The Personalist Project

Something from last Sunday's gospel struck me in a new way this time around.

The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the story of three servants who are each trusted with a different amount of gold during their master's absence, "each according to his ability." The two entrusted with the greater amounts go and invest the money and are able to offer their master a double amount when he returns.

The third servant, however, tells his master, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours." His master, outraged at his laziness and temerity, gives the single talent over to the most successful servant and casts the third servant out, "For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." 

This parable and the standard interpretation of it is so well known that we have incorporated it into our very language. Talent, once a unit of measurement, has been used to refer to natural aptitudes, abilities, and inborn potential since the 15th century. It is easy enough to recognise in the parable the truism that we waste our inborn gifts when we fail to develop them to their full potential. We can even talk about a responsibility to use our talents--the idea that God has given each of us the abilities and aptitudes we have for a purpose, and that in failing to use them we reject God's plan for us. 

The parable struck me within a slightly different context this week. A convert friend confessed that she sometimes worries that she is too attached to her pre-conversion ideas about freedom when she hears online Catholics talk about "radically slaughtering their autonomy." I felt slammed back in my seat reading that. Who is telling my friend she needs to "slaughter her autonomy"? What does that even MEAN? 

There are, of course, unhealthy ideals of autonomy--I have an entire rant about the problems with Emerson's "Self-Reliant Man"--in an absolute sense, no-one is entirely autonomous. We do not govern ourselves in many respects; we are subject to illness, the consequences of other's decisions; we are dependent on community, family, and ultimately, on God. Even then, there are many ways in which we benefit from embracing our limited autonomy within these restrictions and respecting the autonomy of others

But there is a very important respect in which we must strive for the autonomy of self-possession, and I fear this is precisely the sense in which my friend has heard autonomy spoken of as a spiritual danger--the sense in which we govern ourselves as moral creatures, making our own decisions and desiring good for ourselves.

To those who place individual autonomy in opposition to self-giving love, Katie van Shaijik replies, 

In the personalist understanding, individual autonomy has nothing to do with selfishness. On the contrary, far from being inimical to love, it is the indispensable ground of love. One cannot give what one does not have. I cannot give myself properly in love unless I realize fully my own autonomy. Without it, my self-giving is all too likely to be a dysfunctional, co-dependent self-squandering, viz. a counterfeit of love.

On this point, let me draw attention to a section of our Personalist manifesto:

"[Our concept of Personalism] rejects the ethical altruism which asserts the claims of others so forcefully that any interest in our own happiness is made to appear as selfish; against this it affirms that the moral subject is also a person and thus also one who may not simply be used, or let himself be used, for the good of others."

We are self-contained, insofar as we are selves. We are selves who are made for communion, who can never be absolutely independent or self-sustaining, but regardless of our interdependence, we retain the responsibility and inevitability of choosing for our selves.

There are Christians who think we ought not make any of our own choices. We should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit at every turn--literally, in the case of one gentleman I met who was in the habit of consulting the Holy Spirit about which direction to go at stoplights. Or they think we should submit ourselves to authority; not only the teaching authority of the Church, but self-appointed authorities of every kind. This push to abdication of self-responsibility often carries with it the whiff of spiritual abuse.

It occurred to me, discussing this with my friend, that this fear of moral autonomy is very like the fear felt by the servant with his single talent. I'm sure that servant wished many times that his master had left him instructions of what to do with his money. Left to his own devices, knowing his master to be attached to his wealth and fearing losing the treasure entrusted to him, the scared servant went and buried his talent rather than take the responsibility of investing it. He was so afraid of choosing wrongly that he tried to avoid choosing at all. 

But of course, the choice not to choose is itself a choice, and his master recognizes the cowardice in the servant's fear of acting autonomously. 

We talk about dying to self, but this is not the same as "slaughtering our autonomy." The more we act out of the core of the God-given self, the more we are free to act generously and focus our attention outwardly. When we possess ourselves, we are better able to give of ourselves. 

If we are to respond to the call to "put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness," we must reject the passivity of the cowardly servant. [Eph. 4: 20-24]

The servant's master loved wealth, and desired to see it well-invested and multiplied. God asks us for something far greater than wealth; he asks us for our love, and love can exist only in the absence of compulsion.

Have you buried your heart in the ground for fear of choosing badly and losing God's love? There's still time. Go, dig it up, dust it off, and invest it in love--for God, for your neighbour, for your self. Invest wisely so that your love is multiplied rather than diminished. Do this, and when you are face to face with the One who entrusted to you your very self, He may look at the love you bring with you and say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and enter into my joy."    

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