Proclaiming an idea vs. witnessing to a personThis is how the Apostles’ adventure began, as an encounter of people who are open to one another. For the disciples, it was the beginning of a direct acquaintance with the Teacher, seeing where he was staying and starting to get to know him. Indeed, they were not to proclaim an idea, but to witness to a person.
Spiritual thoughts: in the first year of his papacy
Jan. 10, 2010, at 10:34pm
So I am reading an article—an op-ed piece at Politico defending Brit Hume’s recent public suggestion that Tiger Woods consider Christianity with its theology of repentance and forgiveness as the solution to his troubles. The author opens with a moving vignette:
Thirty years ago, as she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa told the story of a group of American professors who’d come to see her doing the Lord’s work in Calcutta. Before taking their leave, they asked for a bit of wisdom to take home with them. “Smile,” she replied, “for the smile is the beginning of love.”
I think to myself: “That’s true! How beautiful and true! I must smile more.” Then I am jarred by the next line.
Mother Teresa’s contention was that the first duty of a person who believes in Christ is to show others that you are happy—that Christianity is working for you.
Was that her contention? The personalist in me doesn’t think so. Not at all.
Mother Teresa did not say, “Smile; it’s your first duty as a Christian; the best way to promote Christianity is to show that it’s working for you.” She said to smile because “the smile is the beginning of love.” Her interest is not in winning converts, but in growing love between persons.
I’ll go further. To smile in order to show that “Christianity is working for you” runs the risk of violating of the very essence of smiling. A true smile involves both a revelation of the self and a response to value—especially to the value of the person before you. It is an opening of myself to the good of the other—an opening that allows the other to see the good of me, viz. the beginning of love. (Listen to Maria Fedoryka’s talks for more on this mysterious dialectic.)
A genuine smile entails, then, a certain self-exposure, truthfulness and vulnerability. A sales-pitch smile, on the other hand, involves making a presentation in order to get another person to act in the way you want them to act. This is a bad beginning for love.
Jan. 8, 2010, at 7:04pm
An article in the London Evening Standard (hat tip Mark Steyn at the Corner) tells of “vast numbers” of British women converting to Islam and marrying Muslim men.
“The women were reacting to the moral uncertainties of the Western world. Many convert out of conviction and not because they are in love.”
...Three such converts told me last year their nun-like apparel makes them feel less objectified and they feel “cleansed”.
I fear these poor women are jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, but I nevertheless understand their feelings. Who can deny that the galloping relativism that afflicts the west must cause a sense of radical existential insecurity that makes the sternness of Islam appealing. It also stands to reason that women who have felt objectified and used by the habits of hedonism would feel liberated by being covered in robes.
The secular liberalism prevailing today will never be able to win the Muslim world. Only a re-Christianization of the west has any hope of that.
Jan. 7, 2010, at 3:24pm
Some time soon I will have to make my way through Charles Taylor’s Sources of The Self, an important but long and difficult book on “The Making of the Modern Identity.” For now, however, I decided to take up his shorter and much more managable work, The Ethics of Authenticity. And I must say, based on the first thirty pages, IT IS GREAT! I keep on wanting to get up and talk to Katie about it. (Good thing she had to go to the dentist. Otherwise I would still be on page 5.)
What I especially like is the way in which Taylor elucidates and appreciates the moral ideal that underlies much of modern culture. He calls it the “ideal of authenticity.”
Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own “measure” is his way of putting it. This idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.
This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost, partly through the pressures toward outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice. And then it greatly increases the importance of this self-contact by introducing the principle of originality: each of our voices has something of its own to say. Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can only find it within.
Taylor’s sympathetic understanding of this new moral ideal, and his basic approval of it (though not of the many trivial or degraded forms it takes!), allows him to steer clear of both the “knockers” of modern culture (e.g. Harold Bloom and Christopher Lasch) and its “boosters”. He recognizes (with the knockers) all the negative things that have followed in the wake of modern man’s pursuit of authenticity: relativism, narcisism, a replacing of genuine freedom with mere free choice, a rejection of the past, a withdrawal from the demands of citizenship, and so on. But (unlike the knockers) he sees these negatives as a deviation from and betrayal of the true ideal. It is impossible to be true to oneself without a commitment to objective truth and obedience to moral norms. It is impossible to find self-fulfillment without a sincere and practical concern for others. It is impossible to achieve genuine freedom without obedience, discipline and virtue, or to maintain political freedom without civic engagement. Hence, Taylor argues, we should not try to persuade the men and women of our time to reject the ideal of authenticity, but rather help them to understand it more clearly and live up to it more faithfully. The ability to articulate the ideal of authenticity and show its connection to those other, older ideals embedded in the western tradition as a whole, is useful “not just in correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in a fuller and more integral fashion.”
We here at the Personalist Project very much share Taylor’s approach (which is not to say we agree with him in all particulars). In our view, the personalism of thinkers like Dietrich von Hildebrand, John Paul II, and John Henry Newman, is the “hermeneutical key” to understanding (almost) all that is great in the modern period, and to reconciling it with the wisdom of previous ages.
Dec. 26, 2009, at 1:41pm
The great Roger Scruton sounds the alarm about The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty.
Aesthetic judgements may look subjective when you are wandering in the aesthetic desert of Waco or Las Vegas. In the old cities of Europe, however, you discover what happens when people are guided by a shared tradition which not only makes aesthetic judgement central, but also lays down standards that govern what everybody does. And in Venice or Prague, in Bath, Oxford, or Lisbon, you come to see that there is all the difference in the world between aesthetic judgement treated as an expression of individual taste, and aesthetic judgement treated in the opposite way, as the expression of a community. Maybe we see beauty as subjective only because we have given the wrong place to aesthetic judgement in our lives—seeing it as a way of affirming ourselves, instead of a way of denying ourselves.
Beauty is a major interest of this philosopher and musician. (He has composed two operas.) Here is another great article, published in The City Journal in the Spring.
Judy Lightfoot offers a moving reflection on the sense of sin and human solidarity.
Playing a similar theme, though with a nobler instrument and on a grander scale, Cardinal Newman has a Christmas sermon called “Religious Joy”—joy sprung from lowliness.
Why should the heavenly hosts appear to these shepherds? What was it in them which attracted the attention of the Angels and the Lord of Angels? Were these shepherds learned, distinguished, or powerful? Were they especially known for piety and gifts? Nothing is said to make us think so. Faith, we may safely say, they had, or some of them, for to him that hath more shall be given; but there is nothing to show that they were holier and more enlightened than other good men of the time, who waited for the consolation of Israel. Nay, there is no reason to suppose that they were better than the common run of men in their circumstances, simple, and fearing God, but without any great advances in piety, or any very formed habits of religion. Why then were they chosen? for their poverty’s sake and obscurity. Almighty God looks with a sort of especial love, or (as we may term it) affection, upon the lowly.
I have recently discovered, thanks to the Mark Steyn Christmas Show, Elizabeth von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and the Baron. I downloaded her Christmas Song album at itunes. Its gentle, prayerful music has been helping me enter the mystery of these holy days. You can listen to clips of it here.
Friend Mike Wallacavage sent the link to this beautiful Bach piece: Thomanerchor: “Jauchzet frohlocket”
“Triumph, rejoicing, rise, praising these days now,
Tell ye what this day the Highest hath done!
Fear now abandon and banish complaining,
Join, filled with triumph and gladness, our song!
Serve ye the Highest in glorious chorus,
Let us the name of our ruler now honor!”
Every Christmas I marvel anew at the depth and majesty and beauty and poetry of the lyrics of the traditional hymns. They are the best of prayers. “Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace…”
“Veiled in flest the Godhead see, hail the Incarnate Deity. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmauel…”
Having heard—I forget now where—that this version is the best film rendition of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, our family watched it together the other night. It is charming, especially in its entirely convincing evocation of the life and sensibilities of Victorian England.
I wish everyone in the world had a subscription to Magnificat.
Dec. 26, 2009, at 12:29pm
Having patiently and tenderly prepared a people for an age—drawing them out of misery, teaching them Himself and about their true worth and high calling—the God of glory descends to dwell enfleshed among us; humanity is taken up to the heights of divinity.
Gloria in excelsis Deo! And on earth, peace to men of goodwill.
From the Pope’s Christmas homily
The Lord is here. From this moment, God is truly “God with us”. No longer is he the distant God who can in some way be perceived from afar, in creation and in our own consciousness. He has entered the world. He is close to us. The words of the risen Christ to his followers are addressed also to us: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). For you the Saviour is born: through the Gospel and those who proclaim it, God now reminds us of the message that the Angel announced to the shepherds. It is a message that cannot leave us indifferent. If it is true, it changes everything. If it is true, it also affects me. Like the shepherds, then, I too must say: Come on, I want to go to Bethlehem to see the Word that has occurred there. The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel for a reason. They show us the right way to respond to the message that we too have received.
Note the personalist emphases. “If it is true, it also affects me.” Tua res agitur. Our motto. The thing concerns you. The Incarnation is momentous for humanity, for the human person as such, and for each of us, intimately, in our individuality, in our day to day living, and in our ultimately destiny.
O come, let us adore Him!
Dec. 24, 2009, at 11:40am
Last night I went to regularly scheduled confessions at our parish church wanting to prepare my soul for Christ’s coming. There had been no particular mention of confessions in the bulletin or at Mass. It wasn’t a special service. Just four priests sitting in the quiet dark interior, serving a silent line of ordinary, praying people for an hour and a half.
Something good is afoot.
Truly, “Light has come into the darkness.” And just as truly, “The darkness has not understood it.”
Dec. 21, 2009, at 2:19pm
Janice Shaw Crouse has an article at American Thinker about the problem of sexless marriages.
We’ve all seen it happen: a young couple steps onto the fast track, and the treadmill of life begins to take its toll. An overly stressful lifestyle becomes habitual and inevitably has a corrosive effect upon health and relationships. Natural exuberance gets ground down, laughter seldom breaks through the grim determination and drive, and the little touches of endearment ebb away.
Are these the inevitable, natural effects of building careers or businesses? Of having children? Of simply getting older? Of two people with different temperaments, expectations, and tastes trying to navigate their disagreements? Yes, yes, yes, and yes, if a couple doesn’t pay attention to the actions that are needed to counter the negative side-effects these factors can generate. The once-vibrant joy of life fueled by shared sexual passion need not be blasted to pieces by some dramatic, explosive turn of events like the celebrity blowups reported daily in the tabloids. More often than not, a couple’s tender feelings for each other are destroyed much more subtly—almost imperceptibly—eroded away day by day in tiny grains until a chasm is opened up between them. Call it marriage’s second law of entropy.
She has no deep or original insight to offer about the problem. No exploring of the mystery of conjugal love. Nothing like the beauty and profundity of the Theology of the Body. Just commonsense advice to couples that they take care not to neglect the sexual dimension of their marriage. It’s not particularly inspiring, but it’s nice to find it offered it in a venue usually occupied with the political and economic issues of the secular society.
Then in the comments section, I found this remark, hearkening back to an earlier Linde discussion about the conjugal debt:
Here’s what God’s word has to say about this:
“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” - I Corinthians Chapter 7 v. 3-5
Sexless marriages have never been a part of Biblical Christianity although some denominations have wrongfully approved it in the past. Now we have this error continuing in the secular world as well. The facts are clear, any partner who defrauds his or her spouse is wrong! My advice is for the aggrieved spouse to openly discuss this problem with the other spouse and seek competant Christian counseling from a professional or a pastor. Spouses need to know that by defrauding their partner, they are doing great harm to not only their spouse but to the other members of the family, especially the children.
Here we have a typical expression of a bad and back-firing approach all too common among Christians. Intimacy is something we owe our spouses. Yes. But, paradoxically, it is not something we can demand as a right. If we do demand it, we destroy its essence as an act of love. It no longer unifies; it alienates.
For a true and satisfying renewal of marriage in our day, what is wanted is a deeper realization of the mystery of personal life and the mystery of love. We would all do well to understand better that while persons are called to give themselves in love, they cannot be owned the way things are owned. In truth, what we own when another person gives himself or herself to us is a debt. A debt to love. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love has a chapter dedicated to this surpassingly beautiful and mysterious theme.
Yet love is perhaps most correctly described as an infinite debt; when a person is gripped by love, he feels that this is like being in an infinite debt…the one who loves runs into debt; in feeling himself gripped by love, he feels this as being in an infinite debt. Amazing! To give a person one’s love is, as has been said, the highest a person can give—and yet by giving it he runs into an infinite debt. Therefore we can say that this is the distinctive characteristic of love: that the one who loves by giving, infinitely, runs into infinite debt. But this is the relationship of the infinite, and love is infinite. By giving money, one surely does not run into debt; on the contrary, it is rather the recipient who runs into debt. When, however, the lover gives what is infinitely the highest that one person can give to another, his love, he himself runs into an infinite debt. What beautiful, what sacred modesty love brings along with it! Not only does it not dare to persuade itself to become conscious of its deed as something meritorious, but it is even ashamed to become conscious of its deed as part-payment on the debt.
Dec. 17, 2009, at 12:09pm
Jennifer Rubin, over at Commentary Magazine’s blog, Contentions, is one of my favorite political commentators. Today she says this about President Obama’s slide in the opinion polls.
Because so many conservatives never bought into candidate Obama’s image as a ”centrist, deficit-fighting, bipartisan consensus builder,” it’s hard for many to appreciate fully just how fervently many voters did embrace that portrait of Obama. He was the candidate who didn’t raise his voice and promised an alternative to the Bush-Clinton-Bush partisan wars. Calm and cool, above the fray. He was going to go line by line through the budget. No taxes on anyone not “rich.” He believed in ”markets,” he told CNBC. Voters grabbed on to these messages and averted their eyes from data that didn’t fit the campaign-approved image of a reasoned centrist.
What interests me here is that last line, which deftly expresses a key feature of the problem of the human condition as we find it today. We avert our eyes from data that does not fit the image our campaign of self-promotion has approved to our own minds.
Truth hurts, so we avoid it. We reject and condemn those who may try to bring it to our attention. And so we render ourselves unreal—incapable of efficacy in the world, incapable of communion with others.
And if we cannot bear human reality, how much less prepared are we to bear the Reality of God?
As Christmas approaches, let us each and all seek more of the truth. Let us have the courage to invite it into our hearts and homes, so that we can be liberated from the illusions and insubstantialities that plague our poor souls.
Dec. 14, 2009, at 12:21pm
George Weigel has posted a short article and NRO in response to President Obama’s recent speeches: one announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan and the other accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In both of these speeches the president attempted to address the apparent contradiction between pursuing peace and executing war. Weigel wants to show that this contradiction is the result of modern moral mis-thinking that made a presumption against war the root of just war theory.
In fact, however, the classic just-war tradition began, not with a presumption against war, but with a passion for justice: The just prince is obliged to secure the “tranquility of order,” or peace, for those for whom he accepts political responsibility, and that peace, to repeat, is composed of justice, security, and freedom. There are many ways for the just prince (or prime minister, or president) to do this; one of them is armed force.
The article is good for clearing the air of some fog. Much pious pacifism plainly is rooted in confusion and naivte. And it’s definitely true that a preference for conflict-avoidance and “conflict resolution techniques” has tended to overwhelm a passion for justice in Christians of our day, to disastrous effect.
Still, I dislike the tone of the article. I dislike its snide dismissal of all modern anti-war thought, as if it’s of a piece with bogus liberal pieties. Some of it, surely, is more serious and more challenging to the tradition than he seems to allow. Some of it is the fruit of deep moral reflection on the experiences of 20th century atrocities and on the mystery of the human person. Some of it, in my opinion, represents a vital development of moral philosophy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were not utopian theorists, but agents of social and political change—Non-violent defeat of gigantic evils. Likewise the solidarity movement in Poland. It is interesting to consider that MLK, Gandhi and Wojtyla—all great proponents of non-violent resistance—all took bullets for their pains. Absorbing evil and violence in their own flesh, while giving witness to peace.
Dec. 12, 2009, at 5:42pm
Loving care for the world is central to our nature and vocation as persons. Christians know this from our reading of Genesis. God created the world in an act of superabundant love; He pronounced it good; He made man (“male and female He created them”) to cultivate the earth, fill it, and exercise dominion over it. We know it intuitively too. It is ingrained in us by a religious disposition of trust and gratitude toward God. And, from our love of natural beauty and our our consciousness of sin and its terrible consequences, we feel the sorrow and outrage of rapacious and defiling misuses of the earth. We reject and lament the materialistic consumerism that blights our culture and our own souls.
All these things tend make us sympathetic to the environmentalist cause. And our sympathy, I fear, inclines us to be naive about its underlying impetus, its operating principles, the real motivations of its masters and promoters. The evidence is mounting that they are inimical to persons.
From Diane Francis writing in the the Financial Post: The Real Inconvenient Truth
The “inconvenient truth” overhanging the UN’s Copenhagen conference is not that the climate is warming or cooling, but that humans are overpopulating the world.
A planetary law, such as China’s one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate currently, which is one million births every four days.
The world’s other species, vegetation, resources, oceans, arable land, water supplies and atmosphere are being destroyed and pushed out of existence as a result of humanity’s soaring reproduction rate.
The Chinese agree. Friend Wendy sent me the link to this article in China Daily: Population control called key to deal
Dec. 9, 2009, at 12:12pm
I came across a great line yesterday in the marvelous Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian, set in the early 19th century British navy. I first devoured their wit and charm and astonishing stores of period knowledge and permanent wisdom 12 years ago, while awaiting the birth of our fourth child and in want of distraction. I’m re-reading them now. Here is the line:
The day had grown more brilliant still; the diminishing wind had backed a point and more abaft the beam and the Leoapard was running under courses, topsails and lower studdingsails; and being a new suit they made a splendid expanse of white against the sky. Great smooth taut curves of a whiteness so intense that their surface was rather to be apprehended than distinctly seen, and all set among the sharp, definite, clear-cut pattern of the rigging.
This seems to me a nigh-on-perfect metaphor for our knowledge of the divine. He being is too great and luminous to be seen directly and distinctly. His presence, His Reality, is rather apprehended than seen. And it is set among the sharp, definite, clear-cut pattern and rigging of revealed doctrine and Church teaching.
Am I right, do you think?
In any case, I am once again put irresistibly in mind of Newman’s notions of implicit reasoning and antecedent probabilities, laid out so compellingly in his Oxford University Sermons and his Grammar of Assent.
Dec. 4, 2009, at 4:16pm
I recently came across an essay by Hans Jonas (see footnote) in which he argues that cloning human persons is wrong, among other reasons, because it violates the cloned person’s “right to ignorance.” The essay was published many years ago, in 1974, and so I realize the argument is not new. It is new to me, however, and very intriguing. Not because it is especially strong or effective—I’m not sure that it is—but because it dwells so deeply and fruitfully on the nature of personal selfhood and what is required to truly achieve it.
At the heart of Jonas’ argument lies the thought that persons can’t thrive unless they believe that their future is truly open and in large measure up to them. They must know themselves to be, as my wife Katie likes to put it, the protagonists of their own lives. This is what gives reality to freedom and self-determination.
But what does the future of a cloned person look like? Is it truly open? In one way it certainly is. Jonas is not a determinist. He does not think that a cloned person (if ever there will be one) is less free, ontologically speaking, than any other. Human beings are not determined by their genetic code, no matter how that code was obtained. But when we look at the question from an existential and psychological point of view, the answer is very different.
To help us see this, Jonas highlights a crucial difference between identical twins and clones. Whereas the two twins live their lives at the same time, the clone lives his life many years after the original (i.e. the donor or archetype) has lived his. He is, to borrow a phrase from Leon Kass, “saddled with a genotype that has already lived” and is already known. Furthermore, while the twin just happens to have the same genetic code as his sibling, the clone has the same code as his original by design. His “parents” want and expect him to be like the original.
(One sees that Jonas is thinking of one kind of cloning only. His argument does not apply to other types.)
The clone, therefore, will inevitably suffer from the “great expectations” his parents and everyone else who is “in the know” have for him. Kass illustrates the point: Suppose a young couple chooses to clone Rubinstein. Obviously they do so on the basis of what they already know about Rubinstein’s life and accomplishments, and with definite hopes and expectations for their child. “Is there any doubt that early in life young Arthur would be deposited at the piano and ‘encouraged’ to play?” I think not.
We begin to see, then, in what sense the clone’s “right to ignorance” has been violated. He knows too much about the future he is supposed to live, and this knowledge is crushing. (Needless to say, it would not help the situation if the clone were simply not let in on the secret! That would be very degrading for one thing, and practically impossible for another. Sooner or later the cat will out of the bag.) Let me quote Jonas at some length:
The simple and unprecedented fact is that the clone knows (or believes to know) altogether too much about himself and is known (or is believed to be known) altogether too well to others. Both facts are paralyzing for the spontaneity of becoming himself, the second also for the genuineness of others’ consorting with him. It is the known donor archetype that will dictate all expectations, predictions, hopes, fears, goal settings, comparisons, standards of success and failure, of fulfillment and disappointment, for all “in the know”—clone and witnesses alike; and this putative knowledge must stifle in the pre-charted subject all immediacy of the groping quest and eventual finding “himself” with which a toiling life surprises itself for good and for ill. It is all a matter much more of supposed than real knowledge, of opinion than truth. Note that it does not matter one jot whether the genotype is really, by its own force, a person’s fate: it is made his fate by the very assumptions in cloning him, which by their imposition on all concerned become a force themselves. It does not matter whether replication of genotype really entails repetition of life’s performance: the donor has been chosen with some such idea, and that idea is tyrannical in effect. …
The trial of life has been cheated of its enticing (also frightening) openness; the past has been made to preempt the future as the spurious knowledge of it in the most intimate sphere, that of the question “who am I?”, which must be a secret to the seeker after an answer and can find its answer only with the secret there as the condition of the search—indeed as a condition of becoming what may then be the answer. The spurious manifestness at the beginning destroys that condition of all authentic growth. No matter whether the “knowledge” is true or false (there are reasons for saying that in essence it is false per se), it is pernicious to the task of selfhood: existentially significant is what the cloned individual thinks—is compelled to think—of himself, not what he “is” in the substance-sense of being. In brief, he is antecedently robbed of the freedom which only under the protection of ignorance can thrive; and to rob a human-to-be of that freedom deliberately is an inexpiable crime that must not be committed even once.
I think that all of this is extremely well said, and that it is relevant far beyond the confines of bioethics. That, for instance, the answer to the question “Who am I?” is a secret that every person must find out for himself, and that the content of the answer is (in part) determined by the search for it. That, the expectations of others, as well as his own, can interfere with the process of discovering and becoming himself. But most of all, I am struck by the central idea that a certain ignorance or hiddenness is required for freedom and authentic personal growth. “Life needs the protection of nonawareness” Romano Guardini wrote in a different context (and in a slightly different sense). But the saying applies here as well. And it applies in two ways: 1) it is very uncomfortable if not intolerable for persons to be exposed to others, but 2) it seems equally unbearable to be fully exposed to oneself (too soon).
Footnote: The essay I’ve been referring to is entitled “Biological Engineering—A Preview” and published in Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed To Technological Man.
Dec. 4, 2009, at 2:22pm
An excellent, thought-provoking address on the respective responsibilities of bishops and laity in society (delivered in May at a symposium on faith and freedom) by Robert George is now available online. (I found it by way of the Witherspoon Institute.)
Professor George argues convincingly that Catholic witness in our society has been hindered by bishops’ taking positions on questions that do not fall within the proper limits of their authority; that they are, in fact, usurping a function that belongs to the laity.
...individual Catholic bishops, and the USCC, had unwittingly diluted the impact of their own pro-life witness by speaking too much about too many issues in the properly secular order on which they had no particular authority as bishops to intervene, or, at least, no authority as bishops on which to declare one proposed policy superior to competing proposals as a matter of Christian faith. People were left with a false impression (one that the Cuomo’s and the Kennedy’s were all-too-happy to encourage) that the bishops’ advocacy of legal protection for the unborn was on a par with their advocacy of minimum-wage increases or farm subsidies—issues on which faithful Catholics could legitimately disagree with their shepherds. Worse yet, policymakers came to perceive and to treat the Catholic Church as simply another advocacy group on the order of, say, the Sierra Club or the Chamber of Commerce.
He cites a case of bishops issue economic analysis and policy proposals that go far beyond their true competence. George asks in reply:
Why, if their prudential judgments are no more authoritative than anyone else’s, do the bishops ‘feel obliged’ to offer them? Is prudential political judgment of this sort not precisely the business of the laity? Is the failure to leave that judgment to the laity not confusing and ultimately undermining of the bishops’ proclamations of principle and their public witness on specific moral evils such as legal abortion?
This touches on the question of communion and self-possession we are discussing below. Authentic communion entails authentic self-possession. Dysfunctional relationships typically are relationships where the right boundaries between persons are not recognized and observed. We confuse ourselves with others. We interfere in a zone that belongs exclusively to them. Or, in weakness and insecurity, we invite others into a zone that belongs to us, and suffer them to make the decisions that are really our own responsibility. Then resent them for it.
A great deal of progress could be made in overcoming what ails the world if we all learned to delineate better what our range of competence is and isn’t. If we learned to take up the responsibilities that belong to us, and leave aside those that don’t.
Dec. 3, 2009, at 11:41pm
A couple of days ago, I picked up Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes—one of those books, like Pascal’s Pensees, perfect for lulls in the day that are too short to be useful but too long to be wasted—and came across these two passages:
If you do not live, think, and suffer with the men of your time, as one of them, in vain will you pretend, when the moment comes to speak to them, to adapt your language to their ear.
“Know the moderns in order to answer their difficulties and their expectations.” A touching intention. But this way of projecting the “moderns” into an objective concept, of separating oneself from them to consider them from the outside, makes this good will useless.
These “paradoxes” (if that is what they are) make an important point, one that has been growing on me in recent years: namely, that it is impossible to significantly influence a culture unless one is deeply rooted in and consciously indebted to it. One must not just know and understand the culture as an impartial observer, and so pass judgment on it from a distance. Rather, one must feel oneself implicated in it and experience a sort of solidarity with it. But this, as de Lubac implies, is just what is so often lacking in critics of modernity. They fail to realize (sufficiently) that, for all their regrets about modern life, they are nevertheless a part of it; they belong to it and have been formed by it, for better and for worse. Their criticism is not embedded in a deep appreciation of and gratitude to the culture in which they were raised. Nor, as a result, can they show a genuine concern for it—the way in which a true patriot shows concern for the country he wants to improve (think, for instance, of Socrates viz a viz Athens). Their criticism tends to be hostile rather than friendly; it lacks persuasive power.
This kind of critic behaves a lot like the language theorist described by C.S lewis in the Abolition of Man
A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy. That is one thing. A great poet, who has ‘loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue,’ may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired, the changes. That is a different thing—as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical.
Dec. 2, 2009, at 2:04pm
Could we be at the beginning of a sea change? (Please God, let it be so!) More and more people seem willing to speak out in the secular media about the wretched consequences of the sexual revolution. Here is the latest of several I’ve seen lately (which, be forewarned, includes some rather raw images). The author participated in the moral unleashing of ‘60s and ‘70s and has since come to recognize how devastating it has been, particularly for women.
To be a ‘nice girl’ was to be looked on as a freak. The truth was, however, the new permissiveness gave men permission to exploit you. These are the pressures which, according to Martin Amis, contributed to his sister’s ruin.
It may be cruel to say it, but today’s young girls primping and un-dressing for Saturday night, when they will get drunk and get laid (and feel doubly bad in the morning) are the inheritors of her destiny.
She certainly doesn’t mince words or shrink from forcing feminists to face reality.
Is it any wonder that the phenomenon of young teenage boys expecting their girlfriends to provide sexual gratification at any time (on a school bus, for example, according to Susie Orbach) leaves girls feeling abused and full of hate for their bodies - the very bodies so cynically exploited for commercial gains throughout a sexualised media?
There is sexual pressure on women as never before and no matter how much women achieve in the boardroom or as helicopter pilots, it makes a nonsense of equality.
I only wish the solution were more widely known! The author quotes Martin Amis writing despairingly: ‘It’s astonishingly difficult to find a decent deal between men and women and we haven’t found it yet.’
It’s not true that we haven’t found it yet! See John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s, Marriage and Purity. And see ordinary, happy, beautiful, sacramental marriages among believers young and old. It’s not just possible; it’s being accomplished. It’s just not being widely noted, since it so goes against the grain of the modern world.
Dec. 2, 2009, at 1:06pm
The December issue of Magnificat opens with an exceptionally beautiful and deeply personalistic meditation by Peter John Cameron, O.P. on the mystery of communion. That mystery—the mystery of a person’s being defined simultaneously by his essential self-standing and self-possession and by his being ordered-to-communion with others—is the central philosophical preoccupation of personalism.
Here is Fr. Cameron:
The loneliness that once afflicted Adam in Eden has never left us alone. Deep inside each one of us knows to be myself I need someone else. We are made with a capacity for personal life which is so profound that we cannot realize it alone. This capacity we call “communion.” In fact, things start to go wrong the moment we perceive that we do not belong—that we are not wanted, loved, prized, protected, and provided for. To belong is to have others inside us. The very way we approach life—seeing, feeling, judging—come from what we belong to.
Conversely, if we were to belong to nothing, we would be nothing. And that nothingness, we know, quickly overwhelms us whenever we find ourselves isolated or alienated or left in solitariness.
Then, showing the paradoxical link between self-giving and self-standing, he quotes Pope Benedict writing, “true relationship that becomes ‘communion’ can be born only in the deep places of the human I.”
This is a point that needs further developing. It is a point, in my experience, that tends to be underplayed by many Catholic personalists, namely that a strong sense of my individual selfhood and self-possession is the condition of the wholesome self-giving and other-receiving of true communion. For anyone with this tendency, John Crosby’s Selfhood of the Human Person is the needed antidote.
Dec. 1, 2009, at 5:53pm
A Chestertonian paradox: scarcity is the root of romance, is echoed (I think) in an American Enterprise blogpost by Charles Murray titled, “Stigma makes generosity feasible.”
Stigma is the only way that a free society can be generous, whether through private help or government programs. The dilemma is as old as charity: how to give help without creating a cycle in which more people need help. Stigma is the way out.
I see his point. But I wonder whether it’s really true. Is stigma or shame or punishment the only means of dis-incentivising bad behavior? Are there not higher and deeper forms of motivation?
Nov. 25, 2009, at 1:49pm
On the eve of Thanksgiving, I offer our readers some philosophical wisdom from Dietrich von Hildebrand, taken from his beautiful essay on gratitude (which can be found in the Sophia Press reprint of his Art of Living.) Note especially the deeply personalistic elements—the close tie between the dignity of the person and the disposition of gratitude.
Gratitude is a specific response to God’s love manifested to us by His wonderful gifts. Gratitude includes our understanding, first of all, of the value of this good; second, of the objective good for me inherent in this gift; third, of the goodness of God in its inconceivably sacred beauty; and finally, that the goodness is intended for me, that His love touches me personally. We can then surmise what a central factor gratitude is in our relationship with God and what a high value it bears as a response to all these great gifts.
In genuine gratitude toward God man becomes beautiful. He emerges from immanence, from the confines of ego-relatedness and enters into the blissful giving of himself to God, the quintessence of all glory, into the realm of goodness and true kindness. In gratitude, man becomes great and expansive. Blessed and victorious freedom blooms in his soul.
Gratitude is also deeply linked to humility. The thankful person is conscious of the fact that he is a beggar before God and possesses no right in relation to God on which he can insist, that all is a gift of the goodness of God and that he can make no claim against God.
Kierkegaard speaks wonderfully about gratitude and its intimate relation to God:
“And now that I must talk about my God-relationship — about what every day is repeated in my prayer of thanksgiving for the indescribable things He has done for me, so infinitely much more than ever I could have expected — I must speak about the experience which has taught me to be amazed, amazed at God, at His love and at what a man’s impotence is capable of with His aid, about what has taught me to long for eternity and not to fear that I might find it tiresome, since it is exactly the situation I need so as to have nothing else to do but to give thanks.”
The person who is filled with gratitude toward God, whose life is permeated by this primary attitude of gratitude, is also the only person who is truly awake. He is the opposite of the apathetic, obtuse person, who remains in that state of half-wakefulness which suffices for the fulfillment of life’s practical necessities. He is the opposite of the person who remains on the periphery and takes everything for granted.
Nov. 19, 2009, at 3:01pm
Speaking of admirable summations:
I am sometimes asked by fellow Catholics for clarification about the role of philosophy in renewing the culture. Shouldn’t we spend our time and energy “announcing the Good News” or engaging in apologetics or supporting pro-life causes or caring for the poor or teaching catechism classes at the parish? Are not all of these things more directly Catholic, so to speak, and more urgently needed in our society? Isn’t philosophy comparatively inessential, impractical, and even perhaps a bit self-indulgent—like an extremely elaborate game of sudoku? Fine for a little intellectual stimulation, or okay if you hope to earn a living as a professor, but not really a serious, concrete help to the world?
A paper recently sent to me by John Crosby, titled “God and morality,” (which we hope will be the theme of an upcoming reading circle gathering at our house) gives a succinct, helpful answer to this question.
Let us examine this conflict between Christians and atheists about the relation of morality to God. And let us examine it in such a way as to engage the atheists in debate. This means that we cannot continue to draw on Christian sources, such as scripture and Vatican II, for atheists do not recognize these sources. It means that we have to turn to philosophy; only as philosophers can we engage atheists in debate, and give reasons which will challenge them. JP 2 said in FR: “Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith.” But the recourse to philosophy is not only for the sake of engaging the atheist; it is also for our sake, that is, for the sake of us understanding with precision what we hold and do not hold about the dependence of morality on God. Only philosophical reflection can enable us to achieve this clarity.
And the same is of course true about all the deep and serious questions about life.
Nov. 19, 2009, at 2:05pm
A letter-to-parents from the headmaster at our sons’ prep school today includes this reflection-inducing item:
The Angelic Doctor [St. Thomas Aquinas] describes thanksgiving as being a process, rather than an event. This process consists of three parts. First, we recognize that we have received a gift. Secondly, we honor the person who has given us the gift. Thirdly, we desire to make a return for the gift we have received.
Do I go too far in thinking that this is an admirable summation of the structure of all deep personal and inter-personal acts? The essence of personhood can almost be described in this trinitarian way. Receiving a gift; giving honor to the giver; making a return.