The Personalist Project

Last night we attended a talk by George Weigel at Immaculata University comparing John Paul II and Edith Stein.  My reaction was somewhat mixed.  Weigel has a marvelous command of the timeline of their lives and some of the major points of convergence between these two giants of 20th century Catholicism and 20th century philosophy: their shared faith and intellectual vocation, their common critique of the atheism and materialism of the modern world, their profound interest in re-establishing the right relation between faith and reason, their work to bring Thomism and phenomenology into fruitful contact with each other, their contributions toward a Christian femininism, and so on. 
But for someone passionately devoted to personalism, the talk was frustratingly devoid of mention, never mind explication, of that basic legacy, which is, to my mind, the great, compensatory achievement of the entire modern period.  He did offer a few nuggets for deeper reflection on that score, however.  One was in the form of a quote from Henri de Lubac that admirably encapsulates the communitarian implications of personalism [paraphrasing from memory]: “We may organize society without God, but only if we organize it against each other.”  Another was a reminder of John Paul’s emphasis on culture and fostering a “communal subjectivity”, without which we will be pitifully prone to the domination of a soulless statism.
Here is a task I would like to set for our circle:
An essay comparing and contrasting humanism and personalism.  In other words, I propose that the personalism is the new humanism called for by JP II, and that it is importantly different from and more potent for meeting the challenges of our day than the old humanism.  I propose further that personalism is a fruit of (and not just a reaction against) the modern world.  I would so love to see better philosophers than I am take up this theme!

Comments (16)

Mike Wallacavage

#1, Oct 1, 2009 10:20am

I concur with your insightful assessment of the lecture.  Weigel is clearly gifted in elucidating the relationship between the existential and historical narratives of Stein & JPII in light of their encounters with truth and the mystery of the crucified Christ.  de Lubac’s quote is from his great study “The Drama of Atheistic Humanism” written in the 1940s.  The exact quote is “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man.”  Hildebrand develops this theme about 10 years later in “The New Tower of Babel: Modern Man’s Flight From God.”  Unfortunately I can not find my copy.  This book would serve well as a blue print for the present proposal.
In “Drama” LuBac proposes Dostoevsky as a prophet answering the crisis of atheism. McInerny writes the following, which deals with this theme in an article “The Christian Response to Atheism: Dostoevsky:”

Many atheists pass across the pages of Dostoevsky’s novels. Through them, Dostoevsky shows in dramatic fashion that, without God, man has nothing but falsehood and inevitably becomes an enemy to himself, and ends by organizing the world against himself. He shows the disaster coming upon man as a result of those revolutionary ideals which are the legacy of Western liberalism and its project of eliminating God and secularizing society. No matter how valid is this or that element in the secularist critique of society, Dostoevsky sees the truth that those who “kill” God also kill man. He also saw that man without God cannot remain free. (

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Oct 2, 2009 3:51pm

Thanks, Mike.  The real quote is even better than what I’d remembered, though the mangled version made the communitarian dimension of personhood stand out more explicitly.  I mean that it put so succinctly the idea that we can only have communion—as opposed to strife—with one another if we are grounded in God, who is the Author of our being, and who loves and holds in being each and every one of us as individuals.
In the intro to his short anthology of von Hildebrand’s work, Jules refers to The New Tower of Babel, where DvH speaks in a way echoed later by Wojtyla, saying that “the person” stands as the “objective theme” of our age.  I’ll have to see if I can find it.

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Oct 3, 2009 2:56am

I suppose I should read de Lubac’s Drama for an answer to this, but what exactly is the logic behind this idea that without God we can only organize the world against man?  I’m sure it’s true, but I would like to understand more concretely why and howit is.  E.g., is it because without God we inevitably hate each other?  Is it because, without a belief in providence, we inevitably end up being way too controlling?  Does it have to be the true God we believe in?  If so, then what about ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome?

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Oct 3, 2009 11:26am

I’ve just begun reading a symposium over at Commentary about “Why the Jews are liberals.”  It begins with this paragraph by David Wolfe, fitting right in with our theme here:

Norman Podhoretz has offered us an elegant, condensed political history of the Jews. He recounts how beleaguered Jews have repeatedly looked in two places for solace: to the heavens and to the government. As religiosity waned, government was viewed as the sole power capable of restraining the savagery of localized violence. Since nature abhors a spiritual vacuum, Podhoretz concludes that the religion of liberalism—that is, faith in the powers of government—has replaced Judaism in the hearts of Jews. The lesson of Rabbi Chanina in Pirkei Avot became the dominant political motif: “If not for the government, people would eat each other alive.”

It’s so tragically ironic, isn’t it, since nothing has been worse and more deadly for the Jews than the statist tyrannies of communism and national socialism.

It becomes clearer and clearer that unless we are established in God on His laws (which are the laws of our very being as persons), we will be at each other’s throats.

Rhett Segall

#5, Oct 3, 2009 1:53pm

Jules asks why humans need God in order not to be at each others throats. George Orwell hinted at it in “Animal Farm” when he has the animals supposedly all equal, but in reality the pigs take over the farm and Orwell notes “some animals are more equal than others.”

At the root of humans need for God is, I believe, that God keeps us human. First of all acknowledgement of God’s existence keeps humans humble. National Socialism set the Aryan race as the criterion for humanity and sort to weed out all they considered undesireable.They made National Socialism god and in doing so sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

Karl Rahner stresses the in eliminating God from our consciousness humans would simply become clever animals. I think he’s right.

Mike Wallacavage

#6, Oct 3, 2009 2:08pm

James Hitchcock has a great article on Humanism worth reading in which he states: “As man more and more declares his independence from traditional moral and religious constraints he does not soar to the heights of Nietzsche’s superman, but finds himself more and more drawn down by his lower nature. He can no longer even distinguish between his higher and lower natures but feels compelled to rationalize whatever it is that human beings actually do. Popular culture over the past twenty years has exhorted men to exalt themselves, cater to themselves, almost to adore themselves. Yet the result has been that people have sunk deeper and deeper into moral and spiritual confusion and social breakdown. The formulas proclaimed to exalt men and make them happy have led to debasement and cynicism.”  Read it all at

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Oct 4, 2009 12:13pm

I agree, Rhett.  This brings us back again to that seminal insight of Wojtyla’s.  Persons are designed to serve each other in love.  The “aboriginal calamity” in Eden set up a master/slave hermeneutic in human relations that has plagued us ever since.  We strive for domination over others, or else we grovel as slaves rather than rise to the demands of self-standing.
It seems that only an acceptance of God as the Author of my own being and the being of every other person, and a conformity to Him and His law can reverse this otherwise irresistible human dynamic.

Mike Wallacavage

#8, Oct 4, 2009 5:53pm

I think the modern period has been ruled by a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding God, which necessarily plays its way out in the individual’s relation to the entire created order.  Hans Jonas’s study of Gnosticism sets up the world view that “god” has imprisoned us in his creation and that the serpent in the garden in the real savior revealing that we ourselves are the true god, determining good and evil.  Van Balthasar warns that if we loss the transcendentals of Truth, Goodness and beauty, which are primal self-evident data leading us to trustful surrender to the absolute, the argument to avoid evil losses its force and meaning. Just raw power and mixed emotions remain with no objective transcendent context to make rational sense is left.  Hope this makes some sense.


#9, Oct 4, 2009 6:39pm

Is it possible to recognize the dignity and rights of the other without God?

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Oct 5, 2009 8:43am

To some degree at least, surely.  History includes some very humane unbelievers—though I must admit all the ones that come to mind immediately eventually converted.  (I’m thinking for instance of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil and Charles Peguy and George Orwell). Christopher Hitchens is a present day example of an atheist who is a passionate defender of human dignity and human rights—at least certain human rights.

In the end, though, the only one who truly and fully recognizes the dignity and rights of the other, is the one who loves and lays down his life for the other.  I think this is impossible to justify rationally without belief in God.  Certainly it is impossible to achieve without divine grace.

I think, too, that non-believers may recognize some rights of some persons.  But, as Caryll Houselander wrote in her memoir “A Rockinghorse Catholic” (again paraphrasing from memory), “It takes a Catholic to love everyone, and very few of us manage it.”


#11, Oct 5, 2009 8:51am

Would it be somewhat difficult to know for certainty if those you named were not influenced by God since, I believe, they all come from cultures profoundly influenced by Christianity? 

It seems that possibly one would have to look at early aboriginal peoples to look at this idea free from Christian influence.  Possibly the Asian cultures as well since Christianity has never been widespread there.

In thinking of those cultures, the abandonment of the elderly, the human sacrifices of the Central and South American peoples, the kamikaze pilots of Japan, come to mind.  These examples could make one think that God is necessary for a somewhat sufficient understanding of the dignity of the human person.

Mike Wallacavage

#12, Oct 5, 2009 9:01am

I recommend taking the time to watch the debate over God in the public sphere between Keyes and Dershowitz.


#13, Oct 6, 2009 7:24am

I listened to the debate you referred to.  They were both quite passionate about their positions, weren’t they?!  It was late last night so I’m sure I missed a lot but would this be a short conclusion?:

If God is not the reference point for determining morality, it devolves into each person’s individual opinion and the individual with the most power determines, and forces, their opinion on the rest.

Scott Johnston

#14, Oct 6, 2009 10:06am

I think this is exactly on target.

Another way to say this, is that human beings need to understand our common human purpose from some source higher than ourselves. We need our true end to be revealed to us from above. This begins with pre-Christian religious sensibilities and conscience (placed in our nature by God) and culminates in Christ. Without this, we only have our independent, human and worldly ideas about the purpose of human life. Without a source greater than ourselves we are left with a struggle for power as the only way to ultimately settle the problem of which ideas about life should be placed above others.

And again, it could be said this way: there is no “ought” without an “is.” In other words, if we do not have a shared understanding of our own human nature (which comes from God whether we explicitly acknowledge this or not), we cannot come to a peaceable agreement on how we ought to live. And this lack of some minimum shared vision of our nature necessarily devolves into a struggle for power. For unless we have a common “is” we have no rational means by which to unite in common moral obligations.

It goes perhaps without saying that having a shared vision about the purpose and nature of human life does not require explicit faith. It does require good will and openness to what life teaches and openness to one’s conscience and to the innate religiosity within us.

But of course, the highest possible perfection of human society in this world could only happen after the revelation of Christ and the availability of the graces of the New Covenant unleashed by His passion and resurrection.

Rhett Segall

#15, Oct 6, 2009 5:22pm

Our discussion centers on the question “Do we need God to be good?”

Those who say no will marshal much evidence to show that belief in God is often connected with monstrous evils such as the wars of religion.

Those who say yes will say that twentieth century atheistic governments have murdered more people than all the religious wars of history.

My own thinking begins with Thomas Jefferson’s assertion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson was exactly right, I believe, in asserting that human dignity is rooted in the self evident truth that God has given to humans a dignity that no human has a right to violate. Without the foundation of God’s affirmation of the individual, all will crumble. Boris Pasternak said it this way in Dr. Zhivago-“Without Christ we die like dogs in a gutter.”

Why then are religious people often involved in monstrous evil? Why do married people often engage in the most terrible fights? Not because of marriage or religion. Rather, in both marriage and religion we have the possibility of the activation of the highest potential in humans, love. But with that potential comes the danger of demonic pride manifested in the will to dominate..

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Oct 8, 2009 4:31pm

Just came across these lines from John XXIII’s remarks opening Vatican II: “Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars.”

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