Friday, 25 January 2013

Man and woman: a communion of persons


In a previous post (that I highly recommend if you’d like to get the most out of this one), I shared my notes on the first eight chapters of John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them.” There he presents an astonishing view of the human person, derived from the creation account of Genesis. It centers around his argument for the self-consciousness and self-determination of the human person, and, as their consequence, their relating to God as a partner. The human person is set against the background of man’s initial solitude, out of which the differentiation of the male and female sexes arises. In this post I would like to continue sharing my takeaways from John Paul II’s book, where the relationship between the “two ways in which [a] human being […] is a body” is further elaborated.

Here the narrative continues on from the “unity of two beings” established in chapter 8, and emphasizes the value of the human person to God (“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” Genesis 1:31) and of man and woman to each other, as “an overcoming of the frontier of solitude.” This original solitude of man is already an indication that man is made for woman and vice versa. The “existence of the person “for” the person1 […] is confirmed, in a negative sense, precisely by [man’s original] solitude.” Such being for each other results in the formation of a communion of persons, where it is the ““double solitude” of the man and the woman, […] which [gives] to both the possibility of being and existing in a particular reciprocity.” The human person’s being created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) lets us deduce that “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.” This is beautifully summed up by John Paul II saying that “[m]an becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.” Man is “not only an image in which the solitude of one Person, who rules the world, mirrors itself, but also and essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons.”

All I can say to that is: wow! The clarity of thought, the beauty of the universal image of the human person and its relationship with God that John Paul II presents here is astonishing and seems so fresh and open that I am lost for words!

Turning back to the human person, he extracts yet another profound realization from the Genesis account: “on the basis of the original and constitutive solitude of his being - man has been endowed with a deep unity between what is, humanly and through the body, male in him and what is, equally humanly and through the body, female in him.” The “twofold aspect of man’s somatic constitution” - masculinity and femininity – indicates “the new consciousness of the meaning of one’s body[, which is] reciprocal enrichment.” These “two reciprocally completing ways of “being a body” [… are] complementary dimensions of self-knowledge and self-determination.” It is important to note here that John Paul II does not refer to an individual, when he says “man” in the above quotes (i.e., he is not saying that a single person is constituted by masculine and feminine parts) and neither is he talking about a male human being. Instead, “man” refers to humanity, where human person have these two “ways of being” that have among them a deep unity. This becomes particularly clear also from the following passage, where he says that being male or female “is “constitutive for the person” (not only “an attribute of the person”) [… Man] is [deeply] constituted by the body as “he” or “she”.”

With the human person understood as above, the next step is to turn to the unity between male and female that Genesis expresses as: “the two will be one flesh” (2:24). This “is without doubt the unity that is expressed and realized in the conjugal act.” “When they unite with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely so as to become “one flesh,” man and woman rediscover every time and in a special way the mystery of creation, thus returning to the union in humanity (“flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones” [Genesis 2:23]) that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally.” “This means reliving in some way man’s original virginal value [… and for man and woman to discover] their own humanity, both in its original unity and in the duality of a mysterious reciprocal attraction.” “[S]ex expresses an ever-new surpassing of the limit of man’s solitude [… and] always implies that in a certain way one takes upon oneself the solitude of the body of the second “I” as one’s own.”

Finally, chapter 10 (yes, all of this is in only two, short chapters!), highlights the core importance of choice in becoming “one flesh” “While the man, by virtue of generation, belongs “by nature” to his father and mother, “he unites,” by contrast, with his wife (or she with her husband) by choice.” This choice, which is an “expression of self-determination” that is fundamental to the “structure” of the human person, “is what establishes the conjugal covenant between the persons, who become “one flesh” only based on [it].” “When both unite so intimately with each other that they become “one flesh,” their conjugal union presupposes a mature consciousness of the body.” The result is a new “discovery of the […] original consciousness of the unitive meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity.”

OK, that’s about as much as I can try to cover in one go. John Paul II’s thought is intricate, dense (re-reading a good few times is a must) and has peculiarities of vocabulary (like all good, philosophically meaty texts), but the rewards are rich and will, at least for me, lead to many more re-reads and hopefully new insights in the future. Even the surface I managed to skim here presents the sexual relationship between man and woman as a mirror of the cosmic event of creation (in the rich depth that John Paul II has exposed in these first 10 chapters ), as a mirror of the innermost nature of God’s own Trinitarian life and as a mirror of the fundamental complementarity and reciprocity of human relationships. Consciousness, choice, bodiliness, solitude and a gratuitous giving of one’s self to another self are all weaved into a profoundly illuminating tapestry, which shows off the beauty of a positive, Christian understanding of humanity and sexuality.

1 Please, note that all italicized emphases are John Paul II’s own, from the original text.