The Personalist Project

Last week, I bit off more than I could chew.  It was like going to the All You Can Eat Chinese buffet

and then thinking you might still have some room for a Coney Island country omelette with saussage gravy.  (The buffet is what I promised my kids if they’d let me translate Amor y Autoestima; the omelette is so dense that it has never been consumed in one sitting by anyone but my teenage son).

My subject: forming an accurate picture of the one true God, unclouded by human limitations.  In a thousand words or less.

That was silly.

Rather than try to tie up every loose end, I’d like to address one in particular: the part where I said

You can only give what you possess—and we don’t possess ourselves, not fully.  We can give time, gifts, affection—but our self isn’t fully ours to give. 

But God’s is.  He gives of Himself without stint, without reservation.  To the extent we can receive Him, we’re united with Him—not just “in a relationship” with Him, but one with Him.   He doesn’t have parts; therefore, He doesn’t give Himself partially.  

To which Katie replied:

Didn't we learn in grad school that "self-possession" is almost the definition of personhood? Of course we don't possess ourselves absolutely, and a given individual can have weak or strong "self-possession", but it seems to me that when even mere mortal love truly, we're not just giving "stuff" (like time) or parts of ourselves, we're giving ourselves, really and truly.  Aren't we?

This is especially true in marriage.  I give myself; I receive him.

Well, as Rocco Buttiglione was once heard to say in epistemology class,

You are right, but I disagree.

That is, I don’t even really disagree, but I need to clarify. 

We do truly possess ourselves, and thus are capable of giving ourselves—but with limitations such as:

  • Temporality: Not only can a given individual have strong or weak self-possession but the same individual can have ups and downs.  We are free by nature but need to keep on actualizing that freedom with repeated acts of decision that strengthen or weaken it.  It’s real freedom, real self-possession—but it’s not always realized.  We’re vulnerable to losing it right up to the moment of death.
  • Original Sin: We’re subject to concupiscence, peer pressure, the seven deadly sins.  We can transcend these pressures and temptations—self-possession and freedom are something more than our current psychological state—but we can also give in.
  • Embodiedness: I hope that doesn’t sound too gnostic, but our self-possession can wax or wane according to changing physiological states: energy levels, hormone levels, fatigue.  This doesn’t mean it’s determined by, or reducible to, those bodily states—but it is susceptible to their influence. 

God, on the other hand, possesses Himself, disposes of Himself, absolutely and definitively, in such a way that there is no room for anyone or anything to have dominion over Him.  He doesn’t possess Himself just at this moment, or just when He’s free from external pressures, or just when He’s succeeding at resisting temptation.  We human persons belong to ourselves in a way that distinguishes us from animals, but we also belong to Him.  He simply belongs to Himself.

So yes: self-possession is central to our identity as persons.  Life on earth is a battle precisely because we have to keep a grip on our personhood, our freedom, our self-possession, so as to be able to give ourselves in love to other persons and ultimately to God.

I think the reason marriage is so consistently used as an image and seen as a foretaste of union with God is that it doesn’t just bring about a “relationship”: it unites.  The distinction is expressed memorably by Fr. Vincent Miceli in his booklet “Union with God: Living the Christ Life.”

“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

This question, posed to me while out on a walk...became a true moment of grace.  My reply to this friendly evangelist was that in fact I did have a relationship but, adding remorsefully, “It is not a relationship with Jesus I want.”  To her ever-growing alarm, I went on to tell her…“With Mother Mary and with you and with all the saints I want a relationship but with Jesus I want union.  I desire something even more intimate than relationship.  I do not want to be simply face to face with Jesus, or even side to side.  I want his face to become my face, his heart to beat in perfect harmony with mine.  With St. Paul, I want to be able to say that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (cf. Gal. 2:20).  I want divine union.”  She abruptly thanked me for our conversation and, obviously still a bit flummoxed, proceeded to hand me some tracts regarding providence and God’s plan for my life. 

Well, there you go: one loose end addressed, ten new ones left hanging.  

But then, that’s what comment boxes are for.

Comments (5)

Max Torres

#1, Oct 9, 2012 3:48pm

We give what we've got.  God wants 100% of each one of us; that's 100% of 100& of me, you and everyone.  But, He takes what we have to give Him at the moment.  He knows our hearts and thus the amount we want to give him.  When we want to give Him our entire selves, He takes what we have to give in a down payment and accepts the rest as if in a promissory note. Then, He helps us gain more of ourselves in order to give Him what we promised.

Anyways, I think I agree with Katie.


#2, Oct 9, 2012 4:17pm

Well put, especially that last line.  Our self-possession is limited, but it can keep getting stronger.

What I was trying to express was the idea that we want to make sure not to diminish our idea of what God wants to give us by squashing it into the confines of what we can imagine.  Maybe it's just because I'm a convert from Protestantism, but I have to keep reminding myself that He wants to do more for us than be willing to look away from our failures--that we are destined for union, and not just reconciliation with no hard feelings.  

Devra Torres

#3, Oct 9, 2012 4:23pm

Sorry, that last comment was by me, not by hungondarcy!

Max Torres

#4, Oct 19, 2012 6:14pm

Frank Sheed makes a nice distinction in "Theology and Sanity" between concepts and images, what we can conceive of v. what we can imagine.  Perhaps you might find something useful in there as you further develop your ideas on this topic.

Devra Torres

#5, Oct 19, 2012 10:24pm

Yes, and with God, there are three levels: what we can imagine, what we can only conceive of, and what we can't imagine OR conceive of.  Theology and Sanity was one of the books that brought my mother into the Church.  Sheed is so beautifully clear.

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