Personalism in architectureWhat is it in the architectural styles of our old Dutch cities that so charms the visiting stranger? What else but the infinite variety in width or narrowness, the looseness of twists and curves, the pointed and obtuse angles of even our most elegant canals that tell you that they were not made but grew. It is as if a mysterious history speaks to you from every curve and narrows. You can immediately tell that no shoddy, money-hungry developer threw up that line of houses but that every dwelling is the fulfillment of a personal dream, the precious product of quiet thrift, based on a personal plan and built slowly from the ground up. Those tufted, tiered, triangular and shuttered gables ere not symmetrically measured with a level but reflected, every one of them, the thinking of a human being, the whimsicality of a somewhat overconfident human heart. The motley collection of houses bespeak a city full of architects, and precisely in that teeming variety you sense the vigor of folk life as in earlier centuries it throbbed only in the heart of Holland’s free citizens.
Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life
Dec. 4, 2009, at 1:22pm
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 10:41pm
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 1:04pm
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 12:06pm
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 4:53pm
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 12:49pm
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 2:01pm
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 1:05pm
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.
Nov. 17, 2009, at 5:55pm
An inspiring article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education tells the story of a “turnaround artist” of a new president, Buck Smith, transforming a failing small college by focusing not on new technologies, distance courses or non-traditional students, but on personal relationships.
“The underlying thing for me is relationships—hardly anything important happens that doesn’t have to do with relationships,” he says quietly one afternoon in his office. He is not talking just about cozying up to a wealthy donor or board chairman. He is talking about building connections to needy students, the lowliest employees, the local community. “It’s getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.”
Nor is this just happy talk. Mr. Smith translates his conviction into concrete policy. For instance,
To improve communication, [he] instituted a policy allowing faculty and staff members to eat lunch free at the dining hall, in the hope that they would spend more time talking with each other and with students.
And his policies spring from a profound philosophical sense of the nature the person. Mr. Smith’s mentor and life-long friend, Howard Lowry, a tireless defender of small, liberal arts colleges, recognizes that their value comes from a basic truth about persons.
“The small college has a superb asset, one that is subtle and not easily measured or explained,” Mr. Lowry wrote. “It answers to one of the deepest human needs, the need for belonging. And the only way to do justice to the sense of community that a college can confer is to make an almost preposterous claim for it—namely, that this is something no larger institution, however excellent and richly blessed, can confer in the same measure.”
In any case, his approach seems to be working.
After years of stagnant enrollment at Davis & Elkins—which had developed a dismal local reputation, according to some local high-school counselors—the freshman class was up 50 percent this fall. As of November, the number of applications was more than seven times higher than at this time in 2007, and eight students had already put down deposits. Consider that those numbers came after the college had canceled its advertising campaign and done away with mass mailings in favor of a highly personal approach to recruiting students: getting to know their names, their parents’ names, their dogs’ names, and conveying the message that at this college of 700 students, you’re part of a family.
May it be the beginning of a long and broad trend!
Nov. 16, 2009, at 5:02pm
The author of a recent New York Times Week in Review article, “The Evolution of the God Gene,” (who also authored a book titled, The Faith Instict: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures”) takes pains to appear even-handed in his treatment of his religion. He carefully prescinds from the question of the actual existence of God. And, as over and against those who blame religion for most of the world’s ills, he is generous in elaborating the evolutionary benefits of religion for society. For instance:
It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.
Still, the basic assumption on which his thesis rests is both unexamined and ineluctably hostile to the central tenets of religious faith as it is actually held by religious people.
Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.
According to the author, atheists resist this idea because it involves acknowledging that religion is a by and large good for society. For believers, “it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.”
Speaking for myself, I find the idea that religion “exists because it was favored by natural selection” not so much threatening as asinine.
Who can take seriously a treatment of religion that 1) sets aside the question of truth, and 2) assumes its origins are entirely natural (i.e. non-divine)? And who can really imagine that such a treatment is not unfavorable to religion or insulting to religious people? I agree rather with Newman, who in his marvelous essay Milman’s View of Christianity, shows that in terms at least of psychological effect on readers, “to ignore the Almighty in ecclesiastical history is really to deny Him.”
Nov. 15, 2009, at 8:51pm
A chapter about the passing of Cardinal Newman I came across tonight concludes with some description of his reputation among his Victorian English contemporaries. Some were dismissive or contemptuous. Others—clerics, men of letters and statesmen like Gladstone, revered him for his moral stature and literary genius.
But it is with the name of a poet, the only one of the Victorian converts to the Church with a vision in literature transcending his own, that I shall end my list of the lovers of Newman—even as in a procession the greatest figure is the last:
Sweetly the light
Shines from the solitary peak at Edgbaston,
sang Coventry Patmore, who understood that even the polemical disputant had “peace in heart” if “wrath in hand,” and that in his most trenchant moods he but displayed “the gold blazonries of love irate,” never “the black flag of hate.”
How I love that phrase “the gold blazonries of love irate” as a description of holy wrath!
Nov. 10, 2009, at 2:02pm
In the course of a previous TOB thread, a reader asked why John Paul II chose to elaborate a theology of the body instead of a theology of the person?
Let me try to answer this question from a philosophical point of view—in light of the developments in modern thought that so engaged the attention of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.
Karol Wojtyla, as both philosopher and priest, was keenly aware that the personalism so characteristic of the modern age, which contains many positive developments worth preserving and incorporating into the mind of the Church, is also seriously flawed because it is largely disembodied. Descartes, who can almost be said to have ushered in modernity by his famous turn to the subject (“I think, therefore I am”), perpetrated a so-called “dualistic” view of the relationship between body and soul. The self is a “thinking thing,” the body an “extended thing,” and the relation between them very extrinsic: the self is related to the body like a sailor to his ship, or a carpenter to his hammer. (This summary is not fully fair to Descartes, who explicitly denies these analogies. See footnote. But it is the view that perhaps follows most naturally from his premises, and the one, in any case, that followed historically.) Moreover, Descartes’ view of the body is excessively mechanistic. He thinks of it as an elaborate machine rather than as a living organism. Hence, Gilbert Ryle’s apt but unflattering description of Descartes’ position as the dogma of the “ghost in the machine.”
As a result, the deepening sense of the dignity of the person during the modern period has gone hand in hand with an increasing separation of the person from his body. The body is increasingly seen as a mere part of the biological order, devoid of any intrinsic meaning or morally relevant values. This is why many Catholic teachings, especially in areas such as bioethics and sexual morality, have become alien and incomprehensible to the modern world. That persons may never be used as mere means to an end is easily understood and granted. But what does that have to do with the body? Nothing, it seems, except that it must be put at the service of persons. As a Catholic feminist once put it, “God does not care what we do with each other’s bodies; He only cares whether we treat each other as persons.” If we can enhance the life of persons by manipulating the body in some way, this is not just okay, but morally good. Contraception, surrogate motherhood, in vitro fertilization, you name it: all of these things can be understood as a proper use of the body in the service the person.
What was needed to combat all this, KW/JP II judged, is a new way of showing that the body fully participates in the nature and dignity of the person. It is not just a machine or a tool, nor merely a biological organism, but an integral part of the human person, such that one cannot use the body as a mere means, without simultaneously using the person as a mere means. This, then, is why a theology specifically of the body is called for: to deepen and enrich the personalism already accepted by many, by showing how the body fits in.
Here is one instance, from his 6th meditation, in which Descartes explicitly repudiates the dualism so often ascribed to him: “Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were not so, I, who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken. Similarly, when the body needed food or drink, I should have an explicit understanding of the fact, instead of having confused sensations of hunger and thirst. For these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain and so on are nothing but confused modes of thinking which arise from the union and, as it were, intermingling of the mind with the body.”
Nov. 9, 2009, at 11:55am
There are many others, but for me, these convey the spiritual reality most brilliantly and movingly.
Of these, White Nights is the easiest watching, and suitable for family viewing. East/West is devastating. Beautiful and brilliant and devastating. The Lives of Others (which—warning—contains some rather raw sexual images) is the newest, having been released to international acclaim in 2005, I believe.
Nov. 9, 2009, at 11:28am
Today is the 20th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin wall. I remember the day. Jules and I (just married in July) were huddled with other IAP students around the TV in the Studentenheim in Liechtenstein, watching and hardly believing our eyes.
There was a natural outburst of rejoicing throughout Europe — more from ordinary people on both sides of the Iron Curtain than from their cautious governments. In its 70-plus years of power, Soviet communism had murdered tens of millions of people; penned millions more in slave camps; corrupted those beyond its raw power; ruled through terror, censorship and lies; launched World War II jointly with the Nazis, and concealed its criminal rule behind a Potemkin façade of social idealism and scientific advance.
Oct. 27, 2009, at 12:14pmThe 2nd part of the comment thread of the previous post can be found in the comment section below.
Oct. 27, 2009, at 11:14am
There will be more to say about this response to his critics, but for now let me only highlight some of it and urge everyone to read it in full.
The pivotal question as I see it is this: What does the grace of redemption offer us in this life with regard to our disordered sexual tendencies? From there, the questions multiply: Is it possible to overcome the pull of lust within us? If not, what are we to do with our disordered desires? If so, to what degree can we be liberated from lust and how can we enter into this grace? Furthermore, what does it actually look like to live a life of ever deepening sexual redemption?
It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence - that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426). In some of my earliest lectures and tapes, I confess that I did not emphasize this important point clearly enough. The battle with concupiscence is fierce. Even the holiest saints can still recognize the pull of concupiscence within them. Yet, as John Paul II insisted, we “cannot stop at casting the ‘heart’ into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh… Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness’” (TOB 46:4).
Many people seem to doubt this “effectiveness” and thus conclude that the freedom I hold out is beyond the realm of man’s possibilities. From one perspective, these critics are correct. “But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’?” John Paul II asks. “And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ” (Veritatis Splendor 103)? For those dominated by lust, what I hold out is impossible. But those who enter the “effectiveness” of redemption discover “another vision of man’s possibilities” (TOB 46:6).
Oct. 27, 2009, at 11:03am
Interesting new study featured in today’s Wall Street Journal: Missing fathers cause brain and behavior changes in offspring.
German biologist Anna Katharina Braun and others are conducting research on animals that are typically raised by two parents, in the hopes of better understanding the impact on humans of being raised by a single parent. Dr. Braun’s work focuses on degus, small rodents related to guinea pigs and chinchillas, because mother and father degus naturally raise their babies together.
When deprived of their father, the degu pups exhibit both short- and long-term changes in nerve-cell growth in different regions of the brain. Dr. Braun, director of the Institute of Biology at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, and her colleagues are also looking at how these physical changes affect offspring behavior.
Their preliminary analysis indicates that fatherless degu pups exhibit more aggressive and impulsive behavior than pups raised by two parents.
More reason for distressing over the state of our culture. More reason for turning to God, our Father in heaven, for help and solace.