The Personalist Project

Proclaiming an idea vs. witnessing to a person

This is how the Apostles’ adventure began, as an encounter of people who are open to one another.  For the disciples, it was the beginning of a direct acquaintance with the Teacher, seeing where he was staying and starting to get to know him.  Indeed, they were not to proclaim an idea, but to witness to a person.

Benedict XVI, Spiritual thoughts: in the first year of his papacy

What is there to say about this past week that hasn’t been said?

It should be evident that racism, white supremacy, and bigotry of any kind are utterly incompatible with Christian Personalism.

Let me say that again: Racism, white supremacy, and bigotry of any kind are utterly incompatible with Christian Personalism.

To be a personalist is to know that every individual is valuable in and of him or herself, regardless of how we categorise and label ourselves or others.

From the “About” page of this website:

“We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being.”

There can be no absolute category of “them” and “us.” We are all persons, and every person is first and foremost an “I,” equal in worth and dignity to my own “I.” 

And here, I think, may be what Personalism has to add to the public conversation that is going on in every corner of social media this week.

Because if every “I” is of unspeakable worth, every person is a subject, an “infinite abyss of existence,”—then how do we respond to those we perceive as purveyors of hate or representatives of evil?

How do we value the personhood of white nationalist James Fields, who killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 other people when he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters last Saturday in Charlottesville?

How do we balance the need, the obligation to stand in solidarity with those targeted by the hateful rhetoric and actions of white nationalists and neo-nazis, with the call to love our enemies?

I’ve been told that to even have that discussion in public is hurtful to those targeted by this violence. That it is a luxury and a privilege to be able to talk, calmly, about forgiving the persecutor when I, as a white woman and, incidentally, a Canadian—as “northern” as you can get—am not the target of their persecution.

And there is some validity to this criticism. I cannot forgive those who haven’t wronged me directly, and it is a privilege to be able to choose when and where I will confront racism and prejudice—one not afforded to those who have to live with the constant awareness and experience of it.

It’s not my place to forgive James Field for the murder of Heather Heyer. And this, too, is very personalist. There are moral callings that can only be responded to individually—not enforced, and not offered in solidarity or on someone else’s behalf.

It’s not my place to forgive James Field.

But I don’t think anyone could say it isn’t Mark Heyer’s place to do so.

http://www.floridatoday.com/videos/news/2017/08/14/local-man-talks-daughter-killed-charlottesville-protest/104586066/

“We have to forgive...I include myself in that in forgiving the guy who did this," he said. "I just think about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.' ”

As a personalist, and as a Christian, I don’t have the option of responding to hatred with hatred, as tempting as it is, as good as it feels to be righteously furious.

I am obliged to stand in love and solidarity with the persecuted. And I am obliged to love, somehow, the persecutors, even as I resist and oppose their ideas and plans.

And that universal calling to solidarity, to resistance, and to love, contains within it personal moral callings that cannot be the same for every person, and cannot be used to judge the personal response of any other person.

That’s a lot to wrestle with.  

It’s been a hard week, and a long week.

There’s been outrage and anger and argument.

Now, perhaps, it is incumbent on each one of us to seek out some quiet, to reflect and to discern the voice of conscience within us.

There will never be a better time to find your compass and set your path by it than the day you are in now. 

We are all called to love, to solidarity, and to justice.

What will that call look like in your life, in this time?

What is your personal moral call today?


*Note: Since publishing, I have edited the line "how do we respond to purveyors of hate?" with the amended line, "how do we respond to those we perceive as purveyors of hate or representatives of evil?" 

Image via Peakpx

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When I was a 7-year-old member of an Evangelical-shading-into-Fundamentalist congregation, I once handed out Jack Chick tracts door to door. It was raining, and I remember feeling that this probably proved I was a pretty dedicated Christian.

What are Jack Chick tracts, and why am I horrified now to remember my part in disseminating them? 

They're little black and white cartoon booklets, tools for spreading the Gospel as understood by a certain brand of Protestantism: the "accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior" and "once saved, always saved" brand. You can buy them online to this day, at 17 cents apiece.

The theology isn't all bad. It's simplistic and incoherent, and not truly Biblical, despite the verses sprinkled generously throughout the little pages. Some tracts, like "The Death Cookie," are viciously anti-Catholic, but not only that: some contain footnotes leading to nonexistent passages in Church documents (apparently counting on the reader being so impressed by the sheer proliferation of footnotes that he feels no need to follow up). Not a case of well-intentioned error. But there are two more reasons--more personalist reasons--to object to the things.

The first problem is the way they're usually dispensed anonymously. When I used to go door to door, I wasn't supposed to stay and discuss them or form any kind of relationship with the "target." I was just supposed to get them into as many hands as possible. (True, I was seven, but I think this was the norm for "witnesses" of any age.)

Some people hand them out on street corners, and some leave them in subways or in public libraries, trusting the Holy Spirit to see to it that they fall into the right hands. It's not that the Holy Spirit can't manage that, just that this sort of thing just doesn't exhaust the mission to go out into all the earth and spread the Good News.

My pastor in Ann Arbor, Fr. Ed Fride, tells about the time he was handed one of the classics--"This Was Your Life"--with its harrowing story of a self-satisfied sinner who dies unprepared and is called before the Judgment Seat. There he's compelled to watch a movie of himself, from birth to death. His name found missing in the Book of Life, he's consigned to Hell for all eternity.

Fr. Ed (or just "Ed," at the time--he wasn't even Catholic yet) was ripe for conversion and ran after the guy, seeking the wisdom he'd need to save his own soul from hellfire. But the guy was no help. "I don't explain 'em, man, I just hand 'em out," he declared laconically.

The second objection is what you might call the "excessive objectivism" objection. Some of the tracts are flat-out deceptive propaganda. But in "This Was Your Life," the plot is straight out of the Bible. It's objectively true, in its broad outline, anyway. Yet something's...off.

God is pictured as a faceless giant, sitting on a throne and impersonally passing judgment. There's no beauty in Him, no love, no fellow-feeling, only alarming bigness. Because of the assumption that only those who have visibly, obviously accepted Jesus as their personal Savior may be saved, there's no room to consider whether the Gospel message was conveyed to people in a way they can "hear." They accept Him or they don't. Too late for nuance (unless you count one character who protests before the Judgment Seat that he didn't know his religion was wrong and is refuted by being made to recall the time when God arranged for him to be offered a tract--presumably one of Chick's own--and he refused it).There's something unremittingly grotesque about the pictures--even for a comic book, even when they're pictures of utterly unsympathetic characters. 

It's true--in the end, your name is written in the Book of Life or it isn't. Once Judgment Day arrives, it's too late for second chances. I'm sure Jack Chick thought he was doing people a favor to refuse to sugar-coat these things. 

Still, something's very much off. I think it comes down to that obliviousness about the person.

What do you think?

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I knew what I was going to write about today. I had the outline in my head, connections drawn between half a dozen different things, the desire to write something impressively eloquent and insightful.

But then I watched this video and all my conceits were undone. 

What can I say about personhood more insightful than this?

What can I say about the dignity and worth of every life that Sachiko doesn't say more eloquently just by living each day? 

"Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?" asks the video. "Do you think we're worse off? That we suffer too much? That we are less likely to be happy?"

I had a Facebook interaction yesterday with a woman who complained about the "emphasis" Christianity (Catholicism in particular) places on suffering. Shouldn't a religion bring peace and joy? Why talk so much about suffering?

I can't say I understand that complaint. We don't cause suffering by acknowledging it. And peace and joy can exist alongside suffering. Sometimes, in that mysterious way internal life works, peace and joy come into being through suffering. 

There isn't a life, not a single life, that is spared suffering. Don't we know this yet? Don't we see it, experience it? 

We don't like thinking about suffering. We cling to the hope that the right decisions or right philosophy will insulate us against it. We run to entertainment and alcohol and pleasure-seeking to distract ourselves from it.

We might find it uncomfortable to even be around suffering, around the hurting, the grieving, the abandoned, the wounded, the ill, the disabled. They remind us of our own vulnerability. They embarrass us with their naked need. We turn our eyes away from the suffering of the Sachikos and Lazaruses of the world and become blind as well to their beauty and happiness--and humanity.

We say things like, "I would never want to live like that," when we don't know what our subjective experience of our lives will be in the future. We offer assisted suicide to the terminally ill, to the disabled, but decry the deaths of the fit and young.

How transparent we are! How unmistakable is our message about which lives have value, all because we can't believe suffering can co-exist with joy. All because we are afraid!

How many destructive things come out of the desire to avoid facing suffering? To avoid seeing into human brokenness? 

In his book, Becoming Human, L'Arche founder Jean Vanier writes, 

“We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.” 

What if we let our wounds lead us to greater knowledge of our common humanity? What if our brokenness were the bridge between my subjectivity and yours?

Yesterday, Devra made a connection I've never heard before. She looked at Christ's response to the hemorrhaging woman and saw in it a desire for personal interaction, for involvement with the woman as a subject for his attention. He didn't need to see her to heal her. But He wanted to see her nonetheless.

I don't want to pretend to have a lot of answers today. I want to avoid wrapping this up into a neat bow to be appreciated, understood, and forgotten. Essays can be nice and tidy and neat, but life is messy, is it not? 

Instead, in memory of the 19 people killed in Sagamihara just over a year ago and the broken young man who saw no value in their lives, I will leave you with the questions I am asking myself today. 

What has my fear of suffering driven me to miss, or to destroy? How many opportunities for human connection have I lost? 

What beauty would I see if I stopped looking away?

Image of Lazarus and the Rich Man by Eduard von Gebhardt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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There's a Gospel passage about a bunch of Pharisees lying in wait to see if Jesus would cure a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. It's a really peculiar story, for several reasons.

As my sister Rosie points out, there's no hint that the Pharisees doubted that He could do it. They had plenty of faith, if you can call it that--but they were only interested in how the healing might further their agenda. It's not just the malice; it's their utter lack of curiosity and wonder at the miracle playing out under their noses. They had "objective faith": they believed that an event could come to pass. They lacked "subjective faith": they skipped over the question of what it was about this Person that could bring about such an event. They're stuck on a just-the-facts,-Ma'am level, and they have no intention of climbing any higher.

Something else struck me: they're worried that He's going to "work" on the Sabbath, they say--but even in their cramped, technical sense of the word, that's not what He's doing. Look how He arranges things instead: He doesn't grab the man's hand, or command him to give it to Him. At least I don't get that sense--it sounds more like an invitation. The man gets to do his part: "Stretch out your hand." So technically, the Pharisees don't even have a case!  Maybe if they'd been hanging around when he bent down to make mud to rub on the blind man's eyes, they could have argued that He was engaging in manual labor on the Sabbath: bending, spitting, anointing. But the closest they could come here is to accuse Him of having provoked the man to do the work of his own healing.

He also draws the Pharisees' attention beyond the technicalities. But they're not having it. They get a chance to gain in understanding and be part of the interpersonal back-and-forth.

And He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?"

But they were silent.

They're not interested. Good and evil, life and death--minor details.

They won't engage, not even to argue or accuse. Just like when He asked the chief priests and the scribes about the baptism of John, when they

came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” 

Another self-defeating cop-out.

Jesus likes to involve the subjectivity of the ones He's helping. He asks the little boy to contribute the loaves and the fishes, rather than conjuring them out of thin air. When the woman with the hemorrhage tries to arrange a miraculous cure without His noticing--using His power but sidestepping personal interaction--He calls her on it. His objective power is real, and it effects the objective cure with no problem. But even though she's avoided the interpersonal encounter for motives of humility or fear, He's not willing to let her get away with it. I'm sure she was glad He didn't.

Lack of faith is a problem. But so is grasping at supernatural healing without getting personal, and so, especially, is the cluelessness that doesn't even have persons on its radar.

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I've been mulling over a conversation I had with a Zen devotee this past weekend. Much of our conversation was concerned with the similarities between Zen and Christian mysticism, the way each values asceticism, self-denial, and service, the parallels between the Ten Commandments and religious vows and the Ten (or Five) Moral Precepts and the commitments a Zen monk makes. 

We spoke of the intersection between Christian monastic spiritualities and Zen monasticism and the influence of Christian spirituality on the forms of North American Zen Buddhism. We shared our mutual admiration for Thomas Merton and he told me that a number of the classes he took towards his Masters of Divinity were taught by Catholic religious. 

There is a lot that is attractive in exploring these similarities in spiritual discipline and practice, and it is always refreshing to speak to someone about the kinds of self-discipline and moral law that much of modern secular society finds both off-putting and incomprehensible. But we couldn't avoid running into the difference at the heart of those devotional goals, which seems to me to be centrally important to understanding the foundations of Christian personalism.

My Zen interlocutor was happy to talk about Christ as a metaphor or symbol of the Infinite Mind or the Source, but uncomfortable when I pointed out that Jesus is more than that, that Christian devotion is centred on a distinct person (well, three persons, but I wasn't going to get into that!). He admitted that was a topic they'd all very diplomatically steered clear of in their classes with Christians.

This is the thing that sets Christianity apart: God became man for us

Sometimes I forget how ridiculous and sublime that is. At the apex of all Catholic spiritual practice is the goal of unity with a person. 

A person who first united himself with us by experiencing embodiment, birth, a human home, adolescence, self-discovery, hunger, thirst, friendship, loss, sorrow, pain, betrayal, agony, and death.

A God who became man in all ways but sin, who bore our sins into death and promises to raise us up with him to life through His resurrection. A God who loves us and desires communion with us.

There's a relationship at the heart of Christianity. It's so easy for my faith to become cerebral or habitual and forget that. The goal isn't unity with all, or undifferentiation of self and the universe, or even communion with the Universal, though that last resembles on some level the goal of uniting oneself with the Creator of all.

The goal is falling in love with a person.

Image via Flickr

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