Book Review: The Call to Personhood (A. I. McFadyen)

Book Review for my MA(Min) subject, Theological Anthropology.

McFadyen, A.I. The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

The Call to Personhood is an exploration into how the ‘personhood’ of persons is formed and transformed through personal relationships with one another. A personal relationship is when at least two, autonomous and independent partners engage with each other, freely and without coercion. McFayden proposes that we cannot understand what it truly means to be a person based only on our internal independence as our “personal identities are moulded through our relationships”[1]. Therefore, we can only understand our personhood in the context of our inter-personal relationships.

We find McFayden’s thesis in between individualism and collectivism. He does this by proposing a ‘third option’ that accounts for an individual’s the autonomy and personal freedom while acknowledging the influence of relationships and institutions have on a human being. McFayden builds his argument through exploring the theological and anthropological concepts of the image of God, human ontology, free will, gender, and how they contribution to a relational understanding of personhood.

Image of God

McFayden explains that humankind being ‘made in God’s image,’ (Gen. 1:26-27) refers to the relational nature humanity shares with the triune creator. He proposes that the Trinity is a unique community, characterised by unity-in-diversity and mutuality. Each person in the Godhead shares in their divinity, while unique in their distinct in their role, Father, Son and Spirit. He argues that Humans then mirror this unique community when we openly communicate and interact with one another in various relationships.

However, God’s priority in creation was not the horizontal relationship between persons, but the vertical one between humanity and himself. According to McFayden, God created humans to be his ‘dialogue-partners,’ and addresses us so. As language is the universal form of communication, dialogue is McFayden’s preferred method of relationship. Therefore, it is through being a dialogue-partner with God and other humans that one can be a person, made in the image of God, in the truest sense. And the only way to have an undistorted relationship with God and other is through a restored dialectical conversation with Christ.

Ironically, for a Christian thesis based on communication and relationship with God, there is little said of prayer. The Call To Personhood would have contributed more to the discussion by addressing individual and corporate prayer.

While McFayden adequately explains the relational side of both God and humanity, he neglects the ‘dominion’ aspect of God’s image. That is, that God created humanity, under His authority, to rule over and look after the rest of God’s creation. Addressing this would have strengthened McFayden’s contribution to the field of theological anthropology.

Human Ontology and Free Will

McFayden firmly states that being ‘made in God’s image’ is the primary ontological structure of a person. Therefore, in light of God’s ‘address’ to humanity, the primary ontological construct of humanity is relationship and responsibility. That is, persons have a responsibility in how they respond to God’s address.

‘Free will’ is understood as autonomy and the freedom to reject or accept the invitation to be God’s dialogue-partner. At Creation humanity was created with an autonomous and ‘primal letting-be,’ which became independent in the fall. McFayden’s definition of sin is then a person’s refusal to reciprocate God’s call into a relationship with Him and by extension, the closure of communication with other individuals. As being made in God’s image is humanity’s primary ontological structure, we did not completely lose that image due to sin. Humanity’s misuse of freedom that has merely distorted our response and responsibility and as a result, restoration is possible.

McFayden offers a Semipelagian understanding of Grace and salvation. God’s extended the offer of a redeemed relationship with humanity through Jesus, who was not just the messenger of God’s Word but also the Word himself. Human beings then have the ‘choice’ to accept God’s offer or not.

Gender

McFayden develops his idea of a man reflecting God’s image through gender. His most insightful thought on the topic is when he explains that Adam’s ‘helper’ (Gen. 2:18) Eve, being made from his rib, is not a sign that she is his ‘subordinate assistant.’ Rather, Eve enables Adam to understand their interdependence and that the completeness of personhood is in a community. Adam being asleep reveals that Eve’s creation was fully God’s work.

McFayden acknowledges the distinction between sexes and explores how the sexual and dialogical relationships between each mirror God. However, gender differences are not explored outside of biology.

McFayden never suggests that these communities are exclusive to man and woman. The primary focus is not on gender, rather a discussion on how all types of relationships influence identity and the need to mirror God’s invitation of Grace through the development of ideal relationships. These ideal relationships never grow through coercion but mutual, genuine and open communication.

Community

The Call To Personhood suggests that the more open and dialogical conversations an individual has, the closer bond they form to communities, and as a result increases their development as unique individuals. McFayden’s thesis encourages the contemporary church to consider the following implications

A church should find its identity in its patterns of communication; therefore, a church must be a community that reveals to the world a “genuine response [accepting a relationship with God] to a genuine call [God’s address to humanity through Jesus].”[2] Unfortunately, McFayden doesn’t offer practical suggestions, as to how a church community goes about considering and evaluating their ability to listen and respond to both divine and human words when they meet.

As sin manifests as the partial or full closure of communication with other persons, the church should be modelling the process of developing mutual, dialogical and open relationships. McFayden includes the importance of forgiveness for interpersonal relationships as well as responding to Jesus’ call to care for the vulnerable. He suggests we can do this by creating ways for those with diminished communicative capacities not to be objectified, but rather, engage with them as subjects of conversation to maintain their dignity.

Through the exploration of these ideas, McFayden challenges Christians to consider political and ethical issues regarding mutuality vs. coercion, the power and influence in asymmetrical relationships and promoting healthy relationships and community development.

Although The Call To Personhood is not an easy book to read and is very theoretical, it challenges people living in an individualistic society to rethink the way relationships affect the personhood of each individual. McFayden encourages us to understand our personhood truly by accepting God’s invitation to be His dialogue-partner and offering the same invitation to the others.

[1] A.I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 18.

[2] Ibid., 62.

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