Today, one of the meanings of the word revolution is a sudden or dramatic transformation, but that has not always been the case. When Copernicus used the word in his 1543 publication of ‘De revolutionibus orbium caelestium’ it had the simple astronomical meaning of circular movement – revolving. But his idea that the earth was not the center of the universe, but revolved around the sun, was undoubtedly a dramatic transformation of understanding. It did not progressively build on previous ideas, but invalidated much of what was believed up to that stage.
Mankind’s quest for certainty found support in the belief that our earth was in reality the centre of the universe. Stable references gave us a sense of security. Dynamic movement in an infinitely more complex universe de-centered our understanding of reality. Copernicus’ revelation was later described by Freud as a humiliating blow and the first narcissistic wound inflicted on mankind. More revolutionary discoveries would follow and each one would move us further from a static understanding of things to a more revolutionary, dynamic understanding.
Is a revolutionary new self-understanding possible? I believe the way we perceive ourselves is ripe for a similar revolution – moving away from the static and often shallow ways in which we described self to a more dynamic and de-centered understanding. The idea that self is a changeless eternal substance – the earth at the center of our personal universe – has served as a stable reference for many theories of what makes us human. It is this very idea of an independent self, a metaphysical substance unaffected by relationship, that we will deconstruct during this course. In its place we will look at the reality and value of relationship in forming a ‘self’ that is constantly moving and becoming.
Familiar Conceptual Limitations
Many of us grew up in a Christian culture in which there were two different worlds or dimensions – the world of material and the world of the spirit; the visible and the invisible; this dimension of time and another dimension of eternity. These different worlds were in many ways the opposite of each other. This world constantly changed, but in timeless eternity there was stability and permanence. Imperfection surrounded us here, but there, changeless perfection defined everything. These ideas are familiar to many, but where do they come from?
Such a dualistic view naturally spilled over into how we understood ourselves: There is a part of me that is visible and part that is not. A part that is temporal, the physical body, and a part that is eternal, the spirit. And in many ways they too are the opposite of each other.
Within this context of understanding, humans consist of two different substances: a material substance and a spirit substance. This abstract concept of spirit substance also became known as substance metaphysics.
In further theological explorations, specifically soteriology, the spirit is seen as the part created and saved by God. That is the part that is made righteous and will continue to exist with God in changeless perfection.
This dichotomy promotes conflicting and hierarchical relationships within oneself – a part of me is temporal and prone to imperfection, but another part is perfect, eternal and should preferably be in control.
Are these ideas familiar to you? These are popular and foundational concepts assumed by many in describing what makes us human. The conceptual framework with which theology describes humanity and self in particular has a history. In this article we will give a short summary of this history and introduce alternative possibilities of understanding.
Much of the categories of understanding and terminology used in theology have been inherited from early conversations with ancient Hellenistic philosophers. These philosophers were immersed in the substance metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle. But another revolution has been brewing in this area of knowledge as well. As revolutionary as Copernicus’ ideas were to cosmology, so has been the philosophical movement from substance-metaphysics to relationality. However, much of theology is still stuck in the outdated abstract concepts of substance-metaphysics. Theological language needs an update!
The Movement from Substance Metaphysics to Relationality.
Plato loved ideas. He recognized that everything in this world is changing. Nothing remains the same. All is temporal. But in the world of ideas he found the certainty, the unchanging perfection he so loved. He articulated his understanding of time and eternity in a way that has been hugely influential.
Basically, above this realm of constant change, he imagined a dimension of perfect ideas and changeless forms. This world is but a shadow, or inferior copy of this other-worldly dimension of spirit-form.
It all began with a very simple question: what is the substance or essence of a thing? And what are mere attributes? In answering this question, Plato suggested that there is something – an essence – that remains unchanged and then there are attributes that can change but do not affect the essence. The essence was derived from the imagined eternal realm.
Aristotle further developed this conceptual framework in a work called Categories with which he separated the unchanging substance of a thing from its accidental attributes. The most important category was that of substance. Relationship (the forth category) was an attribute of substance, but in no way changed the substance.
So let me illustrate to make the point clear: Let’s take a bottle of wine as an example. It was imagined that in this realm of perfect forms, there existed the ideal wine. Every bottle of wine was derived from this perfect form. The unchanging essence of the wine was what corresponded to this conceptual form. All the relationships – the relationship between the vine and the soil, the relationship between the farmer and the grapes, the relationship between the winemaker, the process and the eventual wine – all these relationships were mere attributes that did not change the essence of the wine.
However, our philosophical categories changed and today we know that relationships are not mere attributes, they are the very essence of what forms every essence. It is the complex relationships of environment and people and processes that produced the essence of the wine. And although the wine maker might have an ideal concept in mind while producing the wine, few still believe that there is a heavenly realm of perfect forms from which this wine derives its essence. Such superstitious thinking has thankfully been replaced by reality.
The Nicene Creed and Platonic Philosophy
The Nicene Creed was written within these categories of understanding and consequently had great difficulty in describing the relationship between the two substances of the human and the divine within Christ Jesus. Today terms such as the hypostatic union are again popular in some circles, but the philosophical framework that gave birth to it is seldom discussed or understood. (Hypostatic union: The union of two distinct substances/natures – human and divine – in the person of Jesus Christ)
The Platonic realm of eternal changeless perfection and the substance metaphysics of Aristotle became the accepted logic and formed the basis of theological discussions throughout the middle ages. But nagging questions remained. Both in philosophy and science, shifts were taking place that brought relationality to the forefront.
F. LeRon Shults in his book Reforming Theological Anthropology gives a more comprehensive summary of what he calls the turn to relationality. Herewith a synopsis of the philosophical development:
- David Hume made a convincing argument against the very idea of ‘substance’ in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
- Emmanuel Kant continued the same argument and showed that we do not know things in themselves (substance) but as they appear to us. He also proposed a new table of categories in which ‘Substance and Accident’ became a subcategory of Relation. That was a hugely significant development.
- G.W.F. Hegel showed that we cannot separate relationship from substance, that reflective movement is being itself.
Following are a few short extracts that track the development of thought.
For our purposes, however, the important point is his [David Hume] devastating critique of the very idea of a “substance” that can be separated from all of its “accidents.” 1
Immanuel Kant credited Hume for waking him from his “dogmatic slumbers.” Like most of us, he was resting peacefully in his assumption that he could know and speak of a thing as it really is. Kant’s “critical” philosophy is a call to question such assumptions. He argues that we can speak of things as they appear to us (phenomena) but not of things in themselves (noumena). 2
G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) contributed to the history of the concept of relationality in many ways, but three aspects of his work have been particularly influential: (i) challenging the basic separation of the category of accident from the category of substance; (2) insisting that the phenomena of relationality and process are essential not only to the reflective movement of knowing but also to being itself, which is self-related; and (3) emphasizing that the ultimate or absolute relation cannot adequately be defined by speaking of the Infinite over against the finite, because the “true” Infinite must somehow embrace the finite while transcending it. 3
For Hegel, both substantiality and accidentality refer to determinations of the totality or the whole; this “whole” is neither “being” nor “essence,” however, but their dialectical unity in the reflective movement of the “absolute relation,” which is the highest category in the objective logic. “Substance, as this identity of the reflective movement, is the totality of the whole and embraces accidentality within it, and accidentality is the whole substance itself.” 4
A revolutionary change has taken place – a transformation from a belief in a substance unaffected by relationship, to an understanding that relationship is what gives substance to everything.
So much of Christian language is still caught up in making dogmatic statements about the substance of humanity… and the substance of God. The scriptures are actually more concerned with our relationships with one another, with ourselves and with God than in precise definitions of abstract substances. In fact God is described more in terms of relationship than in terms of being or substance. Knowing God is not something we do theoretically, but in the dynamic act of loving another. (1 John 4:7)
This question might make the point clearer. If you consider all the relationships that have influenced you throughout your life, would you still be who you are if none of these relationships were there? Some of you might have children, so let’s imagine all your children are taken out of your life-story. Would you still be you? Now let’s take away your spouse… then your parents. And to really bring the point home, let’s imagine you were born in another culture. Would you still be the person you are now?
Those who have loved most deeply know that love forms and transforms us most profoundly. To imagine ‘self’ as some timeless substance unaffected by relationships is to disregard the value of love and relationship. The self you are conscious of and much of what is still hidden in the subconscious, have been formed by our relationships.
Robert Mesle expresses it beautifully:
I am a process-relational philosopher because everything I care about is in process and in relationships—even my ideas. Being part of an allegedly timeless reality holds no allure for me. Whatever people may dream or speculate regarding timeless, changeless, becoming-less eternity, it is clear to me that nothing in our actual lives fits that category.
Consequently, instead of making static statements about your unchanging ‘substance’, we will explore in the lessons to come, the dynamic movements that form and reform you, moment by moment. Self is not an unchanging substance with accidental relationships, but actual relationships that form the substance of our self-awareness.
(This article is a combination of two modules in the Mimesis Academy Course, in order to provide a taster of what to expect)
- F. LeRon Shults. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Kindle Locations 272-273). Kindle Edition. ↩
- F. LeRon Shults. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Kindle Locations 276-279). Kindle Edition. ↩
- F. LeRon Shults. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Kindle Locations 300-303). Kindle Edition. ↩
- F. LeRon Shults. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Kindle Locations 310-312). Kindle Edition. ↩