The Personalist Project

The indefatigable Bill Drennen has thoughtfully challenged  a point I made earlier regarding Christopher West’s Hefner/JPII comparison and Chesterton’s famous assertion that a man who is knocking on the door of a brothel is really looking for God.  My point was that, while I understand West’s and Chesterton’s meaning, their way of expressing it is problematic for this reason: it obscures the dramatic difference between moral goodness and badness.

It is true, as Bill points out, that all men experience a certain restlessness and incompleteness in their hearts for which they try to find a remedy.  Objectively and ultimately speaking that remedy is God and God alone.  In this sense all are indeed “looking for God”: John Paul II, Hugh Hefner, the prostitute and her client, you and me.

What I want to stress, however, is that from the moral point of view—from the point of view of our character and well-being as persons—it makes all the difference in the world how each of us chooses to deal with this restlessness.  There are two radically different possibilities—in our lives as a whole and in each of our acts.  (This, BTW, is the kernel of truth in the “fundamental option” moral theory.  It’s also what “conversion” is all about.)  There is what John Paul II has called the “utilitarian” approach, which scans the world for anything that can satisfy our desires and cravings, or there is the “value-responding” approach (von Hildebrand’s term) which looks expectantly out into the world for things that are truly good and beautiful, and tries to live in accord with them.  A person with this attitude does not simply use (and then discard) people and things, but respects and appreciates them for what they are.  He finds happiness in so doing.  His happiness and peace are not so much the direct aim of his moral acting, but a gift and a fruit of living in harmony with the world of values.

An unqualified “all are looking for God” idea, on the other hand, can leave the impression that saints and scoundrels are not so different from each other, morally speaking.  We’re all looking for the same thing, all doing our best.  Sin is nothing more and nothing other than ignorance—a problem of not understanding where to find the good we all seek. The truth is much more serious and much uglier than that.

Much more needs to said, and what I have said could be further clarified and expanded upon.  But I’ll leave that for later (if anyone cares to take it up with me), and turn now to some of Bill’s specific objections:

1) First, Bill proposes: Even though God is not exactly WHAT the sinner seeks, he is the reason for (i.e. the WHY of) the seeking.

I answer: I understand and agree with what you’re getting at, but I don’t like the formulation, for two reasons.  First, in the sense explained above (2nd paragraph) God is, ultimately, BOTH the what AND the why of our seeking.  And second, usually it is precisely the answer to the question “why?” that makes the moral difference between men clear.  Why is he going to visit that woman?  Because he loves her and wants to propose marriage? or to find a cheap and convenient release for his sexual urges?  (This is what St. Anselm refers to when he writes that every act has not only a “what” but also a “why”.)

The difference you are getting at (I think) is more like the difference between a blind urge, which impels, spurs, or prods a person to do something (e.g. the feeling of being hungry), and a genuine motive, which is an objective reason for acting in a certain way (e.g. a perfectly cooked steak).  What do you think?

2) Bill says: Not every bad choice is a conscious and explicit choice of self over God.

I answer: True.  When we gossip, tell a small lie, fail to speak up when we know we should, and so on, we are commonly not thinking about God.  (If we were, we probably wouldn’t do it.)  But our stance toward Him, is nevertheless involved in each case.  That’s why, if we’re serious about holiness, we confess it as a sin and ask for forgiveness.  Even in the case of grave sins, such as adultery, we may not be thinking about God or fully realize the effects they have on our communion with Him.  But regardless, a rejection of God is implied and accomplished.

3) Bill says: The “love of self to the contempt of God” is very rare and a sure sign of an advanced stage of corruption.

I answer (along similar lines): It is true that we rarely find this attitude in a fully conscious, explicit and deliberate form.  It requires sincere and deep reflection on our own behavior to recognize it (such as Augustine’s famous reflections on stealing a pear from a neighbor’s orchard).  There is also the important difference between one bad act, and a vice.  In the latter case, it is not just one act but our moral character that is (mal)formed.

Comments (3)

Bill Drennen

#1, Jul 8, 2009 1:52pm

Thanks Jules,

I think I mostly understand and agree. I do think we all have a blind God hunger that underlies much of our motivations. I also agree we can choose to fill that hunger in selfish ways which of course will never satisfy, or by transcending and finding both God and ourselves.

A couple of points.

First, how do we transcend?

Although I agree sin is not only due to a lack of information or knowledge, it is also true that transcending by a value response first requires the stimulus before a response is possible. We must experience the value, must experience God in some form. No one has the power to transcend without first experiencing the redeeming love of God in some form, however small it may be. Left by ourselves we are very much like that baby who will only try his thumb and will eventually indeed die without his mother. The more the baby experiences his mother the more it thrives and grows.

Other point is that the model of all human acts being one of the two extremes, is still I believe way too reductionalist. We would all easily agree that there are not any people holly enough to only be operating in the complete love of God to contempt of self and equally few people at the other extreme. I think it is also true there are fewer human actions purely motivated by one or the other as well but rather most actions are a mixture of motives.

Lastly, how does this model account for redemption whereby sin becomes an opportunity for grace?

In truth, the way God deals with us is often like the way a doctor will deal with a wound that needs to be allowed to bleed before it can properly heal. Our most visible sin is often only the surface effects and the real healing happens on a deeper level. This is true weather we are talking about a child acting out in school or a hardened criminal enslaved in sin the roots of which may be a deep wound from his childhood.

So then, while I agree in general that all moral acts can roughly fit into one of the 2 categories based on a judgment of the prime motivation involved, it is equally true that the entanglements of our sinful condition as well as the long process necessary for full redemption both highlight the continuum that exists between the 2 poles, at least in terms of the perspective of our position. It is not so easy to separate the good from the bad. We must as our lord says, allow the weeds to grow together with the grain and wait until harvest to separate them.

If the 2 loves model explains the basic options of human responses then an other model is needed to better explain the transformation of our will from one pole to the next.

Indeed Paul’s model explains that we have both these natures at war within us. Any veteran knows full well that the battle field is not simply all one side or the other but rather quite a catastrophic entanglement of one with the other each side contending as the battle rages and at times with no clear winning side.

Or I have an other model from magnetism. We were each made to be pure crystals without any magnetic charge but because of sin we are born with a magnetic polarization such that we are naturally attracted to the negative pole. When we experience the transforming value of Gods love, we slowly learn the exact way to align ourselves to avoid the pull of the negative pole. By surrendering to Gods will we are in a position where we can be pulled closer without being repelled. In the end we completely flip our position such that we not only gain back our neutrality but become attracted to the positive pole even stronger than originally possible.

There may be 2 prime love motivations but many sub catagories of the 2 and many more impure motives in the battlefield of our souls that are caught in the middle.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Jul 10, 2009 3:02am

Bill, you remind me of Steve Jobs who is famous for introducing his biggest announcements (like the iPod) at the end of his speeches with the line “One more thing ...”  Likewise, you introduce your biggest questions after first expressing agreement with the line “A couple of points.”

Luckily, you’ve also provided the answers to them, with which I basically agree.  1) Perception of a value is necessary before we can respond to it.  Hence knowledge is required for virtue.  2) Human acts and their motives are way too complicated to fit neatly into one of two categories: utilitarian or loving.  It is a matter of clearly analyzing and distinguising two categories of motivation that in the concrete are usually mixed together.  If applied properly, however, and not in a simplistic, cookie cutter sort of way, the distinction sheds a lot of light on our moral experience and behavior.  3) In what I wrote I did not mean to touch on the question of redemption and grace, and the way in which God can bring good out of evil.  What you say makes a lot of sense.  (The magnetism model, I admit, is above my head.)  In the final analysis, however, it seems that there is no (and cannot be) an explanation for the transformation of our will.  The answers are hidden in the inscrutible mystery of our freedom.

Rhett Segall

#3, Jul 10, 2009 4:41am

I agree with Jules that the formulation “Even though God is not exactly WHAT the sinner seeks, he is the reason for (i.e. the WHY of) the seeking” is unfortunate. It is also wrong. The sinner as sinner is not seeking God but is seeking self.

E.g., if a person lies in order to protect his ego, he turns away not only from a particular truth-that which might cause his embarrassment-but also from Truth itself. This can only be grasped by intuition.

In a similar manner, if a person says something mean to someone, he not only offends against the victim’s dignity but also the source of that dignity, God. Again, this is not something that can be proven empirically but must be grasped by insight.

Parenthetically, the difference between thinking that one has simply done something wrong on the one hand and that one has committed a sin on the other, is this deeper awareness that in doing wrong I offend not only a particular value, e.g. truth, but the source of all values, God, and that I have feely decided to choose self over God.

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