What is a person?

An elephant named Horton said, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

But what is a person? What is personhood?

At the urgent request of the mother, I (the hospital chaplain) was called to into the operating room to be present during a cesarian section. The fetus was severely brain damaged. Doctors knew it could not survive outside the womb. In fact, though it was moving, it had no brain activity even inside the womb. The mother was overwhelmed and distraught and wanted the baby to be baptized as soon as it was born. 

I could have gotten into all sorts of theological arguments about who should be baptized and how, what this or that theological tradition permits or doesn’t, or what baptism is from a biblical perspective. I chose to ignore all that. This mom needed assurance that her baby was safe. I administered the ancient ritual and prayed for and with the mom.

That baby had no ability to think, act, reason, or (according to the pediatric neurologist) experience pain. Her brain was so malformed, it could not even direct the little lungs to breath or the tiny heart to beat. 

Was that baby a person? Is she in heaven with God? Will her mother see her someday? If so, what age will the baby be? Do children who die grow up in heaven, or wait for their parents to raise them? Do all who die before whatever is the age of accountability go to heaven? Is baptism a ticket to heaven? Is it salvific? Are those who were forced to be baptized against their wills Christians? 

Does personhood start at conception? How do we know? Scripture doesn’t say. “Natural law” all depends on your definition of “natural.”  The majority of fertilized ova never implant in the womb and are washed naturally out of a woman’s body. Are all of those fertilized eggs persons? Are they in heaven? Is heaven filled with persons who never even lived? Is heaven only for persons?

The baby in the operating room looked like a baby. Had you seen it, you’d have said, “That’s a baby girl. Sadly, a dead baby girl.” You might hesitate to say the same thing about a cell the size of a pencil dot.

Plato defined persons as beings with souls temporarily housed in bodies. True freedom lies in escaping the body, liberating the soul. Care of the soul is paramount. That view (sadly, in my opinion) became blended with Christian theology from the time of Augustine. Is the physical body, which God at creation declared “very good,” unimportant? Is this life merely a rehearsal? Is escape our goal?

John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers tended to define persons as beings with rationality – the ability to think, make choices, and reason. But, what about a human being who has lost the capacity of moral choice, or the ability to reason and communicate because of birth defect, brain damage, or disease? Are they, as some have suggested, humans but not persons?

I was there at her side, whispering encouragement in her ear, telling her she was loved. Fully gowned, I stood next to her in the operating room holding her hand and thinking about my own children, including the one who died in his teens. 

The young woman had been in a car accident and subsequently declared brain dead. Her grieving parents donated her organs for transplant. She was breathing on her own; her heart was beating without the aid of medications. Her brainstem was working but the rest of her brain was not. A set of physicians and nurses attended her waiting for her heart to stop. Once it did, the organ procurement person started the official clock. 

Seven minutes later, all those present rushed out and a team of transplant surgeons who had flown in from another city rushed in to harvest her liver, lungs, pancreas, heart, and kidneys. They would then pack them in ice chests, rush out to a waiting ambulance that would emergently hurry them to the airfield where the private jet was waiting. Back in the city they came from, patients waited in operating rooms for those organs. 

This young woman was clearly a person before the accident. Did she cease to be a person when her upper brain function stopped? When her brain stem could no longer keep her heart beating? When the waiting physician pronounced her dead? Seven minutes later when the state said she was dead enough for her organs to be removed? Is a person still a person without a body? 

I was visiting patients in a small hospital that specializes in the care of humans who are so damaged they cannot do anything for themselves. Some are entirely comatose, unconscious, but breathing, hearts beating. Others could thrash about and moan. The attending nurses assumed all of them could hear and understand them. They spoke to them, joked with them, put up pictures for them to “look” at, and had running one-way conversations with them. That’s all as it should be. I was proud of those nurses. I admire them deeply. And who knows, maybe some of their patients did hear and understand a bit. Something intuitive tells me those are persons lying in that hospital – persons loved by God and worthy of being treated with dignity.

The psychology of warfare involves dehumanizing the enemy. They are no longer men, women, parents, spouses, or children, but “Japs,” “Krauts,” “Gooks,” or “Rag-heads.” Xenophobes dehumanize immigrants. They become “bad hombres,” or “illegals,” rather than refugees. Homophobes call homosexuals “fags” instead of men. The person who commits a crime is a “perp,” not a woman. Pseudoscientific Nazis decided Jews were not persons. The majority of whites in the antebellum south believed Africans were subhuman. It is far easier to kill, enslave, rape, abuse, deport, or dismiss a subhuman. It’s (hopefully) obvious that that is profoundly wrong. There are no “others.” There’s just us. 

We tend, I think, to associate personhood with bodies. The baby in the OR had a body. The severely damaged people in the specialty hospital had bodies. The comatose patient has a body. We assume, therefore, that they are persons, created in the image of God, loved by God, worthy of dignity and care, and destined for eternal life.

We rightly value the body. It isn’t just a shell or a tent to be cast off some fine day. That’s Platonism, not Christianity. Scripture clearly teaches the value of the human body. It bears the imago Dei. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It will be physically resurrected to eternal life. Healthcare workers, those attending to the needs of refugees, visiting prisoners, and feeding the homeless are doing godly work.

Even if the body doesn’t work, even if the brain can’t reason or feel, there is still a valuable human being there. Whether or not there is a person depends on our definition of person. If “human” and “person” are synonyms, then the answer is clear – a being with a body is a person regardless of ability to reason or communicate. 

What about beings without bodies? The spermatozoa cell, the ovum? What about the dead person? The disembodied soul? 

And what about animals? Animals can clearly think. At some level, they can reason and make choices. Octopuses are mollusks with no skeletons, no spinal columns, gills, three hearts, and blue blood that can walk on land, solve puzzles and have both short and long-term memories. Dolphins talk to each other. Orangutans use tools. We treat our dogs like children. Even trees communicate with one another. Every strand of DNA carries messages. Many people are convinced that a fertilized ova is a person. Women have even been convicted of murder after a miscarriage. If multiplying cells are persons, why not all living cells? Are orangutans, dogs, and dolphins persons? The octopus reasons and displays high intelligence. Is it a person? Do we need to expand the definition of personhood to include all living things? Is personhood to be equated with life-force?

It seems reasonably clear that human beings are part of nature, connected with all of creation, part of a marvelous web of interdependent reality. It seems clear that the physical universe, including our bodies, is important. All that is physical owes its existence to God, is treasured by God, is being rescued and renewed by God. Our bodies are good. We will live forever in resurrected bodies in a resurrected cosmos.

I do not believe that God is simply another name for reality, or that God is an impersonal life-force (although God created reality and the life-force that runs through every living thing). I don’t pray to the universe. The universe is impersonal. Every mountaineer knows the mountain doesn’t care if an avalanche snuffs you out. Every sailor knows the sea feels no regret when it swallows a ship. The rapidly mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t care who is President or what Q-Anon thinks.

I believe that God is a person. I believe God interacts with, cares for, expresses love towards, speaks to, listens to, and is profoundly interested in each of us. That does not imply that God is confined to a body. I don’t picture an old man in the sky. None of our pronouns really work for God. I believe God has personhood that is beyond the physical. And, I believe that God is perfectly reflected in Jesus, the Messiah. 

As I read the Bible, it also seems clear to me that humans are in some capacity special. We have the capacity to love and be loved. We have the capacity to know we exist and to study our own existence. Humans have self-awareness. We have the capacity to interact with our creator, to know and love God. I cannot say for certain that no animals have any of those capacities, or that there are not intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe with similar capacities, but we do. 

Humans bear the image of God. That has nothing to do with physicality or appearance, and even less to do with the made-up construct of “race” (which has no biological validity). Whatever else the imago Deiincludes, it involves the capacity to know, love, and follow God. Obeying God means reflecting God’s nature to the world around us. The teenage girl giving up her free time to sit next to a nursing home resident holding her hand and listening to stories is beautifully reflecting the imago Dei. But so is the silent Alzheimer’s patient, the derelict drug addict, the incarcerated killer, the child I tutored whose outer ears had been gnawed off by rats, and the comatose woman.

All humans are loved by God. Jesus died for all. The eschaton, the telos, the final consummation of history includes people from every nation, language, culture, and ethnicity. It includes the incarcerated as well as the one on the outside. It includes the poor as well as the middle class, the gay person as well as the straight. It includes people of every skin tone and background. Perhaps the glorious Kingdom will include all sorts of creatures as well.

I don’t know if it’s proper to think of octopuses and birch trees as having personhood. I do not know when a mass of dividing cells becomes a person. Lawyers and philosophers notwithstanding, I doubt anyone does. I cannot settle on a definition of “personhood.” 

Nevertheless, I know God interacts with me personally, talks to me, comforts and guides me, holds me and cares for me in a way that no mere force of nature could do. I know that I am, like all of us, unique, beloved, and bearing (albeit imperfectly) the divine image. 

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on March 21, 2022, in kingdom of God, Life Coaching, Spiritual Direction, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thoughtful discourse; some words I’ve never heard! Eschaton & telos? It’s humbling to be pushing 70 and have to look-up a new word!
    Things to possibly fix: I didn’t see the transition from the woman with the brain-dead baby to the woman about to be an organ donor. It took awhile, reading again, to figure out you’d switched to a new case. Maybe it’s only me who will be confused, though. At one point you use the word “emergent” that maybe should be “urgent.” (Yet your grasp of English is beyond mine, so “emergent” may be what you mean!) At another place, the italicized “Dei” runs into “includes” without a space between. The plural of octopus is octopi – or is it? Maybe check that?
    Thoughts: You were careful to avoid the word “abortion.” Cowardice? Or empathy?
    I’ve often wondered about the respective personhood of the mom & baby, when the baby is with her womb. In just a little while, the baby would be, legally, a person. But until then, God committed the child to her body, and if she regards it as a mere tumor, or a leach, it is her perrogative to remove an unwelcome parasite. The man who infected her may have already abandoned them both as unwelcome parasites. For these things, we will all be judged, being members of the society which contribute to its collective attitudes & behaviors. But I shrink from demanding the defense of the baby’s rights. I see that the baby isn’t in my body but in hers. Forcing her to be compassionate toward the baby’s personhood means to withdraw compassion for her personhood. I can’t find the solution, and so I’m unable to defend the baby. Millions of babies sacrificed on Baal’s alter, while I stand helplessly by, wrestling with an ethical dilemma.


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