Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Feb. 6, 2008: Sabrina Tucci, Relationality: Embodiment and Self-Transcendence

Sabrina Tucci ; sabrina AT

Developmentally, we cannot flourish as human beings without interpersonal relationships which allow for emotional and psychological growth. Although it does not by itself capture what it means to be human, the relational aspect of human beings is uniquely human. We don’t respond instinctually to our basic or social needs and desires, we experience them as intentional responses and inform our concrete experiences with meaning and value. There is a relational link between the body and the world of meaning, for we experience and relate to the world and others through the operations of embodied selves.

Not only do we express ourselves and communicate with others through our embodied actions, but it is also our ability to transcend our physical selves, to understand, to value and to love, that distinguishes us from other animals. Human greatness lies with the ability to reach beyond oneself through the different levels of consciousness, culminating in the highest form of self-transcendence - the self-surrender to another in love.

Human relationality is only possible because of our ability to go beyond our embodied selves. Several thinkers (Bernard Lonergan, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Emmanuel Levinas) address the two concepts that I am concerned with in terms of relationality: embodiment and self-transcendence. Together, embodiment and self-transcendence constitute the possibility for relationality and ultimately for fellowship with God, since we are in relationship with God through our relationships with others.[i]

There is an indissoluble connection between the body and the self, and therefore the self in relation to other selves. The characteristics that make us human (i.e. language, self-awareness, moral awareness and consciousness) are embodied traits. Whatever we say about transcendence or consciousness, it is an embodied transcendence or consciousness that exists in the world in bodily relations and activities[ii]. Even when we transcend the limitations of our animality, we must keep in mind that our ability to transcend those limitations depends in part on some of those animal characteristics.[iii]

Understood in this way, our embodied existence is not an obstacle to overcome, but what makes our uniquely human characteristics possible. Our embodied, characteristically human traits shape human relationships. Perhaps the most distinctive human quality directly related to relationality is our ability to communicate with others. In fact, communication with others constitutes the essence of the human being as a social being. Expressing oneself requires embodied communication to form and maintain relationships with others. Communication is achieved through a multitude of signals originating from all parts of the body, verbal and non-verbal, or simply by one’s presence. Lonergan states that “there is a sensitive basis for communication by the mere fact of the presence of another…The communication that arises on that base takes place through signs, through the human body”.[iv] Intersubjectivity is realised and actualized in communication through body language, gestures, symbols, etc. It is through the physical body that we are able to communicate with the other and therefore establish relationships.

We express and nourish our capacity for relationships through bodily interaction and responsiveness to others. However, our relationships are not only formed by physical or sensible reality, but also by the realities shaped by our acts of meaning. For Lonergan, the human subject is a carrier and communicator of meaning.[v] What someone means is communicated intersubjectively, symbolically, linguistically, and incarnately. Intersubjective meaning presupposes the interpersonal situation and is only possible because of the human subject who expresses and communicates an elemental experience with others. Lonergan illustrates the phenomenon of intersubjectivity through the way a person communicates an inward unspoken meaning to another person through a smile.[vi]

Attention to the significance of the body in relation to the self, to others, and to the world, reveals that self, world and other are intertwined in important ways. Both the world and the other are capable of altering us, just as we are capable of altering others or the world. We affect our world, and our world affects us. This mutual interaction and influence (potentially contributing to significant change, both positive and negative), attests to the responsibility we bear, whether we realize it or not, for ourselves, for others and for the world.

An understanding of responsibility in terms of alterity is best expressed by Emmanuel Levinas who considered responsiveness to the other as our most human ability. According to Levinas, the Other calls and welcomes the subject into the ethical relation of facing. In fact, the primordial relationship is ethical. Because the face-to-face encounter confronts us with the ‘trace of the Infinite’, one’s responsibility to the Other exists preconceptually, even if we are not aware of it.[vii]

Lonergan also acknowledges the primordial aspect of our relationality. In the following passage, Lonergan recognizes the human solidarity present in the spontaneous help one gives another in need:

Prior to the “we” that results from the mutual love of an “I” and a “thou,” there is the earlier “we” that precedes the distinction of subjects and survives its oblivion. This prior “we” is vital and functional. Just as one spontaneously raises one’s arm to ward off a blow against one’s head, so with the same spontaneity one reaches out to save another from falling. Perception, feeling, and bodily movement are involved, but the help given another is not deliberate but spontaneous. One adverts to it not before it occurs but while it is occurring. It is as if “we” were members of one another prior to our distinctions of each from the others. [viii].

The conclusion that can be drawn from a brief consideration of these thinkers is that we relate to each other through our bodies and, in part, because of our embodied human characteristics. As human beings, we are unique in the way that we communicate and perceive because of the relational link between the body and the world of meaning. Furthermore, embodied relationships present us with an ethical responsibility, whether we are aware of it or not. Becoming more aware of our interconnections increases our sensitivity to others and therefore our ability to respond to others.

There is a broad consensus among contemporary anthropologists that self-transcendence characterizes an important aspect of human nature. Socially, we become who we are through openness to relations and experiences with others. According to Pannenberg, the individual emerges from the relation to the other. “Individuals do not exist simply by themselves but are always constituted by their relation to the other, the Thou”.[ix] By the Thou, Pannenberg means the person(s) to whom individuals are related in the course of their personal lives. The development of human capabilities depends on “whether the individual finds the community that permits the individual to awaken to his possibilities”.[x] We each contribute to the development of others, whether this is transitory or deeply affecting.

According to Pannenberg, all human behaviour is characterized by the tension between openness to the world and self-centeredness. Our destiny lies in openness to the world and to others through which we discover our true identity and the meaning of life. In opening oneself to relationships and in dedicating oneself to service of the human community, instead of ‘preoccupation with oneself’ one discovers not only one’s true identity but also the meaning of life. “When human beings who are concerned about themselves think that they come closest to their own identity through… preoccupation with themselves, then they are really alienated from their true destiny and their true selves.”[xi]

Lonergan also acknowledges that it is through our relation to the other that we come to know ourselves. “Subjects are confronted with themselves more effectively by being confronted with others than by solitary introspection…It is not by introspection but by reflecting on our living in common with others that we come to know ourselves. What is revealed? It is an original creation” for, “the intimate reality of man grounds and penetrates all that is human”[xii].

According to Lonergan, we transcend the solitary self and relate to the world beyond ourselves through the different levels of consciousness (attending to experience, being intelligent in one’s understanding, judging that one's understanding is correct, and deciding to act on the resulting knowledge). Realizing self-transcendence requires that we become aware of our defence mechanisms, biases, and misperceptions which prevent us from being authentically subjective. “The root of division, opposition, controversy, denunciation, bitterness, hatred, [and] violence” results from inauthenticity.[xiii] Further to the levels of self-transcendence, intellectual, moral and affective conversion give rise to differentiations of consciousness whereby a fuller meaning emerges from the broadening of one’s experience and horizon which promotes progress.

It is by affective conversion that a person prioritizes values and through the love of neighbour, community, and God is able to go beyond the finite self and contribute to human progress. A person is affectively self-transcendent when the individual acts for others, and is concerned for the good of others. This is especially so when one falls in love. The highest form of self-transcendence is the self-surrender to another in love, which, according to Lonergan, is the abiding imperative of what it is to be human.

Lonergan also believes that it is through the interpersonal that we discover our purpose. ‘[B]eyond the moral operator that promotes us from judgments of facts to judgments of value with their retinue of decisions and actions, there is a further realm of interpersonal relations and total commitment in which human beings tend to find the immanent goal of their being and, with it, their fullest joy and deepest peace.[xiv]

According to Lonergan, when we are authentically oriented towards the good as an objective reality, we become more human. In other words, we become more authentically human in self-transcendence. The drive towards authenticity moves us beyond ourselves. “We are our true selves when we observe the transcendental precepts because these demands authenticate our subjectivity as human subjects.”[xv] Thus, by transcending oneself, one becomes more authentically human - one becomes oneself.

Affectivity is an important aspect of self-transcendence according to Pannenberg. The positive affects (sympathy, joy and hope) draw individuals out of their isolation, whereas the negative affects (fear, anxiety, arrogance sadness, envy, hate) isolate individuals within themselves.

“In ‘elevated’ moods and positive affects, in which human beings are most at one with themselves, they are not preoccupied with themselves but are ‘ecstatically’ open and surrendered to the reality of their life-world and the ground that sustains it. In ‘depressed’ moods, on the other hand, and in negative affects they prove to be thrown back upon themselves.”[xvi]

Through the positive affects which are a part of human relationships, individuals open themselves to their world and are carried out of themselves in self-surrender.[xvii] This is not at the expense of individual differentiation, however. For Pannenberg, it is through openness to others and to reality that one becomes their true self.

I have brought several thinkers, Bernard Lonergan, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Emmanuel Levinas together in an attempt to better understand the human person which takes seriously embodiment and self-transcendence as the possibility for relating to others. The integration of these thinkers reflects my position that as human beings, we are inherently relational and that we have a primordial responsibility to others because we are created in the image of a relational God to whom we relate through our relations to each other. Embodiment and self-transcendence are the means through which we relate to others and therefore fellowship with the ultimate Other.

As we have seen, our embodied existence makes our uniquely human characteristics possible, and therefore constitutes human relationships. It is through the physical body that we are able to communicate with others and therefore establish and maintain relationships. We have also seen that intersubjective meaning, which is carried and communicated by the human person, presupposes the interpersonal situation but also helps to shape it. Further, human relationships present us with an ethical responsibility which demands that we be responsive to the Other. The ability to respond to others increases as we become more aware of the fact that we are all connected and that we influence each other and the world, which in turn affects us.

In addition to embodiment, I considered the role of self-transcendence in relationality. By being open to relationships and in dedicating oneself to the service of others, instead of remaining isolated or self-centered, one discovers not only one’s true identity but also the meaning of life. Our ability to relate to others is enhanced by becoming aware of our defence mechanisms, biases, and preconceptions which interfere with our perception and understanding of others.

Self-transcendence not only opens us to the other and therefore to a greater sense of self, but ultimately to a deeper relationship with God. Understood theologically, the Christian call to relationality invites us to go beyond ourselves out of love for the other and therefore for God. In so doing, we become our true selves as made in the image of God and become the means by which progress is affected in the world.

[i] Based on Mt 25:40 (NIV) – “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

[ii] Van Huyssteen. Alone in the World. (Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 300.

[iii] ibid, 284.

[iv] Lonergan, B. Understanding and Being. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 89.

[v] Lonergan, B. Method in Theology. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 57.

[vi] ibid, 59-61.

[vii] Levinas, E. Otherwise than Being, 1991, p.112ff

[viii] Lonergan, B. Method in Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), 57.

[ix] Pannenberg, W. Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. (USA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 180.

[x] Pannenberg, What is Man. (Philadelphia, USA: Fortress Press, 1970), 90.

[xi] Pannenberg, W. Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. 266.

[xii] Lonergan, B. Collection Edited by Crowe, Frederick E. and Doran, Robert M. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 220.

[xiii] Lonergan, B. Method in Theology, 291.

[xiv] Lonergan, B. “Philosophy and the Religious Phenomenon” in Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies, v.12, n. 2, (Fall 1994): 134.

[xv] Kanaris, J. and Doorley, M.., ed. In Deference of the Other. (Albany, USA: State University Press, 2004), 21. re:Method p.53

[xvi] Pannenberg, W. Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective, 266.

[xvii] Ibid, 261.

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