What is a Person?

This is a guest post by Ashon Crawley. Ashon is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist and Queer theories. His book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise. Find him on twitter at @ashoncrawley or at ashoncrawley.com 

Walking through the streets of Philadelphia – or taking a trolley, the El or a cab – was for me always an exercise in intense emotion and feeling. There is so much that happens on the streets: the smells of food or the steam from sewers in the winter, the sounds of music playing in cars, from stores or churches. And it was there on those streets – mostly West Philly, Center City, Southwest and sometimes a bus to North Philly – where I first tried my hand at clandestine dating or at least late night trips to try to figure out my erotic life with young guys who were, like me, likely on their way to church on Sunday morning. I’d call the Party Line and talk until I found someone to take to the streets to my apartment, or me to the streets for theirs. It was all about feeling something deep and intense and varied and warm. I felt a kinda freedom in fugitivity, a freedom in clandestine hookups for kissing and hugging and sex. I wanted to feel something.

And so it was in Philadelphia that I first felt something along the line of the uncertainty that feeling could produce, the unstable ground that feeling could be. Reading Linn Marie Tonstad’s God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude transported me backwards, from 1998 until 2005, my time living in Philadelphia. And this because her scrutinizing attention to debates about the concept of the trinity, my reading of it, has been the first occasion in such a very long time for me to think my own relation to the concept of the character of godhead. In Philadelphia, I was quite acquainted with debates about the concept because it is one that animates lots of Blackpentecostal inquiry and dissent.

The trinity, conceptually, is something that Blackpentecostals neither take as a given or for granted. Lots of arguments occur about the place of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Are they three manifestations of the one God? Are they modes? Are they distinct persons? What does it mean to be a person? Isn’t 1 John 5:7 a late insertion into biblical text? The Bible doesn’t even say the word trinity, so isn’t it just a made up concept? These, and so many more, questions that animated conversations about godhead. I mention this all because Blackpentecostals have, internal to their lifeworld, dissent regarding the possibility of godhead, the possibility of knowing, understanding and articulating what it means to be Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

In Philadelphia, I frequented many internet message boards using the name “Philly COGIC Kid.” This name was to announce to folks that I was Blackpentecostal of the Church of God in Christ organization, an organization that believes in the concept of the trinity. In Philadelphia, because of music, I frequented several churches that adhered to what is called oneness doctrine, that are non-trinitarian in belief. Some call oneness believers, supposedly pejoratively, “Jesus Only” believers. And this because the baptismal formula used is not “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” but “in Jesus’ Name.” It was in Philadelphia that I served as a musician for various churches, some of them oneness Pentecostal in doctrine. Having been born into and brought up in a home and church that believed and argued fervently the reality of the trinity, becoming a musician for a oneness church could for some have seemed sacrilege.

But it felt right. Those churches had the right feeling too.

That is, music and sound provided a way for me to be in relation to those that I would have, at that time, considered to be in doctrinal error. Tonstad’s book opened a way for me to consider the ways the debate internal to Blackpentecostal believers regarding godhead was not about abstracted concepts of theology or doctrine but were about community formation. Tonstad asserts, “The first task of a trinitarian theology is usually ruling out mistaken understandings of the trinity” (191). In theologizing godhead, discarding wrong doctrine in the name of doctrinal integrity is most privileged. But what if doctrinal integrity is displaced by those that have been displaced from the concept and zone of the human, of man, of personhood? I want to think with Blackpentecostal articulations of the problem of the trinity as a problem for thought precisely because what such articulations appear to me to produce are questions of drama, theater, which is to say, the performative.

That is, the belief in trinity or oneness was about the right baptismal formula because such a formula would allow entry into, would allow one to perform oneself into, communion with the Saints. Performance of ritual behavior, it seems to me, takes precedence over the seeming piety of right rational thought about godhead. It’s not about the privileging of the mind but about how one gains entry into community with others. Such that the debate about godhead is grounded in a conversation about baptism because in such a formula is the supposed possibility for salvation.

And if performance becomes a terrain upon which doctrine can be engaged, argued, and worked over – without ever reaching resolve – it makes sense, to me at least, that the performance of song would be another “place” where these arguments could obtain. In Philadelphia, I attended several concerts at churches of both trinitarian and oneness belief and at these concerts would be church choirs, community choirs and soloists from a spectra of beliefs. Some oneness, some trinitarian. It was the space of the concert that allowed for the gathering of divergent beliefs, beliefs that some legalistic folks would say are enough to cause folks to be hell bound. Without making a claim about the rightness or wrongness of those beliefs, what fascinates me is how the performative enunciates the possibility for gathering otherwise, how the performative displaces doctrinal integrity and, in its stead, places feeling. It just felt right, those singing under the power of the Lord, those singing with fervor and intensity and emotion. It felt so right that we’d shout and dance for hours, until exhausted, until sweaty. The performative possibilities of being together with others displaced the conversation of trinity or oneness doctrine at least momentarily. And through such displacement was the opening up, the flowering, of feeling. Such feeling is never not sexual. And the problem of trinity is about the problem of personhood and Blackpentecostals are well acquainted with being such a problem for normative function and form.


What is a person? This question, seemingly easy to answer at first blush, is one that has been discussed in theology, philosophy, history, ethics and aesthetics at least since the inaugural crisis moment of 1492. But this date, this moment in spacetime, perhaps was not a new understanding of personhood but the realization of it, the actualization of it, the embodiment of the premises of western theological-philosophical thought at least since the time of Nicea with its creeds about godhead and persons. With the movement of European peoples through racial capital into what was called the “New World,” was the movement of doctrine and theology. But not just doctrine and theology but the necessity for doctrinal integrity, of abstracted thinking, and this over and against intense feeling. Such feeling, if we are to follow the path Tonstad prepares, is the sexuality, the being together with others, the erotics of libidinal possibility, that normative modes of Christianity sought, and still seek today, to gather up in order to discard. Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition illustrates the ways racialism, racial caste and categorization, was a problem internal to European thought. He discussed how racialization was first used to target difference internal to Europe before contact with New World indigenous and African peoples. He attempted to demonstrate the ways racialization was possible because of European thinking.

And it seems, following the work of Tonstad, that the ways personhood was conceptualized in Western thought regarding godhead might also be a way to think the problem of personhood that could not account for those that would be racialized as different. Tonstad’s engagement with various theologians along the spectrum of thinking the concept of trinity with sexuality illustrates the ways personhood is a category that is assumed but perhaps needs to be interrogated. And not just personhood for the human but also for godhead. That is, she demonstrates that various thinkers of trinity attempt to think the kind of persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit are but do not necessarily unsettle the very question: what is a person?

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention ratified the Three-Fifths Compromise. In such a ratification was the question of, the status over, the concept of personhood.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

What does it mean to have personhood if it only enters into the juridic through compromises in which you have no say? And what is personhood if it is primarily about a political economy of racial capitalism? What is the concept naming if it is grounded in notions of accounting? And what is personhood if it can be conferred or renounced, given or withheld, by a nation-state apparatus? What is personhood if blacks are said to not “have” all of “it”? I am after a critique of personhood because it is a concept that emerges through exclusion. It excludes because it foundationally allows for some towards which “neither juridic universality nor self-determination applies.” And I am after the concept of personhood because it is what animates the discussion about the possibility of trinity as a mode and method for thinking relation. We know, for example, that “in the name of the most holy trinity” was utilized to sign treaties between nations and was signed on the bill of sale for enslaved persons. The most holy trinity, its persons, were part of the general modality of exclusionary thought, exclusionary practice.

And I want to think more about why it is that, regardless of the argument about the nature of the persons in trinity, why there was no crisis to emerge regarding the place – or, really, the non-place – of black being when various attempts to think the relationship of the persons in trinity occurred? That is, what does thinking about the trinity produce in terms of occlusions and necessary negations, exclusions and violences? Tonstad “argue[s] that dependence on God does not contrast with freedom and that the kind of dependence that creation has on God (absolute dependence) should not be introduced into relations between created beings. Relations between created beings do not and should not directly image the relation between God and creation” (47). But what remains consistent through these doctrinal arguments is a relation to blackness through aversive logic. Discovering the “right” theology of trinity does not seem to get us closer to doing justice, loving mercy, for those that have been marked what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the “others of Europe.” I appreciate that Tonstad spends so much time showing the delimitation of thought for theologians thinking the trinity because I want to think, with her, about the sorts of relations that do not show up, the sorts of relations that are deemed impossible, to be modeled by the very concept.

Fatherhood, like marriage, is an invention. These are categories of thought, modalities that do not precede but are processes of mythologizing existence, ways to contain and understand life. Fatherhood, like marriage, is a category that attempts to name biogenic relation. “The invention of the male as father is therefore inseparable from the invention of the female/infant relationship, in the new terms of a cultural relationship, with both therefore being inseparable from the invention of the mode of eusociality defining of human forms of life, and from the institutional invention of the human as a third level of sociogenetic or hybridly bios/logos being.” What Sylvia Wynter argues is that the male exists previous to the invention of the father but that the inauguration of the concept of the father comes with the invention of the female/infant relationship as well. Such that when we think the father of trinity, it is impossible to think the relation that father is supposed to mark, that it is supposed to be.

Like, Tonstad, I think there should be a preferential option for the “neglect” of the concept (227). Such neglect allows for and produces ritual behavior from the undetermined, the unknown, the partial. This is because such neglect realizes that rational thought is but an arbitrariness of thinking, that it is not systematic even when it presumes that it is. “I have argued that the trinity should do much less theological work; we should avoid importing relations of origin into God; the trinity should not be interpreted in terms of sexual difference; we should avoid corrective projectionism; and we should not collapse the different forms of difference by reading the God-world relation into sexual difference, or by reading trinitarian or human difference into the God-world relation” (287). Tonstad gets us to this place: the problem is not just that theologians attempt to elaborate the type of family and marriage the trinity and the bride of Christ are to be for humanity but the very idea that these are representational models at all is what needs to be unsettled. If we adhere to the idea that trinity serves as a model for humanity, such thought makes the human creature central not just to the earth but this creature to the entire so-thought created, to the whole of the dark expanse.

What Tonstad makes clear through her elaborations is that the very idea of difference that could be called sexual is something that we have yet to understand. I often think about the problem of subjectivity as a modern one but perhaps we find one articulation of the modern problem with the ongoing debates about personhood in trinity. Along with the question of the concept of a person, unsettled, also for me, is the concept of the sexual and why it obtains with genitalia at all. And why do we place such emphasis on certain parts of the flesh over and against other parts? It’s all about feeling and if it’s about feeling, then perhaps we should think a different relation to doctrine and theology, perhaps we should think with feeling rather than attempt to discard it in the service of doctrinal integrity. And isn’t that the point of religiosity and the sacred? To get us closer to something like a deep, complex experience of intense feeling, to feel the freedom and liberation of fugitivity in the flesh. That, it seems to me, is the prize.

2 Responses to “What is a Person?”

  1. APS Says:

    Regarding personhood, political theology, and race, I came to parallel conclusions in a lecture at The New School. I looked at personhood in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox debates regarding the Trinity. Anyway, might be of interest to others.

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