The Personalist Project

Not enough to define man as individual of the species

But it is not enough to define a man as an individual of the species Homo (or even Homo sapiens).  The term ‘person’ has been coined to signify that a man cannot be wholly contained within the concept ‘individual member of the species’, but that there is something more to him, a particular richness and perfection in the manner of his being, which can only be brought out by the use of the word ‘person’…Speaking figuratively, we can say that the person as a subject is distinguished from even the most advanced animals by a specific inner self, an inner life, characteristic only of persons…Inner life means spiritual life.  It revolves around truth and goodness.

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility

I've been reading Jen Fulweiler's conversion story, Something Other than God: How I passionately sought happiness and accidentally found it. You should, too.

I'd been under the impression that Jen was an unusually intelligent writer of the mommy blogger persuasion. But the book has given me a far deeper appreciation of her intellect and personality. Her account of the wearing away of her objections--first to religion in general, then to Catholicism--is refreshingly unflinching and thoroughly entertaining. The grace to abandon atheism came via a mixture of logical arguments so strong she had to bow to them and personal testimony so striking and mysterious she couldn't dismiss it.

This isn't a book review.  I urge you to read the whole thing; you won't be sorry. But one aspect in particular struck me: her realization that you can't just sit there, in any interior state whatsoever, and expect God to reveal himself--much less count it as a point against Him if He fails to obey when you say jump.

You have to make some contribution, some effort. Fulweiler could see that it made sense in other contexts--Buddhism, for example--that the subject needs to be in a condition to receive enlightenment. 

A line from C. S. Lewis made things clearer for her. It went like this:

[God] shows himself to some people more than others. Not because He has favorites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.

She thought over her own disappointing history of trying to persuade Him to reveal Himself, and suddenly had the key to why she'd never gotten anywhere:

I might find myself sitting at the kitchen table, a cheeseburger from a fast-food chain in one hand, a magazine ridiculing celebrities with cellulite in another, using most of my mental energy to stew about why I deserved to live in Tarrytown [an expensive neighborhood she'd been lusting after], and at some point I'd think, "I can't imagine why I haven't had any experience of God." Then I'd decide with a shrug that the problem must be that God doesn't exist. 

It wasn't just that she needed to focus her attention and cut out distractions. There's another C. S. Lewis passage she doesn't mention (in which  he's explaining the title of his novel, Till We Have Faces) which makes things clearer:

A human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman: that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires) being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or person.

Passivity doesn't attract grace. The person has to make some effort.

But how much effort, exactly? Well, maybe a lot less than you'd expect.

Here are some illustrations:

  • Earlier in her trajectory, Jen was not really convinced that Catholic moral teachings were correct but decided, as an experiment, to live as if they were. She had no certainty, no feelings of love for God, no commitment, no enthusiasm--just enough desire to follow the truth that she was willing to perform that one experiment. Soon afterward, she signed up for religious instruction.
  •  My mother was once walking down the street in Brooklyn, NY, doubting whether there was a God. In a moment of smart-alecky decision, she threw out a challenge: OK, God, if you're real, show me a pink elephant. She turned a corner--right into a block party with street vendors and carnival games with prizes hanging in the booths. Conspicuous among these was a large, inflatable pink elephant. 

I wanted to be born again, but I had a problem. How could I have faith in something when I didn't know if it was true? ... She told me that she had felt the same way before her conversion, so she had hit on a compromise: she asked Jesus to be her Savior for the next twenty-four hours, and then, if He came through, she would commit her life to Him. This made sense to me. O ye of little faith! But God is gracious. We continued talking for a while, standing in the kitchen, and suddenly it felt as if something broke inside me, and I got down on my knees there on the kitchen floor (surprising her very much, since Evangelical Protestants don't kneel) and asked Jesus to be my savior for twenty-four hours. 

When I stood up, everything was different. I forgot all about the twenty-four-hour deal. I believed. I had somehow crossed the divide and was safe on the other side.

  • I know a man who, having tried irreligion for many years, had got just about far enough to be willing to say an Our Father--but not as written, because he wasn't so sure he accepted the theology behind it. So his prayer went something like this:

OK, God--if there is a god--Our Parent, who art in heaven--if there is a heaveaway,hallowed by thy name. May, um, good energy cause, um, good things to happen...

And so on. That was the beginning of the end. He's been practicing his faith for over thirty years now.

Jen's strategic imitation-faith, my mother's wise-cracking challenge and conditional surrender, and a skeptical man's pointedly minimal willingness to pray an adulterated Lord's Prayer--these were all it took to start the ball rolling. God didn't turn away sneering,  "Oh, please, you'll have to do better than that." He led them along, little by little, and they've been wholehearted Catholics ever since.

There's lots more food for thought in Something Other Than God. Have you read it? Did you have a hard time putting it down? What did you think?

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On last week's feast day of the conversion of St. Paul, I noticed something odd--or not so odd. He's blinded by a sudden light, and he hears a mysterious Voice from heaven. And the Voice says, "Thou shalt stop persecuting me."

Or so we might have expected. But no: it says,"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

In other words, even in the most spectacular of conversion experiences, God doesn't use force, doesn't order people around. He, the Creator and Lawgiver, has that "right," but He chooses not to exercise it.

Of course, the "Thou shalt not's" are also straight from His mouth, written by His own hand on the stone tablets: Good is good and evil is evil. A commandment is a commandment. The guideposts are clear. 

But the invitation to conversion is just that--an invitation. Even when it's intense and unmistakeable, it all starts with an invitation to Saul to explain his own conduct. Why have you performed this action? Why have you freely chosen to do this?

And also: Why are you acting this way towards me? Not only is it a chance to face his own decisions, it's placed in the context of an interpersonal relationship with the Speaker. Saul is called by name, and twice, and asked (without orders or threats, just asked) to render an account of his treatment of another Person.

But doesn't this emphasis on invitations seem to water down God's authority? Isn't it a mealy-mouthed attempt to avoid straight talk about good and evil? Well, if you've ever been on the receiving end of an invitation like this--a chance to freely explain your own choices and deeds--you'll see that the prospect is plenty alarming.

In fact, it's no less alarming than a command, a direct order. If somebody arbitrarily forces you to do something, you can rail against it; you can let it be known that you're doing it against your will. You bear no responsibility, since the decision has been taken out of your hands. If someone tries to blame you, you might get mad, but you have reason and justice on your side. You can retort: "Hey, it wasn't my idea!" 

But when you're forced to face your own self, and your own deeds, you're on the spot.

So maybe commandments are Old-Covenant-style governance and invitations New-Covenant-style? No, that doesn't fly: we see the Invitation way back in the Garden of Eden. God invites Adam, then Eve, to explain themselves: "What is this you have done?" This is so alarming that they, who dared to disobey an all-powerful Creator in the first place, can't muster enough courage to give Him a straight answer. They're not only shifting blame--initiating a now-familiar pattern for husband-wife communication--they're also avoiding the question. As Katie put it three years ago, "Our decisions belong to us."  Adam, Eve, and Saul were free to make their decisions, free to defend them, and of course free to suffer their consequences. And free to accept the invitation of help, or to reject it.

And we're all alarmingly free to do the same.

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Five things to love about this inspiring video promoting a renewal of Catholic manhood put out recently by the diocese of Phoenix (besides the slate of admirable men of faith it features):

1) The focus on sacrifice and self-giving

2) The focus on fatherhood

3) The focus on self-control

4) The focus on prayer and sacraments

5) The focus on friendship and mutual support among men

These emphases make it stand well above most of the "renewing Christian manhood" materials I've come across in recent years.

But still, as a woman and a personalist, I have a couple of quibbles. 

1) Even fleeting mention of the need for men to understand their "role" makes me break out in hives. It's too reminiscent of the disastrous, de-personalizing, externalist and functionalist teachings on marriage that have done so much damage in the Christian counter-culture of the last half century. Masculinity isn't a role; it isn't an office; it's a mode of personal existence. And personal existence is mainly about interiority, agency, and individuality, not function. (Focus on identity is much better than role, as long as care is taken not to conflate the two.)

2) The refrain that men are called to be "leaders" is problematic, too, in light of the personalist developments of our day. It tends to suggest (how could it not?) that women are meant to be followers. We're not. As I read post-conciliar teaching on marriage, the Church has deliberately assimilated some key feminist truth (i.e. recognized it as implicitly given in her changeless doctrines): men are not being called to lead their wives, but to love and honor them. The relationship between husband and wife is, according to the Church, in all its aspects, complementary, not hierarchical.

I know you can't say everything in a short promotional video. But, especially when it comes to communicating deep moral and religious truth, it's really important that what is said is free of bad tendencies. 

Here's a short list of personalist items I wish everyone who approaches this deep and delicate set of issues would keep well in mind:

1. Feminism is not all bad. It developed in response to real injustices; it has achieved real goods. (See John Paul II's Letter to Women.) Those goods should be consciously appropriated and carefully cherished.

2. Any talk about the crisis of masculinity being due to the "feminization" of culture is horribly insulting to women. (Thankfully, there was no such talk in this video.) True femininity, like true masculinity, is an unmixed good. And John Paul II was explicit in calling for women to have more, not less, influence in culture and society, correcting a long-standing imbalance. He is explicit in saying that while great progress has been made, the real work of feminism is not yet complete.

3. The relation between the sexes should never be treated as a competition or a zero sum game, as if increasing the influence of women entails decreasing due appreciation for men. We may have to abandon outmoded ideas of what masculinity and femininity mean, but that's something different. True femininity enhances masculinity; to be pro-woman is to be pro-man, and vice versa.

4. When it comes to love, other-receiving is as essential as self-giving. (If we don't realize this, we will tend, consciously or not, to de-value femininity, and to mis-conceive love.)

5. Individuals are never reducible to social roles, and neither are sexes. (For example, I have personally witnessed Christian teachers explaining that fathers should not change diapers, because it will create "role confusion" in the household. In many places in the Christian counter-culture, couples are taught that women shouldn't work outside the home, and that husbands (not wives) should handle the family finances. I know stories of husbands being instructed not to listen to their wives, because their wives were being "rebellious." I could point to Catholic men teaching even today that wives are responsible to obey their husbands "on pain of sin." This kind of teaching is false and deeply damaging to men and women both.

Part of reason for the sexual confusion we are dealing with today is positive. I mean, when "new" truth emerges, it tends to be accompanied by social and cultural disruption. (Think of Socrates in Athens or Christianity in Ancient Rome. Think of a baby born into a once orderly household.) That disruption isn't remedied by a rejection of the new truth. Rather, it is remedied by gradual assimilation and adjustment—by an ever-deepening appreciation of the good of what's new, and a willingness to sacrifice for it.

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Long time readers know that my thinking on modesty has changed over the years. (See here and here for instance.) In short, I have come to associate most "modesty talk" in Christian circles with a counter-productive tendency toward externalism, judgmentalism and control. It's not that I've stopped caring about modesty; it's that I've stopped thinking we can get to it by focusing on clothing. 

Today, pressing on with my electronic de-cluttering resolution, I found an unfinished post on the subject from 2009. The post isn't worth saving, but it included some great quotes from Mounier's Personalism.

We know that the personal life is related by its nature to something secret. Some people are wholly extraverted, thoroughly exhibited; they have no secret, no contents, no background. They are like open books, and quickly read. Having no experience of any depth, they have no ‘respect for privacy’, their own or anyone else’s. They have an unrefined taste for talking and for making others talk, for gossip and curious enquiry. Now, discretion and reserve are the homage that the person renders to the sense of an infinite life within.

Mounier goes on to link the point to modesty:

Physical modesty signifies, not that the body is impure, but that I am immeasurably more than a body that can be seen or touched…The opposite of modesty is vulgarity, allowing myself to be merely what I am in immediate appearance, in the glare of the public eye.

Stricter rules for body coverage can't supply the real defect in our culture or in our selves, just as pretty wrapping paper can't make a true gift out of an empty box.

What's wanted is "experience of depth," value and interior plenitude.

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News photographers know we have trouble seeing the humanity in victims of violence. It is all too easy to dehumanize the people we live alongside, let alone the dead we have never known. This is why we have the old trick of putting a child's shoe or a teddy bear in the foreground of a picture of a war zone or scene of natural disaster. If there's a corpse, they are photographed being held or mourned over by loved ones. Or a single, humanizing detail is photographed—a bracelet on an outflung arm, a fringe of scarf across a face. These details help us to see ourselves or our loved ones in the pictured victim. We, who wear clothing, who tuck our children in at night with their own favorite stuffed toys, who love our favorite baubles, see first ourselves before we know how to see the other. It is our knowledge of our own subjectivity that reminds us that the other is also a subject, rather than merely an object.

There's a mercy and a ruthlessness in contextualizing the victims of violence or disaster in this way. The mercy is in sparing the already-traumatized the grotesqueness of the manner of death. In any large audience there will be those who have lost loved ones to violence, and who will see in any graphic depiction only their own loved one’s pain and the cruelty of the world that drives some to despair.

The ruthlessness is in not allowing the rest of us to gain the distance of disgust, insisting instead on drawing us to see our common humanity through symbols and contexts we can relate to. As fans of horror movies know, the more graphic and over-the-top the gore, the easier it is for an audience to detach from it, to view it not as something touching on themselves, but as something unreal with no emotional resonance. Those surrounded by scenes of real violence often detach in a very similar way in order to function in those environments.

As the March for Life approaches, debate has reignited over the use of graphic abortion photos at the March and in other public contexts. The arguments against are varied, but include arguments against exposing the vulnerable—children, abortion survivors, women who have lost infants—to these traumatic images, and arguments that such pictures are disrespectful to the dignity of the deceased children whose bodies are so displayed.

The loudest argument in favor is utilitarian—it comes down to a belief that these pictures are effective, and that we cannot afford to lose any effective tool in the fight against the evil of abortion. Some also argue that the best tribute to the victims of abortion possible is to use their images to show the humanity of the unborn and the reality of abortion, in hope that the truth might lead to other children being spared.

I don’t want to disparage the men and women who hold this position honestly and sincerely, but I question the assumptions behind the arguments in favor of the use of graphic abortion images. They assume that looking at pictures of corpses, of victims of violence, will cause men and women who do not presently value the unborn to see the humanity of these tiny victims. They believe that the humanity, the personhood, the subjectivity of the fetus is self-evident from his or her body alone, even—perhaps especially—when it is bloody and torn.

I question whether this is true, whether it is not putting cart before the horse.

In my opening, I discussed the strategies photographers use to emphasize the humanity of victims. Unfortunately, pictures of corpses seem only to touch the hearts of people who already believe that those pictures depict people. The use of pictures to humanize the abused depends on the viewer seeing something they can relate to and empathize with in the picture, and news photographers go to great pains to frame their pictures to offer the viewer the context and detail necessary for that kind of identification of the self with the pictured victim, identifying the victim as “another self” or subject.

But how can we do this with the unborn? Especially in the early stages when the resemblance to fully-developed persons is not immediately strongly obvious, what is it in these images that the viewer can immediately see and use to recognize another self? Those of us who believe already that the fetus is a person with dignity—a subject, and not an object to be disposed of—need no further contextualization, so perhaps we are slow to see the omission. But whether it is what we intend or not, the presentation of graphic images on posters, billboards, trucks, or signs might almost be ideally designed for the opposite of their intended purpose—they remove context when it is most needed. Just as pornography and other exploitative uses of the human body show too little rather than too much, so graphic images of the unborn—small body parts, torn and shredded, burned and broken, reduced by violence to meat and cartilage—show the viewer far too little of the human person, the life and growth and selfhood so violated.

Should we hide away the evidence of the violence of abortion then? Not necessarily. These images have their place in books and websites that seek to document the truth for those moved to seek it out. I also strongly believe that there are private contexts where such images may be appropriately or effectively shared, within the context of their humanity, giving the details of the origins of the pictures and the histories of the people depicted so far as they can be known. Who was this person? Where were they found? How was the picture taken? What became of their remains? Was he or she given a name? What effect have they had on others, in life or death? Anything that gives the person depicted the dignity of their own particularity, however slim the information available, is helpful in restoring the dignity obscured by violence.

The best reason to strive to help others see the humanity, the personhood, of the unborn lost to abortion is not, in the end, to win an argument. The best reason to avoid dehumanizing usage of the graphic images is not that they are ineffective as arguments for many people, or that they are traumatizing for others. The best reason is because the unborn are our brothers and sisters. They are persons. And in our striving to end the evil of abortion, we should not fall into the trap of treating the victims of abortion as generalities and objects in an argument, rather than as “other selves” of equal individual worth and dignity.  

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