The Personalist Project

Marks of personhood

each person is unrepeatably and incommunicably himself or herself…each is not only an objective but also a subjective being…each lives out of his or her interiority…each is a being of surpassing, indeed infinite worth and dignity…eachcan live and thrive only by existing with and for other persons.

John F. Crosby, Personalist Papers

The great Dr. Louise Cowan died a few days ago at the age of 98. She'd held chairs, founded institutions, written ground-breaking works of literary theory, and won awards and medals, but I knew her as my teacher at the Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts and later at the International Academy of Philosophy.

Dr. Louise was a professor of literature, not philosophy, and I don't recall the word personalism ever passing her lips.  She lived it, though.

Coasting through life on automatic pilot, running on inertia, following the crowd--these were thoroughly foreign to her. She could have pleaded some excellent excuses: near-blindness (originating in a long-ago thyroid problem); extreme old age (she continued teaching and public speaking into her nineties); caring for a husband who, in his own old age, no longer recognized her--but no, she spent her life delving into good things and showering them on her students, even the lazy and unappreciative ones (but more on that in a minute).

She didn't cut herself slack, either. Truth trumped everything, and literature was an authentic path to truth. I remember her saying, "You know, I've been teaching it this way for twenty-five years, but when I read it last night, I realized..." She encouraged us to shun going through the motions, too. If we'd worked all night on a paper and then realized our thesis didn't hold up, she told us, we should go ahead and insert a "not" in the first sentence. Nothing that smacked of fakery got by her.

In fact, in my two decades as a student the only teacher who ever walked out on a class was Dr. Louise. As soon as it became clear that none of us had read the assignment, she just--left. I remember it thirty years later: it taught me more than I could ever have learned from spending that class-hour trying to blend in with the furniture, distracted by fear that my laziness might be exposed. Next day she was back, casting more pearls before a less swinish audience.

But that only happened once, and maybe it only worked because, seeing the caliber of the one we were disrespecting, we were already a little ashamed of ourselves. What I remember about her was not strictness but graciousness, and the way her love for what she was doing could draw all kinds of previously invisible riches out of any day's reading.

I remember finishing my Madame Bovary assignment and thinking that here was a fairly entertaining (if depressing) romance novel, but I was stumped about its presence in the core curriculum. Dr. Louise had a way of reading a book out loud, though, that brought out everything it had to give, and it turned out that Madame Bovary was about the bankruptcy of romanticism, the rise of scientism, and other surprisingly meaty themes that had escaped my notice entirely.

Because she was so gracious and brilliant, she inspired a lot of imitation, and even unintentional mimicry. We wanted to be just like her. She always discouraged this, just as she'd discourage our admiringly chiming in with her opinions. Once when we were studying Crime and Punishment she threw out the idea that since an author creates a whole world, when we're assessing, say, Sonya's life of prostitution, we should do it in the context of that world, not according to the truth about intrinsic good and evil that would normally apply. As I remember it, we all sat there deferentially drinking this in, until she finally burst out, in that unfeigned Southern accent: "Well now, come on, isn't ANYBODY going to argue with me?"

She had no tolerance for manipulative sentimentalism, but, being warmhearted, she was susceptible to it even while seeing through it. "What a terrible movie!" she'd exclaim, after a low-quality tearjerker--but in tears, because it had worked. 

I could go on, but the best tribute any of us can pay her is to live as she taught us to live--not, of course, to imitate her, but to walk in the truths she showed to us.

Image of Dr. Louise Cowan courtesy of the Dallas Institute

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Some time ago, in Jerusalem, I had the privilege of hearing a Rabbi (whose name I can’t remember) reflect on his experience helping Jewish students recover from sexual abuse at their schools. To his surprise and chagrin, this Rabbi had noticed that the faith of these students, and the faith environment in their schools, often hindered their recovery instead of facilitating it. How, he wondered, could this be?

I recall two of his suggested explanations, which went something like this:

  • Some of the student-victims, he said, were burdened (consciously or not) by a sense that whatever happened to them was part of God’s inscrutable will. Instead of complaining and raising a big stink about it, they should strive to accept and learn from their suffering. What was God trying to teach them? Did they, in some sense, deserve it or bring it upon themselves?

  • Many victims worried about being a bad witness. It was their responsibility, they felt, even in the midst of their suffering—and, indeed, especially then—to witness to the hope and joy engendered by faith. Drawing public attention to their own misery, or to the patterns of sin and dysfunction in their faith community, would send the wrong message.

It is easy to see how these misinterpretations of faith (whether Jewish or Christian) make it difficult to deal with cases of abuse. Victims feel religious pressure to hide facts and excuse wrongdoers, and they are encouraged to ignore rather than process their wounds. (See Marie Meaney’s post “Smiling at Jesus”, and the comments under it, for more on this.)

So, what to do? I liked the contribution of one participant in the discussion with the Rabbi. She suggested that we must recover the “lamentation tradition” of the faith. Without it, she argued, faith becomes superficial, unreal, and useless when the going gets tough.

Now, I knew that the Bible included some lamenting and complaining by saintly persons. But the idea of a sustained and substantial “lamentation tradition” was new to me. So I googled for a good article on the topic. The one I found was by Kathleen O’Connor, called “Lamenting Back to Life.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I noticed a few points that are relevant here.

  • O’Connor draws especially on what are known as the “Confessions of Jeremiah.”* Some scholars, she notes, object to the term “confessions” to describe these passages, because they are neither confessions of sin, nor confessions of faith in the normal sense. But O’Connor defends the term:

    I think they are confessions of faith because, in the midst of profound suffering, they cling fiercely to God, even though they do so accusingly, and even though they verge toward despair. That is what prayers of lament do. They complain, whine, and berate God even as they keep relationship alive.

    Jeremiah, in other words, refuses to fake it—to pretend he's okay with what is happening. But he doesn't give up on God either. Instead, he exercises his faith by confronting God with his wretchedness. The resulting prayers of lamentation are sometimes shocking — who does Jeremiah think he is to address God in this way? — but they are very real and personal.

  • They are also attractive, which seems strange at first. If appearing joyful is essential to being a good witness, Jeremiah is failing badly. But the fact is that these visceral passages draw us in instead of putting us off. “It was the seething anguish and personal voice of these prayers,” O’Connor writes, that first attracted her to these passages in Jeremiah. I think they are attractive because we sympathize. We recognize ourselves and our own suffering in them. And we are inspired by the depth and strength of a faith that can cling to God in the midst of misery.

    We are also attracted by the kind of God to whom we can turn in our suffering, a God who listens to us (even if we address Him improperly), and whom we can ask why this or that evil is happening to us. In his encyclical on The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, John Paul II writes that “man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it.” And in Crossing the Threshold of Hope he adds that God “desires to justify Himself to mankind. He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us,” even when we aren’t pleasant company. All this is attractive and consoling.

  • A typical temptation for victims of sexual abuse is to be ashamed and/or blame themselves for what happened to them. And far too often, as the Rabbi noticed, they are encouraged in this by religious teachers. Jeremiah (like Job) is helpful here, because he so frankly and confidently asserts his own innocence. There's no false modesty in him. He knows he has been a good and faithful servant of God. His prayers, therefore, O’Connor writes, enable victims to “let into their spiritual world the possibility that they may not deserve such overwhelming destruction, that their behavior may not be the disaster’s principal cause.”

    We may not be as innocent as Jeremiah or Job. But I am sure that we often honestly experience something like "I don't deserve this; why is it happening to me?" In such cases, it is unreal and counterproductive to pretend otherwise.

To sum up: I think the participant at the conference was on to something important. We could learn a lot from a greater familiarity with the lamentation tradition. One of those things is to worry less about our witness and more about living our faith in spirit and in truth.


* (Jer. 11:18-12:6; 15:1-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18)

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Well, I hate to draw attention to articles like this one  by Eleanor Robertson about  the coming normalization of artificial wombs. It's useful, though, to illustrate what happens when your ideas of women, men, the body, the family and biology itself get unmoored from reality as given and pasted back together in a macabre game of mix-and-match.

The first thing that struck me about this 22-paragraph look at machine-grown children was the absence of any concern for the children themselves. Then again, since the author is focused on how removing the fetus from its mother's body alive will transform the debate, I guess any reservations about the baby's welfare could be countered with "What, you'd rather we end its life?"

(This is a familiar theme for children conceived by anonymous donors: any possible protest of theirs is thought to be trumped by an appeal to the gratitude they ought to feel for existing at all. For a glimpse into the unintended consequences such conception creates, see "Anonymous Us," where donor-conceived children share their stories.)

One commenter on Robertson's article expressed doubts about the emotional effects on the child, but she was shouted down by somebody else who dismissed the idea of a fetus feeling complex emotions (she seemed to consider this a refutation). Another commenter, oblivious of physiology, declared that surely an artificial womb must be an improvement on being trapped in the uterus for nine months and then exiting through the birth canal. Many others were skeptical about the process becoming standard or affordable anytime soon and called the whole conversation premature. I hope they're right.

The author is rightly concerned that the idea of ectogenesis "raises the prospect of new forms of surveillance, control and coercion." As she points out,

...economic rationalisation and technological innovation have transformed and corroded institutions like the nuclear family, the school and the church in the pursuit of economic growth.

Why shouldn't these forces continue to do the same to the bodies of women? Artificial wombs might be just the sort of tool that would allow the state and the market to completely subsume one of the most sacred human activities into the logic of efficiency, without the messy mum-bo-be part getting in the way.

So she worries: governments, employers and market forces might coerce women into outsourcing gestation--or might prevent those who want babies without pregnancy and birth from achieving that. And she sees that the "my body, my choice" argument for abortion becomes obsolete if the baby no longer need be inside its mother's body:

Our most accepted rationale for abortion rests on the pregnant person’s right to control over her own body – what we call bodily autonomy. So what happens when it’s possible to extract a foetus from a uterus without killing it, and place it in the WombPro9000 for the remaining gestational period?

I give her credit for not flinching from the word killing, anyway.

As distasteful as the prospect of such coercion is, it's no more disturbing that what she sees as advantages. For one thing, she suggests,

Not having to contend with the biological limitations of ordinary pregnancy would be a gift to those suffering from infertility, gay men, trans women, and many other groups whose longing for children is circumscribed to varying extents. Our cultural understanding of family grows ever more inclusive, and access to reproductive technology could play a large role in supporting that pluralism.

It sure could.

Whose longing is circumscribed--that's the key right there. It's not so much that we object to having to "contend with" this or that "biological limitation."  Some desire pregnancy; others would rather avoid it or, as the euphemism has it, interrupt it. Some want to "identify as" a man, some as a woman. Some prefer to remain noncommittal. 

But what we chafe at most of all is being "circumscribed" by reality itself. Male and female are 'the given," and we're no longer content with gaining approval for this or that contradiction of reality as given; what we're really after is abolishing givenness altogether. It's American can-do-ism run amok. We will not serve. It's not so much that we're unwilling to serve a personal Supreme Being--though it comes to the same thing. It's more that we don't want to bow to being, or reality, at all.

What reality has joined, we keep finding ways to put asunder. We decoupled the marriage act from marriage, and from procreation, too.  First we wanted union without procreation, and then we set our sights on procreation without union.  Once we figured out babies without procreation, we moved on to motherhood without pregnancy. This is deconstruction, not as a literary game, but as a literal pastime. 

What we tear apart can't always be pasted together again, no matter how high-tech our game of mix-and-match becomes.

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Reading an unsettling headline about Cardinal Schönborn not long ago, I paused and reminded myself of the remarkable impact he's had on my understanding over the years. It's not normal. I don't know him personally; I haven't followed him closely or read his books and scholarly articles. I've met him and heard him speak only a few times, and yet, I can pinpoint at least four occasions when something he said brought about a seismic shift in my thinking and perspective.

Each is substantial enough to merit a separate post.

The first time I met him was in 1991—even before he was named Archbishop of Vienna— when he visited Franciscan University's newly-established Austrian campus. Jules and I were on the staff there at the time. He must have said mass, but I don't remember that. What I remember is the dinner afterwards, with maybe 20 of us at table. The first impression was of his exceptional personal dignity and graciousness. To encounter him is to perceive immediately the attractive power of aristocratic refinement married to Christian faith and virtue. The gentleness of his voice alone communicates grace.

He spoke of his work on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, then in development. Afterwards we were invited to ask questions. A history professor who had been born and raised in pre-conciliar Catholic culture made a humorous and sarcastic remark about the Jesuits and their role at the forefront of post-conciliar heterodoxy.

At the time, I was with the professor in thinking about the Church in rather black and white terms. There were good guys and bad guys. The good guys were those defending orthodoxy; the bad guys were those who weren't defending orthodoxy. The Jesuits (on the whole) were definitely among the bad guys.

Cardinal Schönborn's response took me aback. First, he took the comment seriously. Then he spoke with sympathy and admiration of the extremely challenging mission the Jesuits had of being on the "frontier" of developing theological truth.

It was a completely new thought to me—the idea that the Jesuits might have a mission like that in the modern world, and that it's a difficult one, calling for respect. To simply defend orthodoxy is comparatively easy. To open yourself to all that's valid in modern experience without losing your footing in Tradition is, literally, a super-human task. We shouldn't be surprised or scandalized to find that mistakes get made along the way.

Then he spoke with equal sympathy and respect toward those (like the professor and me) who were alarmed by the turn the Jesuits (and many others with them) had taken. "There was a real moment of fright." In the decade or two following Vatican II, it looked at times as if the Church really was veering into disastrous error. 

In just a few lines, spoken off the cuff, he had exposed to me my own small-mindedness and lack of faith. He had given me a vision of the workings of Providence in human history and through human struggle that was far grander and more beautiful than anything I had till then conceived. 

He taught me to be at the same time larger-minded and humbler in my evaluations of the world and the Church—less peremptory, more generous in my judgments and interpretations of others—and more confident that God is on His throne in heaven and all shall be well. 

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That was the question Christ asked Bartimeas, the blind man, before healing him. Our new pastor, Fr. Scott Hahn (no, not THAT Scott Hahn, as he has to explain over and over), showed me an angle of it I'd never thought of before. 

The passage comes at the tail end of a series of people asking Jesus for all kinds of things. James and John wanted to sit on his right and on his left. The rich young man wanted a list of actions that would guarantee salvation. The pharisees wanted a sign. Everybody wanted something. 

The blind man could have asked for anything, but he asked for the one thing he needed in order to follow Jesus. You can't follow somebody you can't see. 

So, Fr. Scott asked, what if Christ appeared and asked one of us, "What do you want me to do for you?" I realized I'd be inclined to say "Find a buyer for our house," or "Clean this kitchen," or "Make these kids stop bickering." Something shortsighted like that.

But it was also a privileged moment, because my eyes were opened for a second to the utter silliness of going through life consumed by anxiety about perishable things--the kind of things nobody on their deathbed would give a second thought to. They're the kinds of troubles and obstacles and tasks I've already run into and overcome, or not, a million times in the last half-century. Every one seemed insurmountable at the time, and every one--it's clear to me even now---was way, way less earthshaking than it seemed.

It's easy to act like the man in the story who, given three wishes, wished for sausages, and then, in annoyance at his wife's scolding, wished them stuck to her nose, and then was forced to use up his third chance by wishing them off again.

What I really want (whether I know it or not) is not any change of circumstances at all, but a Person. I remember Sister Ann Shields making the same point once: when you're interceding for somebody, the only kind of intercession that makes sense is to ask that they be brought closer to God. Of course, it's fine to be more specific. But however urgent and legitimate the crisis, however anxious we are for answers to prayers like Please find him a job," "Please get her off drugs" or "Please heal him of this terrifying disease," we wouldn't really want even those wishes granted at the cost of distance from God. 

If God is the Way, the Truth, and the Life--if the Good, the True, and the Beautiful meet in Him--then a Person is the most "objective" reality there is. We're so used to mistaking subjectivity with subjectivism, and acting as if what goes on within a person must be lacking in reality, that this might sound odd. 

But that's just because we're blind.

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