Being Human—Being a Person

Oxford 2018 Symposium

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In December of 2018, several scholars met at Oxford to discuss what it means to “be a person.” The conference featured international perspectives from five participants all of whom reflected on contemporary discourses and technological advancements that have destabilized traditional definitions of human being, human dignity, and personhood. Drawing from a range of modern, premodern, and more recent thinking on the subject, the scholars in question formed theological and philosophical arguments for an historically aware and thus integrated and complex notion of the human person in this age of rapid scientific and technological change. See the descriptions and videos below for their takes on “being human-being a person.”


Jens Zimmermann: Who Am I? Personhood, Consciousness, and Transhumanist Visions

Watch as Dr. Ashley Moyes opens the Oxford symposium and introduces our conference’s first speaker, Jens Zimmermann. In this opening lecture, Zimmermann addresses modern understandings of human consciousness, including Trans- and Post- humanist visions for the future of human society, and argues that contemporary notions of the human person presume a reductive model of human identity rooted in an already defunct scientific epistemology. As a counterpoint to this construction, Zimmermann offers a robust model of human consciousness that is grounded in the philosophically and theologically informed theory of personalism—a personalism that, in the Christian tradition, is validated in and through the Incarnation. 

Jens Zimmermann is a Full Professor and former Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion, and Culture at Trinity Western University and Visiting Professor for Philosophy, Literature, and Theology at Regent College. He is a Visiting Fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford and a Research Associate at the Centre for Theology and Modern European Thought also in Oxford.


Holger Zaborowski: Subjectivity, God, and the Reality of the Person

In this lecture, Holger Zaborowski explores the relationship between the experience of subjectivity and the existence of God, examining and reflecting on the dialectic of transcendence (thinking) and being (embodiment) in light of the way it has recently manifested in Trans and anti-humanist discourse. Drawing from modern philosophical arguments for human dignity—natural law, Kantian idealism, and Hegelian intersubjectivity—Zaborowski argues for an integrated theory of personhood that does justice to the gift of being as “unpreconceivable” and that, in acknowledging the Other (or “Thou”) as a fellow, suffering being, avoids solipsism and proves personhood through affirmative action.

Holger Zaborowski is the current principle of the Philosopisch-Theologische Hochschule in Vallendar (Catholic University of Vallendar) in Germany where he also holds the Chair of History of Philosophy and Philosophical Ethics. 


John Behr: From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Human Being

According to those figures that made up what J.B. Lightfoot designated “the School of John,” including Ignatius and Irenaeus, Christ’s words on the Cross—“it is finished”—indicate the completion of God’s stated project in the beginning: to make a human being in his image and likeness. Building upon this insight, John Behr considers the significance of male and female in Genesis and how these contribute to the completion of human being in Christ in whom there is no longer male and female. 

Rev. Dr. John Behr is a Distinguished Professor of Patristics and Director of the Master of Theology program at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the state of New York and a Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics at Fordham University, also in New York. 


Brent Waters: Homo Sapiens or Techno Sapiens? Some Challenges Posed by Technology to Theological Anthropology

Proponents of rapid and extensive technological development contend that these developments will greatly improve the human condition, both individually and collectively. In this lecture, Brent Waters examines some select developments and assesses them in light of the two great commands to love God and neighbor. Beginning from the premise that the capacity to love is central to human being, Waters ponders, in each case, whether this envisioned technological enhancement will contribute to, augment, or diminish one’s capacity to care. 

Brent P. Waters is the Jerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics and Director of the Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. 


Graham Ward: Being Human as a Riddle

Despite the radical questioning and reframing of the human taking place in fields like evolutionary biology and cybernetics, modern Christological thinkers have made few attempts to redress personhood. In this fifth and final lecture of the Oxford conference, Graham Ward articulates both the necessity of this redress and the necessary incompleteness of the attempt given that our answers to the question “what does it mean to be a human being?” are inevitably shaped and informed by our imperfection (“fallenness” and “sin”). Drawing from the work of Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, and Kierkegaard, Ward also makes a compelling argument for why the riddle of human being is theologically significant. 

Graham Ward is the Regius Professor of Divinity and Board Chair in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. He is also an ordained priest in the Anglican Church.


Concluding Panel Discussion with Audience Questions

To conclude the symposium, four of our presenters (John Behr, Brent Waters, Jens Zimmermann, and Holger Zaborowski) responded to audience questions and thoughtfully engaged with such weighty topics as human suffering, tool-use, plasticity, and temporality as important and potentially central facets of human being.