The Personalist Project

Not meant to be mere instruments

What does God, above all, demand of us? Our love. What is the question Our Lord puts thrice, emphatically to Peter in that great hour when He entrusts him with the care of His flock? It is the question as to his love. “Simon, son of John, lovest thou me?.” Those men err who believe it to be our supreme goal that we become pure instruments of God. … So long as we are a mere channel for the flow of God’s will, so long as we are nothing but an impersonal tool in the hands of God, as we have no desire other than to discharge a certain function in the universe according to the plan of God, we cannot be transformed in Christ. The attainment of our proper supernatural aim supposes an entrirely different attitude on our part. It requires that we surrender ourselves to Christ by an act of love which is nothing if not eminently personal.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ

One the earliest philosophical lessons I learned came from Socrates, through Alice von Hildebrand. 

Wrongdoing creates "a metaphysical disharmony" in the universe; punishment sets it right.

A quote by John Paul II, highlighted by a friend on Facebook this morning, reminded me of it.

The conversion of the heart cannot ever fail to include penitence. In a certain sense this is its principal element. In fact, it is its essential element. Penitence means a profound change of heart under the influence of the word of God. It is a commitment to restore the equilibrium and harmoney shattered by sin, and to therefore change the direction of our life, even at the cost of great sacrifice. Repentence therefore is the conversion that passes from one's heart to one's concrete works and thus to the entire life of a Christian.

It also reminded me of our on-going discussion of true forgiveness vs. dysfunctional forgiveness. Those who preach the latter—who talk as if Jesus' death on the cross means that we don't have to be concerned with justice anymore, only mercy—miss this essential element of the objective disharmony and rupture created between persons by serious wrongdoing.

It's not repaired though the a cheap imitation of mercy that pretends it isn't there. It's repaired through penitence, that is, "a profound change of heart," expressed in acts of reparation. 

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Our 8th grade son has a quiz today on the Forward and the Preface to the Second Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  He was finding the Forward especially hard to understand, so, to help him, I read it myself last night. Something Tolkien said in it about allegories vs. histories jumped out at me. [my bold]

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

He nails something key here. It reminds me exactly of the distinction the Pope draws between evangelization and proselytizing, or between good preaching and moralizing. The one leaves you free; the other puts pressure. The one springs from profound respect; the other proceeds from an assumed superiority.

I remember having heard or read that Tolkien criticized Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia for being too allegorical. I didn't quite understand it at the time, but I do now, as I've become more alert to the master/slave dynamic constantly menacing human life.

Over the summer, I re-read Descent Into Hell, a novel by Charles Williams, a friend of Lewis and Tolkien's, and a fellow member of their literary club, Inklings. I had read it 25 years ago or so, and it had stayed with me faintly—especially the character who preferred the image of the young woman he was attracted to to the actual woman he knew. I loved the way Williams showed that that character's "descent into hell" had everything to do with his wanting others not to resist his will. I always thought of it in connection with Scheler's definition of reality as "resistance." 

But I didn't like the book as much on re-reading. The powerful insight remained, but, on the whole, I found the story too didactic—as if Williams were preaching at me, all unfittingly.

Even people who see and feel the problem—who know that the difference between good and evil on the interpersonal level is the difference between serving and manipulating, or between love and domination, find it very difficult to escape the dynamic in our mode and manners. It creeps into our relations in a million ways, both subtle and obvious.

Being able to detect it in ourselves and others isn't the same as being free of the tendency. But it's a start at least.

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I've been reading the Bible with my kids (which I highly recommend, if only for the entertaining conversations it keeps on provoking), and something struck me about God's pedagogy.

It's not just that He takes a gradual approach: from external observance to internal conversion, from ritual purity to purity of heart. From the objective to the subjective, you could say. Salvation History 101.

What struck me this time is that history is played out over and over in His dealings with each of us, too. 

After arranging the People's miraculous escape from the land of Egypt, He drills the Law into their heads: right and wrong, true and false, good and evil. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Regardless of what's going on inside you, it is what it is. As Flannery O'Connor puts it, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

Then, with the New Covenant, He shines an ever-intensifying spotlight on the interior--on what goes on within the person. It's not that He abandons the Law's objective requirements--in fact, He sharpens and clarifies them (as with polygamy and divorce). Nor does he allow us to jettison the law with the convenient excuse that, after all, what goes on in the heart is so much more significant than any petty list of rules and regulations. Condemning adultery "in the heart" doesn't suddenly confer a stamp of approval on the old-fashioned bodily kind. Rather, God digs deeper into the Law's significance and invites us to join in the excavation project.

The Old Covenant, of course, is replete with hints about the importance of the interior. After all, if the caricature of the "God of the Old Testament" were accurate and He were only concerned with loading His People down with rules and regulations, what's the prohibition of the invisible, interior sin of coveting doing there, hogging a full twenty percent of the Ten Commandments? And the longsuffering and compassionate God revealed by Isaiah and Hosea is hardly a petty bureaucrat.

But it's a matter of pedagogy. You have to learn what the rules even are before you can move on to obeying them in the right spirit. 

Jacques Philippe, in Searching for and Maintaining Peace, explains how to move from even wanting good things at all to wanting them in a good way. He's looking to ease our transition from desiring evil things to desiring good things, and then to desiring good things in the right way. If your moral development stalls at the first step, you might slip into self-righteousness and moral blindness. You might become unable to discern that the problem could possibly lie with you. After all, the things you approve really are objectively good.

As Fr. Jacques puts it: 

Not only must we be careful to want and desire good things for their own sake, but also to want and desire them in a way that is good. To be attentive not only to that which we want, but also to the way in which we want them. ...We want something which is good, and even very good, but we want it in a way that is bad.

He gives an example, perhaps from his own experience:

It is normal that the superior of a community should watch over the sanctity of those in his care. It's an excellent thing and conforms to the will of God. But if this superior gets angry, irritated, or loses his peace over the imperfections or the lack of fervor of his brothers, it is certainly not the Holy Spirit that is animating him. ... Because the thing we want is good, even seen as desired by God, we feel justified in wanting it with that much more impatience and displeasure if it is not realized. The more it seems good to us, the more we are agitated and preoccupied to realize it!

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how this could apply to childrearing and other family matters. He goes on:

We should, therefore ... not only verify that the things we want are good in themselves, but also that ... the disposition of heart in which we want them [is] good. That is to say that our wanting must always be caring, peaceful, patient, detached and abandoned to God. It should not be an impatient wanting, hurried, restless, irritated, etc.

The truth still doesn't change according to our ability to stomach it. But pointing our judgment in the direction of objective truth is just the first step. The Pharisees did as much. Inside, they were like "dead men's bones" and "full of all uncleanness," but that didn't occur to them. 

For us, though, there's still time to profit by their bad example.

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In my last post I declared that belief in the soulmate phenomenon is in better accord with the truth about persons than the alternative. Maybe at this point I should explain exactly what I mean by the soulmate phenomenon and what by the alternative. It's hard to be exact about such complicated and elusive things. But I can at least try to zero in on it a little better than I've done up till now.

By the soulmate phenomenon, I mean the lived experience two people have of being so well-matched interiorly—on the level of the soulthat they feel practically designed and destined-by-God for each other. It typically involves a view of courtship and marriage that encourages single men and women to hope and pray that they will find their perfect match—not a perfect person, but a "perfect match" for them. Raissa Maritain captures the phenomenon beautifully in her memoir, We Have Been Friends Together, when she describes meeting her future husband Jacques:

For the first time I could really talk to someone about myself, emerge from my silent reflections in order to share them… For the first time I had met someone who at the outset inspired me with absolute confidence; someone who from that moment I knew would never disappoint me; someone with whom I could so readily come to an understanding on all things. Another Someone had pre-established between us, and in despite of such great differences of temperament and of origin, a sovereign harmony.

By the alternative, I mean a view of courtship and marriage that downplays romance; that dismisses the notion that God has "someone special out there just for you" as silly nonsense; that sees "feelings" as relatively unimportant, even problematic, in courtship, and  that talks as if the mature approach to finding a spouse is to look for solid, objective, good qualities in a potential mate, then make a firm commitment of the will.

Many Christian leaders and teachers promote this alternative, implicitly or explicitly. Eric Metaxas is only the latest example. I've more than once heard priests preach it. Lots of singles act on it, or try to, believing that they should, if they want to be serious Christians.

Keeping in mind the caveats offered in my earlier post, I want to give some reasons why I think the soulmate idea coheres better with Christianity and with personalism. In other words, why I think it's much truer than the alternative.

1. It corresponds to the natural desires of the human heart.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Among the deepest and most universal desires of the human heart is the longing for a great love—not just any kind of love, but conjugal love—a passionate, permanent, all-encompassing companionship of body and soul with another human being.

2. It is everywhere found in experience.

It not only in fairy tales and novels and poetry and music and rom-coms that we come across moving and thrilling examples of the soulmate phenomenon, but in ordinary life too, in our family and among our friends—sweet and tender and touching stories of "matches made in heaven"—couples who years and decades into marriage still talk of their meeting as if it were almost a miracle. Just last month I met a widower, the grandfather of one of Benedict's classmates. Within minutes, a conversation about biking led to his telling how he was a seminarian in England in the 1960's, when the upheaval around Vatican II made him doubt his vocation. He was at a  pub one night, when in walked "a lady in a red dress," and "the rest is history." "She made me very happy for 50 years." People like him (and me too) don't find talk of soulmates "silly nonsense." They find it simply true to their experience.

3. Scripture, Tradition, and the lives of the saints univocally teach that God's provision for us isn't general, but personal. He not only gives humanity everything it needs to live a properly human life; He provides for each soul, individually and intimately. "Even before a word is on my tongue, oh Lord, thou knoweth it." Is it probable that the same God who knit us in our mother's womb, who calls us each by name, who knows when we sit and when we stand, who has numbered each of our days, would have no particular plan for our prime vocation?

4. In all the deepest acts of the person, and in human life as such, subjectivity has a certain priority over objectivity.

We feel it in our most important choices and decisions; we feel it in friendships. We are drawn to others not primarily because of their objective qualities, but because of their subjectivity, their unique and incommunicable self. And the deeper the friendship, the more we feel it. Dr. Crosby used to quote an author saying, "If you ask me why I loved him, I can only say because he was he and I was I." Their "interior configurations" (a term I learned from a letter Wojtyla wrote to a young woman) matched. For Wojtyla, this was clearly key to marriage discernment, and it is beautifully illustrated in the opening pages of the Jeweler's Shop, where Andrew and Teresa experience themselves as being made for each other.

I went quite a long way before reaching Teresa, I did not find her at once…
After a time I realized that she had come into the focus of my attention,
I mean, I had to be interested in her,
and at the same time I accepted the fact that I had to.

Though I could have behaved differently from the way I felt I must,
I thought there would be no point.

There must have been something in Teresa that suited my personality.

I thought much at the time about the “alter ego”.

If a young man were to marry because that was what was expected of a young man of his age and class in his general circumstances, or if a young woman were to marry because her father told her he had found her husband, we might not call it absolutely wrong, but we would intuitively feel it was sub-par. The vital core is missing. We want to choose and be chosen for ourselves, not for objective suitability. It belongs to the dignity of person and to the essence of marriage.

I have several more reasons, but this is getting too long, so I'll take them up in a separate post in the next day or two.

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The other day I challenged Eric Metaxas' rejection of the concept of soul mates. Now I'm thinking it would be good to lay out more fully what I like about it—in other words, begin to articulate the positive Christian and personalist case for the soul mate phenomenon.

Before I do that, though, I need to first mention ideas often associated with it that I agree with the critics are false or at least doubtful.

1. The idea that there is only one person out there for me—only one person on earth I could be happily married to. This idea is refuted by experience. We all know cases of beautiful second marriages. And when we consider all the "accidents" involved in affairs of the heart, and then how awesome a thing human freedom is—how easily one or both of a given couple might have said no at any point—and then the way our choices, events, and circumstances keep shaping our personalities over time—we realize we ought to refrain from making such an absolute claim. We may believe strongly that there really are such things as "matches made in heaven."  We may sense deeply that God designed a given pair for each other and brought them together. We may feel so well-suited to our spouse that we find it practically impossible to imagine being happy with anyone else, and yet, and yet, we wouldn't go so far as to claim that we never could have married someone else. Human life is too mysterious and contingency-ridden for that. 

2. The idea that unless I am married to my soul mate, my marriage is bound to be worthless or loveless, and miserably unhappy. It's not true. Even mismatched couples can have good and fulfilling marriages. Life and literature are full of convincing examples. (See, for instance, Elizabeth Gouge's Green Dolphin Street.) The extra effort and moral virtue called for in such cases can even lend these unions a particular value, which is a great gift for the spouses and the world. The moral goodness of fidelity despite hardship is real and rewarding.

3. The idea that from the fact that I feel like another person is my soul mate, it follows that we ought to get married. There are lots of good reasons for not marrying a soul mate. For instance, one of us is already married to someone else, or we are otherwise duty bound. (Think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, or the princess in Roman Holiday, or the Helen Hunt character in Castaway.) We can also imagine a case where even though we feel that another person is our soul mate, we still judge marriage a bad idea. Maybe he is an addict, for instance. Or maybe he doesn't want or can't handle the responsibilities involved in raising a family. Or maybe, like Kierkegaard and Regina Olsen, there is a hidden, interior obstacle that we don't know how to overcome. Such cases have a tragic element, like so much of human life. But Christians know that tragedy can be redemptive, and the sacrifice of a great desire in the cause of right is beautiful and ennobling. 

4. The idea that if I'm married to my soul mate, marriage will be easy and effortless. Even soul mates are sinners. To be human is to have faults and shortcomings and idiosyncrasies and issues that are trying for others, especially those who live with us day in and day out. And even the best marriages suffer periods of strain and difficulty. There is no such thing as a great love that doesn't involve self-denial and sacrifice.

Apart from its association with such false notions, there are other good reasons for being leery of the soul mate phenomenon.

1. Morally serious and honest people are aware of how changeable we mere mortals are, and how given to illusions. The experience of having once felt like we were made for someone, only to realize later that it was only an infatuation or to learn that our love was unrequited, inclines us not to put much weight on romantic impressions, however intense.

Still. The fact that the soul mate phenomenon can be counterfeited or that we can be deluded about it even in our own case, doesn't mean it isn't real. I like something Sheldon Van Auken said. We might, in the dark, mistake a hyena's growl for a lion's roar. But when we hear a lion, we know it's a lion

2. There is also the undeniable fact that people fall of out of love. We know or have read stories of couples once thoroughly enchanted with each other who later grew estranged and even began to hate and antagonize each other. Such stories can make a person skittish or even cynical about romantic love. Better to emphasize commitment and will.

But again, the fact of failure in one instance doesn't mean there's no hope of success in another. Loss of faith or apostasy in friends doesn't prove that my religion is false.

The question before us is: Is the soul mate phenomenon real? And if yes, is it good to talk about it and hold it up as desirable and attainable in this day and age? I say yes. I say further that belief in it is more consistent with the truth about persons, and more consonant with the mysteries of our faith than the alternative.

I'll explain why in my next post.

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