The Personalist Project

Marks of personhood

each person is unrepeatably and incommunicably himself or herself…each is not only an objective but also a subjective being…each lives out of his or her interiority…each is a being of surpassing, indeed infinite worth and dignity…eachcan live and thrive only by existing with and for other persons.

John F. Crosby, Personalist Papers

I love this paragraph from Alice von Hildebrand's book about her years of teaching at Hunter City College in New York, Memoirs of a Happy Failure. It captures with admirable succinctness the self-contradicting absurdity of the reigning relativism:

To many professors terms like "God," "truth," and "objective moral values," were all religious concepts and hence illegitimate in the classroom. They believe, passionately, that one should endorse a democratic "pluralism" of views, and make it clear that everyone has his own god, or no god at all, and that the questions of truth and moral values are matters of opinion. There is one absolute dogma in the liberal world, namely the universal relativity and subjectivity of all values. To challenge this dogma is already to violate the separation of church and state.

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Suppose you're a doctor and you diagnose sickness in a patient, explaining that it is a genetic disease; his children should all be tested.

What would you think if he responded by saying, "Compared to Jesus, we're all sick."

Wouldn't you want to say, "Well, okay. True. But how is that to the point?" Wouldn't you be concerned about his lack of due seriousness about his health and the health of his children? If his disease were communicable, his dismissiveness would be even more alarming.

Yet, this is exactly what I experience on a regular basis when I point to the problem of dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. "We're all sinners, so everyone's dysfunctional." 

Right. Compared to the Communion of Saints in heaven, all our relationships are dysfunctional. Does that mean we shouldn't concern ourselves with dysfunction?

The other day I quoted some lines from Love and Responsibility that are of such vital, seminal, urgent importance that they bear repeating often and everywhere, especially as we, the People of God, respond to Pope Francis' call to prayer reflection about the Synod on the Family.

I am, and I must be, independent in my actions.  All human relationships are posited on this fact.  All true conceptions about education and culture begin from and return to this point.

There are many defective conceptions in the realms of education and culture about in the world. Some of them are conscious and some not. Many, if not all of us, are operating from habits and dynamics that belie this fundamental truth of the human person. We are unaware of how unfree we are, and how much manipulation we employ in our way of dealing with others.

If we want to help heal the family and renew the culture, we would do well to start by facing that painful reality.

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Just a brief follow-up to my post of yesterday (which will need more than one):

I want to explain a little what I, Christian personalist that I am, mean by violence.

In the broadest sense, any act that tends toward de-throning another person's will in the zone of his due freedom is a form of violence. Violence is aggression (physical or psychological) against another person— his rights, his property, his integrity as a self.

If someone breaks into my house and takes what is mine, he commits violence against my property. If a man sees a woman and "gropes her with his eyes", mentally using her as a sex object, he commits violence against her dignity as a person. If a mother screams at her child, intimidating him into obedience, she commits violence against him. Lying and manipulating in order to get another to do my will are forms of violence against another person's freedom. If I gossip about a colleague to get in good with my boss, revealing what is private, I've done violence.

Neglect, whether physical or emotional, might also be considered violence, though the term abuse may be more apt for such cases.

Looking at it this way, it is easy to grasp why self-defense, even lethal self defense (whether on the personal or communal level), is not violence. There is nothing aggressive about protecting myself and what is mine from aggression. It's true on the psychological level too. To hurl insults is violent, while to give a hard snub to someone who is too forward and familiar isn't. Bullying is violence; fighting off a bully isn't.

The more I study John Paul II and ruminate over the meaning of the master/slave dynamic the clearer this all becomes to me. The antithesis of the master/slave dynamic is love. And, in a way, the first act of love is a "standing back", a declining to interfere and manipulate, a respect for boundaries, a self-restraint. Here is a key passage from Love and Responsibility [emphasis mine]:

The incommunicable, the inalienable, in a person is intrinsic to that person’s inner self, to the power of self determination, free will.  No one else can want for me.  No one can substitute his act of will for mine.  It does sometimes happen that someone very much wants me to want what he wants.  This is the moment when the impassable frontier between him and me, which is drawn by free will, becomes most obvious.  I may not want that which he wants me to want—and in this precisely I am incommunicabilis.  I am, and I must be, independent in my actions.  All human relationships are posited on this fact.  All true conceptions about education and culture begin from and return to this point.

And here is John Crosby:

The more one enters into the interiority and subjectivity of persons, the more one will have to acknowledge that the deepest acts and commitments of persons are very little amenable to the instruments of coercion.

In interpersonal relations, it's not enough that I mean well, or that I have an objective good (like my child's safety) as my end. The means matter. I can't use force to get my will. I have to respect the other's freedom.

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My Facebook feed is full of approving links to the video of that mom chasing her son out of the riots. She's being called "Mom of the Year" and "America's Favorite Mother."

My response to it was so radically different that I felt driven to say something. When I saw a woman hitting and chasing and screaming at her son I thought, "No wonder he wants to riot; he was raised in violence."

I don't blame the mother. She was probably raised in violence too. And I can only say I'm grateful there were no cameras rolling during certain moments of my parenting when I was overcome with anger and fear—because they wouldn't look much better than that, and I had far less excuse.

But I think it's urgent that we see and understand that that's what it was: It was a woman overcome with anger and fear reacting with rage and violence toward her child. She said it of herself, "I just lost it." It's completely understandable under the circumstances, but it's not okay. It's not something we should be holding up as a model of great parenting. On the contrary, it's a prime indicator of the terrible moral crisis we face as a society—an occasion for sorrow and penitence, and sober reflection on what has gone wrong and how it might be addressed. I refer to the culture of violence at the root of so much of the breakdown and dysfunction in and among us.

Violence begets violence. More, and worse: violence toward children begets all manner of evil. I'm not speaking on the level of politics and social science, but metaphysics and moral philosophy.

A human person is made for love and substantially constituted by her relations to others. We enter the world utterly vulnerable and in need. To the extent that, instead of love, we receive neglect and abuse at the hands of the adults in our lives, our development as personalities and moral beings is thwarted and distorted. The violence we suffer becomes the violence we inflict—on others and ourselves (in the form, for instance, of addiction, depression and compulsions).

It's the law of the fall; the master/slave dynamic at work.

The solution proposed by the gospel—and the only one fully consistent with the nature and dignity of persons—is love. Jesus redeemed the world by absorbing its violence into his own flesh and offering himself as a sacrifice. Saints throughout history have imitated his example. Even we participate in the redemptive dynamic every time we "offer up" a suffering of our own, and when, instead of using power to get our way, we defer to others in love and service.

Martin Luther King, Jr., following Jesus and Gandhi, showed how the principle can translate to a practical program for overcoming social injustice in our day and age. He saw (student of Christian personalism that he was) that the only force greater than violence is love. His memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, recounts the story.

More precisely it is the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.

But my main concern here is with the problem of child abuse, not social injustice. I'm not talking only about the most egregious cases. I'm talking about the habit in each and all of us of resorting to violence in raising our children. Unless we come to grips with that, we won't be able to renew our society.

All this needs more explaining than I have the leisure for at the moment. For now, I'll just just commend you all to Alice Miller, and promise to say more soon.

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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. (Here it is.) 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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