The Personalist Project

Human perfection achieved in self-giving interaction with others

Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person—what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them.

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio

Today's post is inspired by something my friend Monica overheard and shared on Facebook. She writes:

Tonight, a woman in the craft store said to her friend:  

I don't put up a tree.  But if you noticed, there's a wreath on my door. There's always a wreath on my front door. I decorate it for Lent, then Easter. In the summer I decorate it for Ramadan. Soon it will be decorated for Hanukkah, then Christmas, then Kwaanza. 

Her friend:  Wow. That's a lot of decorating.   

She: It is. People celebrate God all year long. I mostly celebrate their celebrations.   

I mostly celebrate their celebrations. How's that for counterfeit diversity in a nutshell?

How does it feel to have somebody "celebrate your celebration" while showing no knowledge of or interest in what it's all about? I can tell you exactly how it feels. A politician recently put a menorah in his office sometime around mid-December. He called the photographers, lit all the candles at once, said a few generic, Jewish-friendly words about the courage to stand up for one's traditions, and then hurried on to his next photo op.

He probably meant well. Still, it was jarring and comical. To celebrate Chanukah, you need eight full days, some very un-generic prayers addressed to the King of the Universe in commemoration of the rededication of the Second Temple, and (at least around here), lots and lots of chocolate coins. To do it right, you also need potato latkes, which, properly prepared and ingested, will put you in a blissful food coma for hours. You gather the relatives, you light the candles, you say the prayers, you sing the songs, you eat the latkes, you slip into the food coma. They tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat.* Then repeat for seven more nights.

But what busy politician has time for such stuff? Solidarity with the Jewish community, check! Next up: Kwanzaa! Make it snappy!

The thing is,"celebrating other people's celebrations" without celebrating what they're celebrating is a hopelessly external approach to other people and and the things they love. You're not really connecting with them at all. Some of the trappings, none of the substance.

It's a nice gesture--especially if, like the lady in the craft store, you go to the trouble of "a lot of decorating"--but it's not remotely what it's pretending to be. You're not joining in their celebration; you're mimicking it. You're acknowledging that other people care about something without rising above your own indifferentism. You'd be better off diving into a vigorous celebration of whatever it is you do believe in.

It's one thing to celebrate the diversity of human religious expression. As St. Pope John Paul pondered in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, maybe that's why God allowed such fragmentation: so we could all benefit from contemplating things from so many different angles. We're enriched by, say, all the different rites within the Catholic Church, and also by the many grains of truth in non-Catholic and non-Christian religions and cultures.

But it's quite another thing to pretend that you can encompass all this diversity between your own two ears. That's not diversity; that's just chaos. 

UPDATE: My friend Moncia has pointed out that the impression she had of the Wreath Lady was that she was not really pretending to do more than she was actually doing. She was entering into other people's experience of God by honoring their own ways of honoring Him.

The politician, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. "Cultural appropriation" may be an overused term, but he, Monica points out, is guilty of just that, and for the sake of personal agrandizement, too. This is very different from the Wreath Lady's efforts.

In short, I have unintentionally been guilty of what is pretty much the cardinal sin of personalism: taking another person's experience third-hand and twisting it--or at least hastily assuming I understood it--and placing it in the service of my own preconceived narrative.

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*Theme of all Jewish holidays

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A recent dustup in my little corner of cyberspace concerns whether Catholic Relief Services is complicit in distributing contraception and abortifacients to the people they're supposed to be helping. The Lepanto Institute has cast doubt on their Catholic credentials, and they've responded, in a way that sounds convincing to me. Lots of lives hang in the balance. I don't claim to know for sure who's right. But the question is: Should I donate to them, or not?

Or is it?

Here's another one: Should I give money to the homeless guy at the freeway entrance, knowing that he might spend it on the drugs or alcohol that have contributed to his present misery? Or is it kinder to drive on by? That is the question.

Or is it?

Finally, the world is full of migrants in desperate circumstances, but by opening our borders to them we risk putting our country in danger. Given the danger to law-abiding citizens,  do we let them in, or do we keep them out? That's what we need to ask ourselves. 

Or is it?

Donate to this charity, or not? Help this homeless man, or not? Open our doors to migrants, or not? 

But it's a trap. There's something fatally wrong with the question, which in each case comes down to: Should I do this particular work of charity, or should I do no work of charity at all?

And if I decide on no work of charity at all precisely because my conscience won't allow it--isn't that even worse than neglecting the needy out of sheer sloth and self-centeredness? Not only am I doing nothing, I'm appealing to my own moral purity, weighing myself down with self-righteous pride on top of who knows how many sins of omission. I'd like to help, but what can I do? My conscience won't let me!

Well and good, but then what are we supposed to do? Naively finance abortion, addiction, and terrorism, out of ignorance, or willful blindness?

No, of course not! Please keep reading!

Here's what my pastor used to do when he was supposed to take up a collection for a charity which he (after serious research) had his doubts about. He would announce the collection (he wasn't a bishop, and he had no authority to simply cancel it), explain his doubts, and then set up means for people to contribute to it or to other, specific good causes that there were no doubts about.

Here's what my friend Clare did when she was pondering the question of how to help the homeless. She decided she wanted neither to give cash nor to do nothing, so she arranged for a bunch of local families to get together and create kits for the homeless: food, shaving cream, warm socks, and so on. Again, this was after diligent research into what would actually help.

And then there's the refugee question. Well, you and I have no power to singlehandedly shape the nation's immigration policy. But we can be honest about admitting there are two sides to the question, and we can look for ways to help immigrants that don't even remotely involve aiding and abetting terrorism. My friend organized a coat drive for Syrian refugee children. My brother is looking into getting certified as a medical interpreter. And on an institutional level, too, there are plenty of charities that help refugees with immediate needs and aren't trying to influence foreign policy one way or the other. Your conscience can't possibly object.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict puts it in his encyclical on hope, the point is to go from the "informative" to the "performative"--to get beyond gathering information and on to acting on the truth.

Again and again and again, it comes down to: What's the good that's in my hands to do?

"You're doing it wrong" may be perfectly true, but it's never supposed to be the end of the story.

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To round out my case in favor of belief in soulmates (begun here), I'll add three more closely-related ways in which the concept is truer and richer than the alternative. Then I'll return to my long-neglected post about the problem of idealization in marriage. After that, it's on to the rest of Amoris Laetitia.

5. It highlights the gift character of conjugal love.

Those who have had a chance to study John Paul II's theology of the body are familiar with the terms "hermeneutics of the gift" and "the nuptial meaning of the body." It's no exaggeration to say that the key to grasping the deep truth about human sexuality and marriage, as he has revealed it to us, is to understand both as gifts of God's love. We are made from love and for love. Though we are created "for our own sake," we are yet incomplete in ourselves, and ordained toward communion with another, by making a gift of ourselves and receiving the other as a gift. Our bodies as male or female bespeak our incompleteness—our being destined for and called into a union and communion of life-giving love. And that visible reality of the body incorporates—incarnates—the still deeper and more important spiritual complementarity of man and woman. 

But it's not only true on the general level; it's even more true on the personal and individual level. If we have even a little bit of of self-awareness, we feel the incompleteness and made-for-otherness not only of our body, but of our specific personality. We want companionship; we feel our need for it. And not just any companionship, but a true partnership of heart and mind and soul—a spouse who "gets us", who helps us be ourselves, who keeps us centered and grounded, who can draw out our individual potential make us fruitful in the world. And when we actually find someone who does all that, we are amazed—stunned with gratitude that he (or she) exists and has come into our life, and "wonder-of-wonders, miracle of miracles" feels the same about us!

Those who fall deeply in love in that distinct "soulmate" way profoundly experience their love as a gift. We could almost say that amazement-at-the-gift is the essence of the soulmate experience.

It's very different with the alternative conception of courtship and marriage, where rational "compatibility discernment" is the focus, and where the search for a spouse is approached as a prudential undertaking—a process we "master," rather than a mystery we enter. It's less a gift we receive than a task we assign ourselves—a goal we set out to achieve.

6. It highlights the reality of the divine in our lives.

In his little gem of a book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper talks about certain moments in life that lift us out of the workaday world and allow us to experience ourselves as the quasi-divine beings we are—immortal souls capable of dwelling among the gods. He is riffing off Plato, who distinguishes two types of madness: the madness of the insane and "divine" or holy madness. Falling in love is the latter kind—a kind where normal human experience is transcended, and we feel ourselves taken up to a higher plane of existence. Like a profound religious experience, it is at once humbling and exalting. We feel simultaneously that our life is in our hands and that it utterly beyond us. We understand, however inarticulately, that we come from God and belong to Him, and that His provision for us is greater than we can ask or imagine.

If we conceive of courtship as a rational "mate selection process," though, all of that glory is missed. .

7. It highlights the importance of affectivity.

Somewhere along the way in western experience (was it Aquinas? was it the Enlightenment? Was it Kant?), Christians developed a terrible tendency to denigrate the emotions, treating them as if they are essentially irrational and needing to be strictly controlled by reason. It's gone so far that some actually pride themselves on a lack of affectivity.  This is bad for human life generally, but when it comes to courtship, it's disastrous. I have heard priests teach, "Feelings don't really matter; feelings come and go." I once heard a young woman say in a talk to college students about how to find a spouse: "We girls tend to be emotional, but It's not about emotion; it's about logic." This is a grotesque misunderstanding, for which von Hildebrand's book on The Heart is a great corrective. In it he distinguishes among different types and levels of emotions, and shows that the heart is a "spiritual center" in the person, fully on par with the intellect and the will.

To have the soulmate experience is to immediately and intuitively grasp the centrality of the affective sphere in human life. We realize effortlessly and spontaneously that love is the whole meaning and purpose of everything. And to realize that is to aspire to live it, which is the beginning actually living it.

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Long, long ago, in my ninth-grade English class, our longsuffering teacher, Ms. Whatshername, did a unit on Study Habits, or some such topic. There were time-management tips, like remembering that when you sit down to study it can take half an hour just to get settled in and gain a little focus and momentum. There was also an intriguing point about the sense of hearing: that by honing in on, say, your teacher's voice or the construction crew outside, you can actually change the way the sound waves enter your ear. I wouldn't be able to explain the physics of it, but it was striking. More things than we realize are under our control.

And then there was this: Learn how to separate out what's being said from the person who's saying it. Don't make yourself unable to hear or understand a truth just because it comes to you via somebody with a funny accent, a tacky wardrobe, or a squeaky voice. Don't invest the message with the superficial qualities of the messenger.

It was like a precursor to the motto of the International Academy of Philosophy, where I'd go eight years later: Love all truth, and love it in all things. Don't cut yourself off from truths that come from unlikely sources, in unexpected packages.

I thought of that the other day. A priest I know is not especially impressive-looking. He has allergies, I think, and sometimes his voice breaks, or he's interrupted by a cough. He speaks softly, in a tentative, inoffensive kind of voice. He's not inflammatory, not a yeller.

But if you listen to him, you might do a double take. His words are invariably unflinching. Life is about getting ready to die! Untiring faithfulness, no matter what! The world is going to end one day, you know!

it would be easy to let the sound of his voice go in one ear and out the other, taking for granted that his words must be as innocuous as his appearance. To sit there, feeling comfortably superior, a critic rather than a student, falling for the illogical assumption that the strength of an idea ought to be judged by the superficial features of its spokesman.

I think we're especially prone to such illogic because of the images we see in videos every day. Not just violent or pornographic video, but nearly all video. It all has one thing in common: the attractive and appealing ones are the heroes, and the ugly or forgettable-looking ones are evil or inconsequential. This happens not only in blatant propaganda but in the telling of wholesome and noble stories, too. No matter how we go on about getting beyond appearances, it never seems to happen.

So thank you, Mrs. Whatever-Your-Name-Was! I'm sure you'd be shocked to find that unpromising-looking freshman was paying attention.

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This post joins the  chorus of voices protesting Fr. Pavone's  grotesque use of an aborted child as a political stump speech prop. (Warning: the last link includes both photo and video from Fr. Pavone's original post.) 

We at the Personalist Project take the personalism of St. John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, as a model. Following Wojtyla, we argue from the premise that the human body is the expression or the sign of the person. This is the heart of a personalist pro-life ethic. It relieves us from requiring that any individual justify their personhood by meeting benchmarks of ability or independence, as in the utilitarian ethics popularized by writers like Peter Singer, or from limiting personhood to those whose human reason, intellectual abilities, or self-awareness are fully developed and functional. From the moment of conception until death, the visible expression of the person is their body, and the body is integral to the person. The unborn child is no less a person than the child of 8, the man of 38, or the elder of 88--regardless of disability, illness, dependence, lack of virtue, legal status, race, or creed.  

Additionally, the integration of body and soul as one whole is so deeply inherent to Christianity that not only has the Church proclaimed the resurrection of the body from her inception, promising that our bodies will join us in heaven, but a Christian understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation rests on the foundation of the truth that both body and soul are wholly of the person and cannot be divided by a false dualism. The idea that God might only inhabit the body of a man like a God-operated puppet was soundly rejected at the council of Chalcedon.  Christians preach Christ, true God and true man, wholly each and yet one person. Mary's oldest title, Theotokos, reflects this: the mother of the man is the Mother of God. God became man, incarnate in a body—the same body he offers to his followers in the mystery of the Eucharist. 

Christ Pantocrator. Byzantine Mosaic, Public Domain

Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that:


CCC 2300 The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. 

So it is not surprising that Christian practice emphasizes the importance of reverence towards the bodies of the deceased, listing the burial of the dead as one of the corporal acts of mercy.

Christianity is not alone in this. The proper treatment of the bodies of the dead has been a concern of cultures and societies throughout history. Even after death, it is nearly universally understood that the body ought not be treated as a mere object to be used or carelessly disposed of. The body continues to be  the face and the outward expression of a subject--a person--even after death.

Walters Art Museum [Public domain]

I have argued in the past that the use of graphic images of victims of violence violates the respect due to the person when it fails to acknowledge and situate the deceased as a human person with an individual identity. It is always problematic to attempt to shock or emotionally manipulate others for political or ideological reasons, since it appeals not to reason, goodwill, or virtue, but to reactive, sensation-seeking responses like anger, revulsion, and contempt. Fr. Pavone's demagoguery would be enough reason for concern even without the physical presence of that small, abused body beside him.

However, the child is there, in that video. Fr. Pavone did not merely misuse a photo of a child. His response to being entrusted with the body of a deceased abortion victim was to turn the child into an image for use.

This child has already suffered two grave wrongs at the hands of others who could not see in him anything to reverence. First, he was, if Fr. Pavone's information is correct, the victim of an abortion, killed by those he had the most right to expect love and care from. This is a grave evil--I will not quarrel with Pavone on that. But then a second evil befell his small corpse, which was handed over to Fr. Pavone and Priests for Life for a funeral and burial, a corporal act of mercy. Violating this sacred trust, Fr. Pavone chose to delay laying this child's remains to rest, and instead to displayed him, without clothes or cover, without any token acknowledgement of the humanity of his body, naked before cameras as an object--a prop for a political stump speech.

In his fervor to preach the value of unborn human lives, Fr. Frank Pavone abused the privilege he had been given of caring for the body of the small human directly before him. He did not value this body as the remains of a child, to be treated with as much care, concern, respect, and dignity as the body of a deceased human person of any other age or condition. He valued this body instead primarily as the means to an end, towards the end of persuading others, of provoking a response and driving votes to his preferred political candidate. 

Let us not do a third wrong in failing to speak up now against the objectification of this child's body. We must not turn a blind eye in the name of keeping the peace or justify the ill-treatment of a child's body for the sake of pragmatic ends. 

If this child is not precious, no child is. If his body does not merit respectful, reverent treatment, no body does. We cannot treat his body as a thing in death to prove he was a person in life. We cannot stand for the humanity of all the unborn by sacrificing the humanity of this dead infant.

We need to do better.  

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