The Personalist Project

In response to my post on soundness in relationships, friend Rebecca wrote a note at once encouraging and challenging, going right to the heart of things.

Katie, thank you so much for posting this. It makes a lot of sense and I think it's a really valuable contribution to a discussion that needs to happen much, much, more frequently. I would really like to see a follow up (post? discussion? conversation?) about the "shaking the dust from your feet part." Clearly, that injunction to the disciples comes when they're in mission territory. And in regular life, how to help people (not to mention ourselves!) who are "unsound" seems often like a primary form of charity....but how to exercise that charity? (I know you acknowledge this, but obviously it's not the main thrust of this piece--I guess I am hoping for a part 2!)

I'm glad she said "post? discussion? conversation?", indicating that she realizes that we are only at the beginning of grasping this huge problem and its implications. Getting it right will be a work of time and collaborative effort, involving, no doubt, some trial and error. 

I've said elsewhere and often that I'm convinced that the mess we're in has everything to do with the loss of natural community in modern life. In pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, pre-technological Christendom, relationships were more or less "given", and they were shaped and goverened by strong custom and tradition. Now, for good or ill (and it's both), we are having to come to terms with a gigantic factor of arbitrariness, or, to put it more positively, choice.

The presence of choice (together with the lack of binding tradition) radically changes the moral calculus in any given situation. If my sickness (of depression, say) is incurable, then what can I do but accept it peacefully? If there are remedies available, though, everything changes, doesn't it? Should I take anti-depressant medicine? Should I undergo therapy? With whom, for how long, and at what cost?

Before effective means of Natural Family Planning emerged, a married couple's options were essentially limited to total abstinence, more children, or grave sin. Now their discernment has to be much more careful, constant and personal.

"Slaves, obey your masters" is one thing if your condition of slavery is a given. But what if you have it in your power not to be a slave?

Formerly, wives were economically and legally dependent on their husbands. Often that basically meant that they had to put up with abuse. Now they don't. They have options. 

The current state of affairs has its good and bad sides. I don't propose to judge between it and the past, because, while that would be an interesting discussion, morally and ethically, the point is mostly moot. For better or for worse, we live in modernity. This is where we have to discern and choose and act. This is where we determine ourselves. and relate ourselves to others.

In other words, it is a matter of plain fact that many of the old things that long served to keep us together—things like geographical promiximity, economic interdependence, and strong tradition—no longer obtain. A large, new and inescapable element of voluntariness has entered human relations. That means (among other things) that unless we have good reasons for staying together, we won't stay together. We will either cut ties deliberately or drift apart inexorably. In truth, we already have moved apart. I don't think I know anyone (at least any morally mature, aware person) who isn't suffering from the pain of broken relationships (broken by distance or injury) and the lack of true community.

That's the state of affairs. So, what do we do about it?

I don't have the answer worked out, but here's what I'm sure isn't it: It isn't a matter of reestablishing the old ways. We can't pretend that the things that used to bind are still binding. That's a recipe for futility and despair. Especially futile is trying to bind others to us by bonds that no longer exist in reality. No one can be guilted into intimacy, and intimacy is what is really wanted.

What we can do is find new ways of relating—better, deeper, truer, and more personal ways of relating.

This is already too long, and I have yet to answer Rebecca's question about how I see this relating to the question of "shaking the dust off your sandals" in relationships. Consider this part 1a. I'll try to get to part 2 in the next few days. 

Comments (1)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Sep 25, 2014 4:03pm

Katie, you remind me of something Jim Fougerousse used to say to us: "Nothing clears the mind like having no options." I think of this for 2 reasons:

  1. Because it seems that we are now in the opposite situation: we have many more options than people used to have, and are therefore much more confused or perplexed about what to choose and how to behave.
  2. Because you bring greater clarity to the issue by eliminating one tempting option, namely to try to restore the old ways.

I don't think I saw the 2nd point clearly before. After all, as C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, sometimes it makes a lot of sense to "turn back the clock". If one is on the wrong road, turning around is usually the most sensible thing to do. Your description of the current state of affairs, however, and the examples you give, show that there is no turning back in this case. Restoring the old ways is neither possible nor desirable. Whatever solutions we come up with, they have to accommodate the new goods and insights that led to the problem.

Looking forward to part 2, and the ongoing discussion.

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