Thirst for truth rooted in the human heartThe thirst for truth is so rooted in the human heart that to be obliged to ignore it would cast our existence into jeopardy. Everyday life shows well enough how each one of us is preoccupied by the pressure of a few fundamental questions and how in the soul of each of us there is at least an outline of the answers.
John Paul II
Fides et Ratio
Jun. 9, 2009, at 8:44pm
Kissing the Koran: To What Extent can Christians Regard it as an Inspired Book?
As one of his many acts of reconciliation, Pope John Paul II at one point in his reign accepted a copy of the Koran from an Imam and kissed it “as a sign of respect.” Here is the reference: http://www.traditioninaction.org/RevolutionPhotos/A055rcKoran.htm
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Rafael, who was present at the time, affirmed that this “gesture” demonstrates that the Pope “has also great respect for Islam.”
Now such a profound gesture of respect also raises the question of the exact status of Mohammed as a “Prophet” and of his “Revelations” (the Koran) from a Christian point of view. Mohammed did seem to receive some special religious messages in his cave and the book itself carries an outspoken “numinous” or religious power to it. However, as Catholics we believe absolutely that God’s public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle John. So how is a believing Christian to interpret Mohammed and the Koran? I wish to review a few possibilities that have arisen historically or that reason might suggest:
1) Some say Mohammed was simply deceived by a demon to promote a “new” religion as a rival to Christianity and with the purpose of stamping Christianity out. Thus the reference in Christian history to “the imposter Mohammed.” There seem to be vast times in Christian history when the name Mohammed is scarcely used without this prior designation. Now in light of the Pope’s gesture, in light of a valid ecumenism, and in light of world situation demanding fraternal respect and cooperation in order to avoid horrors, this would seem to be a very destructive, insulting, and unacceptable approach in the present day. Of course, such a way of speaking, insulting their deeply revered founder, is also not at all helpful toward attracting and converting Muslims, toward inspiring them to take a fresh look at Christ as really the God-Man, rather than merely a highly respected forerunner to Mohammed. Nor is this approach justified in light of the fact that there is much good and truth in their religion (even if as Christians we believe these dimensions go back mainly Old and New Testaments and the early years of the Church, i.e. borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition itself).
2) Some think Mohammed simply deceived himself into thinking he was having revelations and was a victim of his own pride and vanity here (or even epileptic fits). Again, not the best first step in trying to appeal to Muslims to think seriously about taking a fresh look at Christ, i.e. simply calling their founding hero either sick, a psycho, or an egomaniac. All of the objections raised in Point #1 count here as well. We as Christians know that if someone opens up insulting Jesus Christ, our natural reaction is to turn away from or be highly suspicious of their further message. It follows that Muslims would react in the same way if we insult Muhammad.
3) I think it could be argued that Mohammed may actually have received private revelations from above in his cave near Mecca. However, a difficulty here is that the standard Muslim interpretation is that Mohammed was a pure vessel of the revelation of God directly, i.e., that nothing in his personality or milieu touched or effected the “revelations” in any way, but that they are God talking directly from heaven through a chosen mouthpiece. This interpretation, of course, Christians would have to reject. But Christians could accept that Mohammed did receive private revelations from a messenger of God but that in fact those revelations were filtered through the human vessel of his personality. Thereby those private revelations may have been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and distorted: a) by Mohammed’s own personal faults, b) by his reception of the revelations in light of his surrounding milieu through which he would naturally have interpreted them, and c) by interpreting his private revelations in the context of his incomplete, faulty, and distorted contact with Jewish and Christian scriptures and beliefs. I think this third possibility is a real one that acknowledges some supernatural origin to the Koran (the OT and NT as remote causes, private revelations interpreted by a fallible human being as the immediate cause).
4) However, a problem arises with Point #3 even within the Islamic tradition itself (often not a popular topic of discussion, and disputed by some as to historical accuracy, but with evidence for the historicity of the account) in that Mohammed himself admitted at one point that he was deceived by Satan in certain of his revelations (the “Satanic verses”). In a crisis situation, while under persecution by the Meccans, he seems to have proclaimed that the 3 goddesses worshipped by the Meccans were valid objects of worship for his followers (contradicting his monotheism). This caused the Meccans to stop the persecution of the Muslims and to flock to Mohammed. However, he later claimed he was deceived by Satan in this proclamation about the three goddesses and rejected this “new” teaching. Then the persecution returned. Yet Mohammed himself seems to admit error here in being deceived by Satan. [Note that some Muslims today deny the historical accuracy of the “Satanic Verses” account, and threaten with death anyone who speaks of them. However, some even within Islam accept the historicity of the account.]
So in light of all this, it seems to me that in trying to interpret the status of the Koran as a holy book, we may have some entangled combination of (now listed in order of importance):
1) some genuine remnants of God’s true revelation as delivered to the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament (yet distorted, misunderstood and only partially known by Mohammed),
2) some actual private revelations from a divine messenger to Mohammed (yet again at times distorted and misunderstood in various ways in their interpretation by both Mohammed and his followers when passing through the human vessel),
3) some interjection of purely human dynamism via Mohammed’s own charismatic and complicated personality and human faults, and …
4) some possibility of deception by Satan himself, as seemingly admitted in at least one case by Mohammed himself.
It seems to me the most fruitful attitude to adopt today in a respectful and ecumenical approach to Islam would be to more emphasize the positive possibilities of the above and then to try to show how Islam and the Koran actually point toward and are fulfilled by Christ, despite Muslim claims that it is the other way around. [One can also build such arguments to some extent from within the Koran itself, though of course this is not the “orthodox” Muslim mode of interpretation. My son Michael happens to be working on just this perspective for his doctoral dissertation for the International Academy of Philosophy.]
So we as Christians can acknowledge that the Koran contains many elements of God’s genuine supernatural revelation traced back to the Old and New Testaments and the early centuries of the Church, some private revelations to Mohammed, and some insights on the level of human experience and reasoning, together with distortions, exaggerations, omissions, and deceptions that may have come from human or devilish origin. Pope John Paul II seemed to think there was enough good here to give the book a solemn and respectful kiss.
Jun. 9, 2009, at 12:29pm
Since we launched the Personalist Project, I have heard by email from the Amazon jungle, from China, from the Phillipines, the Middle East, and Europe. The other day we heard from someone who had found us through Google. He’s Polish, working on an Australian oil rig, and reading Josef Seifert’s book, Back to Things in Themselves.
Jun. 9, 2009, at 11:26am
I just got this good question by email from a friend who studied personalist philosophy as an undergrad. It’s one that comes up often in Catholic circles.
Have just happened upon the excitement on your website as I was searching for a good definition of Personalist philosophy to send to someone here in—.
Just out of interest (and because I am working two jobs for the foreseeable future and don’t have time to explore all the good links on your website), can you tell me if the issue of “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” 1 Corinthians 7:9 has come up yet in your discussions. This has always rankled, as it seems to condone the using of one’s spouse as an object. However, in certain Church circles, I am told that this is morally acceptable. This is closely allied with the concept of “conjugal rights”, which also mystifies me. If a woman (and it is almost always this way around) has had her trust in her husband eroded by anger and/or violence, subjectively, for her, conjugal relations can become something akin to physical violation. As a sponsor [in a 12-step program], I come up against this problem a lot.
Here is the response I sent:
Our discussions are just getting off the ground, so only a few topics have been raised. Maria Fedoryka has some great thoughts on “conjugal rights”, which I’ll see if I can entice her to share. Basically the idea behind “better to marry than burn” and “remedy for concupiscence” is that true spousal love can overcome the tendency to treat sex as a mere appetite and another person as an object for my pleasure.
As for conjugal rights I see it this way: when a woman pledges herself to her husband she is his alone. She had no right to give herself sexually or romantically to anyone else. It does not mean that her husband has a right to enjoy her sexually whenever he pleases. He still has a duty in love to try win by his love a response of love in her. She has a duty to be open to his love, not necessarily his sexual advances—especially if she senses that they are impure.
Jun. 8, 2009, at 11:34am
There is a fascinating article in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly on the question of violence in religion. Its author, Raymond Ibrahim, takes issue with those who contend that there is no significant difference between the place of violence in the Muslim and Judeo-Christian traditions.
Here’s an excerpt:
In light of the above, as Armstrong, Esposito, Jenkins, and others argue, why should Jews and Christians point to the Qur’an as evidence of Islam’s violence while ignoring their own scriptures and history?
Bible versus Qur’an
The answer lies in the fact that such observations confuse history and theology by conflating the temporal actions of men with what are understood to be the immutable words of God. The fundamental error is that Judeo-Christian history (which is violent) is being conflated with Islamic theology (which commands violence). Of course, the three major monotheistic religions have all had their share of violence and intolerance towards the other. Whether this violence is ordained by God or whether warlike men merely wished it thus is the key question.
Old Testament violence is an interesting case in point. God clearly ordered the Hebrews to annihilate the Canaanites and surrounding peoples. Such violence is therefore an expression of God’s will, for good or ill. Regardless, all the historic violence committed by the Hebrews and recorded in the Old Testament is just that: history. It happened; God commanded it. But it revolved around a specific time and place and was directed against a specific people. At no time did such violence go on to become standardized or codified into Jewish law. In short, biblical accounts of violence are descriptive, not prescriptive.
I would love to see this question, too, taken up by personalist philosophers, especially in view of the imperative of inter-religious dialogue and the problems related to freedom raised, for instance, in Josef Seifert’s post below.
Jun. 7, 2009, at 12:51pm
Speaking of Newman:
Last week the Personalist Project sponsored its first Directors and Advisers retreat in beautiful Spring Lake, NJ. Eleven of us gathered for three days of leisurely philosophical communion on the theme of forgiveness. To get us in the right frame of mind for approaching such a mysterious and fearful reality, Michael Healy read us Newman’s sermon, “Secret Faults” on Sunday evening.
I yield to no one in devotion to Newman. To me he is the great thinker of the whole modern period, as well as an unsurpassed personal influence. But I have doubts about this sermon. I remember John Crosby once saying that the more he reads Newman’s Anglican sermons, the more he feels in them “a certain limit.” Specifically, John thought, they seem to lack a certain “Catholic fulness” in the sense of God’s mercy. I felt that limit Sunday.
While I agree line by line with what Newman says in this sermon, I wonder whether in its general drift it doesn’t incline toward a kind of moral heaviness, even skepticism—as if I must at all times cultivate such a lively awareness of my own sinfulness that I must constantly doubt my moral condition and shrink from objecting to wrongs.
This is an unfinished thought, needing much more clarification, but I am wondering whether others on the retreat reacted similarly.
A verse from the second reading at today’s liturgy jumped out at me in this connection:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Jun. 7, 2009, at 12:21pm
I have been following the discussion (on this site) about Christopher West and his presentation of the Theology of the Body and find it all very helpful. Lots of good points made on both sides. But what is helpful to me and many others on the sidelines, may well be detrimental to West and the beautiful message he is trying to spread.
There is a definite danger (to use Healy’s words) of “nitpicking Chris to death on his presentation.” He has a message to deliver: too much second guessing would keep him from doing it. Attempting to anticipate all objections or prevent all possible misunderstandings, would take the life and sparkle out of his talks. What he might gain in precision and clarity, would, I suspect, be outweighed by what he would lose in effectiveness.
I am reminded of Newman’s response to the suggestion that the “Tracts for the Times” should go through a committee before being published:
If you correct them…according to the wishes of a board, you will have nothing but tame, dull compositions, which will take no one.
Individuals who are seen and heard, who act and suffer, are the instruments of Providence in all great successes… [If every tract must be] weighed and carefully corrected… they [will] become cold and formal, and (so to say) impersonal. An address with much in it which others question, yet coming from an individual mind, has a life about it which is sure to make an impression.
No one could accuse Newman of having a cavalier attitude towards truth. It is precisely for the sake of advancing the truth that Newman prefers the uncorrected Tracts coming from an individual mind to the more precise and unobjectionable tracts coming from a committee.
There is a further point here that is worth dwelling on: Newman knows that truth advances at the cost of personal sacrifice. The individual gets criticized for the incidental mistakes he makes, while the truth he presents goes on and has an impact. (There is something deeply fitting and appropriate in this.)
To conclude, I realize that the title of this post is too sweeping. To simply ignore all criticism is a fault. But West has a proven record of being open to correction and changing when necessary. I just hope that he won’t allow himself to get bogged down or discouraged by all the criticism. That would be a major loss for us all.
Jun. 7, 2009, at 3:16am
The Immense Importance of the Question whether We Are Free
There is hardly anything that could be more fundamental for personalist philosophy, for the understanding of the human being qua person, than the comprehension of the nature of freedom and an answer to the question whether we humans are in fact free. Already a purely philosophical grasp of the person is enough to see the inseparable link between person and freedom so that one can say on purely philosophical-rational grounds: an “unfree person” is a contradictio in adiecto, a contradiction in itself — just like an “iron wood.”
Freedom belongs so essentially to personhood that no being can be called a person if he or she, in principle and as subject awakened to rational conscious life, were entirely determined from without, by physical forces, by his or her own nature, by other persons or even by God — rather than being capable of engendering acts by her free center, by her herself. Even a child’s pre-philosophical experience of freedom is enough to see that if a person were not free, responsibility and morality could not exist, good and evil would be illusions, there would be no guilt, no merit; praise and blame would be just as senseless as punishment and reward, and moral conscience that urges us to do the good when we hesitate doing it and makes present to us our obligations, warns us not to commit evil, or reprimands us for having done something wrong, would be based on a big delusion; promising, breaking or keeping promises, or giving a gift would all cease to be what they are and be reduced to their semblance; gratitude or reproach would all be absurd nonsense — all these dimensions so essential to personal human life would be deprived of their foundation if human persons were not free.
Thus it is not amazing that we encounter profound statements on human freedom in philosophers and cultures of all epochs — in Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, and many others.
Aristotle left us with possibly the most metaphysical characterization and affirmation of human freedom, stating: “For he [man] is the lord over the being and over the non-being of his actions.”
Aristotle calls freedom in other texts “the first principle,” “the cause” and the “master of action”. Hence the common (partly Hegelian) opinion that only Christianity introduced the idea that all human beings are free is not true. We find it very clearly expressed in ancient thought, not only in Plato and Aristotle, but also in Seneca’s magnificent texts insisting that even slaves are free qua human beings.
Nonetheless, what remains true in Hegel’s position is that a full acknowledgment of human, angelic and divine freedom is indeed far more clearly and centrally contained in the contents of the Christian faith than in any other religion or philosophy: Christianity (but in the last analysis also Judaism and Islam) would be an absurdity without human and divine freedom: Without the person possessing freedom, which implies that the free subject is not wholly determined by nature or by any cause extrinsic to herself, none of the chief Christian beliefs would be true. One might say without exaggeration: the entire internal structure of the Christian faith, at least its logical conditions, would break down without humans and angels, and without God truly possessing freedom.
Jun. 7, 2009, at 2:09am
I believe that “prudishness” can have quite different meanings and refer to different phenomena:
1. It may consist in a kind of exaggerated or overly great sense of shame and pudor, such as the “insuperable or insurmountable feelings of shame” of a virgin or nun not to undress for a gynecological exam or surgery even at grave risk of her health or life which “horror ingens” some traditional moralists regarded as valid reason for refusing life-saving operations or necessary medical exams. This does not have to imply per se any negative attitude towards sex but is an exaggerated and in this sense “prudish” sense of its intimacy or sacredness and disproportionate fear of the danger of desecration through revealing one’s body to others; another example might be being shocked by or blushing on even the most reverend speaking of sexual matters.
2. It may mean a hypocritical “social” negative attitude towards sex which eliminates or represses, or feels outraged by, or reacts hysterically and negatively, to any even noble speech on sexual matters while (like Queen Elizabeth) one’s private hidden life is full of impurity.
3. It may mean a non-hypocritical and sincerely negative approach to sexuality even in the context of married love because the prudish persons rejects all sexual acts because she feels sexuality as such to be something bad or dirty and something to be shunned or reduced in all its forms.
4. It may mean a kind of “mental cramp” and psychic inability to allow even one’s husband or wife intimate expressions of tenderness or to reveal one’s nakedness to him or her even in married life except to a minimal degree. This can have many roots including a fear of the power of sex and a wish to remain always in cool control, a fear to give oneself fully to any human person, a false sense of piety or purity, an unfounded fear of being touched impurely, a psychic disorder, a confusion of purity with frigidity, a lack of spousal love, disgust of overweight of one’s partner, etc.
There are also many phenomena misnamed prudishness:
4. The caution, appearing ridiculous to Waldstein and perhaps to most of us, taken by a person tempted through masturbation or other impurity, not even to look at his own body or to throw ashes in his bath tub, or to shun looking at Titian’s Venus, Michelangelo’s Adam, etc. This may be prudishness but if it is an action or caution taken for a legitimate fear of offending God through impurity to which one truly is tempted by such sights, it is not prudish at all.
5. The reluctance or refusal to allow truly impure looks, touches, or lustful abuses of one’s body even in marriage. (Rejecting what Wojtyla calls the partner’s “adultery with one’s marriage partner” belongs here). This is purity that has nothing to do with prudishness.
6. Feeling offended by what Alice von Hildebrand calls Chr. West’s vulgar or irreverent language or by his claims that oral sex or anal sex are OK in the foreplay, or that we must be grateful for Hugh Hefner’s, the hero of impurity’s, fight against prudishness (all of which points I for one think deeply false in West’s remarks and on which I do not agree with Waldstein’s, Healy’s or other whole sale defenses of West, but rather with Alice von Hildebrand, even though I think West is basically very good and Schindler’s critique goes completely overboard). Any feeling offended by the many impure, shameless and irreverent ways people demonstrate sex publicly, speak of sex, portray it in movies or pictures, etc. has nothing to do with prudishness, but with purity and a sense of appropriate acts and proper language, wherefore I think that West’s suggesting that a person questioning him on some of these points must have problems of sex is deeply wrong and grounds for his apologizing to the questioner. In spite of some justified criticisms all of us ought to thank West for his many tremendously strong and good points and forgive him is faults such as his “love for Hugh Hefner” or uttering his name in the same breath with Pope John Paul II (of course his true charity for H. and his insisting that his pronorgraphic sexual revolution very wrong, are very good).
There are still many other possible distinctions but I wrote too much already.
Jun. 6, 2009, at 5:23pm
A questioner at the talks the other night asked the speakers to give examples of things that are prudish and things that would not be prudish. I doubt he was completely satisfied with the response he got, which offered cases that were too obvious to be helpful for those trying to judge borderline cases in the here and now.
But there’s an reason for the speakers’ vagueness, which goes to the heart of things. Prudishness, like chastity and salaciousness, has an inescapable subjective dimension. Since it is often hard to know what is really motivating ourselves, never mind others, we cannot easily judge from the outside whether a given comment is coming from prudishness or salaciousness or a an entirely wholesome attitude toward sex.
I am reminded of those who demand examples for what does and does not counts as a “serious reason” for postponing pregnancy through NFP. I have heard people ask: “Is finishing my education a serious reason?” and I have heard Christian teachers say, “Finishing your education is not a serious reason.” I think both the question and the answer betray an externalist tendency that violates the spirit of the Church’s moral teaching in this area.
In truth, for the same thing (a desire to finish one’s education, for example )can be in the case of one couple a deeply serious reason and in the case of another an unserious one.
Jun. 6, 2009, at 1:31pm
Here is a question I would like to see philosophers take up. “What is prudishness exactly?”
Without attempting to define it, I propose that it has to do with a fear or denial of the full incarnational reality of human sexuality. The prude wants to avoiding dealing with that reality (avoid the hard task of integrating it properly into his personality.) He also wants others to avoid dealing with it. He’d like the whole subject curtailed and contained within safe, “manageable” limits. He gets upset when others won’t toe his line.
It reminds me of that Newman sermon contrasting faith and bigotry:
True philosophy admits of being carried out to any extent; it is its very test, that no knowledge can be submitted to it with which it is not commensurate, and which it cannot annex to its territory. But the theory of the narrow or bigoted has already run out within short limits, and a vast and anxious region lies beyond, unoccupied and in rebellion. Their “bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it; and the covering narrower, than that he can wrap himself in it.” And then what is to be done with these unreclaimed wastes?: the exploring of them must in consequence be forbidden, or even the existence denied.
As the bigot cannot admit the reality that does not fit his own preferred theories and opinions, the prude cannot bear sight or mention or use of sexuality that transcends the narrow range of what he can easily manage with his will.
Am I on the right track?
Jun. 4, 2009, at 7:59pmSee below for the 2nd part of the comments elicited by Christopher West: A von Hildebrandian’s Perspective.
Jun. 4, 2009, at 7:59pm
As professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I have been teaching a course on the nature of love, using Von Hildebrand, Wojtyla, Pieper, and Kierkegaard (among others) for nearly three decades. I have known of Christopher West’s work more indirectly through the decidedly good influences his works have had on my children. However, this past Wednesday, June 3, I got the chance to finally meet Mr. West. It was my privilege to put on a joint presentation with him on purity and sexuality sponsored by the Personalist Project. Nearly two hundred were in attendance, including a great many young people, most I’m sure drawn by the prospect of hearing Christopher—who is a bit more well-known than I.
My approach to sexuality has been fathered by Dietrich von Hildebrand and deeply enriched by Wojtyla. In the midst of the recent controversies surrounding Christopher’s work, or presentation of the material, including criticism from Alice von Hildebrand herself, I was very interested to meet Christopher and see him in action. After our presentation together, I want to join with Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein in a hearty endorsement of Christopher’s work and presentation.
He did a masterful job of going back to acknowledge Von Hildebrand as one of the heroic pioneers (in the face of considerable opposition and misinterpretation in his day) who laid the groundwork for the achievement of Wojtyla, both men offering an interpretation of the sexual sphere that strives to do justice to the personalist element. He interpreted the gradual victory of purity in the commitment of the will, in the making of that commitment organic in the heart, and finally in the victory of genuine love in the whole person in light of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of the spiritual life.
In content, he was right on the mark; in presentation, he was terrific! While I gave a lecture, he conducted an enamoured interaction with his audience. Thus, I too am distressed at the critical pieces recently penned by Alice von Hildebrand and David Schindler. I wish to offer my perspective on some of those criticisms.
As an approach, let me detail a couple of points in Christopher’s presentation Wednesday night, or the question and answer period that followed, that might seem to support some of the attacks against him, but which really do not. First, knowing what was already blowing in the wind from the Nightline interview, Christopher at one point in the talk announced “Hugh Hefner is gold.” This seems rather overbold and undifferentiated, quite possibly misleading (if taken out of context.) But in the midst of his talk, affirming the fundamental value of each person, the destructive effects of sin, yet the antidote available to us in Christ, all the clues and evidence and perspective in which to take his bold statement properly were there. Moreover, a short time later, he amended his description of Mr. Hefner to “tarnished gold” (as are we all.) Moreover, when I affirmed in the Q&A session the greater clarity of the second statement, he went on to elaborate that the “tarnish” may involve yards and yards of dirt and dung that stand between us and our true redeemed selves. So when you look into the full facts and the full context, all is perfectly in order. But then, one might ask, why does he do this? Why does he speak the way he does?
Some might call it sloppy or needlessly opaque, but I think there are deeper things going on here in terms of content in relation to style. First, as to content, whether Christopher consciously intends this or just naturally does it, I think he at times practices what Kierkegaard (a favorite of Alice von Hildebrand) describes as his own approach of “indirect communication.” Soren Kierkegaard, radical Christian existentialist, was of the opinion (especially in his early years) that just stating the truth to others on the level of direct intellectual communication often merely remained on that level and never penetrated any deeper. So Kierkegaard began to state things in extremes, yet in such a way that the clues and the evidence were there for the mind of the reader to see through the extreme statement itself and bring it back into balance as an insight and a “work” that the reader did for himself. Thus the truth was more actively seen by the reader, as an achievement, not just passively absorbed. Now I think Christopher West does the same (whether as a consciously chosen technique or not is irrelevant.) It is effective. When he says, a half hour into his talk unfolding the real truth about JPII and human sexuality, that “Hugh Hefner is gold,” everyone there knows darn well he doesn’t mean that the way Larry Flynt might mean it. Christopher means it in light of all that he has said before—but the listener has to think through it all himself in a more active way to get at the truth, after his initial shock wears off at what appears to be a simple statement. This is a way of presenting content that forces the reader or listener to think and get more actively involved. It works. Especially when Christopher himself clarifies as he goes along (which, as has been pointed out, he surely did in the Nightline interview but the context and clarifications never made it off the cutting room floor.)
However, also on just the level of style alone, I think we have to give each speaker a certain freedom and leeway in terms of how he presents his material. Christopher’s approach is so dynamic, so in tune with his enthusiastic personality, so evocative for his audience that I would sooner put a beautiful Bengal tiger in a tiny cage than nitpick Christopher to death on his presentation. He comes as a powerful package all at once! It would be a tragedy to reduce him to a “tame” lion. He may have to backtrack and clarify later, but let him hit people right between the eyes in the present.
Now, let me turn to a second example from our joint presentation that might seem to exemplify one of the criticisms launched at Christopher yet which I think can be defended in more than one way. In the question and answer session, one gentleman questioned whether explicit descriptions of private acts ought to be used in public and that he himself found this offensive. Did that make him a prude? In point of fact, in my opinion, the question did seem to imply too narrow a perspective: as if even those speaking on the topic of integrating sex properly into love are not allowed to be specific. For instance, in my own talk, following Von Hildebrand discussing how the power of sex as a sheer physical act has the danger of swamping the spirit unless “informed” by a spiritual act of even greater power (betrothed love transformed in Christ), I referred to the “power of the orgasm and its thrusting.” So, in reply to the gentleman, Christopher asked him to consider why he felt the way he did and to consider whether he wasn’t being oversensitive to the matter rather than just properly sensitive. Did he have some problem with accepting his sexuality? I did not see this as illegitimate pressure on the questioner but as a reasonable consideration. Nonetheless, I had a slightly different take on the matter in my own response. I said the fellow may in fact have a healthy sensitivity to the crudeness of our culture in addressing this most private sphere, so he might be defending the depth and intimacy of sex in not wanting public display, even verbally, about it. However, I pointed out that such an event as this lecture was precisely not a normal everyday situation, but an educational presentation about the sexual sphere. Thus we as speakers had a right and an obligation, in this special educational context, to discuss matters openly (although here too of course a deep reverence for this intimate sphere should prevail.) Christopher had no problem with my answer as I had no problem with his. But, someone might ask, why didn’t Christopher make or allow for my point from the beginning? Why start in with the idea that the questioner might have a problem with his sexuality? Well, of course, in the future maybe Christopher on his own will allow more clearly for a point like mine, because as Janet Smith and others have observed, he is clearly a very humble man, always ready and eager to learn and improve (would that we all were). However, secondly, it may in fact be true that such a questioner does have a hidden problem with his sexuality: so this should at least be addressed. Why might Christopher come to this conclusion? To quote Janet Smith:
I think it important to keep in mind “who West’s audience is.” It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be “offensive” to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. (See her recent article on Christopher West at catholicexchange.com)
I think Christopher West has more experience on the front lines of our sexualized culture than most of us; thus, we can respectfully let him follow his own “instincts” (probably not the best “personalist” word here) in these matters.
One of the commentators to Michael Waldstein’s defense of Christopher West, demands an answer to each of the charges leveled against West by David Schindler. I think Janet Smith has largely done this in her article cited above. Much depends on the context and situation, but nothing I see in that list is inherently wrong. It just needs proper explanation and application. Even the “anal penetration as foreplay” reference would seem to be parallel to the discussion of the status of preparatory oral-genital contacts discussed extensively by Frs. Ford and Kelly in their two-volume moral theology book from the 1950’s for seminarians (future priests in the confessional) with similar conclusion and this is referenced as the authority to consult by Germaine Grisez in his great ongoing compendium of moral theology. (See The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. II, p. 641, ftnt 176 where Grisez mentions only oral-genital contacts, but as I say Ford and Kelly treat this in such a way that anal-genital contacts would seem to be parallel). Again, no one is recommending such acts, and they have their dangers both physically and morally, and many find them physically and aesthetically repugnant, but the thinkers in question are just discussing the technicalities of what is and is not strictly forbidden. Priests have to know this for the confessional; it is not out of idle curiosity that such things are discussed. So I think the list of “charges” is really answerable.
I have but one regret about my evening with Christopher West. After my talk (“Von Hildebrand on Sexuality: 3 Ways of Attraction, 3 Dangers in Action, 3 Reasons for Renunciation”) and Christopher’s fine and lively commentary, I was invited up to join him for questions and first to offer some reflections on his segment. At that point I felt so at one with him in our approach and so “at home” with him in general, that I just offered one or two minor clarifications of his talk and then opened the floor for questions. But this was ungracious of me. I should have first expressed how deeply grateful and appreciative I was of his remarks, of his insightful use of Von Hildebrand’s contributions, and of his kindness toward me in referring to my own remarks. I regret forgetting to explicitly show my thanks to Christopher and my admiration for his commentary. Please accept this written piece as my filling in of that lacunae. (By the way, our joint talks, and the Q & A session that follows, should be available online shortly at thepersonalistproject.org)
(EDITORS UPDATE: the talks are up by now, and can be downloaded for free from this page We have also posted four short audio clips from the question and answer session. Look for them under the “The Christopher West controversy:” series on the right column of the Linde page page).
Jun. 4, 2009, at 3:20pm
I agree whole-heartedly with the substance of Michael Healy’s evaluation of Christopher West’s presentation last night. But I’d like to press one point of (perhaps) contention a bit.
In the course of his talk, Christopher made this very true remark:
If someone realizes he is in bondage to alcohol, he shouldn’t go where people are drinking. But he has no right to project his own bondage onto our freedom (to condemn us as imprudent because we go into a bar.) Similarly, if a person’s entire idea of sex is skewed by lust, he will have a tendency to project his own distorted attitude onto others. He will interpret any discussion of sex as salacious in itself. In such cases, his accusations against frank, but morally wholesome talk of sex only serve to expose his own impurity.
That’s true. It happens all the time.
But I thought CW might go further than this. He seemed to me to suggest once or twice (including in his response to the last question) that anyone who reacts negatively to his explicitness thereby exposes his own impurity. If that’s what he meant, then I think he goes too far.
Is it not more than possible that some of the criticisms come from a place not of prudishness, but of deep reverence for the sexual sphere and deep sensitivity to its intimate and morally delicate and dangerous nature? Objections in such cases have nothing to do with a projection of salaciousness onto Christopher West or a cramped uptightness in ourselves. They are motivated rather by a true Christian concern for how such talk might hit the ear and affect the imagination of a young teenager or of a person who is struggling with concupiscence or striving for heroic purity—or with a concern for safeguarding virtue and cultivating a sense of the essential mysteriousness of sex.
For instance, I have a friend who comes across as morally balanced and solid in his faith. He was dedicated to God from youth. He went to Franciscan University, dated girls, and expected to enjoy marriage someday, until the moment he unexpectedly heard God calling him to the priesthood. He said yes, though with natural fear and trembling. In seminary, he had to struggle to “change his mind” from that of a man looking forward to marriage to that of a man ready to renounce sex for life. He told me that Christopher West’s presentation at his seminary was an unhappy experience—not because he disagreed with his basic message, but because it was too graphic. It put images in his head that he didn’t want—not because they were ugly or impure, but because they were too vivid. He said, “I really didn’t need to be picturing him and his wife like that.”
Now, this was probably 15 years ago. It may be that West has dialed down the graphic factor since. I hear that he has. Certainly there was nothing objectionably explicit in his talk last night. Mike Healy (that von Hildebrandian intellectual) was much more explicit than CW was. But I think the anecdote serves to make my point. Discomfort with explicitness may be evidence of a hang-up in the person who feels it. But it need not be, and if we assume it is, we are committing a projection of our own.
Jun. 4, 2009, at 2:22pm
In a speech today (hat tip, Andy McCarthy at the Corner), President Obama remarked:
[T]here are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion[.]
The first sentence calls to mind the intimidation campaign unleashed by homosexual activists against the supporters of Proposition 8 in California. It reminds me of Obama's pet organization ACORN, which demand "justice" while it commits fraud and thuggishly shakes down banks. Obama calls for a post-racial politics, then nominates for the Supreme Court a woman who seems to have made identity politics the cornerstone of her judicial philosophy. His treatment of GM is textbook example of the strong-arm tactics he deplores. But what I really want to say here is that I have seen this same problem in many Catholics. They speak the language of democracy and stand on their rights, but they do it tactically. They are not committed to those things in principle. Rather, they are exploiting the virtues of a free society to acquire power and influence for themselves. Once they have it, they use it to force their will on those under them. They justify themselves on the grounds that "the Church is not a democracy." This is something we have to resist with all the strength we can muster, after the example of the non-violent moral resistance of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Solidarity movement in Poland. Truth and goodness cannot be imposed on individuals or on societies.