The Personalist Project

Round table discussions

We need round-table discussions to keep trained minds from becoming academic. We need round-table discussions to keep untrained minds from becoming superficial. We need round-table discussions to learn from scholars how things would be, if they were as they should be. We need round-table discussions to learn from scholars how a path can be made from things as they are to things as they should be.

Peter Maurin, unknown

I've come across several articles recently (here's one) reporting that it is only a matter of time before sex robots are readily available and widely used. It's appalling, of course, but, given the state of our culture and all the money to be made in the sex industry, not surprising. Sex toys have been around a long time, and a sex robot is really nothing other than the latest, most technologically advanced version. It seems a difference of degree, not kind.

What I find stranger and perhaps more unsettling is the rise of social robots: robots that are designed not to be tools or workers or toys, but real companions. They will be engineered to engage us in small talk, understand and respond to our moods, show us sympathy, and so on. Robot Pepper is a good example:

Pepper is, according to the company that makes it, the first robot with a heart. The company makes a point of saying that Pepper “doesn't clean” and “doesn't cook.” Rather, it “is a social robot able to converse with you, recognize and react to your emotions, move and live autonomously.” Pepper is described as more than just a thing. With Pepper we can have a relationship. It acts like a friend with feelings and a life of its own. Pepper must be treated with a degree of respect, not as a mere thing or slave, as is underlined, for instance, by the user agreement which states that owners “must not perform any sexual act” or “other indecent behavior” with it.

I find all of this mind-boggling and disturbing. Is it really possible for people to mistake a machine for a person? Perhaps it is. More likely, however, it's a case of "settling for less."

Persons are framed to live in communion with others. We desire real relationships, friends we can talk to and who will listen to us. But these are increasingly hard to find. Friends and family live far away. Other people do not have time for us, and, to be honest, we do not have a lot of time for them either. Some of this is our own fault. But much of it is simply a regrettable function of modern life. Loneliness is a very real and increasingly widespread problem, and it makes us vulnerable (as Sherry Turkle argues) to things like social robots.

We (still) know that Pepper and other robots like it, no matter how technologically advanced they get, are but a poor substitute for real human persons. But they are seen as at least better than nothing—in some ways even better than the real thing. They are much easier to deal with. Years ago our super-clean Swiss landlady told us that plastic advent wreaths are much better than real ones. In this way too, robotic pets are better than real pets. Watch this video about the healing effects of Paro, a robotic therapeutic baby seal, to see what I mean.

Humanoid robots are not yet as convincing as robotic pets, but someday perhaps they will be. Then we will be able to buy a friend according to our own specifications. It will not be the same as a real friend, but 1) better than no friend at all, and 2) much easier and safer than a real friend. 

Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, among others, have raised the alarm about robots and artificial intelligence. These things, they say, could easily become too strong and intelligent for us to control. They could even threaten the existence of the human race. In a strange way they may be right. Not that robots will ever become truly conscious and free, or have the inward life necessary to rebel against their makers. The threat I see is more like the threat of alcohol or drugs—that of getting hooked on them. As Turkle says "The point is not so much that the machine is smart but that we are vulnerable." The more impoverished our inner lives become, and the more superficial our relationships with others, the more susceptible we will be to the temptation of replacing persons with robots. It will not be great, in fact, it will be pretty depressing. But it will be better than nothing.

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Another writer—this one coming from a Jewish perspective—notices the widespread confusion about forgiveness in our culture and its disastrous neglect of the moral imperative of repentance. (Hat tip Jules, who found it.)

I've argued here often and often that our communion with one another (not to mention our integrity as individuals) is seriously menaced by a bogus notion of forgiveness—one that lacks due seriousness about the reality of wrong and the dignity of the wrongdoer and victim alike. It says, in effect, peace, peace, when there is no peace.

In an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Understanding the Lost Art of Repentance and its Urgency, Louis Newman goes so far as to say that forgiveness is a piece of cake compared to repentance.

Repentance, what Jewish tradition has called teshuvah — “turning” or “returning” — entails nothing less than a radical transformation of our selves and our relationship to others. It requires profound psychological self-awareness, which includes both recognizing our own moral blind spots and exploring the character traits that cause our moral lapses in the first place.

And just as "forgiveness" can be too facile and superficial to achieve it's aim of reconciliation, repentance can be (and often is) perfunctory and unreal.

But counterfeit repentance, like counterfeit currency, has no value. We can’t restore our integrity or repair our relationships with others by merely pretending to repent; there are no shortcuts to an ethical life.

All of which explains why genuine repentance is so rare. The work of examining our selves and repairing the relationships we have broken is arduous and always has been.

We are severely tempted to avoid it, which is why we're apt to latch onto theories that seem to render it unnecessary. What they really do though, is keep us stuck in denial and alienated from God, ourselves and those who would love us. It's not just the Truth of the gospel that sets us free; it's the truth about ourselves.

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Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, I watched a young friend go through a dramatic few years trying to make things right after getting his casual just-for-fun girlfriend pregnant. With effort, he dissuaded her from aborting their child, offering to single parent if he had to so that his daughter would live. He moved in with his girlfriend during the remainder of the pregnancy with the idea that they could be a family. At first, it seemed like it might work out for them. But the relationship fell apart a few months after their daughter was born. Undaunted, my friend continued to spend every moment he could with his daughter, but as his relationship with his ex deteriorated, that became harder and harder to do. 

For a while, he thought that even if he couldn't be in his daughter's life, he could at least avoid being a deadbeat dad. So he signed up to join the army, and went back to his home state for basic training. Three quarters of the way through training, a previously undiagnosed medical weakness was discovered and he was released. The temptation to stay in his home state, near his family and familiar stomping grounds, must have been pretty strong. But he couldn't pretend he wasn't a father. He wasn't a person of any particular moral convictions except for a strong, midwestern family loyalty. No matter how messed up things get, you don't give up on family. So he headed back south to be as close to his daughter as he could be. The last time I saw him, quite a while ago, he was working two jobs, paying child support, and seeing his daughter every other weekend.  

Never would he have said that he wanted his daughter to grow up without both parents around, amidst division and confusion. It wasn't what he intended when he first hooked up with a cute girl, sowing his wild oats while trying to figure out what he wanted out of life. He didn't realize he was choosing the mother of his daughter with this "not at all serious" relationship. When his girlfriend became pregnant, all he wanted was to make it right, for her and for their child. But in the end, it wasn't something he could make right. 

There are things we can break that we are not able to fix.

I thought of this story yesterday while reading the reactions on FB to this open letter by a friend of mine. Many of the responses were attempts to "fix" the situation described---people talking about how troubled marriages should be solved or abandoned. Monica's marriage was labelled, dissected on the basis of the limited information in the letter, diagnosed, and treatments were prescribed by combox strangers. 

The letter itself, if you read it, doesn't ask for a solution. Monica does not ask to be fixed. She asks only for support from the pulpit and from fellow Catholics, that we walk beside her on this difficult road she is travelling. Monica knows something that I learned watching my young friend those years ago: there are things broken that we cannot fix.

Am I advocating despair? No. But these broken places in people's lives are where Francis's call for compassion and pastoral care is most relevant. For while it is true that we cannot heal one another's every wound, nothing is beyond God. And while we wait for his action, we can and should follow his command by loving one another, even in the broken places. 

It isn't comfortable, to walk with someone and help carry their cross. We'd much rather whittle the cross down to size, or tell our friend helpfully that they need not carry this cross (there's a much more comfortable alternative cross just over there, after all), or shout tips from the sidelines on cross-carrying technique. We don't want to look too closely at the inescapable suffering that faces another for fear that we might learn that living well and truly requires that we also suffer, that we also may someday face a cross that seems too large and too cruel to carry and be asked by Christ to bear it for Him. 

In all the coverage of the synod, there's been a tendency to focus on changes in discipline and implications for doctrine. What is the Church going to do to remove people's crosses? What is she going to teach? But the focus of the synod on the family has to be primarily pastoral, and the perennial pastoral concern is this: to feed the hungry, to console the afflicted, to clothe the naked, to see each person and to love and serve them and the image of Christ within them. As a pastoral document, I expect that whatever guidelines might come from the synod will be concerned with giving pastors the guidance and tools they might need to best serve families as they are, not cracking down on error or loosening doctrinal teachings to pretend the faith-filled life is easier than it is. 

My young friend's story, his life complicated and enriched and burdened, all in one, by his daughter's birth and the impossible task of making right the circumstances surrounding it, could be used as a neat, pat explanation for why the Church teaches what she does about sexual morality. And that would be true, and possibly helpful for many. But we cannot love the man or the child by holding them up as examples of life gone wrong. Nor can we love Monica by declaiming on what her marriage should and should not be. At the end of the day, Monica still has to face what she and her husband and her children are, in reality, not in the abstract, and choose each moment what best serves them. 

There may be no single right solution, no one "the answer" to these broken hearts and broken families. But there can still be so much that is good in choosing to love and sacrifice even when it cannot make things right; even when there is no easy answer or perfect happy ending to be achieved. 

I borrowed my title from a Waugh novel, but it's a different novel by that author that I am most inspired by. Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels, not despite its lack of a conventionally happy ending, but because of it. What is redeemed in Brideshead is not the happiness of the protagonists; nor are they saved from the consequences of their mistakes. Charles and Julia don't get to have the "might-have-been" of a happy ending together. Their sins and errors have had lasting consequences, and there is no way to take them back and try over. Like my friend, the young father, they cannot make things right.

But while their lives and their sins cannot be redeemed, they themselves may be, and are. There is another story underlying the surface, in which all can be perfected. This is a story we cannot write for each other, but may only witness as companions and as friends on the journey.  

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I used to think you could never have too many teachable moments. The more it dawned on me what a superhuman responsibility I had taken on as a mother (not to mention a homeschooling one), the more  convinced I became that I'd better get double the milage out of every chance occurrence. Just living life in common with the objects of my educational efforts, I figured, would be a failure of efficiency. 

But I was missing the point. I've come to believe that when you self-consciously try to turn everything into a teachable moment, you insert yourself between your child--or other chosen target--and the reality. And you twist, or falsify, your personal interactions.

Some examples (and counterexamples) of what I mean:

My mother read all eight of us kids all seven Chronicles of Narnia. (It's not that my father didn't read to us: he just stuck to The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, and War and Peace). Never a quiz, never a worksheet. She just read the whole series over and over--because even after we big kids had heard them all, she'd need to start over for the ones who'd been too little to understand during the last cycle, and then again for those who hadn't been born yet.

Then we grew up and read them again to ourselves, and then to our own kids. We internalized them more thorougly than any enforced edification could have accomplished.

Much later, I met the only person I've ever known who disliked Narnia. His father had read the whole series out loud, too, but interspersed with incessant and wholesome commentary on the allegory, the moral of the story, and why it would behoove them to be more like Lucy and less like Edmund.

I knew the man, and he certainly didn't lack for dedication to his children, fatherly love, intellectual gifts, or good intentions.

But it backfired. They still overdosed on teachable moments.

So that's the pragmatic problem: it may not work. Once someone gets the idea that, for you, everything is a pretext for cramming education into him, he may take a dislike not only to education itself but to the very writers and artists and principles you want him to hold most dear.

And there's something more deeply wrong with the whole approach. It betrays a distrust of the power of truth, a belief that it needs to be belabored. At the very least, it betrays a lack of confidence in your children (or in whomever you're trying to edify). If instead you can manage to communicate confidence that they're capable of benefitting without being hit over the head, your chances of success are far greater. 

Besides, overdosing on teachable moments falsifies the person-to-person relationship. It treats the person as a generic receptacle for truth. It makes impossible the experience of friendship: standing side by side, gazing at the same truth together.You're not contemplating the truth yourself--too busy trying to make sure the other doesn't miss it. Nor are you letting him contemplate for himself, since you insist on shoving yourself in as mediator.

This is true, I think, whether the subject in question is religious or not, but especially if it is. If you believe, for example, that the Mass is what the Church teaches it is, you may be anxious to leave nothing to chance, reducing yourself to a pusher of teachable moments.

Not everybody makes this mistake. As my sister Simcha Fisher recalls, she noticed something odd about going to mass with our mother:

My mother would answer me any time I called her name, any time at all, except during the consecration and elevation.  I remember being very young and being baffled that she didn’t seem to hear me when her head was bowed.  Eventually I figured it out!

I remember that when I catch myself turning the liturgy into a nag-a-thon for the child I'm sitting next to. Instead of parallel contemplation of Jesus in the tabernacle, it's  critiques of kneeling technique ("Tushy up!") or corrections ("Quiet! This is the most important part!"). On a really bad day, I'm liable to launch into a lengthy whispered speech about the distinction between worshipping God and sitting there passively like a guy watching baseball in his living room.

If I would cut it out, we could be side by side, responding to something together. Or not. But if a genuine response did arise, it would come from within the child himself--something very different from a reaction to my hectoring.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a quick, whispered "Here comes Jesus!" at the consecration--but much more than that, and things get self-defeating pretty fast. Instruction doesn't have to be neglected, but it has a time and a place.

Because there's such a thing as too much efficiency.

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Just a couple quick thoughts:

1. The power of personal presence.

I'm thinking of Newman's emphasis on the role of personal influence in acquiring knowledge: book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment... The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. 

The point is especially true of religious knowledge. Christian truth is transmitted primarily through personal witness.

It is intended for the many not the few... its great instrument, or rather organ, has ever been that which nature prescribes in all education, the personal presence of a teacher... It is the living voice, the breathing form, the expressive countenance, which preaches, which catechises. 

I felt this especially listening to the Pope's address to Congress. In that hall, where stridency and arrogance and mendacity are the norm, it was the gentleness and humility of the Pope's voice and bearing that stood out—reached out—that attracted and evangelized.

It wasn't only in his formal addresses that the Pope's presence had an impact. A New Yorker described his experience of the Pope's visit this way:

I watched the Pope ride down a street in NY with church bells pealing – the tears came – the phone rang – my sister in MD said are you crying? I said yes – she said me too and neither of us knew why – we’re not Catholic. Side by side sat Boehner and Biden – both Catholic – one weeping – one not, in fact in every picture of Boehner standing near the Pope, he weeps…. The next day Boehner announces resignation, like a man who found permission to lay down the weight of the world finally.

Pope Francis embodies the Holy Spirit and when you feel that presence you cannot help it – it’s spontaneous – especially if you’ve been humbled.  You can’t make people more spiritual – only God can do that if the person is willing – if they are just looking for more political correctness, and not looking for God, things won’t change – in any denomination.

Those of us who tend toward books and ideas and words and doctrines can easily forget this dimension of the Pope's efficacy. The Vicar of Christ is not an office, but a person. To be a Christian is even more about Real Presence than it is about true teaching.

2. His themes were all personalist themes. They were, you could say, anti-ideological themes. Look at the person in front of you—the wounded person in front of you, who needs healing, attention, care. Build bridges not walls. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted. Don't condemn. (It's not for us to condemn.) Offer love, hope, help.

He is guiding us by word and deed toward a new way of being Christian, which is really the old way, the original way. Stop contending for power. Stop being oppositional. Stop making demands. Don't be like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead, open your hearts, show mercy, show humility, put yourselves in service. That's where you'll find Jesus, and joy.

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