Biblical Personhood & The Post-Colonial Self

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.

Traditional Personhood

  1. Like a journeyman in a guild or a novice in a monastic order, a person is born into or joined to an established tradition.
  2. A person first learns the language, rules, and debates of the community this way. This often takes the form of sacred texts.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.

Modernist Personhood

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Individuals’ reasoned judgments are the test of reliability. The self is then the essential arbitrator of truth.
  6. 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.
  7. The modern self searches for personal therapy that only results in the subjective experience of well-being.
  8. Individuals possess certain rights over and against collectives and are ultimately responsible for creating themselves.

Postmodern Personhood

  1. 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.
  2. There is no final truth, only the positioning of social groups, each seeking their own piece of the pie.
  3. "Truth" is power, discovered by uncovering one’s opponents’ hidden "genealogy," their suspect claims or secret motives. You gain power by deconstructing the other side’s claims to truth.
  4. Hence, there is no real self. People are products of psycho-social and cultural economic forces.
  5. The self is a matrix of biological and socio-economic factors.
  6. 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.

Biblical Personhood

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 being—the 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:

  1. Dignity, glory, and honor are essential aspects of our personhood. We are each valuable. (Psalm 8)
  2. 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
  3. 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 humanity.
  4. 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.
  5. As we have already discussed in early readings, humans are created for diversity (Gen 1, Rev 7).
  6. 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.
  7. Human beings have free will, an openness to the future, with significant real moral choices to make.
  8. 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 treated.
  9. We are embodied beings with a focus on the particular and  the local (Gen 2:6-7, Rom 12:1-2, Mk 12:30).
  10. 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..
  11. 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.
  12. 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 Colton.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding