Problem or solution

At this point it seems obvious to some, and question-begging to others, that we must develop a true personalism before the question becomes too polarized. 'Personalism' has various connotations and its commendation needs care. If one believes that personalism properly understood is profoundly congruous with the Christian faith, one should be the more careful not just to assume its obviousness, still less to treat it as almost synonymous with Christianity. For some traditionalists, personalism is almost synonymous with secularism. They are suspicious of Christian personalist enthusiasm for human flourishing as important in God's sight: they see it rather as a dangerous rival to creaturely obedience.

Personalists are apt to be liberal-minded people who mean well and dislike extremes. They are therefore easily made to feel guilty. It is a familiar experience for moderate liberals to find good ideas logically applied not bringing increased human happiness after all, but 'opening the floodgates' and endangering comfortable certainties. So will the personalist affirmation that fulfilment matters in God's eyes turn out to be another case of a noble-sounding principle which does not stand the test of practical experience?

Traditionalists oddly converge with feminists in distrust of personalism. Feminists notice a personalist tendency to assume that persons are men. They suspect that this friendly-sounding view will turn out to be another way of ignoring women and setting up the superiority of the male. Meanwhile traditionalists suspect that emphasis on 'personal relationships' will flatten out the God-given distinction between male and female. Their fear is that personalism amounts to an individualist and unisex permissiveness which treats human beings as interchangeable units.

In deciding whether personalism is breakthrough or false emphasis, much depends upon what questions are being asked. Personalism at its best is a promising way of understanding the nature of human beings. When it is advocated as a theory about sexual ethics it is more controversial and less convincing. There is substance in the criticism that it offers a limited understanding of human life. It is also fair to suggest that this is a limited version of personalism. The distinction is worth spelling out, lest criticism of the limited version should be deemed to refute a personalist understanding of people.

In recent discussion of sexual ethics, a three-way contrast has developed. On the one hand is the traditional view that sexual behaviour has laws laid down by God. On the other hand is the libertarian view that sexual behaviour has no laws of its own and is governed only by ordinary right and wrong, so that 'anything goes' but cruelty and exploitation. Between these, 'personalism' has been identified as the view that 'what matters in sexual behaviour is the quality of personal relationship that it serves to express and confirm' (Homosexual relationships 1979: para. 137).

Such mediating personalism comes under criticism, for all its attractiveness, as a temptation. It is said that in the USA it has 'a good chance of becoming the going Christian ethic of sex'; and that 'among "liberal" clergy, the personalist position has already carried the day' (Turner 1985:37). Not everyone sees this as a breakthrough. Even liberal-minded thinkers are arguing against this fashionable personalism in sexual ethics as inadequate and even dangerous. There is weighty criticism here which deserves attention: especially the accusation that 'the person exists more and more as an atomistic individual whose gender is swallowed up in the transsexual world of "personhood" ' (ibid. 47-9).

Personalists should protest that such narrowing of the meaning of 'personalism' also deserves attention. Personalism ought to mean a concern with human flourishing which has nothing to do with self-centred individualism, but rather with integrity and fidelity; and with the kind of love which can both take and give and not always know which of these is which. Personalism applied to sexual ethics can reject 'unisex' and the idolatry of 'relationships' and agree with the affirmation that 'We are not free to make of sex just what we will' (Homosexual relationships 1979: para. 148).

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