THE SOUL IS NATURALLY CHRISTIAN:
The Mystery of the Person and the Crisis of the Self in a Post-Christian Culture
What follows is unavoidably a patchwork meant simply to suggest some of the themes I want to touch on in the book on which I am now working.
“The concept of person,” wrote Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “is a product of Christian theology. In other words, it grew in the first place out of the interplay between human thought and the data of Christian faith and so entered intellectual history.”
“The revelation of the person,” wrote the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, “is the event of Christianity,” and human desire, Evdokimov insisted, is nothing less than “the inborn nostalgia to become a ‘person’.” Another distinguished Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, agreed:
The person both as a concept and as a living reality is purely the product of patristic thought. Without this, the deepest meaning of personhood can neither be grasped nor justified.
The great German theologian, Romano Guardini, gave an unsurpassable summation of the essential point:
With the coming of Christ man’s existence took on an earnestness which classical antiquity never knew simply because it had no way of knowing it. The earnestness did not spring from human maturity; it sprang from the call which each person received from God through Christ. With this call the person opened his eyes, he was awakened for the first time in his life.
In bringing about this theological revolution, the theologians of the patristic age laid the groundwork for a revolution in human self-understanding which has languished for lack of adequate anthropological elaboration, to which René Girard’s intellectual legacy has now provided an important key. It may be the special responsibility and unique privilege of the twenty-first century to give a Christocentric account of the mystery of personhood. Such a project that might begin with St. Paul’s: “I live, now no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
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The word “person” assumed its prominence in the vocabulary of Western culture only after Christian theologians, in speaking of the three Persons of the Trinity, gave the Latin word persona a philosophical profundity never before associated with it. Quite understandably, the Church Fathers considered Christ to be, in the words of the future Benedict XVI, an “ontological exception” with little bearing on human personhood. The assumption, according to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prevented Christian thought from exploring the anthropological implications of the Incarnation. By way of analogy, Ratzinger borrowed a metaphor used in another context by Teilhard de Chardin: the discovery of radium. “How could one understand the new element?” Teilhard had asked: “As an anomaly, an aberrant form of matter? … As a curiosity or as the beginning of a new physics?” Had radium been considered an aberration – an “ontological exception” – then modern physics would not have been discovered, and Cardinal Ratzinger made an analogous point about personhood as revealed by the person of Christ. As the Second Vatican Council expressed it in Gaudium et Spes: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. … [Christ] fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
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Meanwhile, it has become increasingly obvious that the notion of autonomous individuality flies in the face of social and psychological reality. Once the West had made protecting the rights of the autonomous individual the engine of its historical reforms and reconfigured all its institutions accordingly, however, it was understandably in no mood to quibble over the psychological plausibility of what had become its organizing principle. Overlooking the anthropological shortcomings and psychological naïveté of the premise that produced these historical marvels seemed a tolerable price to pay for their political utility. Like the national debt, however, the cost of this miscalculation compounds rapidly, and today’s youth are now visibly staggering under its weight – or rather its weightlessness: what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the loss of our “ontological moorings,” which are crumbling in sync with the loss of cultural moorings – both coincident with the de-Christianization of our culture. Again, Romano Guardini was prescient:
The knowledge of what it means to be a person is inextricably bound up with the Faith of Christianity. An affirmation and a cultivation of the personal can endure for a time perhaps after Faith has been extinguished, but gradually they too will be lost. . . . As soon as the true value of the person is lost, as soon as the Christian faith in the God-man relationship pales, all related attitudes and values begin to disappear.
The very idea of autonomous individuality became feasible only as the gravitational power of the ancient system of sacralized violence weakened under the impact of the Christian revelation of the Cross, which aroused an empathy for, and eventually the valorization of, the victim of such violence. With the quiet working of this moral revolution, those who managed to resist the intoxicating power of social consensus acquired some of the prestige of the innocent victim, and this slowly morphed into an incipient form of individuality. It took centuries of exposure to the Gospel for the power of communal violence to lose its moral immunity, during which even those who resolutely asserted their individuality took an occasional plunge into the renewing waters of righteous indignation.
For all its moral odiousness, the occasional recourse to some form of communal animosity nevertheless had the effect of restoring enough social equilibrium and psychological composure to give the claim of psychological autonomy a semblance of anthropological plausibility. As the revelation of the Innocent Victim crippled the restorative power of collective violence, however, its ability to restore the psychological stability of its participants and onlookers diminished accordingly, leaving in its wake festering social tensions and lingering psychological excitations.
To make a long story short: Those more familiar with Girard’s thought will recognize the pertinence of the following comment by the French psychiatrist and Girard collaborator, Jean-Michel Oughourlian:
. . . the development of the psychopathological symptom and the place it holds in psychiatry have kept pace closely with the stages of desacralization that govern our culture as a whole. In other words, the contemporary crisis of psychopathology and psychiatry would be the same crisis as the one all the sacrificial institutions are undergoing.
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We live inside a Progressive/Enlightenment view of history, according to which one or another form of secular liberalism is the condition toward which history is inexorably moving. According to “right thinking people,” those not in accord with this assessment risk being marooned on “the wrong side of history.” It isn’t true. Human history has an apocalyptic character, however variously it might be interpreted. It was part of Girard’s genius to recognize and insist on this. The Gospel throws down a challenge to fallen humanity. It sets in motion a race between the effects of the Christian revelation on conventional forms of social life and psychological adaptation and the message of the Gospel: the reorientation of both social and psychological life in light of what happened in Bethlehem, and on Mount Tabor, Golgotha, and Easter morning. Christ’s warning to his disciples applies in very real ways and most especially to those cultures which have fallen under sustained Christian influence: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). If they can remain insulated enough, pre-Christian cultures can survive indefinitely. Not so post-Christian cultures. They cannot go back before Christianity, even if they try to do so convinced that they are advancing beyond it.
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As our formerly Christian culture has declared both natural law and biblical anthropology to be insufficiently solicitous of an individual’s will-to-power, individual “rights” was adopted as the cure for every social ill – real or imagined. Alas, however, not only did the assertion of rights become cacophonous, but it soon metastasized into an instrument for silencing, shaming, and punishing those still animated by the religious tradition, moral commonsense, and anthropological realism which first endowed the rights discourse with its moral authority. Cardinal Robert Sarah has recently written about how quickly the enemies of natural law and Christian anthropology “hurl anathemas at all those who do not follow their line of thought.” Cardinal Sarah referred to this impulse as irreligious secularism’s “theological hysteria.”
Which brings me to the most curious feature of my current project: the issue of hysteria, or more specifically the very curious modern history of hysteria, which I want to argue is one of the most important indices of our spiritual predicament. This might seem folly, inasmuch as, by all accounts, cases of hysteria – once so prevalent – appear to have disappeared. On the contrary, I will argue, its clinical disappearance has coincided with an explosion of sub-clinical manifestations of the disorder, which are no longer found in the psychiatric clinic, but in the increasingly absurd theater of passionate political hyperbole, in the social media mobs, the sad ubiquity of selfies, and twitter storms and public shaming – each a symptom of what Henri de Lubac called “the waning of ontological density.”
The discovery of psychoanalysis began with Freud’s question: “What is the meaning of hysterical identification?” “Within the history of psychoanalysis,” writes Mark Micale, “hysteria remains the quintessential neurosis, the primary pathology.”
The distinguishing symptom of hysteria was, in Freud’s own words, “the capacity of hysterics to imitate any symptom in other people that may have struck their attention – sympathy, as it were, intensified to the point of reproduction.” Christian discipleship and, therefore, Christian personhood fully formed, is quite simply “sympathy intensified to the point of reproduction.” G. K. Chesterton famously said the modern world was full of “old Christian virtues gone mad.” Might we not say that hysteria is Christian discipleship gone rogue and recoiling from the realization that “I live, now no longer I, but this absurd clay-footed idol lives in me.”
In 1881, five years before Freud co-authored his first book on hysteria, the French literary figure and director of the Théâtre Français, Jules Claretie opined:
The illness of our age is hysteria. One encounters it everywhere. Everywhere one rubs elbows with it. … It is not only enclosed within the gray walls of the Sallpêtrière; this singular neurosis with its astonishing effects; it travels the streets and the world.
The great antiquity of hysterical disorders gave intellectual respectability to the budding psychological sciences. But some researchers have more recently argued that the term occurs only in early modernity, suggesting that its appearance (and later its clinical disappearance) may have been due to historical and cultural conditions unique to the period of its emergence. One scholar insists that “the French adjective hystérique first appeared in 1568 and its English counterpart “hysterical” in 1615. … Hystérie, the French noun for the disease, cannot be found before 1731. The first known usage of the English noun “hysteria,” in a London medical journal, dates from 1801!”
As late as 1934, Freud had moved on to his sexual theories, but the Swiss philosophical writer Max Picard sensed the broader implications of hysteria. “In this world the sickness is hysteria,” Picard wrote. “In this world no one is so happy as the hysterical person, no sick person so little desires to be robbed of his sickness as he does.” I long ago fell out of the habit of quoting the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, but on this subject, he was perceptive:
There can be no doubt at all that a future theory of hysteria will go far beyond the narrow confines of psychiatry and neurology. The deeper we penetrate into the riddle of hysteria, the more its boundaries expand.
Indeed, it may be that there is a symbiotic relationship between episodes of social hysteria, which culminate in collective violence, and individually acquired psychological forms of hysteria. To those morally blinded by an episode of social hysteria, someone exhibiting the peculiar symptoms of psychopathological hysteria might well be thought to be the witch, demonic figure, or fearsome metaphysical being whose death or expulsion was required to bring the prevailing crisis to an end.
Just as there is in both New Testament thought and in René Girard’s analysis of cultural life an apocalyptic dimension, there is an apocalyptic element in the call to personhood that has its ultimate source in Jesus, the new Noah, building the Barque of His Church out of the wood of His Cross and inviting aboard those humble enough to reach for his extended hand. Ultimately, the British journalist and belated Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge was right when he declared that the choice the West faced was Christ or nothing.
I agree and the book on which I am working – like God’s Gamble before it, is my attempt to persuade others that this is so.
Randy and I could not carry on our work without your prayers and support. Thank you so very much.
It is with a great sense of relief that I can report we are near completing the contract negotiations for the long-delayed e-book and audio book versions of Gil Bailie’s 1995 book, Violence Unveiled. It has been over four years since we first started down this path. The book publishing business has changed dramatically in the intervening decades. It is significant that this title is still in print and in demand as its Amazon ratings indicate. Both Violence Unveiled and God’s Gamble have recent Amazon 5 star reviews with high praise. The publisher of Violence Unveiled, Crossroad Publishing, will be handling the e-book launch and we will be making the audio book available on Audible and other audio book platforms. I hope these versions will be online sometime next year.
The audio archive project bringing Gil Bailie’s recorded presentations into the digital world continues to be my focus. Since January I have been able to produce CD/MP3 sets including series on the works of Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest, and TS Eliot’s early poetry as well as putting the Crucial Choice, Poetry of Truth and Moby Dick audio books on Audible. In the coming year I hope to complete the materials on the poetry of TS Eliot including The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday. Here is list of other titles in the archives waiting to be edited and produced:
- 4 tape series on The Bible
- 2 tape series on the poetry of WH Auden
- 3 tape series on Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman
- 3 tape series on the Prophets
- 3 tape series on Romance Myth (introduction to Dante)
- 5 tape series on Homer’s Iliad
- 4 tape series on Euripides’ Antigone
If you would like to receive these audio materials as they are produced over the course of next year we are pleased to mail at least 12 CDs and also make available downloadable MP3s for those supporting our efforts with a ‘Sustaining Donor’ gift of at least $300/yr or $25/mo (Note: this offer is for US mailing addresses only). Those able to make a donation of at least $60/yr or $5/mo will receive at least 12 downloadable MP3s of these materials.
For our current donors we are sending a complimentary copy of the journal Communio containing Gil Bailie’s article, “Making Peace through the Blood of His Cross“. Anyone who is not currently a donor and who responds to our Fall Appeal request for support with a donation of at least $5/month ($60/year) will receive a mailed copy of this journal as well (Note: this offer is for US mailing addresses only).
Our gratitude for your interest, encouragement and prayers cannot be adequately expressed. Our dependence on the support of those who find our work of value remains a source of humility and motivation. We are blessed to continue this work at a time when the interpretive lens of René Girard’s mimetic hypothesis and the hope at the heart of Christian faith are together providing a thread for those looking for a path out the labyrinth of human perversity. Please help us if you are able.