The Personalist Project

Authenticity as a moral ideal

Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own ‘measure’ is his way of putting it. This idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me. This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost, partly through the pressures toward outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice. And then it greatly increases the importance of this self-contact by introducing the principle of originality: each of our voices has something of its own to say. Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can only find it within.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

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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I've been reading the Bible with my kids (which I highly recommend, if only for the entertaining conversations it keeps on provoking), and something struck me about God's pedagogy.

It's not just that He takes a gradual approach: from external observance to internal conversion, from ritual purity to purity of heart. From the objective to the subjective, you could say. Salvation History 101.

What struck me this time is that history is played out over and over in His dealings with each of us, too. 

After arranging the People's miraculous escape from the land of Egypt, He drills the Law into their heads: right and wrong, true and false, good and evil. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Regardless of what's going on inside you, it is what it is. As Flannery O'Connor puts it, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

Then, with the New Covenant, He shines an ever-intensifying spotlight on the interior--on what goes on within the person. It's not that He abandons the Law's objective requirements--in fact, He sharpens and clarifies them (as with polygamy and divorce). Nor does he allow us to jettison the law with the convenient excuse that, after all, what goes on in the heart is so much more significant than any petty list of rules and regulations. Condemning adultery "in the heart" doesn't suddenly confer a stamp of approval on the old-fashioned bodily kind. Rather, God digs deeper into the Law's significance and invites us to join in the excavation project.

The Old Covenant, of course, is replete with hints about the importance of the interior. After all, if the caricature of the "God of the Old Testament" were accurate and He were only concerned with loading His People down with rules and regulations, what's the prohibition of the invisible, interior sin of coveting doing there, hogging a full twenty percent of the Ten Commandments? And the longsuffering and compassionate God revealed by Isaiah and Hosea is hardly a petty bureaucrat.

But it's a matter of pedagogy. You have to learn what the rules even are before you can move on to obeying them in the right spirit. 

Jacques Philippe, in Searching for and Maintaining Peace, explains how to move from even wanting good things at all to wanting them in a good way. He's looking to ease our transition from desiring evil things to desiring good things, and then to desiring good things in the right way. If your moral development stalls at the first step, you might slip into self-righteousness and moral blindness. You might become unable to discern that the problem could possibly lie with you. After all, the things you approve really are objectively good.

As Fr. Jacques puts it: 

Not only must we be careful to want and desire good things for their own sake, but also to want and desire them in a way that is good. To be attentive not only to that which we want, but also to the way in which we want them. ...We want something which is good, and even very good, but we want it in a way that is bad.

He gives an example, perhaps from his own experience:

It is normal that the superior of a community should watch over the sanctity of those in his care. It's an excellent thing and conforms to the will of God. But if this superior gets angry, irritated, or loses his peace over the imperfections or the lack of fervor of his brothers, it is certainly not the Holy Spirit that is animating him. ... Because the thing we want is good, even seen as desired by God, we feel justified in wanting it with that much more impatience and displeasure if it is not realized. The more it seems good to us, the more we are agitated and preoccupied to realize it!

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how this could apply to childrearing and other family matters. He goes on:

We should, therefore ... not only verify that the things we want are good in themselves, but also that ... the disposition of heart in which we want them [is] good. That is to say that our wanting must always be caring, peaceful, patient, detached and abandoned to God. It should not be an impatient wanting, hurried, restless, irritated, etc.

The truth still doesn't change according to our ability to stomach it. But pointing our judgment in the direction of objective truth is just the first step. The Pharisees did as much. Inside, they were like "dead men's bones" and "full of all uncleanness," but that didn't occur to them. 

For us, though, there's still time to profit by their bad example.

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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 meeting 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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