Personal, Not Individual

Personal, Not Individual

I just listened to a talk by Cynthia Bourgeault at the annual meeting of the American Teilhard Association. It’s a profound talk on so many levels. The point which I want to focus on for this brief article is Teilhard’s conviction that just as ultimate reality, God, is personal, so too are the highest realizations of human consciousness, personal. In our current context, the mistake that so many of us make is to equate the individual with the personal. Teilhard, however, insists that the personal and the individual are not the same.

If Teilhard is right that the dimension of the personal works within a relational field and requires an evolution of selfhood which is more spacious and interpenetrating than the level of the individual, then it begins to become clear what our moment in time is asking of us. It is asking us to engage in a practice which softens our attachment to and identification with our individual ego, with our story of me, and to strive toward a daily experience of our beingness, which deepens the intimacy and unity amid differentiation which exists within the sphere of the truly personal.

God is a Thou and God, in Godself, exists within a field of relationship. To become fully personal will require us to move beyond the fixation with the individual which has dominated our culture. Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, points us in the right direction when he advised, “Don’t pay attention to what you are. Pay attention to that you are.” In other words, the realm of the personal is not that which distinguishes us from others—our individuality—but that which unites us to all others—our givenness or our beingness.

Who was more personal than Jesus? But who was able to take insults and unfair treatment less personally than him? Could it be that he was able to love so well and personally, while also being free from the constraints of brittle ego-identification at the same time, because his selfhood was more spacious and interpenetrating than the selfhood of those locked into individuality? In so many ways, Jesus remains a model for all of humanity of what human beings can look like when the timeless breaks into the dimension of time.

A point which the church has poorly taught is that Jesus’ modeling of what it means to be human and his unspeakable holding of the worst of human darkness, is meant to lead us into a transformation into the same kind of human existence. He is leading us to become truly personal, truly human, and to move beyond the limitations of our understanding of ourselves as individuals. We are called to be persons, which is much more than being an individual. As we ponder this, then we can begin to see how our current ideological impasses can serve to awaken us to what is being asked of us in this moment. What is being asked is something deeply new, and yet already revealed and given to us in Christ. It is the promise of the kingdom, which Jesus claimed might begin as a small seed, but would become a large plant and home for much life. This is the great hope to which the church is called to bear witness and to incarnate. All hands are needed. See you in church!

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