The Personalist Project

Evan Thomas in 3D

When:Saturday March 28, 8-10pm
Where:Our home, 519 N High St, West Chester, PA

The other day I was reading the Gospel with the kids, and we talked about the Pharisees asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

In other words, “Who counts as my neighbor?” or even, “Who can I get away with not calling my neighbor?” (It’s a little like that awful husband who asked his new bride, “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?”)

The genre of the question is all too familiar to a parent: “What counts as a clean bedroom? Do I need to put the old socks, candy wrappers and comic books where they belong? How 'bout I just pile them up in nice, neat stacks?” Or, “What counts as finishing my dinner? Do I have to eat salad even if I dipped a Dorito in that nutritious guacamole just half an hour ago ?”

It’s not the kind of question the pure of heart ask. It’s legalistic and pusillanimous.  It does have a straightforward answer, though.

But the flip side of the coin—“Who is my enemy?”—turns out to be trickier than it sounds. For example, in Matthew 12, Jesus says:

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

That makes sense: don’t settle for inertia and indifference, for being “harmless.” You have to be truly, intentionally with Him. Nothing less is enough.

But then in another spot, He says

He who is not against me is with me.

The Apostle John had run into someone who was casting out demons in His name, but without following in their company. John had rebuked him, but Jesus rebuked John.

You can see the sense in that, too. We shouldn’t write off people who fail to practice the faith exactly the way we think they should. Not everyone who isn’t, strictly speaking, one of us is The Enemy.

So what about the contradiction? I'm not sure. I’m not about to explain it away. The context was different, for one thing. But clearly we can see the truth in both formulations.

Figuring out who is for and who against us becomes more and more pressing as political conversation becomes more uncivil and combative.

People who agree 100% with anything you might call traditional morality are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Refusing to ally yourself with those who disagree on arcane matters of theology and ethics begins to seem like a luxury of the past.

Still, there are some shortcuts to discernment that should be avoided.  Most recently, when Italian fashion designers Dolce and Gabanna came out against gay marriage, a lot of people took a “whoever is not against us is for us” line. No, Dolce and Gabanna are not exactly “one of us,” but we’ll take whatever allies we can get, and in fact we’re glad for the opportunity to show that we don’t reject anybody just because they identify as gay.

And yet there are those sour notes: their very disturbing ad which (no exaggeration) glamorizes gang rape, and the way they label babies conceived by IVF as “synthetic children.” Just how fully are we willing to embrace what they stand for? Not all our allies have to be altogether ideologically pure, but is there no cutoff point at all?

And remember "Je suis Charlie"? How was that for an overeager, overhasty embrace? I'm in favor of freedom of expression and against terrorist murder, but no, I'm not Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is a cesspool of obscenity and other nastiness. I don't disagree with Charlie about every single thing, but neither do I identify with him.

Vladimir Putin is another case in point. Some people, yearning for a self-confident leader who makes "family values" noises, misguidedly imagined Putin to be some kind of hero. His bloodthirsty, thuggish side is more in evidence these days, but even when it's not, we can't be content with just assuming that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. 

So as I have these discussions with my children, I try to teach them there's no substitute for looking head-on at reality and walking in the truth. Raising the next generation to settle for intellectual shortcuts is bound to end badly.

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The National Catholic Register has published an essay of mine on the meaning of the Pope's question, "Who am I to judge?" It was inspired by a frustrating conversation with fellow Catholic conservatives about capital punishment. 

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If you're like me, you have a long list of great and profound books that you're beginning to suspect you'll never actually read. It takes too long, and they're too difficult to grasp fully without a teacher and comrades-in-reading.

Wanting to do our part to address this broad existential crisis of post-Christian culture, plus wanting extra motivation to pick up those books ourselves, we've begun offering what we will hope will become a series.

Starting with Berdyaev's The Meaning of the Creative Act (suggested by one of our members), Jules is reading and pod-casting about it chapter by chapter on our member page. 

It's like audio spark notes, but better, because you can give feedback, add insights, and raise questions or objections.

You can find the first installment here. If you like it, please let us know! Feedback keeps us going.

And if you have suggestions or requests for future readings and recordings, let us know that too.

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If you doubt that the way we live and act, the way we dress and carry ourselves, the tone of our voice, the expressions of our face, bespeak our sense of self and others—our convictions (conscious or not) about what is and isn't important, watch this remarkable video (hat tip daughter Rose).

Broken, lost dolls are rescued and transformed from anonymous sex objects into unique personalities, ready to love and be loved.

I saw it and thought of the phrase attributed (rightly or not) to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words." How much is communicated without words!

Not only that, but the video manages to capture the love between the husband and wife, and between the designer and her mother. It captures authentic femininity (which is intelligent and creative, plus tender and receptive) and the attractions of motherhood and domesticity combined with professional expertise. I am blown away.

I also thought of Joseph Ratzinger's talking about the Church becoming smaller and its remaining communities of faith attracting numbers through the loveliness of their life in common.

The world is starving for sweetness, goodness, beauty, modesty. When it finds them, it can't resist.

See more images of doll conversions here.

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My third-grade teacher was named Mr. Crisco. That was silly enough, but then he decided we were going to have a Feelings Chart and fill it out every single day. On the first day, we all decided together (Mr. Crisco being a very collaborative sort of guy) which color would stand for which feeling (red for excited, yellow for happy, black for sad or mad), and then each day, depending on how we were feeling, we’d fill in a square in the corresponding color.

Either my sister Abby or I got in trouble for filling in all the squares black in advance. (She remembers it being me and I remember it being her.) What Mr. Crisco didn’t understand was that we weren’t expressing rage or depression; we were just rebelling at having our feelings pried into and being required to declare them publicly.

We came by it honestly. My mother once had to take one of those invasive tell-us-who-you-really-are tests at school, and she got in trouble for filling in C for every single question.

For decades, the Feelings Chart was emblematic to me of what was wrong with public education, and the world at large, in the ‘70’s. You go to school to learn, don't you? Not to express your feelings. Your teachers are there to teach you, not to pry into your emotional life.

But it occurs to me I was missing something. Mr. Crisco had maybe 25 kids in his class. He did need some fairly efficient method of identifying what state we were all in, and not just whether we knew our multiplication tables. Maybe it wasn’t just pure nosiness for nosiness’ sake, popular as that was at the time. What if he had neglected to notice a suicidal child? What if he'd failed to mention one to the parents? What if his idea of being a teacher was so impoverished that it was exhausted by “Feelings are not my department”? 

Teachers are in a funny position. The good ones know their students and care about how they turn out. A student who feels known and cared about will be much more motivated to learn. 

Then again, teachers also need to just plain instill the multiplication tables and other just plain facts (I speak as someone who has spent much of the last two weeks drilling multiplication facts into my daughter to the rhythm of the mini-trampoline. That’s as fun as I can make it, and the thrill wears off pretty fast, it turns out).

The Feelings Chart was a horrible example of how reductionist attempts to nail down a child’s inner world can go wrong, but maybe Mr. Crisco was on to something.

You can’t reduce somebody’s inner world to an easily referenced color on a chart. But it speaks well of him that he was trying. It seems to me that no amount of tools and techniques will help a teacher who's not genuinely concerned for his students, and that for one who is, many such tricks, and nearly all educational fads, will be superfluous.

But I'd be interested to hear from teachers. It's easy enough to see possible pitfalls in your approach to your students' affective dimension.  But what does work?

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