The Personalist Project

On the serious life

A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear.

Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind

I'm reading a book of Alice Munro stories: Hatesphip, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. It's my first encounter with her writing, which I'd heard of only recently, in a podcast with Jay Nordlinger and Norman Podhoretz. Both named her as one of the greatest fiction writers of our time. "Every word is perfect." So I bought this book. And they were right. I am marveling over how much complex emotional reality she manages to convey in only a few lines. 

Take this passage from a story titled "Post and Beam." Lorna and Brendan got married, when she was 18. He was a 30 year old professor. (So, double master/slave potential—in the sexual difference and the age difference.)

Nevertheless, she cried, and cried again when she got letters from home in the early days of her marriage. Brendan had caught her at it, and said, "You love your family don't you?"

She thought he sounded sympathetic. She said, "Yes."

He sighed. "I think you love them more than you love me."

She said that was not true, it was only that she felt sorry for her family sometimes. They had a hard time, her grandmother teaching Grade Four year after year thought her eyes were so bad that she could hardly see to write on the board, and Aunt Beatrice with too many nervous complaints to ever have a job, and her father—Lorna's father—working in the hardware store that wasn't even his own.

"A hard time?" said Brendan. "They've been in a concentration camp, have they?"

Then he said that people needed gumption in this world. And Lorna lay down on the marriage bed and gave way to one of those angry weeping fits that she was now ashamed to remember. Brendan came and consoled her, after a while, but still believed that she cried as women always did when they could not win the argument any other way.

It's a perfect illustration, isn't it, of the master/slave dynamic discretely at work? It puts on display the kind of emotional neglect and abuse that are so commonplace in marriage as to be unrecognized for what they are.

Brendan isn't physically or verbally violent. But he's plainly not open to his wife. He's controlling, contemptuous, and egotistical. He thinks of a fraught conversation as an argument to be won. His consoling her is full of condescension.

She is having to learn to hide away her heart from him, lest it be ill-used.

I haven't finished reading the story, so I don't know how it turns out. I don't know if suffering  leads to an epiphany on Brendan's part, or if Lorna's disillusionment will lead her to divorce him.

Either way (or some other way), this passage stands on its own as a perfect illustration of unlove. I'm sure Brendan would be shocked and offended to hear it, but it's true.

show more

  • share
  • 0 cmts

Privilege is usually discussed in terms of race, income, class, gender, etc. However, I found myself thinking about a different sort of privilege recently when a friend, a convert, tried to share a bit of her past with a friend of hers on Facebook. She replied to a post about Planned Parenthood with an account of her time interning in an abortion clinic, describing the kinds of interactions and dialogue that helped her make her journey from proabortion to prolife. While the public response was muted, she was attacked in private messages as an “accessory to murder.”

The acquaintances who attacked her found it impossible to believe that she had really acted out of goodwill and concern for women during the time she spent at the clinic—one lambasted her over her failure to immediately recognize abortion as murder: “It’s just so obvious. How could you?” Having never suffered a qualm of doubt over the righteousness of the prolife position, the writer could not wrap her mind around how prochoice reasoning had once attracted my friend. Her very virtue in this particular arena fueled her lack of mercy to the testimony of a repentant convert. She had, I think, a form of privilege that made it hard for her to understand the struggles others face—virtue privilege.

I’ve heard similar stories from women who have had (and repented) past abortions, from those who have left behind a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, from chaste individuals who identify as gay, from individuals recovering from broken marriages.  Depressed people are reluctant to discuss their struggles with suicidal despair for fear of the lecture about the evils of despair that is sure to follow. Those of us who are blessed by upbringing, temperament, environment or circumstances to have never had an inclination to one or another sin or set of sins can so easily take unearned credit for our ‘virtues’ or disparage those who lack what we never had to work overmuch to attain.

I’m not sure how useful the idea of privilege is in furthering discussion. It is not likely to be useful at all if it is used primarily to silence the “privileged,” which is how it has occasionally been used. But it seems to me that the usual purpose to pointing out privilege, of whatever type, is an intensely personalistic one—the intention is to make someone conscious of the subjectivity of those whose lives, experiences, and norms differ from their own. Awareness of the ways in which we are formed by our environment, upbringing, and social roles can remind us not to project on to those around us.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collecter, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

The idea of virtue privilege may be especially relevant to those of us who are cradle Catholics. Being raised in the faith has not made me especially immune to temptation, but it does give me a particular advantage in recognizing sin—or at least, certain sins—when they are encountered, and gives me access to the graces to resist sin and recover when I succumb. This is, after all, the primary function of the Church—to teach us how to be like Christ, and to give us the graces we need to pursue that goal.

Privilege, we are told, is typically invisible to those who benefit from it. The child of wealth may underestimate his own advantages while struggling to establish himself as an entrepreneur. He knows the hours he has put in to his business and prides himself on his success when so many others fail. Having struggled, he fails to recognize the role his connections and capital have had in his victories. Likewise, those of us who have been steeped in the graces and wisdom of the Church for years may fail to recognize how those very graces have eased our path—that as hard as we have struggled (for everyone struggles), we have had unearned riches to draw upon along our way. 

But maybe I need not invent a new term to counter hard-heartedness towards those who fall because they lacked the graces, knowledge, or advantages of temperament which I enjoy. Perhaps I only need to call upon a somewhat older response to the sins and struggles of others, a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, of petition for the future, and of solidarity with the fallen. Perhaps what is needed is that I, and all of us, remember: There but for the grace of God go I.

show more

  • share
  • 1 cmt

Among the duties we have toward one another, as individuals created for a communion of love, is the duty to express emotion. Kierkegaard explains, in Works of Love:

Your friend, your beloved, your child, or whoever is the object of your love, has a claim upon its expression also in words when it really moves you inwardly.  The emotion is not your possession but the other’s. The expression of it is his due, since in the emotion you belong to him who moves you and makes you conscious of belonging to him.  When the heart is full you should not grudgingly and loftily, short-changing the other, injure him by pressing your lips together in silence; you should let the mouth speak out of the abundance of the heart.

It's on my mind partly because of the Old Testament readings last month about Joseph and his brothers—I was struck by the mention of Joseph's loud sobs, which revealed the depth and greatness of his soul and helped his brothers achieve true contrition, which in turn allowed their relations to be restored.

If we were raised in a culture that prizes "the stiff upper lip" or that treats emotion with contempt, as weakness or irrationality, than we're not likely to realize this truth—at least not until personal disaster gets us in touch with our deep psychic wounds or confronts us with the wounds we have inflicted on our children by our reticence and affective neglect. And by that point, the realization is painful enough to be almost overwhelming.

Much better if we can learn to understand it and practice it sooner. 

show more

  • share
  • 1 cmt

I’m pro-air-conditioning, especially when Michigan is so hot and sticky that being a spoiled first-worlder becomes a lesser evil than my crabbiness when I'm too hot and sticky.

I’m pro-capitalism, especially the mom-and-pop kind (and not so much the smarmy, crony, super-duper-mega-multinational, ideologically heavy-handed kind).

And I disagree with Pope Francis about global warming, but I love him anyway. (My scientific credentials? Certainly. I have an M.A. in phenomenological realism).

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here's my impression of Laudato Si, so far.

I like this part:

[St. Francis’] response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus

It’s easy to imagine those are our only options: either intellectual appreciation or economic calculus. Intellectual appreciation can lead you beyond economic calculus, it's true, but it doesn’t necessarily lead you to contemplative wonder. That's a further step.

Pope Francis continues: 

[F]or to [St. Francis0 each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.[...] His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things [...] he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”.[20] Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour.

It’s very, very easy for us 21st-century types to do just that: write the whole thing off as naïve romanticism. It’s very, very easy for us to read about “creatures, no matter how small" and find our thoughts jumping immediately to political controversies about snail darters and dams.

But if we can turn off the part of our mind that immediately darts to political implications and drink in the meaning of being "united to every creature by bonds of affection," it sounds very different. 

Pope Francis continues:

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.

By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

A refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.  

That right there is the unifying thread. Just as I'm not meant to reduce fellow human persons to raw material, to be rated on a scale of usefulness to me, or even to the human race,

I'm not meant to reduce the whole natural world to a collection of more or less efficient tools to achieve my favorite ends.

That doesn’t mean you can’t cut down a tree to make a bookcase, and it doesn’t mean you can’t drain a swamp to put up houses for human beings to live in, malaria-free. You're not required to put the welfare of the trees or the mosquitos ahead of the welfare of the human beings. It just means you don’t look at the whole world through the kind of pathetic, depressing tunnel vision that starts and ends with, “How can I manipulate this to my advantage?” 

Cultivating wonder at everything from the structure of a fruit fly's DNA to the life cycle of a star fits in with fighting the many, many different ways we’ve devised of treating people as “objects to be used and controlled.” If you’re coherent, you’ll be against

  • women and men treating each other as objects,
  • companies treating customers as objects,
  • sex traffickers treating their victims as objects,
  • politicians treating their constituents as objects, and
  • parents treating their children, or their eggs, or their sperm, or their zygotes, embryos, or fetuses as objects.

A refusal to turn reality into an object to be used and controlled. We in the John Paul II generation are accustomed to the call to treat persons as subjects, not objects. It's the key to so many legitimate social causes, both on the "right" (fighting abortion, euthanasia, pornography, collectivism, economic micromanagement) and the "left" (justice for the poor, care of migrants, racial justice, compassion and dignity for the disabled and socially or economically marginalized).

Pope Francis' call to respect the nature of nature--not just its usefulness to us--embraces all this and goes further besides. You could say it's a call to realism itself. We need to get to where we can see everything--everything!--from the tiniest creature to the human person to the noblest idea-- for what it is—not just for how it can be manipulated.

Whatever else you want to call Laudato Si, it's a heartfelt invitation to realism.

show more

  • share
  • 3 cmts

A decade or so ago arose "the new atheism"—a movement of prominent public intellectuals attacking religion on rational grounds, especially scientific grounds. It got a lot of media attention, and many people apparently found it convincing.

Personally, I had a hard time taking it seriously. It seemed to me so dumb. (Hello, Harris and Dawkins? You can't address metaphysical claims with empirical methods. Empirical methods only apply to the physical realm. And for their validity they rely utterly on philosophical, i.e., non-empirical, assumptions.) Its proponents came across to me as willfully obtuse and full of animus—their arguments not just intellectually weak, but juvenile. You wondered whether they'd ever met any actual religious people. They were furiously attacking straw men and caricatures, while completely ignoring all the real evidence and arguments in favor of faith. I thought no one would be convinced who wasn't already looking for justification for unbelief (and the moral license that goes with it.)

Lately, though, I've noticed the rise of a new form of anti-religion that I fear is much more potent. It attacks faith not on scientific, but on experiential and therapeutic grounds. Religion is bad for your mental health. It's abusive. It causes depression and eating disorders and all manner of misery and violence. If you want to thrive and be happy, get it out of your psyche.

It's more potent because:

1) There's a lot of truth in it.  (I'll come back to this point.)

2) It's much harder to overcome. Personal experience can't be rationally refuted; nor is it effectively answered by counter-experiences.

Long before Marcel Maciel's double life was publicly known, we had piles of evidence in the form of personal testimony that something was seriously wrong with the Legion of Christ. Countless ex-members had recorded disturbing stories of extreme control, emotional and spiritual abuse, financial impropriety, etc. 

Legion defenders initially dismissed all of it. It was coming from bitter people with "issues" and axes to grind; they were lying or deluded. As the evidence mounted and that line of defense grew less credible, though, the defenders down-shifted: "I'm sorry you had bad experiences. That wasn't my experience. I've had wonderful experiences in the Legion."

For those who were sure that Maciel was a saint and his Legion a great work of God, this seemed to do the trick. It acknowledged that some people (maybe) had had bad experiences. (The defender thus presents herself as open-minded and sympathetic.) It discretely suggested that such experiences were anomalous, and that it's unreasonable to tar the whole organization just because you personally had had a bad experience. (No organization is perfect, and one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch.) It even subtly insinuated that the one telling the story might be exaggerating or imbalanced or otherwise not to be trusted. (When dealing with a wounded, hysterical person, be kind, speak gently, but don't really engage; don't absorb the negativity.)

To anyone who more-than-suspected the truth, though, this response to damning testimony sounded like insanity. Complete denial. Also egotistical dismissiveness. "I like my group and what I get from it, so I don't care what happened to you at its hands."

One of the problems we're facing today—I begin to realize—is that this is how religious people often sound to the new non-believers: like we're in denial. Like we don't care about the damage done by religion. Like it's more important to us to protect our group and the consolations we get from belonging to it—no matter what it does or who gets hurt—than to face reality. We sound like we're not yet in recovery.

The reason we sound that way, I'll say again, is because there's a lot of truth in the "religion is abusive" charge. I of course don't mean that religion as such is abusive. What's abusive rather is (are?) 1) some doctrines, and 2) some modes and methods of practicing religion and promoting religion.

It's always been true. Only think of the primitive religions that demanded the blood sacrifice of children or the sale of temple virgins. Think of the moral precepts that allow middle aged men to marry children and have multiple wives—wives kept (by religious prescription) in social isolation and practical servitude to their husbands. Think of abuses surrounding the medieval sale of indulgences, or religious practices that incited violence against Jews. Think of teachings that condemn an entire segment of society as "untouchable." And then consider the closer-to-home cases of the emotional and financial manipulation rife in the world of big tent revivals and televangelism.

Religion (involving, as it does, post-Eden human relations) has always contained abusive elements. But those seem somehow more prominently present in it today than ever before. I want to propose two reasons for this:

1) "No-religion" is now a viable and widespread option in our society. (At least it appears to be viable.) Increasing numbers of both ordinary people and social elites openly identify as non-religious and unbelieving. Many used to be religious or were raised in religious homes, but abandoned faith and practice in later life as unnecessary and unconvincing or worse. So, on a practical and experiential level, the question facing individuals today isn't which religion is true?, but why religion at all?

2) More positively, we—as a society and as individuals— have become more aware of and sensitive to the problem of abuse across the board. Our introductory essay explains it this way:

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons.  We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person.  We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others. We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof brilliantly captures this gigantically consequential historical and cultural development. However meaningful and beautiful, however serviceable for shaping a people and maintaining a way of life, longstanding tradition has to give way in front of the dawning awareness of personal selfhood. If it doesn't, it quickly becomes abusive. Once a daughter becomes conscious of her right to choose her husband for herself, for instance, her father's option is to respect her freedom or apply force.

Note that a vicious cycle has been set in motion. The more the daughter resists, the more the father feels provoked and aggrieved, and righteous in applying force. The more he applies force, the more the daughter feels (and is) abused.

I propose that we are witnessing this basic dynamic on a giant scale. In broad terms, it has to do with the problem of authority vs. the rights and dignity of individuals. Everything is being questioned and realigned. And—here is the really crucial point—to the extent that the new resistance to authority is valid, the reasserting of authority is abusive.

Religion is inseparable from the moral problems associated with authority. Religious people, then, are prone in a special way to abuses of authority. 

If we want religion to remain credible and convincing under these historical and cultural circumstances, the answer isn't and can't be to crack down authoritatively. That only makes matters worse. So what do we do? I'll make a start at answering that question in a subsequent post. 

show more

  • share
  • 12 cmts