The Personalist Project

My last post, "The Limits of 'Identifying As,'" left me with a nagging feeling of loose ends unaddressed.

(Here's a link to the video that inspired it, in which a series of mild-mannered college students are asked whether a shortish Caucasian man who "identifies as" a tall Chinese woman is "wrong." None of them can bring themselves to say he is.)

I set out to locate the grain of truth in treating "I identify as" like a magical veto power over objective reality. I recalled how Pope St. John Paul II used to invite us to embark on the adventure of "becoming who you are"--of employing the gift of freedom to become the person you are meant to be, not some lesser version thereof. I said:

We possess the gift of freedom and the capacity for initiating actions that are truly our own: not just performed by instinct or blind habit, nor in the teeth of pressure or manipulation, but really ours. By such an exercise of freedom, we can be transformed--not just modified, or adjusted, but transformed. We can "become who we are"--or fail to. We're not altogether at the mercy of instinct, upbringing, culture, moods, wiring.

Because if we really grasped the grandeur of that, we wouldn't keep hankering after "becoming who we aren't." We would be more content with developing our free personhood within given realities like "male" and "shortish" and "Caucasian." Jules objected:  

I think it is not enough in this context to say that we are free to "become who we are" or not. That sounds as if our freedom is limited to just two choices: accept God's ready-made plan for us or reject it. In reality our freedom is much more creative than that. It's not just a matter of accepting God's choice for us, but also of making our own choices.

He referred me to an earlier post of his, worth reading in full, with insights from John Crosby, John Courtney Murray, Romano Guardini, and Nicolai Berdyaev. Freedom is not a matter of locating the correct path and mechanically following it, or the correct kind of behavior, and passively adopting it. That leaves no room for creativity.

Or, as C.S. Lewis' puts it in Mere Christianity: "We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort." The focus is on interior reality, not external option-selecting.

We've addressed the way this plays out in the context of discerning a vocation or other large life decision ("God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life, But What If He Won't Tell You What It Is?") Providence is something bigger than some exceedingly particular path you ought to take. Swerving to the right or to the left doesn't cancel out your ability to live the life you were supposed to live. It doesn't render Him helpless to do anything about it. 

For example: say you were "supposed to" attend College X, settle in City Y, and practice Profession Z. But the Tigers won the World Series your senior year of high school and distracted you from your test prep. You bombed your SAT and never got admitted to College X. Therefore, God's plan for you was foiled and you could never "become who you are."

Is that the way it works?

I used to think so.

Certainly God has a plan, and our choices have genuine consequences. They open up and cut off real possibilities. And of course we're commanded to do good and avoid evil. We are to "stay on the path" in that sense--though even there, if Providence wasn't foiled by Adam's "happy fault," neither is God powerless in the face of our lesser infractions.

Our external actions are part of the picture; they're certainly not irrelevant. But external actions aren't at the heart of anybody's life-project.

Here's what opened my eyes: 

A few years ago, I was agonizing over whether we were "meant to" move to a place I really didn't want to move to. We were in church, and, unfortunately (I thought) we'd just opened our hymnals to a song with the refrain "Lord, we will go / Wherever you send us." I waned to be detached enough from my own preferences to sing that line honestly, but I wasn't so sure I could.

And then it occurred to me that God probably didn't care half so much about where I moved as what kind of a person I would be--what kind of life I lived--when we got there. Something in my mindset shifted, and suddenly I couldn't worry so much about whether we ended up in this city or that. I didn't have to live in fear of being called to go places I didn't prefer to go or live under circumstances I didn't prefer to navigate. That wasn't really the point at all. I saw that Providence was quite capable of working with my freedom, and I found I was a lot more willing to work with Providence. 

Maybe the students in the video are groping for that kind of freedom. They want to be creative, not constrained by facts they never chose in the first place. Maybe they sense that there's something deeper than those facts, and they think they can "identify" their way out of their predicament.

Or maybe they're just crazy.

What do you think?

Comments (2)

Rhett Segall

#1, Apr 29, 2016 10:15am

When I recently gave blood the nurse asked me somewhat sheepishly

“What gender are you?”.

The relevance this has to the present discussion is clear. The obligatory question manifests Society’s denial of the obvious (cf. Galatians 5: 19-21). I think the Declaration of Independence is most salient here: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”  Hold certainly in our hearts but also hold a determination to make secure, not let slip away, fundamental truths to the realms of skepticism and relativism.

So far as justifying “transgendering”, I would say it’s rooted in defining freedom as the right to do whatever I want so long as I don’t hurt someone else. There’s the rub. Those who hold  this principle would judge they have no obligation to God or others or perhaps that their obligation to themselves trumps the other obligations.

What’s to be done about it? St. Peter has the approach: “Always be ready to give an explanation…but do it with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Peter 3: 15)

Jules van Schaijik

#2, May 1, 2016 12:26pm

When I recently gave blood the nurse asked me somewhat sheepishly

“What gender are you?”.

That's pretty amazing. To be expected, I suppose, but still. Not long ago that question could only have been an insult.

Apart from defining freedom as "the right to do whatever I want" I think it also has to do with the modern experience of "the given" as "the imposed". There is nothing undignified, nothing unfree, about receiving a gift. But there is something wrong with being imposed upon.

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