The Personalist Project

Last week, we took a look at the modesty wars. We identified a false alternative: either you fall into indifferentism on the subject or you’re obliged to go around trying (vainly and illicitly) to probe the intentions of other people’s hearts. There's got to be a better way.

And there is. Katie and others have been urging that we take seriously the harm done by a fixation on externals, a tendency to see a woman as less a person than an occasion of sin. To rebel against this isn’t a flight into over-abstraction.  Nor is it tantamount to “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  How to strike the right balance in everyday decisions is still under discussion, especially among those of us raising sons and daughters, but the damage of the master-slave dynamic is real.

On this and many other subjects, we seem to have entered a new phase in the culture wars.  No longer are the lines of battle so clear-cut:


pro-contraception or anti-pregnancy spacing, pro-heartless careerist or pro-fulltime housewife, pro-bikini or pro-denim jumper. We “traditional" types at least, are reassessing, sorting things out, sharpening our arguments, distinguishing between gold and dross.

And I’d be interested to know: do you see signs that people of other persuasions (liberal, untraditional, progressive, whatever you like) are making a parallel effort?  I don’t see a lot of it, but I’d be happy to be convinced otherwise.

I make no brief for “beyondism,” believe me. There’s no point in trying to get beyond good and evil, truth and falsity, virtue and vice.  But there's truth in the rebellion against dress codes, and there's mistreatment and misplaced emphases within the Christian counterculture.  This is not to posit the “moral equivalence” of virtue and vice, but rather to acknowledge Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s point (worth citing as many times as it takes to get it through our thick skulls):


If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

In the 70s and 80s, the emphasis was understandably placed on establishing that alternatives to conventional wisdom existed at all.  That natural family planning was a thing; that a woman could be happy caring for her children, that it was possible to wear something other than a miniskirt.  That men and women were different.

It’s not that everyone agrees with us now, but we’ve made those points already.  Now we can move on to assessing various approaches to explaining and living NFP, or we can creatively devise ways of being neither an obsessed career woman nor a 100% stay-at-home mom. And instead of trying to establish that modesty is valuable at all, we can critique misguided approaches,


or acknowledge that standards of clothing really do legitimately vary from culture to culture.

It used to be that, in William F. Buckley’s words, “a conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” 


I think that's a healthy instinct still, in some respects, but I see a chance to go deeper now.

St. John Paul II was a master of this kind of reexamination.  Those of us with less powerful minds and less generous hearts will fall short, but maybe we should be aiming for the same thing.


What do you think?  Have we entered a new phase, one with a little more subtlety? Would only a cockeyed optimist think so?  Have you seen signs of an effort to be less superficial, or are we more polaraized than ever?  Or both?

Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jul 4, 2014 9:35am

Speaking for myself, I say yes. I have entered a new phase. I am listening more, judging differently, thinking differently. I no longer see liberals as the enemy, so much as people with a point.

I am so grateful for my personalist professors who gave me the conceptual framework I needed not to confuse this new perspective and attitude with a rejection of objective truth, or God!

I am so grateful for the papacies of John Paul the Great, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. They are the ones showing us how to do it, in their magisterial writings and in their personal witness.

Religiously, it's all about conversion. Philosophically, personalism is the key.

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