The Personalist Project

Last weekend's conversation clarified something about the unique position of Christianity with regard to Personalism.

Central to Buddhism is the goal of overcoming suffering by overcoming the self. The ultimate goal is not self-realization, but self-extinction. The freedom promised by Zen Buddhist practice sublimation of the self in union with all that is. 

There is a lot that is attractive about this, and there are Christian forms of meditation that resemble the simple awareness and stillness of zazen. There is a long tradition of Christian mysticism that uses similar language, seeking as its goal the "death of self" through union and complete identification with Christ.

But the difference is this:

Ephesians 4:22-24: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." 

This “putting on the new self” is not something that can be accomplished passively. It requires that we reach outwards to God, who has created us as distinct from himself so that we can be united to Him in a freely chosen and active relationship. Each person has a unique relationship with Christ; each person’s expression of that relationship will differ.

Each person is destined to enjoy the fullness of the self in communion with God in eternity, and it is this eternal end of each unrepeatable person that stands as the foundation of Personalism. Personalism rests on the conviction that each individual person is of incomparable worth and importance. The personalistic understanding of the subjectivity of the person and the importance of self-determination echoes the Christian affirmation that our individual moral choices have eternal ramifications.

Personalistic ethics rest on the conviction that the person must always be treated as a subject, not an object. The person across from you contains a world of subjectivity that is incommunicable. I am required to treat you ethically, not out of a conviction that the distinction between you and I is a meaningless mental projection covering the reality of the unity of all things, but precisely because there is a distinction between you and I. Personalistic ethics are rooted in the observation that I end where you begin, and that your subjectivity is entirely unique and unrepeatable and distinct from my own. 

In the interview-based book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II explains the conflict between Buddhism and Christianity with his characteristically positive focus on the good of Creation and the centrality of the person:

Therefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference. Christian mysticism from every period - beginning with the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church, to the great theologians of scholasticism (such as Saint Thomas Aquinas), to the northern European mystics, to the Carmelite mystics - is not born of a purely negative "enlightenment". It is not born of an awareness of the evil which exists in man's attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect and the spirit. Instead, Christian mysticism is born of the the Revelation of the living God. This God opens himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues - faith, hope and, above all, love.

God is Love. Where there is love, there is a Lover and a Beloved.

A man and a woman can only be united in marriage because they are each not the other; his "I" is not her "I," although their union depends upon knowing the other as an "I" like oneself.  

There is mystery here, and there is joy in the mystery: we must possess our selves in order to give our selves, and yet it is in giving that we find our selves. 

Image via Max Pixel

Comments (2)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jul 30, 2017 1:04pm

This and your preceding essay Kate are an excellent presentation of the difference between Buddhism and Christianity.  I think this was the thrust of Dominus Jesu which was seen as so negative from many Christian denominations. I don't think that  Jesu belittles non Christian religions, or Catholic religion, but in truth underscores what Jesus said:: If thou new the gift of God thou wouldst have asked Him and he would have given you living water." cf. John 4:10

Well done!

Gary Gibson

#2, Jul 31, 2017 4:34pm

Very thought provoking and well written - I always enjoy your posts, Kate.

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