If you’ve never read Martin Buber’s pivotal work, I and Thou, you should. It’s basically about the spiritual disposition described in the Judeo-Christian tradition by the phrase, “purity of heart,” and his point in the book is in fact identical to the point being made by Christ in his affirmation, “Blessed are the pure of heart; they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Buber says that the only truly appropriate way to perceive the most essential truth in another person is to engage that person as a thou, or, in the original German, a du— a term which implies intimacy and reverence. For Buber, in other words, most fundamentally, to be a person is to be a thou or a “you, my dear”: to be a beloved. To hold this view is thus to recognize that the other can’t be simply appropriated and possessed like some mere object or thing but must be received as a freely-given gift or else never really seen and known. In short, we must love the other if we’re to know the other in the sense at issue here.
Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) had referred to this principle as “the law of the gift.” What he meant was that human beings are, by nature, relational entities. We’ve already discussed this idea in previous installments in this series. There, we came to see that we’re made by God to exist within the interpersonal dynamism of giving and receiving, in a way analogous to the way the divine Persons exist together in eternal Triunity. Such a mode of existence requires both that we give ourselves over to others and receive others into ourselves.
This dynamic, however, requires mutuality, because in order to find room within myself for the other to dwell, I can’t be filled entirely by myself—I have to empty myself out so as to make a space within myself for the other to occupy. Likewise, no matter how intently I may desire to make a gift of myself to the other, I can’t achieve this end unless the other is prepared to receive me with authenticity, which means, not as a thing or a commodity but as a personal Self. When philosophers and theologians speak of the “interpenetration of persons,” this is what they mean.
An “interpenetration of persons,” or what Martin Buber calls “the realm of the interhuman,” arises from the fact that human beings are made to image God in creation, and thus, are oriented to form personally-interpenetrating relations with others. Wojtyla calls this sort of relationship, communio personarum or “communion of persons.”
Once again, the one who’s pure of heart, sees the other as an inviolable subject, made for communion through mutual self-donation with others, not for appropriation by others, commoditization, use, or consumption, but as someone who exists entirely as gift, not acquisition. The person exists in this way, even if he or she chooses to live as if that weren’t so, and the pure of heart sees that fact about the person regardless of how much the other may seek, in vain, to conceal it or deny it. We might consider here how Christ engages with prostitutes as illustrative of this point.
In other words, the fact that each human being enters into the world as given by God and oriented by God to become gift to others, discloses to us a truth about God, which we might see if we’re pure of heart and able to see this truth in others. “Behind every thou,” Buber explains, “is the Eternal Thou”—the one who is Self-Giver from eternity: the Elohim of the Bible, who gives being to others and constitutes them as persons, called to give themselves to others and to God in return.
Once again, this thesis, which Buber expresses with the idea that “Behind every thou is the Eternal Thou,” bears essentially the same meaning as Christ’s aphorism, “Blessed are the pure of heart; they shall see God.” By seeing the other first of all, always as a gift to be received, not an object to be appropriated or consumed, we see also that the person has received himself from the hands of one who gives the gift of being a person, and who must himself be, therefore, Person and Giver.
To the extent that we remain pure of heart, we can truly see one another and become deeply aware of God. We can thus disclose ourselves to others with honesty, and give ourselves in such a way as to be received with authenticity, as persons. To the extent, however, that we lose our purity of heart, our capacity to see and receive the other as person is diminished in us, as is our capacity for self-donation, sacrifice, and love. We don’t cease to be persons, made for communio personarum, we just, tragically, become incapable of realizing what God intended for our lives.
This problem has everything to do with the subject of sexual morality and the conjugal life as it’s expressed in Humanae vitae. Sexual commoditization is one of Paul VI’s central concerns in his reaffirmation of the constant teaching and tradition of the Church regarding contraception, for contraception begins with a desire to avoid the implications of the sexual act. To the extent that the sexual act is an exchange of bodies between individual human beings, and human beings are persons, then the sexual act can never, if it’s to be morally good, remain merely at the level of an exchange of bodies. It can only be good to the extent that it becomes an exchange of selves.
Yet, in seeking to avoid the implications of the act, we’re at least tacitly saying that we neither give our whole selves nor receive the other without qualification, in the performance of the act. Contraception says, “I’ll take you now, but not tomorrow. I want what you are for me, here and now, but not who you are, with me, forever, as you are.” Contraception reflects the desire to withhold the Self from the other, to lend oneself but not to give oneself, to borrow the other but not to receive the other into oneself.
In the fallen world, purity of heart, so ubiquitous in childhood, is easily lost and difficult to restore. Because contraception involves an implicit rejection of the implications of the other in my life, it serves to ratify a choice for lust over love. If I’m to receive you completely, body and soul, as you really are, I have to receive you as a possible mother or father of my children. I have to receive not only your present but also your past and your future. This means that I have received you knowing that, in this world, the future isn’t just what I want it to be or wish it could be, but a horizon of mystery, entered upon together from sometimes woefully imperfect and even sinful pasts, now joined together in a common history, our exclusive and complete communio personarum. Only the pure of heart can really make that kind of commitment, and only that kind of commitment can make the conjugal act morally good.
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