I cannot remember the first time I heard of the philosopher John Macmurray. I think I had finished my own graduate studies and was teaching for a few years. If I had known Macmurray’s thoughts when I was in graduate school, I am certain I would have chosen his philosophy as the topic for my doctoral dissertation.
Whenever it was that I first heard of Macmurray’s philosophy it was immediately interesting to me. In fact, even before I had any detailed knowledge of Macmurray’s thought I recommended to three of my friends who were pursuing doctoral studies and looking for a topic on which to write their doctoral thesis, that they write on Macmurray’s philosophy which was an example of the philosophy of personalism. I guess my advice paid off because all three wrote on Macmurray and all three achieved their doctorates.
In his “Building the Human” (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968, pp. 192) Robert Johann relies on some of Macmurray’s insights when he presents how essential human community is to personal growth and how on the deepest level of personhood we need other persons and they need us. Johann accepts Macmurray’s insight that a human being is essential to a community. The goal of communion is part of everyone’s vocation, the goal is planted in us by God. Johann writes the following:
“To be man, therefore is to be a person. But to be a person is to exist only as an appeal and a response to other persons. Without the other, an other who takes account of me and for whom my free response means something, I do not exist. I can be myself only in your presence. But if I need you in order to be myself, you likewise need me. Each of us holds his ‘personhood’ as a gift from the other, so that to betray the other is always to betray oneself. As persons, we are each responsible to and for the other, and only in the mutual fulfillment of this responsibility do we secure for ourselves a place in the real.”(pp. 82-83)
Put very simply we need each other if we are going to grow and develop as persons. We even depend on one another in our attempts to grow closer to God. I think if Johann’s insights are taken seriously we can have a deeper understanding of the church as the mystical body of Christ.
We are related to one another in a union which is so serious that we can be sacraments to one another, helping one another deepen our relationship with Christ. Johann provides the following summary statement:
“The task of man is thus man himself. It is unfinished business for which God has provided, as it were, only the raw materials. Mankind is thus a reality summoned to share in its own making.
Since the goal of this making is a genuine community to which each member freely gives himself and, in the very giving, finds himself, responsibility for its coming to being rests with every one of us.
Each person has the vocation to be for every other the vehicle of a truly creative love—indeed, of the Creator’s love, in and by which alone we all live and move and are.” (p.84)
I am imagining countless parish societies that might be transformed if members had some understanding of Johann’s personalistic view of human existence.
Every insight that Johann presents takes on a deeper and even more wonderful meaning when looked at under the light that the doctrine of the mystical body can provide. Each member of Christ’s mystical body can echo St. Paul’s statement “For we have been made partakers of Christ.” (Heb, chapter 3, verse 4).
No sooner had I begun to think of parish societies under the light of Johann’s vision but I began to think of two vocations I have: one is writing a weekly column in the Tablet, the other teaching philosophy at St. John’s University.
I agree with Johann’s view of the human person and of the call to communion that God has placed within each of us and am beginning to grasp in a deeper way what I am supposed to be doing when writing the column or teaching at St. John’s.
In both vocations I am trying to call people to live in communion, to be open to the needs of others and in the process of calling others I am being helped to live in communion.
I have always thought that writing the weekly column and teaching philosophy at a Catholic university were important missions. Now I think I see in a new way that as I reach out to help others grow in communion, I am allowing myself to be called by others into a deeper communion.
All of them are surrounded by God’s loving call to communion.
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.