There is no one definition for the postcolonial self. Indeed, among postcolonial
theorists, authors, and leaders there are a diverse number of assumed approaches to
personhood. The postcolonial dilemma is one of coming to terms with traditional,
modernist, and in some cases postmodernist pictures of the self. For some only a return to
traditional conceptions of identity and selfhood offer any hope, while for others the
modern language of universal human freedom, rights, and progress offers a way forward. In
particular, with the rise of new nation states, many worry about the particular rights of
women or minorities within these emerging countries. Still, others see the self as a
essentially a cloak for a more deconstructive model of the human. Conceptions of
personhood shape how we treat others, how we decide on what constitutes public and private
spaces, the ways our laws are crafted, and the roles that individuals assume in life.
Personhood, then, has political, socio-economic, domestic, and cultural impact.
Let us begin by examining how the "traditional,"
"modern," and "postmodern" models define personhood. Since so much of
the postcolonial experience is presently one of adapting to the impact of Western
modernity, a strong understanding of these competing versions of personhood is necessary
to coming to terms with the postcolonial struggle.
- Like a journeyman in a guild or a novice in a monastic order, a
person is born into or joined to an established tradition.
- A person first learns the language, rules, and debates of the
community this way. This often takes the form of sacred texts.
- A person learns his or her place within the order of things, and this
place tells the person much about identity. However, this place for some (even many) may
include exclusion from or subservience to the elite of the community. For others, it may
result in hereditary exile or non-personhood.
- Every community has a specific goal or end (telos) that it
seeks to achieve, e.g., the good life, the virtuous mean, the beautiful piece of art, the
salvation of the soul. Persons learn what defines the purpose of living and thus the
measure of their actions as excellent, acceptable, or unacceptable.
- Within that tradition, its members tell each other the stories of
their lives by relating them to the language and expectations of the community. Persons
hold each other accountable for their stories.
- As members grow in the tradition, they earn the right (so to speak)
to help further define and relate the telos of the community (e.g., each person helps
further nuance what kindness or beauty is, discovering ever new applications).
- Typically, the tradition has a metaphysical vision of God, the gods,
or a divine force; a person is defined in relation to that as well.
- Truth is something that can be obtained by an objective study of the
facts, either by correlating all the available data or by an appeal to common rational
principles. Alternatively, truth is intuited or willed by the individual.
- Individuals must eliminate their preconceived notions (their
traditions) and pay attention to the natural and social world. The modern self assumes an
autonomy that rejects the claims of authority, tradition, or community.
- A person's "true" self is found either by the inward
journey or by a claim to objective, value-free scientific analysis. The uniqueness of the
individual represents his or her essential reality.
- Truth and morality are not obtained by appealing to a divine or
eternal standard of authority but by appealing to rational criteria. The modern self is
essential atheistic in practice.
- Individuals reasoned judgments are the test of reliability. The
self is then the essential arbitrator of truth.
- The modern self has moved from an emphasis on redemption of character
to liberation from social inhibitions. Identity is
self-constructed through consumption of products of desire. Such
claims about identity and truth call for a technical mastery of the environment, as well
as a division between the public and private spheres of reality.
- The modern self searches for personal therapy that only results in
the subjective experience of well-being.
- Individuals possess certain rights over and against collectives and
are ultimately responsible for creating themselves.
- Every claim of objective, universal truth is an arbitrary
will-to-power. Only local constructions of truth are trusted, and even these are
essentially social constructions of reality.
- There is no final truth, only the positioning of social groups, each
seeking their own piece of the pie.
- "Truth" is power, discovered by uncovering ones
opponents hidden "genealogy," their suspect claims or secret motives. You
gain power by deconstructing the other sides claims to truth.
- Hence, there is no real self. People are products of psycho-social
and cultural economic forces.
- The self is a matrix of biological and socio-economic factors.
- The self can take on any number of shifting and fluid identities,
always erasing its past as it goes. For some, even the body is a negotiable construct.
What, then, might a biblical model of personhood have to offer to
the postcolonial search?
At the heart of a biblical notion of personhood is the belief that
humans beings are the imago dei, the image of God (Gen 1:26-27, James
3:9). Christians have differed over where to locate this imaging of God in
humans. It has been placed in the will, consciousness, reason, intuition, imagination,
embodiment, an openness to future, and in a composite unity of these. It is this
last option that I am most convinced by (Rom 12:1-2, I Cor 15:45). Our full humanity is
what, in differing ways, images God. The biblical conception of the heart is useful here
(Prov 4:23, 27:9, Deut 6:5, Rom 2:29, II Cor 3:3, Rom 1:32, II Cor 9:7, Heb 4:12). The
"heart" (whether the Hebrew Leb or the Greek kardia) implies the
full person of a human beingthe intellect, emotion, volition, even body. As Karl
Barth affirmed: "[T]he heart is not merely a but the reality of man,
both wholly of soul and wholly of body" (436). As such, to know with our heart is to
employ our whole person. Being the image of God implies the following:
- Dignity, glory, and honor are essential aspects of our personhood. We
are each valuable. (Psalm 8)
- Human beings have a specific telos, purpose and
end--"to glorify God and enjoy him forever," as the Westminister Confession
says. The human self cannot be conceived without an awareness of a dependence upon and
ultimate union with God
- Likewise, we have an intermediate goal and purpose in this world--the
furthering of God's shalom--his reign of perfect peace and justice over all
- Humans are relational beings created for mutuality and joint service
(Gen 1:28, Gen 2). One can see this pattern of relationality beginning in the very nature
of God, ala' the Trinity. It can also be seen in the biblical practice of covenant, as
well as in the community of Israel and the Church. We are individuals, but never conceived
of as existing alone or for ourselves alone.
- As we have already discussed in early readings, humans are created
for diversity (Gen 1, Rev 7).
- On the Earth, human beings have stewardship, a limited authority
given by God, what Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen calls an "accountable dominion." As
such, it is characterized by agape love and service. Interestingly, the Hebrew
words for "to till" (amhad) and "to serve" (ebed)
are closely related.
- Human beings have free will, an openness to the future, with
significant real moral choices to make.
- Humans have certain God-given rights, even if we are also capable of
voluntarily giving those rights up. By "rights," I do not mean a selfish
insistence upon getting one's own way, rather a recognition of how God has designed humans
to interact. For example, the 10 Commandments, the wisdom tradition of scripture, the
prophetic witness, the two Great Commandments (Mt 22:34-40, Gal 5:14, James 2:8), and the
Sermon on the Mount, all suggest aspects of how humans should treat and expect to be
- We are embodied beings with a focus on the particular and the
local (Gen 2:6-7, Rom 12:1-2, Mk 12:30).
- We are also fallen beings with a capacity for self-interest and
self-deception. We cannot ignore the impact of sin on our total person, both within
ourselves and within the larger social system where we reside..
- Likewise, we are called to renewal in Christ. By him do we fully
image God again (Col 1:15, 3:10). Our personhood is developed and renewed by the work of
the Holy Spirit upon us.
- The fullest expression of our personhood will be revealed in the
eschaton. We look toward that full sanctity and glory that is promised us (I Cor
15:50-57, I Jn 3:2-3).
A biblical model of personhood will find certain aspects of the
traditional, modernist, and postmodern models congenial, while being deeply suspicious of
others. In many ways, the biblical view has the most in common with the traditional,
though the biblical view (especially, the New Testament) would affirm the personhood of
all humans. The biblical model rejects the radical self-serving and autonomy of the
modernist notion, as well as its stress on personal fulfillment, liberation, and
subjectivism. Yet the Bible would agree with the stress on individual value and
basic human rights. Likewise, the biblical view recognizes the importance of local truth
and identity, yet would ultimately contextualize these within those universals found in
God. A biblical model would see a reality for the individual who is created for and within
community. Such an understanding of personhood offers postcolonials a vision of human
dignity, community, freedom, responsible stewardship, human rights, and redemptive
renewal, as well as a warning against human self-deception, corruption, dehumanization,
and claims of autonomy.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. (3.2) Trans. Harold
Knight, et al. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960.
The traditional, modernist, and postmodern models presented
above are dependent upon analysis by Alisdair MacIntyre, Peter Berger, and Craig M. Gay.
The biblical model is partially derived from the work of
Merold Westphal, John S. Reist Jr., Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Paul C. Vitz, and Bob