The Personalist Project

The power of the true and the good

Should we always presume that to human thoughts and works the same applies as to the basket in which one rotten fruit is enough to spoil the whole bunch? Why should the faulty element in a thought always be the dominant and virulant one, which tomorrow will draw all others in its direction? Why don't we ever believe in the power of the true and the good, in a possible restoration, indeed, in the profound transformation and "conversion" that the lesser parts may undergo under the influence of the better? Francis de Sales stated: "All the defects of a good work cannot vitiate its essential goodness."

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

 When Cardinal Bernadin popularized the idea of the "seamless garment" back in the early 1980s, it looked a lot like a scheme to minimize the evil of abortion.

He later made clear that he never meant it that way, but there was no lack of people eager to exploit it. This caricature of the seamless garment, or "consistent ethic of life," shifted that uncomfortable spotlight away from this particular kind of killing. Sure, abortion was terrible, the reasoning went, but then so were lots of other things--capital punishment, nuclear warfare, and all manner of undesirable social and economic policies. Unless you were just as heavily invested in the eradication of all these other evils as you were in protecting unborn babies, you had no credibility in some people's eyes.

It reminded me of the little girl in The Incredibles resisting her mother's instructions to downplay her family's superpowers. Don't try to stand out, her mother urges her, because "everybody is special."

"If everybody's special, nobody's special," her daughter retorts. She has a point. If every cause is special, no cause is special. If every injustice is egregious, no injustice is egregious.

I've been rethinking my objections to the seamless garment idea (or its caricature). I haven't changed my mind about abortion. Not in the least. But now I see "seamless garment" thinking as the corruption, the twisting and watering down, of something altogether legitimate and crucial: the unity of the virtues, and its flip side, the unity of vice.

The Planned Parenthood videos that reveal representatives buying, selling, and haggling over the tiny organs of aborted children makes the unity of vice unmistakeale. It's horrible enough to kill babies, to sneer at the sanctity of their lives, and to sow seeds of bogus ambiguity about how some human beings count as persons and others don't make the cut.   But then the buying-and-selling element is added. Should we divide up into two camps: those who decry the consumerism and those who decry the anti-family angle? Of course not. The point is not to measure merciless bloodthirstiness against cold, hard greed--it's that somehow it all goes together. It's all one: a seamless garment of evil. Evils don't compete; they feed on each other.

We're used to dividing ourselves into culture-war Catholics and social-justice Catholics. But you can't be blind to one kind of evil without it affecting your ability to see the other kind.

Those who chafe at Pope Francis' attacks on consumerism may need to take a step back and see that it's all of a piece. If the dignity of the person is your starting point, you see how it all goes together--the throwaway culture that damages the environment and is also behind sex trafficking and abortion. It's what inspires the enterprising young developers of the Tinder app, which lets you order a no-strings-attached "partner" with all the efficiency and convenience of a call to Domino's Pizza when the craving for a large pepperoni strikes.

It's right to draw attention sometimes to one evil and sometimes to another. And the hierarchy of goods is real: there's no deep-down moral equivalence among all goods and all evils. 

But the seamless garment of evil is real, too.

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Some years back I found myself in a lively online debate at a website dedicated to hedonistic feminine sexuality. One of my interlocutors said something about how Christian and Muslim sexual morality are basically the same. "They both boil down to no sex outside of marriage." I was genuinely taken aback. To me, the two moral visions are so radically opposed that I could hardly imagine that they might look the same to outsiders. But I could feel her sincerity. She wasn't being gratuitously provocative; she genuinely didn't perceive the difference.

I've learned since that many Christians don't really see it either. That is to say, they have a view of sexual morality that is, in many respects, closer to the Islamic approach than to the fullness of Christian truth.

This topic deserves a much fuller and more rigorous treatment. Maybe someday I'll get to it. But meanwhile, with the horrible headlines about ISIS's "theology of rape" coming on top of the countless stories of child brides, honor killings, and female genital mutilation in the Muslim world, it seems timely to at least get the conversation started.

Here is my short list of essential differences between the Islamic and Christian views of women and women's sexuality. 

1. In the Christian vision, a woman's sexuality belongs to her; she is in charge of it. In Islamic sexuality, it belongs to the men in her life—first her father and brothers, then her husband. 

When a Christian woman gets married, she bestows herself on her husband, who in turn bestows himself on her, while in Islam, ownership of the woman is transferred to her husband in a transaction between men.

2. In Christianity, there is perfect equality and complementarity between men and women. In Islam, women are subordinate to men.

3. In Islam, sexual morality is reducible to blind obedience to the law (i.e. what Allah prohibits or allows); it's governed by fear and shame. Christian morality is transparent to reason and governed by love.

The great and emotionally grueling Iranian film, A Separation, has a compelling illustration of this feature of Islam. A man whose wife is leaving him hires a pious married woman to care for his father, who has Alzheimers disease. At one point during the day, the father wets himself. The woman caring for him panics. She can't clean him, because then she would see him naked. She is petrified of committing a sin. She has to call an imam to get permission, and even then, she's terrified. It's the opposite of the freedom and responsibility that characterize mature Christian morality.

4. In the Islamic view, the purpose of modesty in women is to prevent male arousal; hence, the more coverage, the better. If a man is aroused, the woman is at fault. In Christianity, modesty is about drawing attention to a woman's personal dignity. Her sexual values aren't concealed, but duly integrated with her subjectivity. Men are responsible for themselves.

I know I've left out lots, but maybe I've said enough to shed some light on the pathologies of the Muslim world, and the problem of Christian circles tending in the same direction.

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August 11, 1890 is the day John Henry Newman departed "the shadows," the maddening part-truths/ part-illusions, the glimmers and indications and "economical representations" of material existence for the Reality he had been inwardly intent on from the age of 15—the face-to-face encounter with the Author of his being.

It was the day, too, we can hope and expect, that he was reunited with everyone he had loved and missed so keenly in his late years: Ambrose St. John, Hurrell Froude, Bowden, Keble, his sister Mary, and a host of others.

It was the end of the misgivings and misunderstandings and speculations and intrigues and interpersonal tensions that had dogged his life on earth.

The penultimate paragraph of one of my favorite of his sermons, The Greatness and Littleness of Human Life, gives us an impression of what the experience must have been like for a soul like his.

To those who live by faith, every thing they see speaks of that future world; the very glories of nature, the sun, moon, and stars, and the richness and the beauty of the earth, are as types and figures witnessing and teaching the invisible things of God. All that we see is destined one day to burst forth into a heavenly bloom, and to be transfigured into immortal glory. Heaven at present is out of sight, but in due time, as snow melts and discovers what it lay upon, so will this visible creation fade away before those greater splendours which are behind it, and on which at present it depends. In that day shadows will retire, and the substance show itself. The sun will grow pale and be lost in the sky, but it will be before the radiance of Him whom it does but image, the Sun of Righteousness, with healing on His wings, who will come forth in visible form, as a bridegroom out of his chamber, as His perishable type decays. The stars which surround it will be replaced by Saints and Angels circling His throne. Above and below, the clouds of the air, the trees of the field, the waters of the great deep will be found impregnated with the forms of everlasting spirits, the servants of God which do His pleasure. And our own mortal bodies will then be found in like manner to contain within them an inner man, which will then receive its due proportions, as the soul’s harmonious organ, instead of that gross mass of flesh and blood which sight and touch are sensible of. For this glorious manifestation the whole creation is at present in travail, earnestly desiring that it may be accomplished in its season.

Reading it always makes me feel my obtuseness. It makes me want to read him again, and beseech his prayers. I want to be found worthy, in the end, to join him in Reality.

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Posting has been light around here lately, with Devra in the midst of a move, me dealing with various things, and Jules working on website updates. We hope to get back to it in the coming two weeks, while our youngest is away at camp.

Meanwhile, since August 9th is the feast of the great Edith Stein, here is an item I wrote a couple years ago about her influence on me.

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Language is meant to be communication—the prime way we share truth with one another. Often it isn't, though. Often it's manipulation. It's framed not bring the other to greater understanding or fuller contact with reality, but rather to get him to behave according to our will—buy this product or vote for that politician or accept this illusion. 

Josef Pieper has a wonderful small book on the theme, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power.

It's tempting especially for people who are good with words to use that power to get what they want—attention, cooperation, money, prestige, an emotional response. I know a playwright who is explicit about it. His goal in writing is to manipulate his audience toward a particular emotional response. I protested when he told me this, but he had no ears to hear me. He thinks that's what playwriting is all about: emotional manipulation.

Not all authors think that way. I came across a different point of view yesterday, in another book I'm reading, called Good Prose.

Writers are told that they must “grab” or “hook” or “capture” the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader. Montaigne writes: “I do not want a man to use his strength to get my attention.”

These authors intuit the problem of the master/slave dynamic in writing.

I've said it often and often, and will keep bringing it up, because I think it IS "the mystery of iniquity": the master/slave dynamic has menaced all human relations and interactions since the fall in Eden. If we want to be free of it, we will have to become more aware of it, more sensitive to its operations, "in our thoughts and in our words; in what we have done and what we have failed to do."

"It's for freedom that Christ has set us free." 

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