Arts and Culture

Our Capacity to Relate Is a Gift

by Father Robert Lauder

Back in the early 1960s, my bishop at that time, Bishop Bryan J. McEntegart, asked me to do graduate work in philosophy with the goal of obtaining a doctorate. The bishop was planning a four-year college seminary, which eventually became Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston. He wanted me to get a doctorate so that I could teach at the college seminary. Though it had been nine years since I had studied philosophy in college, I knew that I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on some aspect of the human person.

If I had known about his philosophy at the time I was doing graduate work, I would have written on the Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray. Years later, I became acquainted with Macmurray’s thought, and I was able to persuade three friends, who were doing graduate work, to write their dissertations on Macmurray. All three eventually received their doctoral degrees. Though I do not agree with all of Macmurray’s ideas, I do find much of his philosophy interesting and even inspiring. His thought reminds me of the philosophy of Martin Buber.

In trying to wed the vision of St. Thomas Aquinas with contemporary existentialism, phenomenology and personalism in his book, Person and Being (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University, 1993, pp. 121), Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J., uses Macmurray’s philosophy as an example of personalism. In discussing the relational aspect of the human person, Father Clarke, relying on Macmurray’s insights, writes the following:

“Let us explore more in detail this relational aspect of the human person, beginning from the bottom up. The initial relationality of the human person towards the outer world of nature and other persons is primarily receptive, in need of actualizing its latent potentialities from without. The human person as child first goes out towards the world as poor, as appealingly but insistently needy. The primary response partner is the mother, who meets the growing person’s needs ideally with caring love. First she responds to the physical and basic psychic needs. She then slowly draws forth over the early years the active interpersonal response of the child as an I to herself as Thou, by her active relating to the child precisely as a loving I to a unique, special, and beloved Thou, not just as a useful or interesting object or thing, or another instance of human nature. John Macmurray has beautifully described the process of personalization, of drawing out of latent potentiality the self-conscious awareness and active-interpersonal response of the growing child-person, first by the mother or her surrogate, then by the father, the whole family, the neighborhood community, the school, etc.” (pp. 72-73).

I find Father Clarke’s description of the gradual opening of the child-person to his or her surroundings and then moving from things to the personal, as found in the child’s world through the mother and father, beautiful. Anyone who would take Father Clarke’s description seriously would realize what a tremendous responsibility parents have in relation to their child’s experience of reality. But not just parents. All of us have a responsibility to help one another be receptive to reality, to help one another see that reality is gift, “charged with the grandeur of God”!

As I write this, I am thinking of my responsibility as a teacher of philosophy. Though I think philosophy has to take second place in importance after theology, I do believe deeply in the importance of philosophy. After many years of reading and teaching philosophy, I have come to see that it can provide profound insights into the mystery of person, into the mystery of self, into the mystery of neighbors, into the mystery of God. Though philosophy cannot give us the truths that have been made available through the revelation of Christ, it can greatly enrich our lives. My task, similar to the task of every teacher, is how to help students come to see this. How can I communicate the great insights of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel to 18- and 19-year-old students?

But Father Clarke is not only pointing out that we relate on the level of knowledge. He is also stressing that we relate interpersonally to other persons on the level of affectivity. We do not only find ideas or truth interesting and attractive, but we are drawn toward the good present to us as personal, perhaps first revealed to us through mother and father. We are receptive not just on the level of knowing but also on the level of being loved, and this experience of being loved calls us to love in return.

Our capacity to relate, itself a gift, is dynamic and should be deepening and widening, reaching beyond parents, toward school, community and, most importantly, toward God.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.