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

Some months back Fr. Longenecker posted about things that are killing the family. It's a good list. But I thought it should be balanced by a similar one of things that are strengthening the family. I've been working on it in the background since.

The NCR will publish it soon, and I'll link when it does. Some of the points will need further developing. All of them, I propose, spring from the same root, viz., a new appreciation of the "the inviolable dignity of the human person" in our age.

From one point of view, the family is falling apart, and society with it. From another—with the eyes of faith—we can see that it is being refounded on firmer footing, theologically, philosophically and experientially.

And what is that new foundation? Kierkegaard says it well:

To build up is to construct something from the ground up. In the simple illustration of a house, a building, everyone knows what is meant by ground and foundation. But spiritually understood, what are the ground and foundation of the life of the spirit which are to bear the building? In very fact it is love; love is the origin of everything, and spiritually understood love is the deepest ground of the life of the spirit.

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I’ve been mostly quiet about a certain local story, because it’s already been blown out of proportion plenty, everywhere from the Detroit Free Press to the U.K.'s Daily Mail. It doesn’t deserve even more traction.

But this horse is already all the way out of the barn and halfway across town. And as long as I’m right here in the Ann Arbor parish in question, I can at least share some of my impressions about how deceptive limelight can be.

A few weeks ago, our pastor, Fr. Edward Fride, arranged for the parish to co-sponsor a series of firearm safety classes that enable the student to earn a concealed pistol license. If you think that sounds a little unusual, you’re not alone. The classroom portion, but not the shooting part, took place in the parish center, and the focus was firmly on self-defense and the protection of the helpless. Still, the Bishop wasn't buying it. As soon as he objected, Fr. Ed canceled the classes and made an unequivocal statement expressing his willingness to obey, which read, in part:

The Lord Jesus has blessed us greatly in calling Bishop Earl Boyea to serve us as the fifth Bishop of Lansing. I have been and continue to be very grateful for his ministry….he has decided and publically stated that CPL classes are not appropriate on Church property. That is his call to make and we will obviously follow his policy on this and on all decisions he makes as he shepherds this Diocese. No parish is an island unto itself and no priest operates on his own. I am his priest and I will continue to serve him to the best of my ability.

The furor died down dramatically after that: the  “priest sets self against bishop on hot-button topic” template had gotten obsolete in a hurry.

It’s not that discussions of appropriate use of guns or the theological evaluation of using lethal force are unimportant. It was just that those topics were not getting addressed in any serious way.

Having known him for ten years, I can say with all confidence that Fr. Ed’s motivation was his striking and constant concern for the safety of all of us, especially our children. Some parishioners thought it imprudent; others thought it unbiblical, but I don’t think anybody questioned his motives.

Journalists and the combox “community,” on the other hand, got a little carried away.

At the one extreme, proof-texters were out in force, brandishing “Thou shalt not kill” and “Turn the other cheek,” oblivious to any possible distinctions between self-defense and cold-blooded murder.

At the other, people applauded wholeheartedly, but for all the wrong reasons. One overwrought man complained that people kept on calling firearms “weapons,” arguing (if that’s the word) that they only became such once they’re used to shoot somebody.  No distinction between carrying a pistol and a cast-iron frying pan, since they could both, in theory, be lethal.

Gun control and gun rights are nowhere near the top of my list of things to worry about. It's not a question I'm well informed about, so I'm not about to pontificate on it.

What struck me was this: I didn't recognize the man people were describing as Fr. Ed. He didn't resemble him in the least. Here was a man’s whole life reduced to one incident which happened to whet the media's appetite. Here was a pastor who’d recently celebrated 25 years of priesthood. Whose parish has a 24-hour adoration chapel. With record numbers of seminarians and women in religious formation. Fr. Ed's a licensed pilot and a tae kwon do master of some kind. He's a scholar of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. He's a Star Trek fan. You can hear his memorable conversion story here.

None of this means you have to agree with him about firearms classes. But if you're like me, it might make you wonder whether you really know anything at all about other public figures you've read about.

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This seems to be my day for rethinking Bible stories—the over-familiar ones, the ones that appear in every children’s Bible, sometimes watered down beyond recognition, so as not to alarm the kids. Last night I saw our local homeschool co-op's rousing musical rendition of the story of Moses, and earlier, Gabe, my six-year-old, read me a story about Jonah.

We were discussing how Jonah wasn’t fearful that Ninevites would scorn him or ignore him—on the contrary, he was worried that they would respond and repent and be forgiven.

One thing I've tried to instill in even my youngest kids is that we don’t just wish for bad guys to be defeated: we wish for them to turn into good guys. We don’t pray that God should simply remove them from power or give them their just desserts or hurl them into Hell. We pray for their conversion of heart. I want my children to see that as an even more desirable miracle than their sudden disappearance from the face of the earth.

My little ones are not especially docile, but they are definitely kindhearted. They embrace this message, and they regularly pray for certain politicians and others with whom we here at Chez Torres heartily disagree. For months Gabe was a faithful intercessor for one Barack O'Biden, and Juan Diego always remembers to pray for the terrorists.

So they have a hard time understanding why Jonah didn’t just want the Ninevites to repent and live happily ever after.

I sometimes find myself in the uncomfortable position of reluctantly explaining that, well, sometimes when you get older and you've seen people do awful things, you forget to wish their hearts would change and you just want them to get what's coming to them. I don’t know how I would react if someone tried to kill a child of mine, or if I lived in ISIS-controlled territory and somebody put my toddler in a cage and paraded him around before setting him on fire. I doubt a wish for my tormenter's conversion of heart would be the first thing to leap to mind.

So part of the problem is that little children who've had a stable and happy time of it aren't able to conceive of the evils human beings are capable of. The trick is to see how evil the evil is and still wish the evildoer well.

Abby Johnson, who founded And Then There Were None to help abortion workers leave the industry and find healing and practical help, runs into certain people who are not content to let bad guys become good guys.  As she relates in a Facebook post:

Recently, an anti-abortion group posted an article talking about a clinic worker who left her job at the abortion industry and is now prolife. There were some VERY hateful comments directed towards this courageous woman who chose to tell her story to help inform others. Many of the comments condemned her to hell, said that God would never forgive her since she was a "cold blooded murderer," and a few even said that she should die for her past sins. (And please don't say they "may have been prochoicers trying to make us look bad." If you haven't seen try vitriol in the prolife movement, then you need to wake up).

ALL life matters. I challenge you to be prolife not just for the innocent, but for the guilty, too....… The prolife movement says that abortion clinic workers dehumanize the baby, and that is true. But the prolife movement has dehumanized these workers, making us no better than them.

Here's what strikes me: "for the guilty, too." So many of us have it in the back of our minds that EITHER you take evil seriously OR you're merciful to evildoers. Or else we have two categories of evildoers firmly fixed in our heads: the people who are guilty of the kind of evils we ourselves find appealing (or trivial), and the kinds who commit evils of which we say "I could never do that." The first deserve mercy and the second don't. 

But mercy is by definition undeserved.

And God has no such compartments in His mind.

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In remarks before public prayers in St. Peter's Square yesterday, Pope Francis made a point about the Gospel of the day that had struck me too at mass. Always before I had focussed on Thomas' fault, his unbelief. "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." This time I noticed the remarkable tenderness and condescension of the Lord in accommodating Thomas' personal need. Here is the Pope [my emphasis]:

“Thomas is a person who is not easily satisfied, a seeker who wishes to check in person, to attain his own personal experience. After his initial resistance and uneasiness, he too finally reaches the point of believing. ... Jesus awaits him patiently and is attentive to the difficulties and insecurities of the last man to arrive. … [Thomas] was able to 'touch' the paschal Mystery that fully demonstrates God's salvific love, rich in mercy. And like Thomas, we too, on this second Sunday of Easter, are invited to contemplate, in the wounds of the Risen Christ, the Divine Mercy that overcomes every human limit and shines through the darkness of evil and sin”.

Jesus seems to be much more concerned with answering human needs than he is correcting human faults. And then, when those needs are met, they become a source of particular grace and strength. The other Apostles may have believed more readily in the resurrection. But none of them had proclaimed with such clarity and conviction the truth of Jesus' divinity. "My Lord and my God."

I know I'm not the only one who was raised to despise weakness and need, in others and in myself—to rest my hope on my strengths. Slowly but surely, I'm learning better.

We "make up what is lacking in the cross of Christ"—we help heal and redeem the world—exactly by our wounds.

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If there’s a cardinal sin against personalism, it might be manipulation. Treating a person as a tool rather than a subject is just what we’re all about not doing.

So what to make of the attempt to manipulate God? Maybe that sounds implausible. We think at least we know better than that. We’re not like some pagan tribesman, trying to appease the deity of rain by doing a particular kind of dance. We’re beyond that.

Or are we?

In Jacques Philippe’s latest book, Thirsting for Prayer, there’s a helpful section called “When God does not seem to hear us.”  There I found this:

God does not always answer us in the way we would like, since sometimes we need to realize...that we cannot manipulate God. That is what all pagan forms of worship attempt to do.

I would include in “pagan forms” the prosperity gospel, too, the “name it and claim it” people, with their stunted idea of God as a force to tap into, or a vending machine to serve us, rather than a Person to know, love and serve. A prosperity-gospel mentality, though, can slip into the minds of believers of all stripes—not just the disciples of Joel Osteen.

Even if your theology doesn’t begin and end with “What’s in it for me?” it’s surprisingly easy to imagine you're safely immune to that approach.

Fr. Jacques explains:

We can obtain everything from God by trust and prayer, but God remains the absolute master of his gifts, and they are always totally gratuitous—unmerited and given at his choosing, not outs.…God does not lend himself to any kind of manipulation, blackmail, human mode of calculation, or claim.

Human beings, on the other hand, are calculating creatures--susceptible to manipulation and blackmail ourselves, and constantly tempted to engage in them (though not always in obvious ways).  If we rationalize treating other human persons that way, we become perfectly capable of treating God that way, too. We become the kind of person who does that. We can't turn it on and off, magically transformed into someone who wouldn't do such a thing when the target is someone we care about, or even God Himself.

Fr. Jacques again:

Here is one of the paradoxes of Christian life: we are called to live with God in a tender familiarity that gives us full power over his fatherly heart; but we can only enter into that familiar relationship with absolute, sometimes agonizing, respect for his sovereign transcendence and freedom.

…It is salutary for us to maintain a lively awareness of the absolute gratuity of God’s gifts at all times. Otherwise our relationship with him, as well as with other people, can get on the wrong track that leads the logic of love to deteriorate into the logic of human calculation.

If our calculations were truly logical, they wouldn't lead us to try to manipulate Someone all-powerful and all-loving, anyway. We'd see how silly that is. But we keep losing sight of it. So resisting the impulse to manipulate our fellow clueless would-be puppeteers is good practice.

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