts to ponder after he finished… so much so that I’ve awoken from blogging slumber to put some of those thoughts down.  As many will be aware, Williams’ style is far from being the most, ah, accessible, shall we say?  However, I’ll do my best to outline his argument as I understand it.

Dr Williams began by quoting from a 1955 essay entitled ‘The Theological Notion of the Human Person’ by Vladimir Lossky, the Orthodox theologian whom Dr Williams had written his doctoral thesis on, crediting him with sparking a new discussion in theology from what he called a ‘personalist’ perspective.  Lossky’s argument was that Christians didn’t have sufficient vocabulary for distinguishing between two things:

  • An ‘individual’ as an example of a kind of thing, e.g. a ‘dog’, a ‘cat’ or indeed a ‘human being’
  • A ‘person’ as a unique instance of a kind of thing, a subject

Teasing out the difference between these two views – individualism and personalism – was the basis on which Williams then built his argument. He argued that this was in fact a better framework of understanding than modern debates which centre on the binary of liberal individualism and communitarianism.
Persons cannot simply be reduced to be the sum total of their parts, but instead find their identity as standing in the middle of a network of relationships. We thus establish ourselves as persons  by stepping beyond the ‘bundle of facts’ which describe us.

There is an inherent mysteriousness at the heart of this understanding that makes it impossible to simply draw up a list of ‘characteristics’ that a person should have, a fact which grates with the materialist mindset which seeks to explain everything according to a narrow set of scientific criteria.
Up to this point, this had all seemed very abstract, but there then came the first moment of practical clarity as it was observed that such an understanding has significant consequences for how we treat other people, especially those who are seen as inferior as they don’t tick all our ‘normal’ boxes. This is especially relevant to how we think of both the unborn and the disabled – most particularly those who are both unborn and disabled – and the way in which we seem some more worthy of life than others.
This understanding of personhood exposes the dangerous  arrogance of such a eugenicist mindset, as argued for by John Harris and others.
In contrast to the ‘checklist’ approach to personhood, Williams argued that we can only see if another ‘thing’ is a person by seeking relationship with them, which requires both time and effort. Language, both body and spoken, is often a useful signpost in this area, but not sufficiently conclusive. This is seen often in science fiction writing, where characters seek to establish whether an alien life form is ‘personal’ or not.  This called to mind the adventures of Ransom on first Mars and then Venus in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy.
We necessarily exist in the lives of other people – ‘living in the life of the other’ – and thus cannot easily extract an abstract idea of a person separate from their environment.
Williams then introduced his second source of the lecture, the philosopher Robert Spaemann, who writes that we are to see ourselves as a ‘Thou’ in the life of the other, creating an environment of relationship for them, even as try create one for us.

Williams grounded his argument on a core theological assumption, which is that before any thing is in relation to other created things, it is already in relation to God.  This is significant in that at no point is there an ‘abstract self’, separate from any external relationship, since we are always fundamentally in relationship with God (even though that relationship has been broken by the Fall).  Not only is our own primary relationship with God (the First Commandment), this also has implications for our relationship with our neighbour as well (the Second Commandment), since they also already exist in relation to God before they ever come into relationship with us.  This has huge implications across a range of areas, for example, in political philosophy, it blows a hole in social contract theory, which, in its Rawlsian variant, sees isolated individuals contracting together to form a society in their own self interest from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’.  Rather, God has made us to be persons, to have relationship with Himself, first and foremost, and then with each other.

Another corollary is that we are not free to simply treat others who we come into relationship with in any way we want.  This freedom is curtailed by the basic fact that they do not belong to us, but have a pre-existing relation to God as a person made in His image.  This is a key difference between the individualist account – which is ultimately self-centered and focused on what I can get – and the personalist account – which places a high value on the worth of others and the relationships I have with them.  Our notions of human dignity are thus grounded in this realisation that the ‘other’ is in relation to Someone  before they are in relation to me and therefore possessing an innate worth as a result. This  is clearly strongly linked to the idea of ‘Imago Dei’ and Williams noted the close relation here to our ideas of the sacred – i.e. the ‘sanctity of human life’.

In our culture today, we tend to talk about human rights more than human dignity, however when we claim the right to be respected, we also affirm our embeddedness in relation to others, expecting to be treated with the dignity that our status as those created by God deserves.  Thus, in seeking to accord each other the respect that our personhood deserves, we echo the love that God as Creator has for His creation.  The danger of much of the discussion around human rights is a reductionism that claims our rights are simply derived from certain ‘facts’ about us as individuals, as opposed to the innate worth that flows from our personhood and most fundamentally our primary relation to God.

Williams observed that to look outside ourselves and embrace our position as relational people is in itself an act of faith, as it means putting our trust in others that they will accord us the same respect that we give them. This is certainly the riskier and more difficult option compared to an atomistic individualism that hides away in risk-free self-sufficiency. Similarly the modern vocabulary of ‘self-confidence’ leads us to look inwards for our sense of self-worth rather than deriving our value from the relationships we have with others, most importantly the value that God places on us as those made in his image.

The third thinker that Williams introduced was Richard Sennett of the LSE, particularly his most recent work ‘Together’.  The first point made here was that rather than seeking to absorb others into ourselves and our world, in a personalist vision we look outward to build relationship seeing that we are part of the world of the other.
This leads to a critique of individualism in that it can lead to an alienation from the ‘other’, which breeds indifference to their well-being  By sheltering from others, the individualist makes assumptions as to those ‘like us’ and those ‘not like us’ and can lead to a lack of concern for those who are different as we refuse to identify the relationship that we have with them. He then quoted a passage from Alexis De Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’, saying: “Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others.”  This is the danger of starting from the individualist assumption that there is some ‘solid core’ of self that exists separate from our relationship with others.

Against such an assumption, we may say that it is simply not possible to extricate this idea of ‘self’ from the web of relationships that we find ourselves in – most particularly from the most foundational of them all, which is our relationships with God as created in His image.  This reminds me of an idea that I’ve heard before in relation to the Trinitarian nature of God – both in Mike Reeves’ excellent talks on Trinity and more recently while reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God (p248) – that it is dangerous to imagine that there is some core ‘God’ substance that stands behind the persons of the Father, Son and Spirit, as this ultimately leads to modalism and/or strict monotheism.  But that’s a topic for a future post…

Williams continued discussing Sennett’s work by looking at the rise of the ‘uncooperative self’, whereby individuals go through life, negotiating their way through the different relationships they have, but always reserving the right to ‘go back indoors’, to withdraw back into themselves, safe from the harsh realities of what is ‘outside’ in their own purely ‘private’ sphere. Williams observes that starting from individualist assumptions, one is led to the idea that the best way of relating to people is through being in control, particularly being in control of those things (and people) that we find strange and discomforting, never wanting to be surprised or caught off guard and frustrated when limitations prevent us from achieving this.

At this point, Williams brings in the fourth of the thinkers that he is engaging with – the psychotherapist Patricia Gosling, who writes about the ways in which our quest for perfection, both in physical appearance and in the way we order our lives.  She argues that such a quest is ignoring the innate biological reality that we face, that we are limited and cannot simply ‘transcend’ these limits.  This also leads to a negative view of the passage of time and the effect it has on our bodies and surrounding environment.  This twin resentment of both time and the body is widespread in our culture, with pressure exerted at every level, from pressure put on, in particular, young girls to conform to certain standards and expectations of beauty to rampant materialism based on ever-rising levels of debt.  The great myth of our time that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ is, ultimately, simply untrue.

The danger is here is that striving for perfection leads to a quest for total control that, rather than increasing our freedom, creates a static situation where any change becomes impossible without unbalancing our carefully constructed world.  By wanting it all, and wanting it now, we may be losing the opportunity to live a truly satisfied life, one which is accepting of limits, while also seeking to live fully within them.

Williams then returns to Sennett again to discuss his thoughts on how this situation has arisen in our culture.  Sennett links it to a loss of the idea of ‘craft’ in modern Western society.  Craft involves learning to take time, where learning itself is a slow process that cannot be rushed, that is collaborative with much learning spread through following by example and a prolonged engagement with the physical materials relevant to that craft.  Another aspect is learning to resolve challenges, such as conflict, through language and dialogue rather than force and violence.  Present in our culture also is a refusal to engage in respectful discussion, preferring to shut ourselves away from others.  This is seen in an unwillingness to be looked at, to be seen closely by others and resistance to proper scrutiny.

There is an irony in the fact that the TV show ‘The Apprentice’ represents in fact the very opposite of what apprenticeship is all about, which is taking time and building close relationship.  The Archbishop had particular praise here for the Evening Standard’s ‘Ladder for London’ campaign, which is calling for London’s biggest companies to take on more apprentices and has been very successful thus far.

Nevertheless, we dwell in an environment where individualist assumptions hold sway and are not easily uprooted.  However, Williams sounded a hopeful note by observing that co-operation is an enduring quality and is capable of being repaired. It is deeply embedded in who we are as persons to work together – one might comment that this is in large part due to our reflecting the image of a God who has relationship at the very core of His being – however this will require a deep challenge to these underlying individualist assumptions.
We will need clarity about the difference between conceiving of ourselves as persons and as individuals, clarity about the possibility of transcending the merely ‘natural’, seeing that we are more than simply the list of things that are true about us.  In order to find this clarity, there is a need to find a space between a purely materialist view of the world, which sees people as mere machines, the sum of their parts, and a ‘spiritualist’ view which sees people simply as ‘souls in a body’, imposing their will on the world around them.  Instead, we must embrace the fact that our existence is inescapably a hybrid reality, in that although we are indeed physical beings, products of our environment, we are also capable of reaching beyond these basic facts and shaping our environment to engaging with others in relationship.  At this point, Williams brought out what I felt was the killer quote of the talk, which I quote in full:

“I’m neither a machine nor a self-contained soul.  I’m a person because I am spoken to, I’m attended to, and I’m spoken and attended and loved into actual existence.”

While this all sounds very complex, the reality is in fact altogether more straightforward.  We cannot help but relate to each other as bodies, which are impermanent and break down, with all the limits that this brings.  We notice that there are significant differences between each other, none more inescapable than that of gender, the difference between male and female.  We expect that relationships will develop with each other, that we talk to and listen to each other, that we will disagree and bring our own perspective to a myriad of different issues.  In short, we live as if relationship matters; the difficulty is in finding a language that can account for this fact.  Williams argued that neither ‘machine’ nor ‘independent soul’ language can properly give us the clarity we need here, saying that we need a language that can given a satisfying account of personhood.  His conclusion here was that the language of theology is the only one that can truly help us to ‘speak well’ about this reality and help us make sense of ourselves as persons.  The insight that we are ‘always already in advance spoken to, addressed, and engaged with by that which is not the world and not ourselves’ that we have a steady ground on which to build this understanding of ourselves.

In his concluding remarks, he argues that it is only by moving away from an atomised individualism towards the riskier, more fluid, yet more human, view of personhood that he has outlined that we can come to a deeper understanding of how best to live well together.


Well, this post is plenty long enough already without going on to examine the ways in which this concept was further elaborated through the very interesting Q&A, where it was applied to a range of different areas, including abortion, education, the Credit Crunch, ‘speciesism’, sexuality (of course), human rights and more.  Perhaps I’ll write that up in another post.

For now however, I recommend having a read of the full lecture for yourself to see whether I’ve made any sense of it at all, download the audio (MP3) and have a look at some other people’s views on the talk from the God and Politics blog, Danny Webster and from the Church Times.


3 thoughts on “‘Persons and Individuals’ – Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Theos Lecture

  1. Well, you’ve made me want to listen to the lecture… it sounds interesting. I am surprised, like you said, by how much of what is said would flow out of knowing God as Trinity. You said that Dr Williams grounded his whole argument on this idea that ‘before any thing is in relation to other created things, it is already in relation to God’ – does he talk about the kind of relationship meant? Any clues on just how that relationship was affected by the Fall? (I should just listen to the lecture, I guess!?)
    I think I agree that the idea of an abstract ‘self’ and all of our talk of the ‘individual’ assumes way too much about our independence, as if the ‘self’ exists in complete isolation from all externals – and I can see how if we buy into that idea it must result in all sorts of issues to do with image, identity, relationships with others, choice, freedom, etc. If there is such a thing as ‘self’ without reference or relationship to anything/anyone else, then we must simply be the sum of our choices and will… scary.
    Thanks James, this has got me thinking!

    • It is worth a listen – if for no other reason than his voice is very soothing. 🙂
      I think because it was a public lecture he didn’t mention the trinitarian dimension as much as he might have done, although it was definitely the theological backdrop to much of the logic of the argument, especially the fact that our innate capacity for relationship flows from the fact that relationship is at the heart of God’s being. He’s written a chapter in ‘The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Trinity-Pluralistic-Age-Kevin-Vanhoozer/dp/0802841171), which I borrowed from Chris Oldfield but never finished, which probably has similar themes.
      The nature of our relationship post-Fall is something that cropped up in my mind too, though only mentioned briefly in the post. There’s actually a lot of explanatory potential there, as one of the effects of the Fall is that it brings alienation into our relationships (in fact I think there’s something about that in the Q&A), so we fail to live up to all that we should be as persons. The ABC didn’t really touch on it much, I imagine as it’s slightly off the main topic, but it is certainly relevant. I suppose there is a distinction to be made between our relation as Creator/created, which remains, and our relation as Father/children, which is broken. Another way of saying that is that the image of God is distorted by the Fall, though something of it remains.
      I’ll hopefully write a follow-up post summarising what this means when applied to the topics that came up in the Q&A (though with my track record, who knows how long that might take?!), but it was certainly very interesting!

      • Cool, I’ll definitely listen to the lecture some time – though it might take me as long as it takes you to blog again!

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