Faith & Thought

Philosophy of Person: When Teacher Becomes Student

by Father Robert Lauder

Often in this weekly column I have referred to this truth: If you become a teacher, by your students you will be taught. I believe that, and it has been confirmed to me time and time again in the many years that I have been teaching philosophy. 

I have learned from some students who were very intelligent and also from students who struggled with philosophy. 

I am grateful to all the students I have had in my classes. They have been gifts to me, and I have been blessed by having them in my classes. What a privilege to have the honor to teach others what you believe to be important truths that have the potential to change people’s lives. 

In addition to being taught by students, I have also been taught, and this might seem strange, by the courses I have taught. 

For what might have seemed chance, but which I now look upon as Providence, I have taught about 15 different philosophy courses in my many years of teaching. I have taught logic, ethics, Medieval philosophy, modern philosophy, contemporary philosophy, the philosophy of the human person, existentialism, phenomenology, personalism, Plato’s philosophy and various elective courses including ones on Marxism, philosophy and film, the Catholic novel, the mystery of God, Cardinal John Henry Newman, philosophy and psychology. 

The only philosophy course that I have never taught is metaphysics. Teaching those courses forced me to read and study countless books about philosophy that I might have never read if I had not taught the courses. I believe teaching has contributed enormously to my education. 

After reading countless philosophy books and teaching philosophy for 50 years, I find that I have settled on the philosophical vision of person that is the same philosophical vision presented by Bernard Cooke in “Sacraments & Sacramentality” (Mystic, Conn., Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994, 241 pp., $14.95). What Cooke has written about the mystery of person is the philosophical vision of person that I write about and teach. 

Early in the book, Cooke writes three statements which I think give direction to the vision of person that he uses throughout the book. The three statements are: 

“What we might suggest, then, as a tentative understanding of Christian sacrament is this: ‘Sacraments are specially significant realities that are meant to transform the reality of ‘the human’ by somehow bringing persons into closer contact with the saving action of Jesus Christ.” (p. 10). 

“What it means to be human, what it means for people to grow as a human, what it means for people to share life as humans — these have been changed forever by what happened in Jesus’ life and death and continues to happen in the mystery of his resurrection.” (p. 11) 

“From a religious point of view the very essence of human sin … is the deliberate refusal to love. And it is a sin not because there is some abstract ‘law’ of God that says we should love one another, but because denial of love destroys our own personhood and destroys the shared life of human community upon which we all depend in order to be human” (p. 13). 

The reason I think these three statements are so important is that they succinctly express the human person that is at the center of Cooke’s book and also they suggest how Jesus’ death and resurrection enriches that view of person enormously. 

In sketching how human friendship is essential to human growth and the proper development of the human person, Cooke writes the following: 

“By far the most important part of our ‘going out’ to the world around us is our reaching out to people, to men and women and children who share with us the capacity for consciousness. We are not only able to know that these people are there; we are able to touch them in friendship and concern and shared interests. We are able to form human community with them. We are able, that is, to love. 

“Self-interest we can have (and do); we can and do depend upon others to provide for our needs. But there is something else, human friendship, that has always defied clear explanation and definition. Throughout history, women and men have tried, not too successfully, to grasp the essence of this experience that is such a fundamental, important and rewarding part of human life. We still do not know exactly how to explain friendship; we do know that it is precious. 

“Because of this capacity for affective existing, we humans are able to be for one another, to exist together, to share consciousness with and learn from one another. Paradoxically, because of the capacity to love, we can possess one another as friends without limiting anyone’s freedom or personal distinctiveness” (p. 12). 

Every philosophical insight that Cooke offers is greatly deepened when the person is viewed under the special light provided by the sacraments. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.