The Personalist Project

On not finding God in the world

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Three quotes that I came upon this week in separate contexts are gelling for me.

Visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum Sunday, I was struck by these words of the famously reclusive poet:

The Soul selects her own Society — Then — shuts the Door —

The deep truth about the person— that he is a being "created for his own sake" and only fulfilled in his being by "making a sincere gift of himself"—is sometimes (mis)interpreted as implying that we owe intimacy to anyone who wants it of us—as if the fact that I am called to give myself to someone means that I am not allowed to withhold myself from anyone—as if it were selfish to "select my own society."

Then I came upon this passage from Evangelii Gaudium.

We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.

"Genuine spiritual encounter" can't occur without listening, without openness of heart.

Some might say, "See, Emily Dickinson was wrong to "shut the door" against anyone." I see it differently. I think she was careful in her search for the genuine encounter. She "shut the door" on those who she saw were not listening, were not open to her soul in its sensitivity and particularity, with its unique mission.

Superficial relations, never mind dysfunctional ones, are enervating and depleting and wasteful.

Then I found this, from Martin Buber's I and Thou.

All actual life is encounter.

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Want to hear the most startling thing I've read in years?

Here you go:

What if we're not, actually, in the midst of everything falling apart? What if it's not a new epidemic, but only improved detection: becoming more aware than as a group we were, of how very much suffering there is and always has been?

If so, we could be in a different part of the story than we thought. 

--Erin Arlinghaus (thanks to Melanie Bertinelli for bringing it to my attention)

A different part of the story than we thought.

Well, that sounds encouraging to me. Could we really be seeing it all wrong? The more I mull it over, the more plausible it sounds.

A differnt part of the story. What would that mean? Not just: Yes, the times are evil, but God can bring good out of it. Nor just: Well, things are worse than ever right now, but it's always darkest before the dawn. It's not, either, a question of imagining (or pretending) that things aren't really that bad. They are. We're not about to wake up and find that ISIS, or this entire election cycle, was just a nightmare.

But maybe we can shake the nightmarish sense of living amidst unprecedented evils, with no end in sight.

What, exactly, makes us so sure that things are getting worse and worse and worse? Why does it seem so self-evident? Well, for one thing, we've just come through the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. By some estimates, more Christians have ben martyred in the last few decades than in all previous centuries combined.  We can't wish these horrors away.

If we take a good, hard look at our ability to compare the human suffering of one age with that of another, though, we notice something: to make an accurate comparison, we'd need a thorough, experiential knowledge of what it must have been like to live in another time--in all other earlier times.

How do you assess, for example, the suffering of a 40-year-old man living when the average lifespan was 30, but the aged were revered? How to compare it to, say, the suffering of a woman who dies at 75 in a nursing home where the aged are despised and hidden away? Or how to measure the physical pain of a 12th-century peasant without ibuprofen or antibiotics, against the spiritual agonies of a 21st-century atheist who, as far as he knows, has no reason to live?

We might feel very well informed because we're very much bombarded with information. We ricochet back and forth at the will of headline-writers ("Shock!" "Crisis!" "Breaking point!"). Media moguls have their own reasons for keeping us in a panic, but we don't have to play along. Good news seldom makes the news, but that doesn't mean there isn't any.

Besides, if we're getting better at detecting "how much suffering there is and always has been," that's a good thing. Detecting it is better than being oblivious to it, and could be a step towards relief. Some things have gotten beter in exactly that way: it was once standard practice to shut away the "insane," the "retarded," and the "handicapped""--three over-broad categories that too many human beings were stuffed into for too long. In some ways, we've come a long way since then.

If we're really on the side of truth, "improved detection" is a decided step in the right direction. We should want suffering to manifest itself in a more obvious and unmistakeable way. We don't want to fall for "peace when there is no peace." Nor do we want to assume that te worst is upon us because the clickbait-mongerers, for their own reasons, want us to think so. What do they know? What do we know?

The poor, the hungry, and just about everybody who happen to be born in, say, Haiti or Afghanistan, probably have a far clearer vision of what part of the story we're in. They don't have the luxury of falling for the illusion that things have suddenly gone from pretty comfortable to dreadful. Life was plenty hard for them before the current wave of bad news.

People who think things are hopeless don't fight as effectively as those who have hope. The supernatural virtue of hope, rather than mere human optimism, is key, of course. But we may have more reason for mere human optimism than we had thought. We may be in a different part of the story.

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The book I mentioned a few days ago, Drinking: A Love Story, led me to another its author recommended: A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, who was born to Irish immigrants and raised in World War II era Brooklyn.  He describes a scene from his childhood that powerfully illustrates a major theme in personalist ethics. We do justice or injustice (as the case may be) not only by conforming or failing to conform to the objective moral law, but in our responses to the concrete subjective moral realities in front of us. 

FOR THE CHRISTMAS of 1943, my mother bought me a pair of roller skates. They were strong and tough, with clamps over the front of your shoes that were tightened with a skate key. The wheels were shiny; they would never wear out, filling with those ruinous holes we called skellies. They had probably cost her a lot of money, at least three dollars. But on a frigid Saturday a week later, there was a huge scrap metal drive, men in trucks moving slowly along the avenue, shouting to everybody to haul out their old metal and iron so we could turn the stuff into bombs and bullets. People came out with beaten-up old metal chairs and lengths of pipe and broken bicycles. I thought it was my duty to make the ultimate sacrifice. I threw in my skates.

But as I watched the truck pull away, I began to cry. I wanted those skates back. And then felt as if I were a traitor, a regular Benedict Arnold. I stopped crying. I walked around the block. A cold wind was blowing off the harbor. I went home and lay down on my bed and started to read a Newsboy Legion comic to restore my sense of patriotism. Yes: I had made a sacrifice. But it was worth it. Somehow, my skates would help beat Hitler and the Japs.

Then my mother came in and asked me what was the matter.

Nothing, I lied.

Come on, something’s the matter.

Nothing’s the matter.

What happened?

I was quiet for a moment and then I whispered: I gave my skates to the scrap metal drive.

Mother of God.

She looked upset and I said, I’m sorry, Mommy.

Oh, she said, this damned war.

Then she went into the kitchen and started cooking in silence.

But that wasn’t the end of it. An hour later, my father came home drunk. We sat down to eat dinner. And he learned about the skates.

What? he said. What? You gave away your skates?

I didn’t give them away, I said. I gave them to the scrap metal drive, you know, the war effort.

You bloody idjit, he said.

And he reached over and slapped my face.

The father sinned against his son's dignity not only by calling him and idiot and slapping him in the face, but even more gravely by his utter failure to recognize and affirm the moral goodness of the boy's sacrifice. He twisted the boy's inner reality into something contemptible. That was a worse and crueler blow than the physical one.

The moral blindness and egotism that prevent us from seeing and doing justice to the subjective truth in others is (I propose) a deeper, more commonplace, and more intractable evil than the evil of lawbreaking. 

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I learned about what I am going to call “ontological shame” from a book called The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. It’s not a book you should read if you want to understand Catholic teaching on the meaning of sexuality, but it’s an eye-opening explanation for why homosexual men are so angry.  Alan Downs describes what it does to your psyche if you grow up believing that there is a truth about who you are—your very identity—that is so utterly shameful that to even speak it is a sin against charity. Your very being is unacceptable. You are not merely expected to feel guilty for things you have done, but to feel shame for who you are.

Some people teach their daughters modesty in the same way. The problem is not, ultimately, what they choose to wear, but what they are. Their female identity is so shameful that it must be hidden. It’s not their clothes that are the root of the problem, but their very bodies, exactly insofar as their bodies express their femininity. They are told, just as homosexual men are, that to speak who they are is a sin against the virtue of charity.

This is a lie that, like all powerful lies, builds on an important truth. Christ spoke with special vehemence about the seriousness of the sin of scandal, which means tempting others to sin. Out of love for our brothers, and concern for their immortal souls, women should not dress provocatively. Everyone is responsible for his own sin, but leading another into sin is also a sin. We should teach our daughters that. But we must be careful not to teach it to them in such a way as to foster ontological shame: shame in their very being as women.

But what I think has been missing from the conversation so far is this: when we correct this fault in the way modesty is taught to women, we must be careful not to impose ontological shame on men, as well. When I tried to explain what I meant to my husband, he understood me immediately. He said, “Right, like ‘men are pigs.’”

Again, this is a difficult balance. It is true that every man is responsible for his own sin. It is true that men should not, in general, tell women how to dress. It is true that a woman should not be ashamed of having a woman’s body. But if a man hears, “My body is not shameful. I will dress however I want, and if you have a problem with it, that’s because of what you’re like, not because of what I’m like”—that’s ontological shaming as well. Just as it’s wrong to tell a woman that being a woman makes her dirty in her soul, it’s wrong to tell a man that his masculinity makes him dirty. A man is morally bound to avoid the sin of lust, but he must not be told that his natural sexual attraction to women is a matter of shame: that who he is as a man is a shameful secret that must not be spoken of or even alluded to, on pain of admitting that he is, in the core of his being, a pig.

Modesty must be discussed in a way that avoids the ontological shaming of both women and men. Just as men must not speak of women as if their very nature makes them temptresses, women must be careful not to speak of men as if their very nature makes them animals. The modesty discussion must be carried out in a way that respects not only the ontological dignity of women, but also that of men.

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Catholics believe in both

  • the universal destination of goods, and
  • the legitimacy of private property.

So which is it? Does property belong to everybody or somebody in particular? Ane how does it play out in everyday life?

The both-and approach is perplexing to people who prefer to keep things simple. At the socialist extreme, everything (theoretically!) belongs to everybody; on the libertarian fringe, everybody has an absolute right to do as they will with what's theirs. Things get murkier for the collectivists when we ask who gets to distribute or administer all the goodies. ("Everybody" turns out the mean "the few, the higher-ups, the well-connected.") And things get murkier for private property absolutists when claims to ownership start competing with each other. 

 I'm assuming here that both the universal destination of goods and property rights are legitimate. That is, I'm taking it for granted that God didn't say, "Let there be food, but let some have more than they know what to do with and others less than they need to survive." I'm assuming, too, that we can all see the value in private ownership--that it doesn't conflict with concern for the poor. People who work in countries where a man's deed to his own little plot of land isn't respected realize this. Improving a slum-dweller's lot may well involve giving him stuff--people need foor, clothing and shelter as big-picture changes gradually settle into place--but it will also mean working to establish and defend property rights for everybody. 

Still, balancing the two principles can be vewy, vewy twicky. 

Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church harmonizes things:

The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge....(2402)

The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. (2403)

The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (2404, emphasis mine)

I don't have the expertise for a macro-analysis of such stuff, but at my house, every single day brings new opportunities to address it at the most nitty-gritty of micro-levels. How do I, an overly comfortable American, put into practice the things I say I believe? How does it play out in everyday family life?

It's not just a question of whether to acquire this minivan or that quarter-pounder, but also: How should I use it? How much time and money should I devote to maintaining it? How much mental energy do I spend stewing about it? How much does that, in turn, encroach on my clear duties and worthwhile pursuits?

The idea of stewardship can serve as a kind of litmus test to see if I'm taking the universal destination of goods seriously. Am I "making it [whatever it is] fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all to [my] family?"

The family aspect is important--my own son is not on the same level as a stranger in need, but neither should I use the son as an excuse to neglect the stranger. And then, what about investing in my Susanna's piano lessons or my JD's baseball uniforms? How do I judge between needs and wants, legitimate expenses and unconscionable luxuries? 

For example, if I order Little Caesar's to serve to my daughter's book club, that probably passes the stewardship test (it's a "fruitful" investment). If I buy it for the homeless guy on the corner, I'm definitely "communicating the benefits" of my property "to others.". If I order pizza because I'd rather surf social media than fix a nutritious meal for my family, I flunk the test. If I order so much that we're all guaranteed to descend into gluttony, it's hard to spin that as either "fruitful" or "of benefit to others."

Of course, maybe things aren't that simple. Maybe the book club is an occasion of snobbery and gossip. Maybe I need the money for my daughter's medicine and the homeless guy has other eating arrangements. Maybe I've fixed nutritious meals every night for the last six months and the attempt to do it again tonight will subject my hapless family to a maternal meltdown.

Also, we who live in abundance have lots of room for creativity in stewarding. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, I read the other day, used to trade in the first-class train tickets his father would buy him for third-class ones and give the extra money to the poor. If you're looking for ways to do good with your property instead of excuses not to, ideas present themselves a lot more readily. And people who are always finding ways to "pay it forward" seem to enjoy themselves a lot more than the calculating types.

I don't see any alternative to the constant weighing of options, constant openness to being a lot more generous than conventional wisdom would dictate, and constant willingness to double-check your own honesty.

Do you? 

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