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Chalcedonian Personalism

Rethinking the Human

Colin Patterson

We all have a sense of what it means to be a person, but how do we conceptualize that intuition? What is the connection between a person and their human nature? Where does mind fit in to the picture? This book draws upon the work of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, both of whom developed a perspective on these questions that is grounded in the early Church’s teaching on Christ and the Trinity. The possibilities of that teaching for understanding human personhood were generally lost for about fifteen centuries, but Ratzinger, in a bold assertion, believes that its retrieval has the power to challenge and reshape the whole of human thought.

The first part of the book offers an account of how von Balthasar and Ratzinger arrived at their theological understanding of personhood, paying particular attention to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century personalist thought. The second part draws out a number of the implications of this work and, in doing so, makes use of recent psychological theory. Finally, as a means of bringing into the picture the related philosophical notions of self, freedom and the soul, the book introduces and explores the concept of a «semblant».

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Chapter 2: Sources of Contemporary Personalism


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Sources of Contemporary Personalism

When it comes to the notion of “person,” the conceptual gap between the medievals on the one hand, and von Balthasar and Ratzinger, on the other, demands some explanation. Working with the same authoritative doctrinal statements, two quite distinct interpretations with enormous flow-on effects well beyond the confines of theological discussion are at play. The key points in the story of the first interpretation have been set out in the previous chapter; the emergence of the second will occupy us in this and the following two chapters. As will become clear in Chapter 4, the work of von Balthasar and Ratzinger owes much to contemporary personalist thought, that is, to the consideration of persons firstly in their human form rather than as part of strictly theological reflection.

The question this chapter aims to address is this: from where did this bourgeoning and multiform tradition of personalist thought arise? Can we view it as the outworking of the rediscovery of the significance of the Chalcedonian concept of “person”? Or can we identify a subterranean stream linking early Christian thought to the modern era? Alternatively we might ask, was there an emergence de novo of a like concept of personhood in something akin to an episode of convergent evolution, e.g. the unrelated development of the eye in widely different species? To each of these questions we would have to answer, for the most part, no. The answer proposed...

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