I am looking at my puppy dog, Jasper. He is a Japanese Chin and Chihuahua mix, looking more like a small spaniel than anything else. He is a dog in training, learning how to live with human beings, reacting in the proper dogly manner when he is asked, "Do you want to go outside?" or "Do you want some food?" He is, according to a colleague of mine in the biology department, a machine; but that is bad biology, bad linguistics, and bad metaphysics. A machine is typically an imitation animal, whose parts work according to some concatenated and therefore strictly artificial order. It is organized, so to speak, but it is not an organism. A single bacterium possesses a complexity, an integrated unity among its parts, and an ability to interact with its environment, that makes the computer I am typing on seem rather like a rock sitting inert in a field. The rock has being, but the bacterium is a being, a living thing. So much the more Jasper, who at the moment is chewing happily upon a piece of rawhide.
What Jasper is not — and the car is not, and the computer is not, and the rock in the field is not — is a person. A few weeks ago, the philosopher Alice Von Hildebrand, in a lecture at Providence College, repeated a saying of her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, to the effect that after the division between being and nonbeing, the greatest divide in being was not that between living and nonliving being, but between personal and impersonal being. That is — alas for Jasper — what separates my dog from the rock in the field is not so great as what separates my dog from me. This appears counterintuitive to us, I think, only because we forget how wondrous a thing man is. Christians are almost the only humanists left — by which I mean the only people who would understand what moved Michelangelo to paint the Creation of Adam, or what moved the blind Milton to lead up in poetic climax to the single sight he missed the most, the "human face divine." We see that the dog has eyes and ears and nose and mouth, and we have eyes and ears and nose and mouth; we walk, the dog walks; we eat, the dog eats. So we draw the conclusion that we are like the dog, and, as far as the likeness goes, we are right; but we forget that at the same time we are like the source and end of personhood, God — and that likeness penetrates to the core of our being.
For it is a great mystery, this of personhood. Imagine the universe without a single person to observe it, and to revel in its beauty. What a gray and futile thing it is! But with the creation of a person, something enters the universe which in a real sense is greater than the universe. For the universe cannot understand itself. It cannot love itself. It cannot imagine itself as other than it is. It cannot encounter anything. It exists, but it cannot say, "I exist," much less "You exist," and, more marvelous still, "How wonderful it is that you exist!" My dog Jasper likes us, and capers and jumps up and down when I come home from work. But he does not pause before the mystery of me. He does not reflect upon me. He does not ask, "What is it like to be my master?" He looks into my eyes when I scratch him behind the ears, but he cannot say, "What is good for you will be good for me," or "Because I love you, I give myself wholly to you."
There are no ordinary people, said C. S. Lewis. When you meet a person, you are encountering someone "a little less than the angels," someone capable not only of the cardinal virtues that make for a half-decent city, but, by the grace of God, of faith, hope, and charity. My dog Jasper is close to God in this sense: he does what a dog ought to do. But he cannot worship. He cannot pray. He cannot respond to God in love. When I say, "I see the dog," I am affirming the startling existence of someone, myself; and it may be that my affirmation of my own existence, as a person, depends upon my affirmation of the Person who made the world wherein my personhood has come into being.