The Personalist Project

I have been following the discussion (on this site) about Christopher West and his presentation of the Theology of the Body and find it all very helpful. Lots of good points made on both sides.  But what is helpful to me and many others on the sidelines, may well be detrimental to West and the beautiful message he is trying to spread.

There is a definite danger (to use Healy’s words) of “nitpicking Chris to death on his presentation.”  He has a message to deliver: too much second guessing would keep him from doing it.  Attempting to anticipate all objections or prevent all possible misunderstandings, would take the life and sparkle out of his talks.  What he might gain in precision and clarity, would, I suspect, be outweighed by what he would lose in effectiveness.

I am reminded of Newman’s response to the suggestion that the “Tracts for the Times” should go through a committee before being published: 

If you correct them…according to the wishes of a board, you will have nothing but tame, dull compositions, which will take no one.
Individuals who are seen and heard, who act and suffer, are the instruments of Providence in all great successes… [If every tract must be] weighed and carefully corrected… they [will] become cold and formal, and (so to say) impersonal. An address with much in it which others question, yet coming from an individual mind, has a life about it which is sure to make an impression.

No one could accuse Newman of having a cavalier attitude towards truth.  It is precisely for the sake of advancing the truth that Newman prefers the uncorrected Tracts coming from an individual mind to the more precise and unobjectionable tracts coming from a committee.

There is a further point here that is worth dwelling on: Newman knows that truth advances at the cost of personal sacrifice.  The individual gets criticized for the incidental mistakes he makes, while the truth he presents goes on and has an impact.  (There is something deeply fitting and appropriate in this.)

To conclude, I realize that the title of this post is too sweeping.  To simply ignore all criticism is a fault.  But West has a proven record of being open to correction and changing when necessary.  I just hope that he won’t allow himself to get bogged down or discouraged by all the criticism.  That would be a major loss for us all.

Comments (10)

Scott Johnston

#1, Jun 7, 2009 10:06am

Thank you Jules, very good point! Indeed, no one should approach West’s work as though he were intending to construct a precise, word-for-word creed on TOB with every utterance. At times I am probably guilty of this.

Perhaps we should assume that the total effect of CW’s teaching will over time be received and integrated into a well-meaning Catholic soul within the larger context of the sound catechesis of the Church (eg., as in the Catechism). The hope would be that CW’s audiences eventually become interested as well in a broader scope of the faith than the excitement sparked by West’s presentation of TOB initially engenders. In this way, any shortcomings or loose ends can be corrected and filled-in over time. (On second thought, can we assume this? See no. 2 below.)

I do think that sincere, charitable criticism is beneficial (if it is not excessively nitpicky) for at least two reasons:

1. Christopher West is an extremely effective and gifted public speaker. This means that his talks have a lot of impact upon a lot of people. This is good! But it also means that if there are truly legitimate problems, it is all the more pressing to address them charitably.

2. And this I think is especially relevant. . . For well-informed Catholics who are passionate about their faith (such as CW’s critics), there is concern about the basic quality and content of the faith formation that still attains in many parishes today. Yes, things are slowly improving (and some dioceses are better than others in this). Still, I think it is fair to say that in many parishes a broader context of adult faith formation in the teaching of the Church is not being offered—either at all, or not very effectively. This, I think, may give some critics a heightened sense of urgency, perhaps aware in the back of their minds that for many Catholics who hear CW, his teaching will indeed be their one and only source of catechesis, not only on sexuality, but on many significant doctrinal issues as well (e.g. concupiscence and its effects). If the general state of adult Catholic catechesis in America were better, then perhaps some of the critics would be a little less sharp. (Even so, there is never an excuse for uncharitable critiques or for assuming the worst with no serious reasons for doing so)


#2, Jun 7, 2009 8:18pm

It is precisely because CW’s audience has become interested in a broader scope of the faith that we’re having this discussion.  He has sparked an interest in Catholicism unlike any other that I have read about in history.  His audience is key—where do they go and what do they do when they leave his talks?  The answers are as varied as the number of people who listen to his interpretations, but for myself—just speaking as one Catholic—CW has renewed my interest in all the key components of our faith: confession, daily mass, adoration as well as concentrated study on love, not only the ability to forgive but the ability to give, as well as virtue and purity.  By calling me home to Catholicism, CW has changed my life.  CW always encourages me to look deeper.  “Pray,” he’ll say, “Pray!  Do you go to confession?  Do you understand the sacraments?  Are you living our faith? Do you have a spiritual director? Are you learning about our faith?”  Oh, yes—CW has given me quite a bit of homework to do.  But I do it willingly because he has shared our Catholic faith with us so beautifully.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 7, 2009 10:25pm

Thank you for this, Mark.
I know Jules will want to add more to this point of his, and answer Josef Seifert’s criticism below.  But presently he is connectionless in New Hampshire.  He’s been told the modem could be fixed in a few days. (!!) Stay tuned.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Jun 9, 2009 6:33am

Thanks for your comment Mark. That’s exactly my impression, i.e. that CW is drawing many many people, not just to his talks or to his own “take” on the Theology of the Body, but to the Catholic faith as a whole. Even the fact, as you point out, that this discussion is taking place—a discussion that is likely to lead to a wider reception and deeper appreciation of John Paul II’s teachings, is in large measure due to his efforts.

Your point reminds me of what happened with the Charismatic renewal (which I experienced at Franciscan University in the eighties). It too was criticized by many, and often for good reasons. But in spite of its flaws (weak theology, emotionalism, fundamentalist tendencies, etc.) it bore tremendous fruit for the Church. People who were touched by it were (not always, of course, but very frequently) led deeper into the heart of the Church. By and by, through prayer and the sacraments, they came to appreciate and understand more fully the rich traditions of the Church, and, as a result, outgrew many of the limitations of the renewal itself.  That, at least, was my experience.  And I have no doubt but that the vast majority of CW’s audience will fare likewise.

Michael Healy

#5, Jun 9, 2009 5:05pm

Great points, Jules, and wonderful quote from Newman!

Josef Seifert

#6, Jun 9, 2009 10:25pm

While I agree that a nitpicking and uncharitable or narrow-minded critique can be bad and risk the mission of West, I do not agree in the least with you that ANY true criticism can destroy or endanger West’s mission. On the contrary, he will carry it out better if he pays attention to every, even the smallest truth that is contrary to what he says or to how he says it. I would find it lamentable if you believed, which I hope and trust you don’t, that truth can harm a speaker’s or any person’s mission, which is certainly not Newman’s opinion. On the contrary, when understood, it can only improve the value of a superb speakers mission, and when it is ignored, it can harm up to destroying it, as Plato puts it so wonderfully in the words from the sixth book of the Republic about the philosophers, which are behind our motto of the International Academy of Philosophy (diligere veritatem omnem et in omnibus/ to love all truth and to love it in everything):

“And further, I said, let us agree that they are lovers of all true being; there is no part whether greater or less, or more or less honourable, which they are willing to renounce; as we said before of the lover and the man of ambition.
And if they are to be what we were describing, is there not another quality which they should also possess?
What quality?
Truthfulness: they will never intentionally receive into their mind falsehood, which is their detestation, and they will love the truth.
Yes, that may be safely affirmed of them.
‘May be,‚" my friend, I replied, is not the word; say rather ‚"must be affirmed:‚" for he whose nature is amorous of anything can not help loving all that belongs or is akin to the object of his affections.
Right, he said.
And is there anything more akin to wisdom than truth?
How can there be?
Can the same nature be a lover of wisdom and a lover of falsehood?
The true lover of learning then must from his earliest youth, as far as in him lies, desire all truth?

Jules van Schaijik

#7, Jun 11, 2009 6:53am

I certainly do not think (rest assured) that truth, as such, can endanger West’s or anyone else’s mission (assuming that the mission is honorable). Practically speaking, however, there is only so much a person can do or pay attention to. It is up to each individual to decide, or, rather, to find out, how best to use his time and talents. Anyone who has ever written a paper (or a post for the Linde for that matter) knows that there comes a time where one has to say “Well, it’s far from perfect, but it is good enough, and, in any case, the best I can do for now.” There is real wisdom in the saying that “the perfect can become the enemy of the good.”

In light of that, I do not see anything wrong in someone like CW thinking to himself: “I am convinced that, on the whole, my message is true and of benefit to thousands of people. I have done the best I can with it. Let the theologians and philosophers argue about the details. Some day I will surely benefit from their efforts. In the meantime, I will share this “good news” with as many as will listen.”

There is much more to be said, especially about the deep personalist significance contained in Newman’s quote.  But I have to go mow the lawn.

Bill Drennen

#8, Jun 11, 2009 6:54am

Thank you Josef, Plato and Jules…not necessarily in that order!


#9, Jun 16, 2009 1:50pm

Everyone, I am edified by how this discussion, and others on this site, have been conducted. What a breath of fresh air it is…to see substanative discussion with very little (or no) tinge of harshness or underlying agendas. I tip my hat to Jules and Katie…and all involved with The Personalists Project…for the tone you have fostered.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Jun 16, 2009 2:31pm

Thanks, Matt!  I hope you’ll drop in and join the conversations whenever you get a chance.

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