The Personalist Project

Freedom and self control

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity;in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Edmund Burke, Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791)

My last post, "The Limits of 'Identifying As,'" left me with a nagging feeling of loose ends unaddressed.

(Here's a link to the video that inspired it, in which a series of mild-mannered college students are asked whether a shortish Caucasian man who "identifies as" a tall Chinese woman is "wrong." None of them can bring themselves to say he is.)

I set out to locate the grain of truth in treating "I identify as" like a magical veto power over objective reality. I recalled how Pope St. John Paul II used to invite us to embark on the adventure of "becoming who you are"--of employing the gift of freedom to become the person you are meant to be, not some lesser version thereof. I said:

We possess the gift of freedom and the capacity for initiating actions that are truly our own: not just performed by instinct or blind habit, nor in the teeth of pressure or manipulation, but really ours. By such an exercise of freedom, we can be transformed--not just modified, or adjusted, but transformed. We can "become who we are"--or fail to. We're not altogether at the mercy of instinct, upbringing, culture, moods, wiring.

Because if we really grasped the grandeur of that, we wouldn't keep hankering after "becoming who we aren't." We would be more content with developing our free personhood within given realities like "male" and "shortish" and "Caucasian." Jules objected:  

I think it is not enough in this context to say that we are free to "become who we are" or not. That sounds as if our freedom is limited to just two choices: accept God's ready-made plan for us or reject it. In reality our freedom is much more creative than that. It's not just a matter of accepting God's choice for us, but also of making our own choices.

He referred me to an earlier post of his, worth reading in full, with insights from John Crosby, John Courtney Murray, Romano Guardini, and Nicolai Berdyaev. Freedom is not a matter of locating the correct path and mechanically following it, or the correct kind of behavior, and passively adopting it. That leaves no room for creativity.

Or, as C.S. Lewis' puts it in Mere Christianity: "We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort." The focus is on interior reality, not external option-selecting.

We've addressed the way this plays out in the context of discerning a vocation or other large life decision ("God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life, But What If He Won't Tell You What It Is?") Providence is something bigger than some exceedingly particular path you ought to take. Swerving to the right or to the left doesn't cancel out your ability to live the life you were supposed to live. It doesn't render Him helpless to do anything about it. 

For example: say you were "supposed to" attend College X, settle in City Y, and practice Profession Z. But the Tigers won the World Series your senior year of high school and distracted you from your test prep. You bombed your SAT and never got admitted to College X. Therefore, God's plan for you was foiled and you could never "become who you are."

Is that the way it works?

I used to think so.

Certainly God has a plan, and our choices have genuine consequences. They open up and cut off real possibilities. And of course we're commanded to do good and avoid evil. We are to "stay on the path" in that sense--though even there, if Providence wasn't foiled by Adam's "happy fault," neither is God powerless in the face of our lesser infractions.

Our external actions are part of the picture; they're certainly not irrelevant. But external actions aren't at the heart of anybody's life-project.

Here's what opened my eyes: 

A few years ago, I was agonizing over whether we were "meant to" move to a place I really didn't want to move to. We were in church, and, unfortunately (I thought) we'd just opened our hymnals to a song with the refrain "Lord, we will go / Wherever you send us." I waned to be detached enough from my own preferences to sing that line honestly, but I wasn't so sure I could.

And then it occurred to me that God probably didn't care half so much about where I moved as what kind of a person I would be--what kind of life I lived--when we got there. Something in my mindset shifted, and suddenly I couldn't worry so much about whether we ended up in this city or that. I didn't have to live in fear of being called to go places I didn't prefer to go or live under circumstances I didn't prefer to navigate. That wasn't really the point at all. I saw that Providence was quite capable of working with my freedom, and I found I was a lot more willing to work with Providence. 

Maybe the students in the video are groping for that kind of freedom. They want to be creative, not constrained by facts they never chose in the first place. Maybe they sense that there's something deeper than those facts, and they think they can "identify" their way out of their predicament.

Or maybe they're just crazy.

What do you think?

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The personalist emphasis continues in paragraph 38. The Pope points to the example of Jesus, who held up "a demanding ideal" ["Be perfect!"] and yet "never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery."  We see again what we have seen all along with this Pope: he is not about changing the moral law; he's about changing hearts, our hearts. 

[It occurs to me here that Jesus didn't generally show warmth and compassion and understanding toward the Pharisees. Toward them, he could be rather severe, no? "You snakes!" He was hard on his disciples sometimes. "Get behind me, Satan!" Why? Because he loved them less? No. Because he is responsive to the inward condition and needs of each individual. The "righteous" are inclined to forget inwardly their utter reliance on grace; they are tempted to think well of themselves and to look down on sinners and dissidents (i.e. to become "masters"). They need to be "brought low." "Sinners" are more inclined to feel ashamed, unclean, and hopeless about themselves (i.e. enslaved). They need to be "lifted up."]

I ask myself: How do "sinners" who know me experience me? What do they feel emanating, spiritually, from me? Is it tenderness? Closeness? Compassion? Care? Hope for themselves? Or do they rather feel judged and ashamed in front of me? Am I more like the father or the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son? In the language of recovery rooms, "Do I seem like a safe person for the vulnerable? or do they want to hide themselves from me?"

Clearly, I have work to do. I'm glad and grateful that the Pope has helped me see it. [Also, I'm going to worry less about whether "the righteous" approve of me. Their approval and disapproval are modes of "mastery;" they measure others outwardly, by performance, prestige, conformity to the law, "success." They relish social hierarchies. Love affirms the person; it levels mountains and fills in the valleys, establishing the conditions for true communion.]

For the first time since I began "live blogging" my reading of this exhortation, I've read some commentary. I've read Cardinal Schönborn's introduction to it, which gives me joy and reassures me I am interpreting rightly as I go. He (who reportedly collaborated on its articulation) reads it as I do.

Pope Francis has succeeded in speaking about all situations without cataloguing them, without categorising, with that outlook of fundamental benevolence that is associated with the heart of God, with the eyes of Jesus that exclude no-one (cf. AL 297), that welcome all and grant the “joy of the Gospel” to all. This is why reading Amoris Laetitia is so comforting. No-one must feel condemned, no-one is scorned. In this climate of welcome, the discourse on the Christian vision of marriage and the family becomes an invitation, an encouragement, to the joy of love in which we can believe and which excludes no-one, truly and sincerely no-one.

The Cardinal speaks of a "change" that happened over the year between the Synods that prepared this document. Was it a change in doctrine? No. Rather, it was a change in discourse, in tone, in the inward attitude of the Synod fathers. It was "a pastoral conversion."

Between the two Synods of October 2014 and October 2015, it may clearly be seen how the tone became richer in esteem, as if the different situations in life had simply been accepted, without being immediately judged or condemned. In Amoris Laetitia this tone of language continues. Before this there is obviously not only a linguistic choice, but rather a profound respect when faced with every person who is never firstly a “problematic case” in a “category”, but rather a unique person, with his story and his journey with and towards God.

We have been given a very great gift in this Pope, in this exhortation.

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I'd like to back up a bit and begin again at Chapter Two: The Experience and Challenges of Families.

[NB: As I'm "live-blogging" my slow and sporadic reading of the exhortation, I am refraining from reading any other commentary on it. I've only seen headlines.]

The focus on experience can't be overstressed; it is key to understanding Francis. It accounts for his much-lamented "unclarity." Real experience is messy and opaque; it resists facile analysis and simple answers. It requires attention, listening, patience, receptivity, sensitivity, care, and strong faith. Many of us (in a perennial temptation) prefer to concentrate on "the law"—something strictly objective that can be readily mastered by anyone with time and a certain level of intellectual ability. 

But we can't really grasp life—or anything personalexcept through experience. And it is through experience that “the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family.”

Francis is quoting John Paul II here. He is determined to contend with concrete reality—however painful and challenging—because he trusts that through it the Church will be guided to a more profound understanding of the human person and of the practical exigencies of her own teachings.

It is the opposite of what he is often suspected and accused of—the opposite of the dissident habit of mind. Dissidents dwell on hard cases to insinuate that the doctrines of our faith are untenable in practice and therefore need to be adjusted. The Pope (as I read him), rather, is so confidently rooted in Truth that he has no fear of hard cases. Pastoral practices may need to be adjusted; our understanding may need to develop; but, if so, it's only because the previous practice and understanding has (on closer examination) proven to be inadequate to the fullness of truth. 

In paragraphs 33-36, the Pope goes into various cultural conditions that "militate against permanent decisions." He doesn't mean permanent decisions are impossible; only that they are harder to achieve in our day and age. I receive this as typical of his kindly, humble, and generous spirit. He's not heaping condemnation on our generation; he's sympathetically entering into our difficulties. Nor does he lay all the blame on those who fail or abandon the ideal; committed Catholics have too often presented the ideal badly—in a way that repels, discourages, or acts as a stumbling block. Specifically, he says:

1. We have exaggerated the procreative end of marriage to the neglect of its unitive meaning.

2. We have failed to teach Natural Family Planning, leaving couples too vulnerable to the temptations of birth control.

3. We have presented marriage in an abstract, idealized way, far removed from the real concerns and circumstances of normal people.

As someone who has lived in intensely Catholic circles for all my 50 years and been married (and studying marriage) for more than half of those, I say yes to all these. It's true. And it contributes to the crisis we're in. I could list examples from experience all day, but I won't.

I'm going to quote paragraph 37 in full, because it strikes me as more than vital. I'm guessing it can be taken as a kind of summary of the pastoral thrust of the document and of the Pope's thinking on these questions.

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Every line of this paragraph is important enough for a post of its own. I am turning mental cartwheels of joy over it. This is the Pope fearlessly appropriating the gift and ethos of Vatican II. It is him exposing and opposing the residual legalism, paternalism and clericalism that are still weighing down the faithful, preventing us from achieving the abundant life that we are meant to live. It is him expressing the same holy boldness of faith that impelled Peter to walk on water.

He is challenging all of us to a much more radical faith in the efficacy of grace in the ordinary layman, and in the sacrament of marriage. We have to put away the kind of moral protectionism that is animated more by fear of sin than by confidence in the freedom we have in Christ.

I'm thinking of Augustine: "Love, and do what you will." 

I know some will see this as inviting laxity. I don't, any more than Peter's stepping out of the boat was inviting drowning. He wasn't tempting fate; he was trusting Jesus to give him the power to do what was naturally beyond him.

What does the Pope mean when he says that marriage is "a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment"? I take him to be emphasizing the same element of personal life that John Paul II continually emphasized: To be a person is to be self-determining. We don't simply conform to the law (or fail to conform to it); we "pro-create" ourselves and our marriages, under grace. (Jules reminded me yesterday of a post of his on Berdyaev that develops this point beautifully.) And we do that creative work from the materials and circumstance we have at hand, including the limits on our abilities and understanding.

The ideal presented us by the Gospel and by the Church isn't meant to be a burden—as if every moment we're not living up to it is a moment we're failing. Rather, it's meant to be a source of hope and joy: "There's where grace can bring us, if we only turn to God and rely on Him."

As I'm writing I'm experiencing the difficulty of communicating these things. I feel the truth of what the Pope writes, but I remember that I didn't always feel it. I used to have exactly the mentality he is here challenging. 

A final point on forming consciences rather than replacing them.

There's a scene in the excellent, heart-wrenching Iranian movie, A Separation. A pious Muslim woman is hired to do housework and watch an elderly man with dementia while his son is at work. The first day there, the old man wets himself. She is distressed. She knows he needs to be cleaned and changed, but she's afraid, because it's forbidden for her to see a strange man undressed. So she calls her imam to ask permission.  In effect, his authority is substituting for her conscience.

In Islam, this is normal. In Catholicism, it isn't. In the Catholic understanding, the moral life has to be lived from within. But religious authorities are tempted to take the place of conscience, and we are tempted to give it to them, because the responsibility entailed in freedom frightens us. But unless we take it up, we will remain morally immature and unable to fulfill our vocation as persons.

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In this brief video from the Family Policy Institute of Washington, a series of fairly pleasant, fairly articulate American college students can't be persuaded that Joseph Backholm, a short Caucasian man who tells them he "identifies as" a 6'5"Chinese woman, is not a 6'5" Chinese woman. What are they thinking? How did it come to this?

First, a couple caveats: whenever I see man-on-the-street videos proving the utter imbecility of said man, I hold out a feeble but fervent hope that they've been doctored beyond recognition . Maybe the interviewer ran into six people who DID know which country America was fighting in the Revolutionary War but chose to show only the seventh and eighth, who though it was China or Australia. Maybe the videographer knew he'd snag more outrage clicks if he deleted everybody else.

The other caveat is pretty feeble, too, but it's this: Backholm keeps asking them whether he's "wrong"--not whether his statements are "false"--and I think the word trips a switch in today's students that causes them to spew gibberish. "Wrong" has moral connotations, and any halfway impressionable teenager with working eardrums has imbibed the conviction that moral judgment about somebody else's behavior and beliefs is a no-no. (There's an exception of course, for certain unacceptable beliefs which don't ever come up anyhow, right-thinking people being unanimous about them).

Also, when he says, "Am I wrong?" they seem to be hearing, "Are you a mean person who wants to make me feel bad?" so they hasten to prove they're not.

So semantics is part of the problem. Maybe.

But however you slice it, "identifying as" is running amok these days.

So where's the grain of truth? Every crazy or evil idea has one, though some take more digging than others.

In this case, the grain is very near and dear to my personalist heart: the insight that we really do have the power to make of ourselves "somebody" or "somebody else." We possess the gift of freedom and the capacity for initiating actions that are truly our own: not just performed by instinct or blind habit, nor in the teeth of pressure or manipulation, but really ours. By such an exercise of freedom, we can be transformed--not just modified, or adjusted, but transformed. We can "become who we are"--or fail to. We're not altogether at the mercy of instinct, upbringing, culture, moods, wiring.

But, for one thing, you don't effect such a transformation by "identifying as" a person who has attained his telos. You have to do something about it. You can neither simply feel deep down that that's who you are, nor simply announce it. The project of becoming who you are, of gradually bringing the heart, the intellect, and the will into harmony and developing them to the utmost, can't be reduced to something that simple, or that silly. Nor is it attainable without plenty of grace.

Another difference, of course, is that you can't become something you're not, no matter how much natural virtue or supernatural assistance you have going for you. You either have these ancestors, or that height, or those chromosomes, or you don't.

We can argue, I guess, about whether I'm doing you any favors by pretending you are what you're not. We can, like Bruce Jenner, alter our birth certificates after the fact, and we can change the signs on all the bathroom doors in North Carolina, but none of that rises above an elaborate game of make-believe.

More useful would be for us who value both transformation and rationality to do a better job of conveying that it's plenty astounding and freedom-affirming to become who you are, not to mention being transformed into children of God and transfigured into his likeness. That if we're looking for good adventure, it's already waiting for us.

Then maybe even nice American college students wouldn't be taken in by the incoherent make-believe their elders feed them.

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Our move from Michigan to Maryland has been a rude awakening to the perils of overregulation of the citizen. Reading Jacques Philippe's Interior Freedom has shown me the dangers of overregulation of the soul.

The morning after our move, we stepped out into the sunshine to find a fresh new parking ticket gracing our windshield. (Pulling in exhausted in the pitch dark a few hours earlier, we'd somehow failed to notice the small portion of the curb painted yellow.). As a parting shot, six months later, the City had us fork over $50 for permission to park a small moving truck (scarcely bulkier than the family van) in front of our temporary dwelling for a few hours.

In between, we ran into 15-mph, photo-enforced speed limits, a law about getting a permit to host a yard sale in one's own yard, and a very threatening letter taped to our door regarding our placement of the Christmas tree on the right curb on the right day at the wrong hour.

Does this kind of thing enhance order and stability? Or does it foster resentment, making it harder for even the most well-intentioned to take law and authority seriously? Doesn't our attention get increasingly pulled away from what the rules are ostensibly for? Don't we end up concluding that the real intent was not safety and order at all, but the Man's malicious glee at catching culprits and profiting by their slip-ups?

Lest this post degenerate into a mere rant against our local City Hall, what I meant to say was this: a wrong understanding of order in the spiritual life can lead to the same sorts of unintended consequences.

As Jacques Philippe points out, the whole point of the Holy Spirit's movement in the Christian's life is to awaken the virtues of faith, hope and charity.  That's why the whole of the Ten Commandments, the Law and the Prophets, and he 613 mitzvot can be summed up so neatly in the Sh'ma Yisrael and "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

But we are geniuses at finding excuses to get sidetracked.

Take the Ten Commandments. They were bestowed on us as a path to life now that we were no longer slaves. But sometimes we treat them as a handbook for slave behavior.

Novenas and optional devotions, sevenfold paths and castles, traditions of all manner of food and clothing--these open up a world of possibilities. Do we revel in the freedom of it all? Or do we manage to treat them as straitjackets and excuses for disapproving of people who don't have an affinity for our own favorites?

As Fr. Jacques puts it,

Treatises on spirituality speak of the stages of the spiritual life. They list three, seven, twelve, or whatever number the particular author prefers. There is much to be learned from these accounts, whether it is the seven mansions of the soul depicted by St. Teresa of Avila or the twelve degrees of humility of the Rule of St. Benedict.

But experience has taught me a different approach. I often say jokingly that the ladder of perfection has only one step: the step we take today. Without concerning ourselves about the past or the future, we can decide to believe today, place all our trust in God today, love God and neighbor today. 

We imagine it's God and His law that are trying to micromanage us, when in we're the ones scheming to invent new forms of unnecessary constraint at every turn.

Do citizens need rules and regulations? Of course. Let's all drive on the right side of the road, and let's bow to more complicated rules, too, when they lead to order and safety and are promulgated by legitimate authority.

Do our souls benefit by the techniques of spiritual masters, by all kinds of traditions of clothing and devotions and feasts and fasts? Of course they do. 

The trick, though, is to avoid reducing the spiritual life to a list of traffic regulations, and ourselves to distributors of tickets, to ourselves or everybody else. 

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