The Personalist Project

Belief, humanly richer than sight

In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio

I was puzzled when we moved to Spain. It was supposed to be a country where old traditions of family togetherness still prevailed. It wasn’t like Sweden, or England, or North America. It valued family and traditional ways.

That was what I'd been expecting—and what I found, too, in many respects.

It was true that people tended to settle just a few blocks from their parents, if not in the selfsame apartment building. It was true that even the most punked-out-looking teenagers would appear faithfully at their grandparents’ doorstep every Sunday with the rest of the clan for dinner. Every business seemed to be a family business, and almost all of them would close from Saturday evening to Monday morning. The divorce rate stood at about 12%

But it was also true that the vast majority of women worked full time or more than full time outside the home—even mothers of exceedingly small children. State-financed daycares and nursery schools were not just the norm but almost completely universal.* If I walked down the street with my two-year-old between 9 and 5, everybody would do a double-take and ask her immediately, “¿No vas al cole?" (Don’t you go to school?)

It was also true that Spain had one of the lowest birth rates in all of Western Europe, and that Catalonia, where we lived, had the lowest one in Spain.

I got the sense that people hadn’t evolved naturally away from more traditional models of marriage and family, but were looking to prove that they were unlike the old-fashioned, traditional, faith-imbued society people had them pegged as—that they could be just as modern, just as egalitarian, just as irreligious, as the next culture.

But the whole thing was misleading: it seemed as if they were seamlessly combining the old tradition of rock-solid, warmhearted family life with all these New-Europe elements. But it wasn't that they were sifting through all this novelty for grains of truth about the dignity of women and the genuine insights of modernity. They weren't inquiring which elements were compatible with the things they already held dear. They were just jettisoning the old and embracing the new, wholesale. Things were pretty stable, but that was because they were living on borrowed social capital. 

What do I mean by that?

For one thing, mothers could work at all hours with minimal damage to their children because their mothers were generally the old-fashioned, grandmotherly kind of grandmothers who would more than pick up the slack, reveling in the role of full-time child-pamperer. The children had the stability of Grandma and Grandpa to offset whatever pressures and tensions their frenetic lives entailed.

They didn't have a lot of sisters and brothers, but they had oodles of uncles, aunts, and other older relatives. They came from long, long lines of intact families.

So I worried: what would things look like even one generation from now? Were the women who were so anxious to be anything but SAHM’s in their youth going to suddenly switch gears and embrace the unglamorous domesticity of grandchild-rearing? Were the children of tiny little second-generation two-career families even going to have the luxury of nearby grandparents, where they could sink their roots into a stable identity? Would the enviably low divorce rate be able to stay that way with families being pulled in so many different directions with so little support? 

As I saw the good families I knew embracing new ways so indiscriminately, it was like watching a slow-motion fallacy unfold—the fallacy of assuming all the foundations of goodness and generosity that you take for granted will remain unchanged as you tweak or jettison the customs that rest on them. I had a different vantage point: since America had already made the same kinds of decisions, I didn't have to guess where they would lead. By the time we'd been in Spain ten years, more stores were open on Sunday, and more people seemed to be going to grimy little fast-food joints for Sunday dinner instead of to Abuelita's house. The divorce rate was rising, too (now it stands at over 60%, higher even than America's).Three years after we left, gay "marriage" became the law of the land.

Of course it’s not that simple. The American character has always been independent and mobile, inventive and adventurous and reckless, in a way other countries aren’t known for. We never had the kind of reverence for tradition or authority that Spanish people had. (This is both good and bad in ways I won’t attempt to elaborate here.)

We in America are also living on borrowed social capital. When we blithely embrace gay “marriage”—or stand by uneasily while a few powerful people do—we might imagine that our foundations will stay put, that we’re just building new kinds of things on them now. We imagine we’re adding more options, rather than snatching away the support we ourselves, and all the generations to come, were standing on.

Don't get me wrong. God and His people have been in tighter spots than this--we Americans are inclined to short-sightedness, historically speaking!--and lived to tell. Leila Miller (right) of Little Catholic Bubble has an excellent piece called, "Rejoice! The Church's beacon just got brighter."

And here's something I wrote right after Obama's re-election, about the odd sort of gratitude I felt then for being woken up and inspired to do well whatever was still in my hands to do. Oh, and here's a great piece by blogger Jen Fitz (below)  of Sticking the Corners called 10 Things Christian Kids Need to Prepare for an Uncertain Future. Common-sense, non-alarmist wisdom of the kind we could all use right now.

But it's good to check every once in a while to make sure you're not putting your trust in princes (or judges, or other politicians). It's good not to be lulled into the false security of thinking your social capital is going to last forever.

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*I want to be careful here: all-but-universal daycare in Spain isn't inspired by a motherhood-is-slavery mindset so much as by an extremely communal kind of culture. Children are raised in groups not out of hostility to at-home mothers but because of the conviction that constant communal-ness is beneficial for children.

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Another one came into my mailbox today, via a conservative internet journal. It's a story, video included, of an adult whipping a child with a belt. A man had a caught a 14 year old boy stealing his pants at a park, and decided to teach him a lesson. He asks the boy whether he prefers to be brought home or get a whooping. The boy chooses the whooping, which the adult proceeds to administer.

Both are black. I see a black man whipping a black child, and all I can think of is slavery. This what has come of it. A long trail of abuse. The evil done to us becomes the evil we inflict. No wonder there is so much violence and alienation and dysfunction in our society.

The boy cries and begs him to stop. It hurts. He promises he'll never in his life steal again. The adult mocks him for crying, tells him to turn around, humiliates him a little further, then finally stops. Then he tells the boy that he's going to give him his phone number and they'll hang out together in the park. He's presenting himself as a father figure. He clearly thinks he's done well by this boy.

Lots of the commenters think so too. They scorn the critics—scoff at the very idea that the punishment is excessive: "That's nothing! You must not remember your childhood." Several think this is just what's needed these days. More kids getting more whoopings. Teach 'em right from wrong.

All I can think of is the master/slave dynamic of the fall.

Children can't be abused into goodness. They may, for a time, avoid wrong from fear. But avoiding wrong isn't the moral equivalent of goodness.

Force and violence induce fear and rage. Love and kindness have a different source.

I have a friend who had a bad upbringing. His father was alcoholic, then died when his son was a teenager. Others who should have helped and protected him took advantage of him instead. His response was to become isolated, angry, and well-armed. Invulnerable. He thinks this is strength. 

Today I'm re-reading Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. Many of her lefty ideas drive me crazy, but her warmth and humor are winning. So is her vulnerability. She relates a story of herself lashing out at her small son one Ash Wednesday morning, when he disobeys her by turning on the TV. She screams at him and threatens to throw away the TV; she grabs his arm and marches him to his room, where he cries bitter tears. Then she feels terrible.

It’s so awful, attacking your child. It is the worst thing I know, to shout loudly at this fifty-pound being with his huge trusting brown eyes. 

She's right. Most of us have had it done to us and most of us have done it. But it's terrible. It's not okay. Then, she says,

I did what all good parents do: calmed down enough to go apologize, and beg for his forgiveness while simultaneously expressing a deep concern about his disappointing character. 

I wish this is what more parents did. I'm afraid a wretchedly high percentage are more like the man in the video. They don't think they should apologize. They think they should get kudos for disciplining their children, for teaching right and wrong. 

We are in dire need of deep conversion. 

P.S. I don't like to link the story, but I will, so no one can think I'm exaggerating. Here it is. Be advised, though. It's hard to watch.

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We're in the throes of getting ready to move, but these thoughts came to me as I was making my latest to-do list, and I wanted to share them.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei and the patron saint of ordinary, everyday, workaday life. I don't have the mental wherewithal right now to explain the novelty of his whole vision--you can learn more here--but these are a few highlights: 

1. A good kind of "secularism."

In his day, the conventional wisdom was that if you wanted to give your life to God--or take religion seriously at all--that meant you had a vocation, and THAT meant you were supposed to become a priest or a nun. Laypeople were looked upon as second-class citizens, spiritually speaking. Their loftiest mission was to "pay, pray, and obey." Most people were called to squeak into Purgatory; only a chosen few were called to sainthood.

But long before the Second Vatican Council affirmed a universal call to holiness, St. Josemaria was shocking people by suggesting that all human persons were called to "sanctify their work, sanctify themselves through their work, and sanctify others through their work." And "work" didn't just mean paid employment; it was more like a shorthand for something that encompassed all of everyday life, from brushing your teeth to taking care of your insurance paperwork to changing your kid's diapers.

2. A good kind of "materialism"

Life is not supposed to be divided into a "religion compartment" and an "everything else" compartment. Everything is fair game--everything can bring you closer to God and draw down grace on you and everybody else who needs it. This is of a piece with the way St. Therese and Bl. Mother Teresa talk about how there are no little things in the eyes of God, and the point is not how impressive an action is but how much love it's done with. In one memorable snippet from one of his books, Furrow, he says:

You are writing to me in the kitchen, by the stove. It is early afternoon. It is cold. By your side, your younger sister--the last one to discover the divine folly of living her Christian vocation to the full--is peeling potatoes. To all appearances--you think--her work is the same as before. And yet, what a difference there is!

It is true: before she only peeled potatoes, now, she is sanctifying herself peeling potatoes.

The conventional wisdom of the day was that some are called to sanctify themselves and others are called to peel potatoes. Or, at most, your best bet was to get the peeling of potatoes over with so you could get on to something more "religious." This divorce between the material and the spiritual world would have been alien to the early Church, but it had come to seem unremarkable 2000 years later. 

The trouble is, for the vast majority of people who don't live in convents and monasteries, and even for many who do!--everyday, "material," life takes up an enormous chunk of their day,

and the leavings of their schedule--the time available for the important, "spiritual" kind of stuff-- is minimal at best.

3. A good kind of "anticlericalism"

(Katie's also written on this topic.) You can see how a certain downplaying of clericalism fits in with the other two, but it was much misunderstood at the time. In Spain, priests and nuns were being violently attacked and murdered, just for being priests and nuns. It must have seemed like a no-brainer to insist on honoring priests in whatever way possible. But often this honor was understood as imagining that they had a call to holiness and their congregations had a call to passivity. The priestly vocation was seen as Moses' vocation to be the only one to climb Mount Sinai and brave direct contact with God; the vocation of the laity was seen as the people of Israel's role: to cower at the foot of the mountain while the special, chosen one received God's message and instructed them on how to apply it. But the New Covenant breaks down the separation, giving all of us a priestly, kingly, and prophetic vocation, without taking anything away from the honor due to the sacramental priesthood.

So, peelers of potatoes, unite! Here's to the sanctification of the unglamorous!

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Helen Alvares sums it up beautifully in a debate over at Crux:

For Catholics, the same-sex marriage opinion is a striking rejection of Pope Francis’ beautiful invitation in Laudato Si to “joyfully accept … the work of God the Creator,” according to its own intrinsic purposes and harmonies. The union of the man and the woman is a unique beauty, and the place in creation where new life springs forth as a consequence of overflowing love. Like the rest of creation, this gift from God must be conserved and developed in service to the human person, especially the most vulnerable and the next generations. Stripping children from the definition of marriage does the opposite.

The rights and privileges that accord to marriage in society have everything to do with our duties toward the most vulnerable—children and the elderly. A strong marriage culture protects them. To abandon marriage is to abandon them.

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If the Supreme Court were to declare that there is no difference between a blessing and a curse or between idolatry and worship, would it make it so? Suppose it were to announce that to differentiate between testimony and perjury is to deny liars equal protection under the law? Suppose it were to equate, as a matter of law, a slap and a caress?

Can the court make it so that an act that deals death can form a family just as well and worthily as one that generates life? Can francium be rendered as stable as iron by judicial fiat?

When a human court says that slaves count as two fifths of a person, do they? 

If it decreed a universal right for adults to devour children, would we have it? No.

What we would have is an evil government. A government at odds with natural law and with God—a kind of anti-government. 

The Supreme Court doesn't create reality, but it can unleash chaos by pretending to, by defying the given in preference for the willed—by putting itself in the place of God. We are witnessing the reductio ad absurdum of the American experiment. Self government has become collaboration in our demise.

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