Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Journey With Christian Personalism

There is a philosophic theory known as personalism that identifies the human person as the central element within ethical, legal, moral, and even ontological discussion. Personalism engages subjects as disparate as freedom of the will and recidivistic justice, but at its core this is a theory that demands the treatment of human beings as subjects, and never as objects. A person possesses a vibrant and self-conscious psychic inner-life that necessitates treatment as an end or a telos of action, and never as the means to an end. Personalism in various forms exists in the texts of ancient philosophy and into the writings of some early modern philosophers, but it was in the twentieth century that the concept experienced a resurgence of relevance. Emmanuel Mounier and Dorothy Day were advocates, and a young Karol Wojtyla wrote extensively on personalism prior to his election as Pope John Paul II. 

Through the writings of John Paul II, personalism adopts a centrally Christian attitude rooted in the book of Genesis, and it is here that we find Dr. King and Fr. Kolvenbach adopt personalism into the heart of their respective Christian messages. When Fr. Kolvenbach writes that "Jesuit education has sought to educate 'the whole person' intellectually, professionally, psychologically, morally and spiritually", he writes as a Christian personalist. Dr. King references Martin Buber, and warns of the wrongness of "relegating persons to the status of things". King speaks of "personality" in places where we might typically expect the word "dignity" to appear. Fr. Kolvenbach writes of the plight of persons the world over in need of aid; the exposure of the student's inner-life to the realities of injustice through "contact" will engage the whole person in reflection and action. Dr. King argues that even the worst of his enemies--and of his movement's enemies--deserve the respect befitting persons, and must be treated as ends regardless of their hatred. 

For both Kolvenbach and King, the person is a subject and must be treated as an end. For both Kolvenbach and King, persons are multidimensional and innately spiritual and self-aware. The construction of an educational rubric for Kolvenbach, and of a legal system for King, demands that justice done to the whole person is the most critical of requirements. 

Both Fr. Kolvenbach and Dr. King discuss the person's place in the temporal order, and the appeal to time intimates a strong sense of travel and personal journey. There are differences, however, between the two. Fr. Kolvenbach writes that the whole person of the 21st century is quite distinct from the whole person of centuries past. Dr. King references Aquinas, and argues that the concept of a person is finds a strict foundation in divine and natural law. So for Kolvenbach, the Christian person is a dynamic and ever-changing notion; the concept of a person will adjust to contemporary cultural norms and practices. But for Dr. King, the concept of a person is atemporal; the person is a constant that cuts across epochs and defies cultural norms. Both of these men describe the person as a traveler in the world, but for Kolvenbach the person journeys through time and necessarily adapts, and for King the person engages time but watches it pass, unchanged. 

The difference between these two messages deserves a little context. Fr. Kolvenbach addresses the community at Santa Clara University to discuss Jesuit higher education. He does so a few decades removed the near-revolutionary Second Vatican Council and a decade removed from the challenges posed to Catholic universities by the encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Kolvenbach demonstrates that the identity of a Catholic university and the Jesuit identity itself might adjust through time without the loss of its central precepts, because the concept of a person does so as well. Dr. King, on the other hand, was engaged in a great struggle for justice. There was a need to relate that the moral and ethical status of a person is a quality unchanged by culture or creed. Both men succeeded in their tasks. 

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