The Personalist Project

Besides the distinction Mircea Eliade makes between the religious and the secular man (see earlier post, Dec. 26), one can further distinguish between the genuinely religious man and the conventionally religious man.  The latter follows religion more out of social habit or expectation rather than authentic faith and devotion. 

            John Henry Cardinal Newman calls this a distinction between vital religion and nominal religion.  Soren Kierkegaard conveys the same idea with his distinction between a Christianity which is socially acceptable compared to Christianity as a “scandal,” as described in the Acts of the Apostles.  We could perhaps capture the difference here in five points.

            First, the genuinely religious man can distinguish between the sacred and the profane, the supernatural and the natural.  Thus he does not confuse the saint with the hero (Achilles), the genius (Einstein), or the wise man (Socrates).  He does not confuse religious obedience to God with obedience to the laws of the state (Hobbes).  Second, the authentically religious man really yearns for God and eternity.  He has an openness to and a desire to be directed by God from the depths of his being. Third, he has an acute awareness of the truth about his metaphysical situation, both as a pilgrim and as a sinner.   He feels the incompleteness of this world and the tragic nature of existence if this world were all that is.  Further, he senses his own need for help, and even for a redeemer, due to his sinfulness.  These words are not just memorized for the catechism, but felt keenly;  thus, he is not “at home” in this world as he finds it.  Fourth, he sees religion not just as one more aspect or compartment of his life next to many others, but as the very center and life-nerve of his existence.  Finally, he sees religion as absolutely essential and indispensible in his life—indeed, in the life of every man.  It is not merely some special gift for a few, nor a particular talent that one could take or leave.  One’s God-relationship is in no sense optional or replaceable by anything else.

            Now if we apply these thoughts to the current religious season, it would mean acknowledging the birth of Christ as the birth of the Incarnate God, not just of a great man, a great prophet, or a great religious leader.  Second, it means yearning to be united to him in a unique and intimate love, not just admiring him from a distance.  And, if I do not feel that love, then I feel that lack of it.  For example, as Cardinal Newman says, “I do not say that I love Him, I cannot even say that I long to love Him; I can only say that I long to long to love Him.” 

            Third, it means realizing that he came to die for me on the cross, to open up to me an eternity of happiness, not just to give me a good example for living my life in time. For example, in the great Italian Christmas hymn, written by St. Alphonse de Liguori, “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle—You Come Down From the Stars” (stanza VI): “You sleep my child, but your heart is never sleeping but is always awake. Ah, my beautiful and pure lamb, what are you thinking of?  Tell me.  Oh, immense love!  ‘I think one day I’ll die for you,’ you reply.”

            Fourth, it means recognizing that my Lover is my Creator and Redeemer (readings for Easter vigil) and that this love must be foundational and formative for all other loves.  Finally, it means acknowledging that the coming of the Redeemer and letting Him into one’s heart is the turning point, the one thing necessary, the indispensible decision that I must make—and reconfirm again and again in my life—and that ultimately each man must make.  So, as C.S. Lewis says in Perelandra:

As there is one Face above all worlds merely to see which is         irrevocable joy, so at the bottom of all worlds that face is waiting whose sight alone is the misery from which none who beholds it can recover. And though there seemed to be, and indeed were, a thousand roads by which a man could walk through the world, there was not a single one which did not lead sooner or later either to the Beatific or the Miserific Vision. 

Comments (1)

Rhett Segall

#1, Dec 31, 2011 12:34pm


“…religion (is seen) not just as one more aspect or compartment of his life next to many others, but as the very center and life-nerve of his existence.”-


This insight of Michael’s is, I believe, at the heart of what constitutes a religious person. He is one who can integrate or bind together the various polarities of his life (religion is etymologically connected with “binding together” as the ligaments bind together the muscles of the body) through faith and commitment to the Supreme Value which contains all values. Too often people think a finite value, such as work or family, can be their integrating value.  But such finite values cannot do full justice to the yearning for integration which humans want.


Religion as the integrating principle of life is very much connected with what Von Hildebrand refers to as “habitare secum”, the dwelling with one’s self, which is the hallmark of the recollected person.

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