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Chaplain's Corner + What the World Needs Now is Personhood

by Fr. George Morelli, published in The Word Magazine, September 2016

A song that was popular from the start of the Vietnam War in the mid 1960's and re-recorded in ensuing years, up to the present time, by over a hundred artists was titled: "What the World Needs Now Is Love." A nutshell of the song's theme is in the lyrics: "What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it's the only thing that there's just too little of...." In some renditions of the song the lyrics are interspersed with sound bites of bigotry, hatred, prejudice, segregation, gunfire and references to the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.1 That the world needs love is a truism. The question arises though, how do we bring love about? Setting aside the legal, political and scientific aspects of personhood, we can discern an answer by focusing on the individuality of each person.

Applying understanding and love to groups is more difficult than to individuals. Research psychology gives some insight as to why this is so. Individuals in groups are often de-individuated.2 That is to say, we do not see them as individuals but as group members. They are without individual personhood. By definition, 'groups' are an abstraction. Violent, destructive acts, and surely a lack of love toward them, are, therefore, more easily applied to groups, and by members of groups to each other.

On this matter I am taking a cue from the ending paragraph of science journalist Virginia Hughes' National Geographic Magazine 2014 series on personhood: "Here's why I think the personhood notion so valuable. We are people. Our people-centric minds evolved for a reason (namely, our species depends on social interactions) and our people-centric minds dictate how our society works. .. It's the crux of our reality."3

Centering on what various religious traditions have to say about personhood may be a way to increasing love in the world. One line of Hindu thought approaches the issue from an altruistic point of view: "What makes a person different from inanimate objects? Undoubtedly we can come up with many traits: self-consciousness, intelligence, awareness of others as fellow-persons, and many others. But there is a particular trait that is perhaps the most powerful expression of personhood, namely the willingness to forego one's own advantage for the sake of someone else. When someone sacrifices his own wealth, health, or even his life, we see that he has reached the highest level of what it means to be a real person...."4 A second line of Hindu tradition is that "According to Vedic literature an eternal individual soul inhabits the body of every living creature....The soul enters the womb at the time of conception, and this makes the fetus a living, individual person."5 On the other hand, "Buddhism defines personhood through psychological facts;" this allows one contemporary Buddhist scholar to write that these consist of: "materiality, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness."6 In Judaism, the moment of personhood is equivocal and is informed by legalistic standards. What is agreed upon, based on Exodus 21: 22–23, is that after birth the taking of life is murder, thus indicating that the taking of the life of an individual is murder of a person.7

The Christian idea of personhood stems from the Sacred Scripture's Book of Genesis: (1: 26) "And He [God] said: Let us make man to our image and likeness." St. Gregory Palamas summarizes the sublime meaning of the understanding personhood in this way: "What I am is an image of God manifest in a spiritual, immortal and intelligent soul, having an intellect that is the father of my consciousness and that is consubstantial with the soul and inseparable from it. That which characterizes me, and is real and sovereign, is the power of intelligence and free will." (Philokalia IV p. 118).8 To love we must focus on the personhood of God and the personhood of each one of us. In this context we can see the meaning of Christ's teaching: "Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me." (Mt 25: 47).

The honoring of personhood does, indeed, seem a sure way to increase the kind of love the world needs – now, and always.


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2 [Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L. and Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 33(2), 178-183.]

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8 [Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia, I-IV. London: Faber and Faber.]