Seventh in a series
AMONG MY GOALS in writing this series is to dispel misunderstandings concerning personalism.
Unfortunately some people think that personalism promotes relativism and that pesonalists believe human freedom justifies anything.
While it is true that personalism emphasizes human freedom, it also demands persons to choose only what is in conformity with human nature.
Rather than a soft kind of tolerance, personalism encourages persons to act according to their deepest selves and to be ready to make even heroic sacrifices for love and life commitments.
There is a popular notion that religion and morality make life rigid, narrow and bound by irrelevant rules and laws.
Of course, this notion is completely erroneous. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Religion, at its best, is an adventure that calls us to enter as deeply as possible into love relationships with God and others. These relationships can be the most freeing realities in our lives.
There was a time in my life when I thought that the number of free acts that we perform can determine how free we become.
There may be a grain of truth in that view but I think the emphasis on the number of acts may be substituting quantity for quality. For example, there are what in the past I called “small acts of love,” acts that don’t seem to involve deeply the person performing them. What I had in mind were acts such as greeting someone, thanking someone, holding the door for someone or phoning someone. All of these actions can be acts of love but usually don’t involve a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the person performing them. I don’t know whether I will use the term “small acts of love” in the future. If the Risen Christ lives within us and the Holy Spirit is present in our experiences, I wonder if there is any such reality as a “small act of love.”
I have come to believe that the most freeing acts that we can perform are acts of love expressed in life commitments. Such commitments open people to the possibility of great suffering but they also provide the possibility of a life of unselfishness centered on others, especially centered on God.
I think there is a great deal of wisdom in John Haughey’s “Should Anyone Say Forever?” (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1975, pp.166). Haughey writes the following about free choice:
“Selfhood comes to be primarily by choosing. By failing to choose, by remaining in a constant state of indecision, a person’s spirit is vaporous and, as it were, apart from him, hovering.
“…Our choices express our self-understanding and at the same time make our self-understanding possible… By contrast, nonchoosers and half choosers are a puzzle to themselves and to others…. Their spirit has not assumed its rightful place. They live in the immature condition of wanting to ‘play everything by ear.’ …An individual who is insufficiently self-determining will find that his milieu, his family, his appetites, or any other force external to himself, usurps the place and function his own spirit should assume.
“All of this is easy to see in the early years of a person’s life when his future and selfhood are still so amorphous. But it never ceases to be true throughout a person’s life. Any time choice is called for and turned away from, the chaos of indefiniteness can reappear and one’s spirit can again become a hoverer.”
A real life commitment is certainly not a “small act of love.” Every free choice we make both reveals who we are and also creates who we are. The priest writing this column and the person reading it are both creations of their own free choices and of God’s free choices. A life commitment says who we are in a special way, a unique way. Think of the commitment made in marriage vows, in religious vows, in baptismal vows.
Some free choices are more important than others. A free life commitment has the power to form and shape a person’s life more than any other free choice. It also has special power to help people be more free.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).