This past week, we Catholics celebrated Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is the central mystery of our faith; three Persons—the Father, Son, and Spirit—in one God. Meditating on this mystery always brings me back to the mystery of persons.
In honor of this Solemnity, I’m going to do a trilogy of posts. Part One: Personhood—Relational Being; Part Two: Personhood—Fallen Individuals; and Part Three: Personhood Redeemed. In part one, I will try to establish my understanding of the human person as a relational being.
Human and Trinitarian persons
Human persons are distinct from one another in many ways. The first way to distinguish persons from each other is their different matter. The stuff that composes me is not the stuff that composes you. Even if someone were identical to me in every way, we would be different people, because different matter makes up our bodies.
In the Trinity, however, there is no matter. That is not what makes the persons distinct. The only thing that makes the Father distinct from the Son is his Fatherhood to the Son. The only thing that makes the Son distinct from the Father is his Sonship to the Father. The only thing that makes the Spirit distinct from the Father and the Son is that He is a spiration of love between the other two Persons.
Two definitions spring from our understanding of these two types of persons. A person is (1) an individual of a rational nature, and (2) a relation being. When applied to human persons, it’s easy to understand the first one: each human being is an undivided and indivisible member of a rational species. But this definition alone lacks some crucial understanding. So let’s discuss the second definition as it applies to the human person.
Man as relational being
When we consider ourselves as relational beings, what comes to mind? Love, politics, communication… Pretty much every aspect of life, everything we understand about ourselves as persons. When you are trying to describe yourself to someone, you talk about your family, your friends, clubs you enjoy or teams you follow. People used to refer to themselves as “son of [father’s name]”. Who we are is traditionally connected to how we are related.
They say when you fall in love, you see everything in a new way. You feel like a new person because of your new relationship. Or think about when you make a good friend; every time, you learn something about yourself. So many people to watch and understand! We learn about ourselves by our similarity and contrast. Knowing ourselves is an essential part of being human, one that can only be fully accomplished when we see ourselves in relation to others.
Aristotle defines man as the “political animal” (Politics, Book I, Chapter 3). Politics is the art of bringing together many individuals into one that they might pursue the good together in a city. Man only attains his true end when he is in relation to others in this organized way. Some goods he naturally desires are not possible if he is alone. For example, a man alone cannot practice good deeds; his virtues are meaningless.
As God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)
Aristotle also points to man’s speech as an indication of his political nature. Speech comes to us only when we try to communicate. This drive to express further sharpens our rationality. Without the need or ability to communicate, we would never have cause to distinguish tense, which helps us understand time, a crucial part of our existence.
Words are also essential to each of us as a person. Just by examining a piece of writing, we can tell who wrote it. Personality expresses itself in word choice, tone, and speech pattern. Words are the way we attempt to communicate our thoughts and personalities even to ourselves. And none of this would be possible without relationships.
From all of the above, we can see that the human person is a relational being. It goes without saying that a person’s relationship to God is the most important relationship. In Part Two, I will look at what corrupted that important relationship and the consequences of that corruption.