Arts and Culture

Insights from a Philosopher

This is the sixth column in a series

The Human Poetry of Faith: A Spiritual GuideMANY YEARS AGO, WHEN I was studying philosophy in order to obtain a doctorate, I decided that for my doctoral thesis I would write about some thinker’s philosophy of the human person. It seemed to me at the time – and still does – that by focusing on the mystery of the human person I would learn about many other philosophical topics.

At the time, I had never heard of the Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, whose philosophy of person would have been exactly the type of philosophy I would have liked to study and write about in my thesis. Years after I had become familiar with Macmurray’s philosophy, I encouraged three friends to write their doctoral theses on Macmurray and all three received their degrees.

These memories have returned to me because in his “The Human Poetry of Faith: A Spiritual Guide to Life” (New York: Paulist Press, 2001, pp. 142), Father Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., offers two quotations from Macmurray in the book’s second chapter, titled “The Gateway of Friendship.” The first is from Macmurray’s book, “The Self as Agent:”

“Personal existence is constituted by the relation of persons. All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship.

“The cultural crisis of our time is a crisis of the personal.

“The Self cannot exist in isolation.”

Father Gallagher takes the second quotation from Macmurray’s “Reason and Emotion:”

“I am prepared to bank upon the faith that the essence of nature – human and divine – is love.

“The personal life is essentially a life of relations between people; to be ourselves at all we need other people.

“Religion grows out of our relation to persons.”

These quotations remind me of the hard work one of my friends did when he was writing his thesis. Because I suggested that he write his doctoral dissertation on Macmurray, I felt obliged to help him. Really all I did was to allow my friend to bounce his ideas off me and I would react to them. Doing so reminded me of what a lonely and anxiety-causing task the writing of a doctoral dissertation is.

And I agree completely with the two quotations from Macmurray that Father Gallagher uses in his book.

Personal existence comes about by the relation of persons. We are who we are through our relationships with others. From our parents and siblings we inherit and receive more than we can ever fully appreciate. They present a whole world to us that will influence our outlook on self, others and God.

The process of receiving from others continues throughout our lives. All knowledge, even what can seem to be the most speculative and abstract type of knowledge, can influence how we act. I believe all education should be for action. Education should teach us not only how to think but how to live.

Macmurray was correct in stating that all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship. Each of us is called to be a gift-giver. Being a person means being called into relationship. That is how God made us. We come to be who we are as persons through our friends and in offering friendship we may become a creative force in the life of our friends.

Our Christian faith tells us that nature, both human and divine, is love. God is Love and we are called to be lovers. The meaning of love has been so sentimentalized and distorted in our society that to understand Macmurray’s insight and to grasp the Christian faith’s emphasis on love may take some serious reflection. I believe every aspect of Catholicism can be related to the meaning of love from God calling Abraham, to Jesus’ Resurrection, to the 2,000-year existence of the Church.

Reality is a product of God’s love and we most imitate God when we love. Our lives should be love affairs with God. There is nothing soft or weak about genuine love. It can make serious demands of us but authentic, fulfilling existence is impossible without it. Religion is about relationships.


Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).

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