Recently I became aware in a new way of how much the famous personalist philosophers such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Mounier, Gabriel Marcel and John Macmurray have influenced the way I think about God, self and others. Studying these great thinkers and trying to share their insights with students at St. John’s University has been an exciting and enjoyable adventure for me. What is especially encouraging is that students tell me they also have been personally affected by reading and studying these thinkers. If I had to describe my own philosophy, I guess I would identify myself as some kind of Thomistic personalist. St. Thomas Aquinas has influenced my thinking greatly and so have the personalists.
Perhaps I am being naive but I have come to believe that all the problems in the world, both personal problems and national and even international problems, might be solved by people embracing the most profound truths about the human person. Everything wrong in the world that is due to human freedom has come about by either misunderstanding or disregarding the meaning of human person. What is needed is a personalist revolution on every level of society: in the family, in education, in literature, art, politics, government and international relations. Pope Francis seems to be hoping for and working toward something like a personalist revolution.
In his “The Joy of the Gospel” Pope Francis suggests that some people want to avoid the social dimension of the Gospel. He points out that some people try to make the Gospel something private and so overlook the realism of the social dimension of the Gospel. Francis reminds us that the Gospel makes demands of us. He writes the following:
“For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”
I love the expression “the revolution of tenderness.” We should not minimize its importance or its power to change the world. This is what I mean when I refer to a personalist revolution. This revolution of tenderness refers to all interpersonal relationships. I am reminded of a statement attributed to the French Catholic novelist, Francois Mauriac: “A chance encounter between two people can have implications for eternity.” I believe the insight in that statement though I should add that I wonder if there is any encounter that is really a chance encounter. The Holy Spirit is present always to all people and the Spirit’s presence adds an importance and significance to every encounter. There are no meetings in which God’s loving presence is absent.
The image that helps me when I think about meetings between people is the image I have of good actions. Every free good action is like a pebble thrown into a lake. The ripples extend outward and who knows how far they go? Who knows how much effect a good action has on the one who does it? On the beneficiary of the action? On those who encounter the two people after the good action is performed? We often can see how evil actions have terrible repercussions but it is also true that good actions have repercussions. The strongest force in the universe is love. Stronger than hydrogen bombs, love can accomplish miracles. As believers, we may have to remind ourselves that love has conquered even death. If love has conquered death, what is it that love cannot accomplish? I can not answer that question.
A “revolution of tenderness” would have the power to change the world. It would dramatically change many marriage relationships. It might make family members appreciate their goodness and the gift that they can be to one another. It would renew and rejuvenate religious life. It would revolutionize politics. It could change international relations. Who can guess how it might rejuvenate art, theater, film and literature?
I am eagerly looking forward to the next document that Pope Francis issues. Whatever it is, I suspect that it will convey Francis’ joyful experience of the Gospel.