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

In a recent First Things piece, R. R. Reno puts his finger on something intriguing. He explains:

I'm just old enough to have internalized a fairly straightforward set of expectations. Life would be like a train ride with regularly scheduled station stops: college, job, marriage, children, retirement, and the grave. I could make mistakes and be diverted for a time, but the train would still take me forward, guiding me along the main course of life, however many side trips I might take. This gave me a sense of security, a feeling that life would take care of itself.

A friend, somewhat younger than me, ventured a strikingly different metaphor. He said life is like a sailboat heading toward a self-chosen destination. The always changing winds require tacking first this way, and then that. You must always be vigilant, assessing conditions and making decisions, all with no guarantee you'll get where you want to go.

If the train station metaphor is what's in the back of your mind, at least you know where you stand. Even if you've stalled at, say, the marriage station, or the job station, or you mix up the order, you know where you're headed. And it's the same place everybody else is headed. You didn't have the freedom and creativity to make things up as you go along, nor the pressure and burden of having to do so.

Reno links this shift to millennials' tendency to be easily "triggered," to crave "safe spaces" to suffer so often from anxiety. These are easy traits to ridicule. When I first heard about it--that time college had a speaker request that people clap silently so as not to upset those who would be triggered by the sound of palm striking palm--I thought it was a joke, or that something had been ripped out of context.

But no, it wasn't made up. It wasn't out of context. And lots of people have responded with disgust at how soft we've gotten. They have no sympathy for all the "special snowflakes" and assume they're just more spoiled and lazy than previous generations. 

Reno has a different idea. He links the increase in anxiety to growing up with the sailboat paradigm. It's up to you to design your life. No autopilot allowed. No conventional trajectory to follow. Nothing but freedom and adventure. Good luck, kid! Don't mess up!

And I'll add my own unconscionably broad generalization: in the early twentieth century, lots of Americans were focused on survival and living with dignity in a new land, and then coming through the wars to peace and prosperity.

After a protracted struggle, they managed to get themselves on the train and settle on an itinerary. By the fifties, it was set, and following it was the respectable thing to do. All aboard!

In the sixties and seventies, the Baby Boomers came to despise the itinerary and wanted to set out for the open seas--at least in their youth.

As they aged, of course, many of them ended up shooting for a stable career and family life and, in many cases, an exceedingly comfortable retirement. 

But somewhere along the way, with all the despising of stability and conventionality of "adulting" before they settled down to it, they never taught their own children how to do it. They also left them ambivalent about whether to try to board the train or sail recklessly into the blue.

Eventually, that generation could no longer avoid the chores of adulting, but they found themselves uniquely unqualified to tackle them. Whether or not we agree about them being as spoiled and lazy and entitled as they're cracked up to be, it's clear that many are simply untrained. Faced with a choice between hitting all the stations with no map, and making it all up as you go along, anybody would feel overwhelmed. 

From a personalist standpoint, there are lots of caveats. The sailboat analogy might seem the most fitting. Why, after all, are we given freedom and the power to steer our own course if we're not going to use it? Why just tread the same path as everybody else? But then, being the master of your soul is not about casting away the "station stops" of human nature and wandering off without guidance or stability. And you can reject a life of tidy, conventional station stops without denying human nature and rejecting all the institutions founded upon it.  You can stretch each metaphor till it reaches the point of caricature.

Still, I think Reno's point goes some way towards explaining how we got where we are.

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In my last post I declared that belief in the soulmate phenomenon is in better accord with the truth about persons than the alternative. Maybe at this point I should explain exactly what I mean by the soulmate phenomenon and what by the alternative. It's hard to be exact about such complicated and elusive things. But I can at least try to zero in on it a little better than I've done up till now.

By the soulmate phenomenon, I mean the lived experience two people have of being so well-matched interiorly—on the level of the soulthat they feel practically designed and destined-by-God for each other. It typically involves a view of courtship and marriage that encourages single men and women to hope and pray that they will find their perfect match—not a perfect person, but a "perfect match" for them. Raissa Maritain captures the phenomenon beautifully in her memoir, We Have Been Friends Together, when she describes her early acquaintance  her future husband Jacques:

For the first time I could really talk to someone about myself, emerge from my silent reflections in order to share them… For the first time I had met someone who at the outset inspired me with absolute confidence; someone who from that moment I knew would never disappoint me; someone with whom I could so readily come to an understanding on all things. Another Someone had pre-established between us, and in despite of such great differences of temperament and of origin, a sovereign harmony.

By the alternative, I mean a view of courtship and marriage that downplays romance; that dismisses the notion that God has "someone special out there just for you" as silly nonsense; that sees "feelings" as relatively unimportant, even problematic, in courtship, and  that talks as if the mature approach to finding a spouse is to look for solid, objective, good qualities in a potential mate, then make a firm commitment of the will.

Many Christian leaders and teachers promote this alternative, implicitly or explicitly. Eric Metaxas is only the latest example. I've more than once heard priests preach it. Lots of singles act on it, or try to, believing that they should, if they want to be serious Christians.

Keeping in mind the caveats offered in my earlier post, I want to give some reasons why I think the soulmate idea coheres better with Christianity and with personalism. In other words, why I think it's much truer than the alternative.

1. It corresponds to the natural desires of the human heart.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Among the deepest and most universal desires of the human heart is the longing for a great love—not just any kind of love, but conjugal love—a passionate, permanent, all-encompassing companionship of body and soul with another human being.

2. It is everywhere found in experience.

It not only in fairy tales and novels and poetry and music and rom-coms that we come across moving and thrilling examples of the soulmate phenomenon, but in ordinary life too, in our family and among our friends—sweet and tender and touching stories of "matches made in heaven"—couples who years and decades into marriage still talk of their meeting as if it were almost a miracle. Just last month I met a widower, the grandfather of one of Benedict's classmates. Within minutes, a conversation about biking led to his telling how he was a seminarian in England in the 1960's, when the upheaval around Vatican II made him doubt his vocation. He was at a  pub one night, when in walked "a lady in a red dress," and "the rest is history." "She made me very happy for 50 years." People like him (and me too) don't find talk of soulmates "silly nonsense." They find it simply true to their experience.

3. Scripture, Tradition, and the lives of the saints univocally teach that God's provision for us isn't general, but personal. He not only gives humanity everything it needs to live a properly human life; He provides for each soul, individually and intimately. "Even before a word is on my tongue, oh Lord, thou knoweth it." Is it probable that the same God who knit us in our mother's womb, who calls us each by name, who knows when we sit and when we stand, who has numbered each of our days, would have no particular plan for our prime vocation?

4. In all the deepest acts of the person, and in human life as such, subjectivity has a certain priority over objectivity.

We feel it in our most important choices and decisions; we feel it in friendships. We are drawn to others not primarily because of their objective qualities, but because of their subjectivity, their unique and incommunicable self. And the deeper the friendship, the more we feel it. Dr. Crosby used to quote an author saying, "If you ask me why I loved him, I can only say because he was he and I was I." Their "interior configurations" (a term I learned from a letter Wojtyla wrote to a young woman) matched. For Wojtyla, this was clearly key to marriage discernment, and it is beautifully illustrated in the opening pages of the Jeweler's Shop, where Andrew and Teresa experience themselves as being made for each other.

I went quite a long way before reaching Teresa, I did not find her at once…
After a time I realized that she had come into the focus of my attention,
I mean, I had to be interested in her,
and at the same time I accepted the fact that I had to.

Though I could have behaved differently from the way I felt I must,
I thought there would be no point.

There must have been something in Teresa that suited my personality.

I thought much at the time about the “alter ego”.

If a young man were to marry because that was what was expected of a young man of his age and class in his general circumstances, or if a young woman were to marry because her father told her he had found her husband, we might not call it absolutely wrong, but we would intuitively feel it was sub-par. The vital core is missing. We want to choose and be chosen for ourselves, not for objective suitability. It belongs to the dignity of person and to the essence of marriage.

I have several more reasons, but this is getting too long, so I'll take them up in a separate post in the next day or two.

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I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry about The New Culture of Life, posted by Ruth Graham in Slate last week. It's all about how "the future of pro-life activism is young, female, secular, and 'feminist.'"

My first instinct is to welcome the post, for both its content and its appearance on such a left-leaning site. Another happy surprise: photo after photo of appealing, cheerful, confident-looking, young pro-life women.

On the other hand, it makes clear how many people the earlier, more religiously driven pro-life movement has alienated.  Lots of people had bought the story that abortion isn't a human rights issue at all but just a private matter of conscience for a few odd people with a few odd consciences. It's as if we were rallying to enforce Friday abstinence, and everyone was, understandably enough, retorting, "Look, you eat all the fish you want, but hands off my cheeseburger."

This is largely because interested parties have been twisting the narrative to make us seem fanatical, incoherent, and theology-driven. But we've done some of the alienating ourselves. We've treated certain things that are legitimate matters of opinion--about foreign policy, economics, and criminal justice--as if they were on the same level as Thou shalt not kill. We've cozied up to one political party--and no wonder, since the other one has steadfastly refused to yield an inch.

On the other hand, though (let's say I have three hands today), I have to wonder about the staying power of a pro-life movement that's deeply confused about or blithely indifferent to foundational realities like masculinity, femininity, marriage, and plain old biology. 

The new, secular pro-lifers aren't riled up about transgender bathroom laws. They seem to have bought the idea that gender may be "assigned" at birth but it's something you can make up as you go along. This is nice for big-tent purposes, of course. And you don't have to accept traditional Judeo-Christian morality 100% to recognize, for instance, that "violence against another human being can never be a human right," as a sign displayed by Terissa Bulkovinac of Secular Pro-Life puts it.

But on the OTHER hand (OK, I'm practically an octopus today),  it's good news precisely because the view really is more holistic in certain ways. The people profiled here see more clearly than some of us religious types that there's a larger principle in play than Don't kill the unborn--a seamless garment, if you like (provided it's understood as something more than a pretext to go soft on abortion). The larger principle? You don't violate the vulnerable. You therefore care for the poor, AND the foreigner, AND the special-needs children, AND the addict, AND the mentally ill. And even the criminal.

 In short, you don't try to skirt the inherent dignity of any human being. Caring for the unborn baby--the archetypical "little guy"--fits in naturally with concern for all his fellow little guys. 

Besides, there are two separate tendencies here. One is non-religious people affirming pro-life principles. The other is religious people choosing to frame their arguments so that they rest on premises anybody can affirm. The presence of this second group has been pounced on by pro-abortion writer Amanda Marcotte as evidence that pro-lifers are just as religious as ever but are sneakily posing as reasonable people. But most on the left concede that the pro-life movement is much younger and divers-er than it used to be.

Well, I didn't mean for this to degenerate into political talk. Who could imagine cyberspace was suffering any shortage of that these days? The personalist point is this: 

When we pigeonhole people--as when we divide the human race up into religious pro-lifers with all the conventionally attendant trimmings, and secular pro-choicers, with all of their usual trappings--we not only alienate potential allies, we ignore large swaths of reality. And when we let ourselves be pigeonholed, everybody loses. In the end, reality reasserts itself. Our compartments fall apart. They turn out to be less useful political weapons than they seemed. Neither the most stereotypical Religious Rightist nor the most fanatical secular humanist can spin the new alignments as evidence of their favorite cliches.

And that's a good thing.

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One the earliest philosophical lessons I learned came from Socrates, through Alice von Hildebrand. 

Wrongdoing creates "a metaphysical disharmony" in the universe; punishment sets it right.

A quote by John Paul II, highlighted by a friend on Facebook this morning, reminded me of it.

The conversion of the heart cannot ever fail to include penitence. In a certain sense this is its principal element. In fact, it is its essential element. Penitence means a profound change of heart under the influence of the word of God. It is a commitment to restore the equilibrium and harmoney shattered by sin, and to therefore change the direction of our life, even at the cost of great sacrifice. Repentence therefore is the conversion that passes from one's heart to one's concrete works and thus to the entire life of a Christian.

It also reminded me of our on-going discussion of true forgiveness vs. dysfunctional forgiveness. Those who preach the latter—who talk as if Jesus' death on the cross means that we don't have to be concerned with justice anymore, only mercy—miss this essential element of the objective disharmony and rupture created between persons by serious wrongdoing.

It's not repaired though the a cheap imitation of mercy that pretends it isn't there. It's repaired through penitence, that is, "a profound change of heart," expressed in acts of reparation. 

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Our 8th grade son has a quiz today on the Forward and the Preface to the Second Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  He was finding the Forward especially hard to understand, so, to help him, I read it myself last night. Something Tolkien said in it about allegories vs. histories jumped out at me. [my bold]

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

He nails something key here. It reminds me exactly of the distinction the Pope draws between evangelization and proselytizing, or between good preaching and moralizing. The one leaves you free; the other puts pressure. The one springs from profound respect; the other proceeds from an assumed superiority.

I remember having heard or read that Tolkien criticized Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia for being too allegorical. I didn't quite understand it at the time, but I do now, as I've become more alert to the master/slave dynamic constantly menacing human life.

Over the summer, I re-read Descent Into Hell, a novel by Charles Williams, a friend of Lewis and Tolkien's, and a fellow member of their literary club, Inklings. I had read it 25 years ago or so, and it had stayed with me faintly—especially the character who preferred the image of the young woman he was attracted to to the actual woman he knew. I loved the way Williams showed that that character's "descent into hell" had everything to do with his wanting others not to resist his will. I always thought of it in connection with Scheler's definition of reality as "resistance." 

But I didn't like the book as much on re-reading. The powerful insight remained, but, on the whole, I found the story too didactic—as if Williams were preaching at me, all unfittingly.

Even people who see and feel the problem—who know that the difference between good and evil on the interpersonal level is the difference between serving and manipulating, or between love and domination, find it very difficult to escape the dynamic in our mode and manners. It creeps into our relations in a million ways, both subtle and obvious.

Being able to detect it in ourselves and others isn't the same as being free of the tendency. But it's a start at least.

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