The Personalist Project


My Battle Against Hitler

When:Saturday May 30, 8-10pm
Where:519 N High St, West Chester, PA

A while back I wrote a post called Love is unconditional; Relationships have terms. I had noticed how often "unconditional love" gets invoked to put pressure on the victims of abuse and to protect wrong-doers from having to face the reality of what they've done. It's perverse.

Preparing for a Theology on Tap talk I'm to give next week, I've been re-reading The Way to Christ, a series of retreat talks Karol Wojtyla gave young adults in Poland in the 1960's and 70's. A passage in it reminded me of that post [my emphasis].

“Every one who acknowledges me before men”— before men—“ I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” ( Matthew 10: 32 ; cf. Luke 12: 8 ). He did not say this as a stern judge, but from his position as Christ, thinking of the necessary condition of our response to God and choice of God.

God's love for us is absolute and unwavering, but if we want to live in union with Him, there are conditions involved. We have to respond to Him; we have to acknowledge Him; we have to amend our lives...

The same is true in human relationships. If we want to keep them, we have to abide by the terms that go with them.

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Sartre once said very truly, "In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team."

It's how I've come to feel about parenthood and moral formation. All my ideas about teaching right and wrong are complicated by the presence of other persons with free will.

It's not just that I can't force others to do what I think they should, but that if I tried they wouldn't be making properly moral choices at all, since moral choices spring from a fully free relation to the good.

Even more, if I tried to force them I'd be acting morally badly in the moment of urging moral goodness on them, which is messed up.

I wish I had understood this sooner in life.

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I've heard a lot of sad news this week. A friend's mother is dying. Another friend's sister in law has just discovered breast cancer. And then there are the appalling headlines—the violence in the world, the mendacity and moral insanity of our political and cultural elites, atheism on the rise, misery all around, things falling apart. 

I see and feel everywhere the ordinary pain of alienation, brokenness and loss, stress and struggle, depression and disability, tension and miscommunication. I'm becoming more aware of the way sin works—the way it's communicated to successive generations. 

Sometimes the awfulness is overwhelming.

Then I think on these lines, which I first heard many years ago in (I think) a talk by Tom Howard: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

I want to forward them to my friend, because they're so comforting. But, not knowing their origin, I hesitate. Maybe they're nothing better than naive optimism, out of touch with the reality of evil. So I google and learn that they are words spoken by Jesus in a vision to the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, when she questioned him about sin. Why had God allowed it into the world where it would wreak so much unspeakable harm?

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

“These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”

The theme is echoed in the Magnificat readings and prayers for Friday.

Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.

And then this, from Isaiah:

I will heal them and lead them; I will give full comfort to them and to those who mourn for them. I the Creator, who gave them life.

The antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah was from John.

You also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and/or hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.

Pain and suffering belong to our lot in this world, and yet, we live in the deep assurance that "all shall be well." 

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In keeping with our outrageously inefficient lifestyle, this month the Torreses travelled some 800 miles to Warner, NH, to hear a talk by Dr. Ralph Martin of our home parish in Ann Arbor. (Actually the trip made some sense, since our son was graduating from Northeast Catholic College in Warner, and Ralph just happened to be the commencement speaker.)

My ears perked up early on. Ralph spoke of “the language of personal decision” which the Church has been using so insistently lately--especially since the pontificate of St. John Paul II.

“What does that sound like?” he inquired. “What does it remind you of?”

To some, he suggested, it might be reminiscent of Billy Graham, the world-famous 20th-century Protestant evangelist

After all, for a long time the Evangelicals seemed to have cornered the market on this kind of talk, with their insistence on the way a person's eternal destiny hinged on “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”

There are problems with the formulation, of course--like the way it ignores the corporate aspect of the Church, and the fuzziness about exactly what "personal" might mean. But there’s a lot that's worth unpacking in such language, as I’ve written here. 

Why is personal decision so important all of a sudden? For one thing, the times when a practicing Christian could cozily blend into the woodwork are fast departing.

In the days that are coming, Ralph pointed out, it will be hard to hang on if there’s been no personal decision on your part. You sure don’t "drift into the Kingdom of God by going along with the culture.” One way or another, “Who do you say that I am?” will be addressed to each of us, and there won't be any room left for what you might call unintentional discipleship.  “The Kingdom of God suffers violence,” says Matthew in his Gospel, “and the violent bear it away.”

This is a mysterious verse, and Ralph offered a new (to me) interpretation. It could mean “the violence of conversion.” Real conversion—even if it takes a gradual, undramatic form in a particular person’s life--doesn’t just happen to you without your say-so.

The language of personal decision comes up in the matter of mercy, too. The Year of Mercy is coming up, the time of mercy is now, as John Paul and Sister Faustina kept saying. But even something as gentle and kindly as mercy requires a personal response. “Every time Jesus extends mercy, He asks for a response of faith, repentance, conversion,” Ralph pointed out. 

Of course, persons have been making decisions for as long as there have been persons. But there's been a tendency to downplay their importance, or even confuse an insistence on legitimate personal autonomy with arrogance or stubbornness, or with a relativistic mushy-mindedness.

Alice von Hildebrand makes a key distinction that’s stuck with me all these years: between passivity and receptivity. The human person is a really odd creature: gifted with freedom and self-possession, the capacity to act in his own name. And yet his most significant actions involve being receptive to God—not passive, but receptive.

There’s a balancing act here that I don’t fully understand, and it’s at the heart of personalism. To take our own subjectivity seriously, to be the protagonists, and not the spectators, of our own lives, we have to really act, really decide. The formerly prevalent way of talking—what you could call a “language of instrumentality”—included a lot of references to being God's “tools” or “instruments,” about being “molded” into His image. There was truth to that, too--I'm not setting myself up as wiser than all the saints and theologians who've talked that way over the millennia. The potter and the clay is straight out of Scripture.

But it can be very misleading, blurring the distinction between person and thing, subject and object, free being and machine. Katie has talked about this (and sparked a lively discussion) in her post entitled “Our decisions belong to us; we are responsible for them.”

So you don’t have to be Billy Graham to speak the language of personal decision. But then, the point is not what kind of language we speak, but what kind of persons we are.

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Lately I have been drawing attention to John Paul II's stress on freedom in personal and interpersonal life. Take, for instance, this line from Veritatis Splendor: "There is no morality without freedom." 

I'm thinking it might be a good idea to delve a little more into what freedom actually means.

The great moral hero and philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand said, "To be properly free, an act or movement of the soul has to "originate in one's personal selfhood". 

Recently I listened to a talk by Pete Colosi on death and dying, in which he mentioned that one of the opposites of freedom is aimlessness. We can't be said to be acting freely if we lack a sense of purpose in what we do. It was a new angle on the meaning of freedom for me, and got me thinking about its other opposites. Here are at least a few of them.

1. Coercion. If someone makes me do something—or to the extent that he makes me do it—I'm not acting freely. Coercion can be physical or psychological, blatant or discrete, deliberate or unconscious. In every case, though, someone else's will is the "prime mover" of "my" action or response.

2. Compulsion. It may be external (a law or command, say) or internal (an uncontrollable urge), but when I act under compulsion, I am not free. A young man who goes to war because he drafted is in a different moral situation than the one who volunteers to serve his country.

3. Manipulation. If someone uses me to get his way, I am not properly free, even if I consent to the action on some level. As with coercion, manipulation can be more or less deliberate, more or less discrete. The key is that someone else's end, not my own, is the motivation.

4. Seduction. In seduction, there is no force involved, but my will is overcome, "dethroned." Rather than acting from the center of my personal selfhood, I'm lured off center. I succumb to my lower nature.

5. Imprisonment. If I'm in prison, whether physically or psychologically, I cannot pursue my ends. I'm not free.

6. Shackling/constraint. If something is holding me back against my will, I'm not free.

7. Slavery/servility/dependency. If I'm bound to serve someone else's aims or do someone else's bidding, I'm not free.

8. Limitation (weakness, impotence). I may very much want to do something, but if I lack the power or virtue to achieve it, I am, to that extent not free.

9. Indifference. If I don't care about outcomes, my acting will be more arbitrary than free.

Those are the ones that come to mind. Has anyone else got others to suggest?

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