The Personalist Project

Truth and personal influence

[Truth] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of [those] who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.

John Henry Newman, Oxford University Sermons

The recent Courage conference--"Welcoming and Accompanying our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction"--was by most accounts remarkable.

For me, the title is literal, since one of the speakers, Joseph Prever, is my own much-loved younger brother. 

Unfortunately, my husband and I were moving our umpteen children and our preposterous overabundance of goods and gear from Michigan to Maryland at the time of the conference, so even though it took place practically in our old backyard I haven't yet heard the talks.

I mean to do so at the first opportunity, though, and I urge you to do the same-- especially since a brouhaha about the inclusion of my brother and some others associated with the Spiritual Friendship blog threatens to overshadow what the speakers actually said there. (I'm told the talks will be available soon through Ave Maria Radio and will let you know the details when I learn them.)

My impression of the talks will have to wait till I've heard them. But the post-conference conversations have made me want to address a much broader topic: the difference between subjectivity and subjectivism.

Taking subjectivity seriously is crucial; falling into subjectivism is fatal (and futile). 

Here's what I mean:

By "taking subjectivity seriously," I mean welcoming and really listening to people's descriptions of their lived experience. And without leaping immediately to the question of whether they fit neatly into the truth we already know. Really listening: not just figuring out how to use someone's experiences as Exhibit A for the truth we're defending, or the falsity we're refuting.

By "falling into subjectivism," I mean denying any truth, any principles, against which real-life experience can be measured. Or acting as if real-life experience trumps principles.

So my topic is a lot broader than the question of people with SSA, but just to put things in context, what got me thinking was Deacon Jim Russell's opinion that certain speakers shouldn't have been given a platform at the conference. As he puts it:

...Simply said, being “gay” is not enough; being a “gay Catholic” is not enough; being a “celibate, gay Catholic” is not enough. And even being a “chaste, celibate, gay Catholic” is not enough. To be a credible public witness, one must both “embody” and articulate the “truth-love” of Church teaching and pastoral care related to same-sex attraction from a position of confidence, clarity, and certainty, with an undivided mind, heart, and purpose.              

One problem with such stringent criteria is that this particular conference was aimed not so much at articulating Church teaching as it was at helping those who work pastorally with people with SSA to understand and support them. Rightly understood, that will inevitably involve listening to their testimony--even if they have not altogether arrived at "confidence, clarity, and certainty." (All the speakers, as I understand it, were committed to chastity and to Church teaching. This wasn't a question of sneaking heterodoxy in, disguised as doctrine, but of people candidly describing their experience and exploring what it does and doesn't mean.)

But whether the topic is same-sex attraction or anything else, the trouble is, people sometimes see lived experience being taken seriously and jump to the conclusion that subjective feelings are being treated as trumping objective truths.

It's understandable. Lots of people think the leap is inevitable. I'm reminded of a politician we ran into once at a New Hampshire county fair. As the poor man trudged across the vacant lot under an August sun towards the throng of prospective voters, carefully avoiding the cow patties, we confronted him about his pro-choice position. He replied that he used to be pro-life, but he had come to see things "through his wife's eyes." Her experience trumped his principles. Or maybe it just served as a convenient excuse for abandoning them. Either way, it was one or the other: real-life experience or principles. It couldn't be both. 

So, sure, some people give "accompaniment" and "encounter" and "dialogue" a bad name. Some think we should abandon the truth for the sake of the person we're "accompanying," as if that would be doing them any favors. Others, more manipulative, go through the motions of making a person feel "accompanied" or "dialogued with" and then do whatever they were going to do anyway. It's a ruse, a strategy, a counterfeit of real respect.

So what happens when someone proposes listening to people, asking questions like "How do you experience your situation? How do you experience the Church's efforts to help you? How do you experience people's descriptions of you and conversation about you?"

Often, well-meaning, orthodox people respond something like this:

Look, what's the point? We know the objective truth about their feelings, their experience. Why bother poking and prodding into their subjective state of mind? The way to help them is to tell them the truth, and  the best way for them to help themselves is to live according to it. Anything else is just sentimentality and relativism; we'll end up sowing confusion, which is harmful to them and everybody else. "Compassion" and "dialogue" and "listening" and "subjectivity" have been tried already; they've brought us to the mess we're in today. The best service we can render to any person is to present him with the objective truth and its requirements.    

There's a very basic confusion here, though. People hear the buzzwords and buy the idea of pitting experience against truth--when in fact it's a legitimate--even an unavoidable--way of coming to truth. We "objectivists" are not just saying that real truth is out there, but that it's accessible to us--that the mind can really "see" it: not just by discursive reason, or by accepting the word of an authority, or by some kind of blind faith. If we reduce experience to misleading sentiments, or to something only a relativist would pay attention to, we miss out on all kinds of riches.

If we're really on the side of truth, we need not fear lived experience, any more than we should fear scientific discovery or the genuine insights of modernity (though of course we need to be wide awake enough able to identify sentimentalism, manipulation, pseudo-science, and all the other caricatures of truth).  

The truth shall set us free, and one of the things it sets us free from is living in needless fear of all its counterfeits.

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 When Cardinal Bernadin popularized the idea of the "seamless garment" back in the early 1980s, it looked a lot like a scheme to minimize the evil of abortion.

He later made clear that he never meant it that way, but there was no lack of people eager to exploit it. This caricature of the seamless garment, or "consistent ethic of life," shifted that uncomfortable spotlight away from this particular kind of killing. Sure, abortion was terrible, the reasoning went, but then so were lots of other things--capital punishment, nuclear warfare, and all manner of undesirable social and economic policies. Unless you were just as heavily invested in the eradication of all these other evils as you were in protecting unborn babies, you had no credibility in some people's eyes.

It reminded me of the little girl in The Incredibles resisting her mother's instructions to downplay her family's superpowers. Don't try to stand out, her mother urges her, because "everybody is special."

"If everybody's special, nobody's special," her daughter retorts. She has a point. If every cause is special, no cause is special. If every injustice is egregious, no injustice is egregious.

I've been rethinking my objections to the seamless garment idea (or its caricature). I haven't changed my mind about abortion. Not in the least. But now I see "seamless garment" thinking as the corruption, the twisting and watering down, of something altogether legitimate and crucial: the unity of the virtues, and its flip side, the unity of vice.

The Planned Parenthood videos that reveal representatives buying, selling, and haggling over the tiny organs of aborted children makes the unity of vice unmistakeale. It's horrible enough to kill babies, to sneer at the sanctity of their lives, and to sow seeds of bogus ambiguity about how some human beings count as persons and others don't make the cut.   But then the buying-and-selling element is added. Should we divide up into two camps: those who decry the consumerism and those who decry the anti-family angle? Of course not. The point is not to measure merciless bloodthirstiness against cold, hard greed--it's that somehow it all goes together. It's all one: a seamless garment of evil. Evils don't compete; they feed on each other.

We're used to dividing ourselves into culture-war Catholics and social-justice Catholics. But you can't be blind to one kind of evil without it affecting your ability to see the other kind.

Those who chafe at Pope Francis' attacks on consumerism may need to take a step back and see that it's all of a piece. If the dignity of the person is your starting point, you see how it all goes together--the throwaway culture that damages the environment and is also behind sex trafficking and abortion. It's what inspires the enterprising young developers of the Tinder app, which lets you order a no-strings-attached "partner" with all the efficiency and convenience of a call to Domino's Pizza when the craving for a large pepperoni strikes.

It's right to draw attention sometimes to one evil and sometimes to another. And the hierarchy of goods is real: there's no deep-down moral equivalence among all goods and all evils. 

But the seamless garment of evil is real, too.

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Some years back I found myself in a lively online debate at a website dedicated to hedonistic feminine sexuality. One of my interlocutors said something about how Christian and Muslim sexual morality are basically the same. "They both boil down to no sex outside of marriage." I was genuinely taken aback. To me, the two moral visions are so radically opposed that I could hardly imagine that they might look the same to outsiders. But I could feel her sincerity. She wasn't being gratuitously provocative; she genuinely didn't perceive the difference.

I've learned since that many Christians don't really see it either. That is to say, they have a view of sexual morality that is, in many respects, closer to the Islamic approach than to the fullness of Christian truth.

This topic deserves a much fuller and more rigorous treatment. Maybe someday I'll get to it. But meanwhile, with the horrible headlines about ISIS's "theology of rape" coming on top of the countless stories of child brides, honor killings, and female genital mutilation in the Muslim world, it seems timely to at least get the conversation started.

Here is my short list of essential differences between the Islamic and Christian views of women and women's sexuality. 

1. In the Christian vision, a woman's sexuality belongs to her; she is in charge of it. In Islamic sexuality, it belongs to the men in her life—first her father and brothers, then her husband. 

When a Christian woman gets married, she bestows herself on her husband, who in turn bestows himself on her, while in Islam, ownership of the woman is transferred to her husband in a transaction between men.

2. In Christianity, there is perfect equality and complementarity between men and women. In Islam, women are subordinate to men.

3. In Islam, sexual morality is reducible to blind obedience to the law (i.e. what Allah prohibits or allows); it's governed by fear and shame. Christian morality is transparent to reason and governed by love.

The great and emotionally grueling Iranian film, A Separation, has a compelling illustration of this feature of Islam. A man whose wife is leaving him hires a pious married woman to care for his father, who has Alzheimers disease. At one point during the day, the father wets himself. The woman caring for him panics. She can't clean him, because then she would see him naked. She is petrified of committing a sin. She has to call an imam to get permission, and even then, she's terrified. It's the opposite of the freedom and responsibility that characterize mature Christian morality.

4. In the Islamic view, the purpose of modesty in women is to prevent male arousal; hence, the more coverage, the better. If a man is aroused, the woman is at fault. In Christianity, modesty is about drawing attention to a woman's personal dignity. Her sexual values aren't concealed, but duly integrated with her subjectivity. Men are responsible for themselves.

I know I've left out lots, but maybe I've said enough to shed some light on the pathologies of the Muslim world, and the problem of Christian circles tending in the same direction.

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August 11, 1890 is the day John Henry Newman departed "the shadows," the maddening part-truths/ part-illusions, the glimmers and indications and "economical representations" of material existence for the Reality he had been inwardly intent on from the age of 15—the face-to-face encounter with the Author of his being.

It was the day, too, we can hope and expect, that he was reunited with everyone he had loved and missed so keenly in his late years: Ambrose St. John, Hurrell Froude, Bowden, Keble, his sister Mary, and a host of others.

It was the end of the misgivings and misunderstandings and speculations and intrigues and interpersonal tensions that had dogged his life on earth.

The penultimate paragraph of one of my favorite of his sermons, The Greatness and Littleness of Human Life, gives us an impression of what the experience must have been like for a soul like his.

To those who live by faith, every thing they see speaks of that future world; the very glories of nature, the sun, moon, and stars, and the richness and the beauty of the earth, are as types and figures witnessing and teaching the invisible things of God. All that we see is destined one day to burst forth into a heavenly bloom, and to be transfigured into immortal glory. Heaven at present is out of sight, but in due time, as snow melts and discovers what it lay upon, so will this visible creation fade away before those greater splendours which are behind it, and on which at present it depends. In that day shadows will retire, and the substance show itself. The sun will grow pale and be lost in the sky, but it will be before the radiance of Him whom it does but image, the Sun of Righteousness, with healing on His wings, who will come forth in visible form, as a bridegroom out of his chamber, as His perishable type decays. The stars which surround it will be replaced by Saints and Angels circling His throne. Above and below, the clouds of the air, the trees of the field, the waters of the great deep will be found impregnated with the forms of everlasting spirits, the servants of God which do His pleasure. And our own mortal bodies will then be found in like manner to contain within them an inner man, which will then receive its due proportions, as the soul’s harmonious organ, instead of that gross mass of flesh and blood which sight and touch are sensible of. For this glorious manifestation the whole creation is at present in travail, earnestly desiring that it may be accomplished in its season.

Reading it always makes me feel my obtuseness. It makes me want to read him again, and beseech his prayers. I want to be found worthy, in the end, to join him in Reality.

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Posting has been light around here lately, with Devra in the midst of a move, me dealing with various things, and Jules working on website updates. We hope to get back to it in the coming two weeks, while our youngest is away at camp.

Meanwhile, since August 9th is the feast of the great Edith Stein, here is an item I wrote a couple years ago about her influence on me.

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