Brad Bergfalk and I are both tiring with the prose of James Houston, and one of us thinks the book better than the other. But, here is our fifth part (on chp 6).
Summary (Brad Bergfalk)
After reviewing the meaning of personhood in the three false categories of mentoring (heroic, stoic, and therapeutic), Houston embarks on a discussion of the meaning of personhood in the context of Christian discipleship. The problem that one encounters when speaking about “the Christian person” is that our culture has succeeded in redefining “personhood” as individual in relation to self.
Houston distinguishes between the “individual” and “personhood” by
suggesting that the “individual” understands humans as being created in
one’s own image, while “personhood” understands that humans were created
in the image of God. Likewise, the “individual” sees their identity
based on human action, while “personhood” accepts that they are “made
righteous” by God. Freedom is defined by the “individual” as autonomy,
while the category of “personhood” understands freedom in relation to
being “grounded” in Christ. Finally, Sin is understood by the
“individual” as “self-enclosure” and disobedience, and for “personhood”
sin is understood in the context of discipleship and “openness to God”
and God’s calling.
For Houston, the definitive understanding of “personhood” takes place in
the context of Christian discipleship. And thus the process of
discipleship is a process of transforming autonomy to become “open” to
the other. Quoting Fenelon, Houston argues that “conformity to Christ
(as an act of discipleship) reconstructs one’s whole manner of “being”
and “doing.” The tendency in the church is to blur these categories thus
Christian discipleship is often about “becoming a more efficient
religious entrepreneur…of the Gospel (p. 118).”
The distinctions of Christian discipleship for Houston include the
following: First, discipleship is always God’s initiative; second,
Jesus’ call to discipleship is inclusive; third, discipleship always
involves radical reorientation; fourth, discipleship means sharing in
the ministry of Jesus (this sounds strangely like “The Jesus Creed”);
and fifth, discipleship is expressive of Christ’s suffering love. On the
basis of these distinctions, Houston concludes this chapter by
suggesting the “art of letter writing” as a form of Christian nurture
(presumably as a function of the mentoring/discipleship process).
When Houston describes some of the by-products of a distorted view of
personhood being a Christianity of efficiency rather than of
transforming relationship, I am ashamed to say that I have succumbed to
this distortion from time-to-time throughout my Christian experience.
The notion that our relationships to Christ exists in isolation from
others is one of the dominant characteristics of contemporary
evangelicalism. Returning to an understanding and practice of Christian
discipleship that is rooted in a radical reorientation from the present
age will be both painful and liberating for those who have the courage
to go against the prevailing Christian culture.
I like Houston’s distinction between individualism and personhood — the latter offering for us a more robust perception of human nature and our calling as Christians. He has a very nice chart on p. 114.
Here’s a profound comment: “Without God, humanity is a mystery. But, likewise, without humanity God is unknowable” (115).
Personhood, Houston maintains, is an open category. He calls it (and man did I jump up and down on this one) “an iconic existence, because it is like a window, looking out to the future of God’s intent of love” (117). Now that’s a good definition of personhood.
Houston rather imperceptibly wandered into letter writing as a form of relationship in discipleship, and he pulls out all kinds of interesting quotations from letters.