Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Stanford Vox Clara, part of the Augustine Collective, a network of student-driven thought journals.
What is a person?
I often ask myself that question, though not out of some profound philosophical streak. I do so because of my work at Stanford University, spent partly as an Anatomy Scholar at the Division of Clinical Anatomy—a workspace surrounded by limbs, organs, and cadavers. Indeed, humanity is so often conflated with the body: we are recognized by our faces; we feel the world through our hands; and all too often, we are divided by skin color or judged by body-type. It is hard to separate ourselves from flesh and bone.
However, if working with deceased bodies provides any insight, I can say this: understanding the water-sacks we inhabit falls far short of knowing the full complexity of personhood.
Certainly, the human body, with its ordered yet bundled-up arrangement, is marvelously intricate. But we, as the body of humanity, are too complicated to define ourselves by those intricacies alone. We can dissect every last nerve and blood vessel, but we cannot reduce ourselves—neither as individuals nor communities—to scientific terms or medical jargon. In doing so, we miss profound realities about what it means to be human.
Paul, the early Church leader and New Testament writer, glimpsed those realities, though he did not spend much time around cadavers. Instead, Paul writes of a different kind of body—a spiritual community, filled with diverse and complex people. In his letter to one first-century Corinthian church, he depicts that community as a codependent unit, existing to love and serve its members: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”1 So, if a person cannot be reduced to his or her anatomy, can the body of Christ be reduced to a single organ?
The unfortunate fact of the matter is: Christians themselves often consider such a Body unnecessary. Post-Enlightenment Western culture has promoted personal salvation as the endgame of Christianity—reducing life to a series of moral examinations, graded by Professor God. In this Platonized ideology, one forgets that the body and spirit are not two separate entities; they interweave within personhood. In this individualist view, one also forgets that we have little in this life, if not for others.
I certainly forgot all these things, even after converting from a purely-nominal Christianity late in college. Beforehand, my previous secular amnesia consisted of an identity, joy, and purpose all tied up in worldly pursuits: ranging from the academic (stellar grades, medical school ambitions) to the blatantly-vain (attractive physique, recognition from others). But prior to ever reading Ecclesiastes, the wisdom of Scripture rang true in my life: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”2
Yet after converting, my religious amnesia was no better. I assumed my error had been what I was toiling for, so I prayed and read Scripture daily. I attended church and Bible study consistently. Nonetheless, I was still anxious, unsettled, and striving for my own interests. As a new believer, my spiritual life was akin to a liver trying to pump its own blood; I didn’t need a heart or lungs, I just needed God. Personal piety seemed the sole necessity for a relationship with him: if I would just sin less and pray more, I could (theoretically) grow from a single organ, into the Vitruvian Man of modern-day Christianity.
Only later would I understand: I had erred in whom I was toiling for. For Paul, the freedom found in Christ precludes any idea of life lived in a vacuum. Life is fully-lived only when people come together, and collaborate as God’s stewards of the world and one another: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”3
I cannot blame myself for having held such a ridiculous vision of Christianity, in part because I still battle that vision today. I still toil for my own salvation, my own spiritual interests—instead of viewing my salvation and interests within the larger, biblical narrative of humanity. That narrative has made it clear from the beginning: it is not good for Man to be alone.4 Certainly, there exist both biological and spiritual reasons for self-interest: you yourself must eat to survive, and you yourself must know Christ to take part in what God has done—and is doing—for the world. But when the self becomes its own object of focus, myopia follows quickly. Myopia in the non-Christian equals vanity, selfishness, and isolation; in the Christian it is all those things, plus hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
At its core, humanity is inherently relational. The very nature of God—creator of compassion, justice, and love—is relational. Take for example that all-encompassing virtue, love. Little theology is needed to understand that genuine love requires more than one Being; otherwise it can be twisted into self-worship: bowing to one’s own beauty, comfort, or happiness. As G. K. Chesterton puts it, “I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.”5 Human beings were made to be image-bearers in this world, reflecting God’s love and wisdom into creation – not their own pride and vanity. When that is done correctly, the same creation can, through humanity, reflect praise and worship back to God. If we, as God’s image-bearers, exist in isolation, towards whom are we reflecting his love? The answer: ourselves.
And so, my early spiritual anatomy was all wrong. I thought what God really cared about was setting a high moral bar, and having me, as an individual, hurdle it. My hands might as well have articulated with my femurs, or my jugular veins emptied into the kidneys. My reflection (metaphor borrowed from theologian N. T. Wright) was not that of an angled mirror, but a flat vanity mirror. That is what happens when Christian focus veers from community. Instead of serving their fellow image-bearers, Christians who go it alone often serve themselves.
I know this because I have lived it. Months ago, motivated by God’s faithfulness amidst my own struggles, I began volunteering in hospice. Now, I spend hours one-on-one each week with terminally-ill patients; the Holy Spirit helps me serve those patients with compassionate presence, reflecting my Savior’s love – despite this mirror’s cracks and bumps. But sometimes, my vision swerves back toward ambition and self-righteousness. I grow eager for others to know about my service. I become calculating, and wonder if medical schools will value my work. Worst of all, I become blinded by my own reflection, and lose sight of the human beings around me – patients’ complexities reduced not to muscles and bones, but to hours and obligations.
How then do we, as Christians or non-Christians, truly live—without reducing the anatomy of life to bare bones? The answer is simple: we die. Die to ourselves, and live for something greater. For Christians, that something greater is actually a someone greater: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”6 The communities we inhabit—whether religious, academic, or geographical—take precedent over our passing, perishing selves. We must, as Paul writes, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, [but rather] in humility value others above [ourselves].”7 Pseudo-righteousness, perhaps, can be a solo endeavor; not so with love. This creation was meant to commune with and serve its creator. Let us therefore serve those in our communities, who bear his image.
What is a person? I have searched every part of the human body, and the answer lies not in the flesh. There is certainly room somewhere for talk of bones, muscles, and tendons; but no such talk wholly describes the human condition—one’s life is simply more than the body. It follows that no person can shake off the need for community, not least for fellowship in Christ—that body is more than one’s life. Community is integral to human purpose, as much as it may hurt our pride, or threaten our selfishness. If God has truly justified his creation through Jesus, we exist for him and for our neighbors, or we rebel against the heart transplant of grace. Let us, then, stop asking about persons—about personal piety, personal enlightenment, or whatever it may be. Let us start serving, loving, and living as one body of Christ.
What a beautiful, complex body that is.
Aldis Petriceks is an Anatomy Scholar at the Stanford Division of Clinical Anatomy (Department of Surgery), and a Research Assistant at the Stanford PULSE Institute.