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This famous phrase was first found in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, spoken in the movie first by Strother Martin (as the Captain, a prison warden) and later, slightly differently, by Paul Newman (as Luke, a stubborn prisoner). It is one of those “iconic” phrases repeated in movies thereafter – as a kind of archetypical description of our communal failure to communicate.

Who can blame us?

We are self-contradictory creatures, hidden to ourselves, mistaking our quest for individuation as the journey to personhood. For some time now I have been speaking to the idea of the person over against the postmodern idea of the individual. James Houston summarizes the difference by saying the individual is self-contained, while the person is in relation. Paul Tournier elaborates on this in his book, The Meaning of Persons:

We are all seething with contradictions; it is only with difficulty that we admit the fact to ourselves, and we take great care to hide it from others. It is perhaps a form of escape from the vertigo which the full knowledge of this tangled complexity within us would cause, that we compose for ourselves a simpler personage [mask]. We do not have to explore the unconscious to find these contradictions, they are obvious whenever a man speaks to us frankly about himself.

Seething with contradiction isn’t the only problem though; it is most profoundly the breakdown in communication that results. It is the loss of dialogue. Thus Tournier summarizes what we find in the whole of the New Testament:

In it we read the wonderful dialogues through which Jesus transforms the lives of those whom he meets, drawing out the person buried beneath the personage [false self-representation], and revealing personal contact to them.

The Law of Dialogue

The revelation of “personal contact” led Professor F. Gonseth to what he called “the law of dialogue”:

Everything becomes an occasion for personal contact, a chance to understand others and the personal factors which underlie their behaviour, their reactions and opinions.

It is much more interesting, as well as important, to understand why someone has certain failing, than to be irritated by it; to understand why he maintains a certain point of view than to combat it; to listen to confidences than to judge by appearances.

It is through dialogue, Tournier writes, that we become persons again. Isn’t this precisely what Jesus does in His dialogues with persons? Notice how He listens, and dignifies, and redeems, and restores, and draws people out of self-encasement into relationship – with their communities, with themselves, and with God. For those who have come to know this relationship in Christ, our transformation is the restoration of our personhood; our true identities are found in Christ.

Significance of the Person

As C.S. Lewis put it so simply, “you have never really talked to a mere mortal” – for all persons are particular. John Zizioulas states that the significance of the person rests in the fact that the person represents two things simultaneously: particularity and communion.

Being a person is fundamentally different from being an individual or a ‘personality,’ for a person cannot be imagined in himself but only within relationship.

The mystery of being a person lies in the fact that here otherness and communion are not in contradiction but coincide

You are imagined in God

It might be speaking a new language – it is certainly speaking from a different paradigm – but I wonder if you can listen for the One who is listening for you? Listen to the One who is listening to you. For God is at work around you – to pursue a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal. You can respond by prayer – the new native language of anyone who listens for God, and who opens their heart & mouth in dialogue.

We can also contemplate how everything can become “an occasion for personal contact, a chance to understand others and the personal factors which underlie their behaviour, their reactions and opinions.”

May you begin the journey to personhood as you discover yourself in a living trust “in Christ” – in dialogue, in communication, in relation with this One who is the lover and redeemer of our souls.

This is more enigma…