The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 1:46:20

The ferocity of goodness

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 01, 2013

I usually have an audio book playing low beside me during the night. Improbable as it may sound to those unafflicted with insomnia issues, I find it helps me sleep. My favorite is Whittaker Chambers' Witness. The narrator has a clear, calm, steady voice, and the content of the book is worth pondering and re-pondering.

Last night, during a period of wakefulness, a particular passage leaped out at me afresh.

At this point in the narrative, Chambers is around 40 years old. He has left the Communist party and embraced Quakerism. Living for the first time a conscious and discipled religious existence, he experiences a human completeness that had eluded him to that point. Looking around him, he sees how many of us are burdened by the same moral immaturity and unrealized need-for-God that had previously characterized his life. And he's filled with pity.

I saw all men and women no longer as creatures predominately good or evil, kind or cruel, but as individual beings tormented by destiny. Tormented more terribly because each was enclosed beyond the power to change in the ordeal of his individuality. Like the Bishop of Digne in Les Miserables, I inclined by nature toward the distressed and the repentant. The ferociously virtuous always made me a little uncomfortable, because they raised in the depth of my mind an unwanted question. For while I can grant at once the right of goodness to be ferocious, I suspect always that for its ferocity to ring clear, it must be the ferocity of aroused compassion, which is rooted in the understanding of self-fallibilty, not of self-righteousness. 

Immediately I thought of the controversy still swirling around the Pope's interview, and the way so many conservatives seem to me to be missing its message. Chambers here nails it. We underestimate the problem of self-righteousness, and how our manner of announcing and defending truth is alienating when doesn't spring, genuinely, from a consciousness of our own need and fallibility—from a place of deep solidarity with and compassion for the sinner and the lost.

I also love the thought that each of us is undergoing "the ordeal of his individuality." This touches a point Marie Meaney made in her post below.