The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:51:49

Ralph Martin and the Language of Personal Decision

Devra Torres, May 15, 2015

In keeping with our outrageously inefficient lifestyle, this month the Torreses travelled some 800 miles to Warner, NH, to hear a talk by Dr. Ralph Martin of our home parish in Ann Arbor. (Actually the trip made some sense, since our son was graduating from Northeast Catholic College in Warner, and Ralph just happened to be the commencement speaker.)

My ears perked up early on. Ralph spoke of “the language of personal decision” which the Church has been using so insistently lately--especially since the pontificate of St. John Paul II.

“What does that sound like?” he inquired. “What does it remind you of?”

To some, he suggested, it might be reminiscent of Billy Graham, the world-famous 20th-century Protestant evangelist

After all, for a long time the Evangelicals seemed to have cornered the market on this kind of talk, with their insistence on the way a person's eternal destiny hinged on “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”

There are problems with the formulation, of course--like the way it ignores the corporate aspect of the Church, and the fuzziness about exactly what "personal" might mean. But there’s a lot that's worth unpacking in such language, as I’ve written here. 

Why is personal decision so important all of a sudden? For one thing, the times when a practicing Christian could cozily blend into the woodwork are fast departing.

In the days that are coming, Ralph pointed out, it will be hard to hang on if there’s been no personal decision on your part. You sure don’t "drift into the Kingdom of God by going along with the culture.” One way or another, “Who do you say that I am?” will be addressed to each of us, and there won't be any room left for what you might call unintentional discipleship.  “The Kingdom of God suffers violence,” says Matthew in his Gospel, “and the violent bear it away.”

This is a mysterious verse, and Ralph offered a new (to me) interpretation. It could mean “the violence of conversion.” Real conversion—even if it takes a gradual, undramatic form in a particular person’s life--doesn’t just happen to you without your say-so.

The language of personal decision comes up in the matter of mercy, too. The Year of Mercy is coming up, the time of mercy is now, as John Paul and Sister Faustina kept saying. But even something as gentle and kindly as mercy requires a personal response. “Every time Jesus extends mercy, He asks for a response of faith, repentance, conversion,” Ralph pointed out. 

Of course, persons have been making decisions for as long as there have been persons. But there's been a tendency to downplay their importance, or even confuse an insistence on legitimate personal autonomy with arrogance or stubbornness, or with a relativistic mushy-mindedness.

Alice von Hildebrand makes a key distinction that’s stuck with me all these years: between passivity and receptivity. The human person is a really odd creature: gifted with freedom and self-possession, the capacity to act in his own name. And yet his most significant actions involve being receptive to God—not passive, but receptive.

There’s a balancing act here that I don’t fully understand, and it’s at the heart of personalism. To take our own subjectivity seriously, to be the protagonists, and not the spectators, of our own lives, we have to really act, really decide. The formerly prevalent way of talking—what you could call a “language of instrumentality”—included a lot of references to being God's “tools” or “instruments,” about being “molded” into His image. There was truth to that, too--I'm not setting myself up as wiser than all the saints and theologians who've talked that way over the millennia. The potter and the clay is straight out of Scripture.

But it can be very misleading, blurring the distinction between person and thing, subject and object, free being and machine. Katie has talked about this (and sparked a lively discussion) in her post entitled “Our decisions belong to us; we are responsible for them.”

So you don’t have to be Billy Graham to speak the language of personal decision. But then, the point is not what kind of language we speak, but what kind of persons we are.