At the Center of the Human Drama (A Book Reflection) Part II

“The most public of pontiffs, most traveled of popes, has long been the pilgrim of an inner path that has taken him in the midst of others to Christ who is the center of the human drama” (p. 146).

As discussed in my first reflection for this book, when I read At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II by Kenneth L. Schmitz, I was most drawn to the details of how St. John Paul II’s experiences and learning shaped who he was because of my fascination with the process of becoming. Nonetheless, the reason why I read the book was for the CPMAP Certification, in which the focus would be on understanding the thought of St. John Paul the II. In this reflection, I address that aspect of the book.

There were detailed descriptions of St. John Paul II’s philosophical thinking and how it built upon and differed from other big names in the field. I realized throughout the book that I was not able to capture all of the nuances and grasp the depth of St. John Paul II’s thinking. I am not familiar with the different lines of thought being discussed, so I tried to at least capture some of the big points of his beliefs. There was great benefit in learning about it from Schmitz who has thought deeply about the work of St. John Paul II, including the impact of translations in comparison to the original intent, as well as being able to share how different pieces of his work throughout a range of seasons of his life fit together.

The means by which he pondered different lines of thought from a Catholic lens was also central to the discussions of his contributions. Something that was familiar to me about his work was his conviction about the dignity of the human person. Schmitz wrote, “We hear much today of human rights and personal freedom; but it is easy for those who move in Catholic intellectual circles to take the notion of the human person as something granted by most thinkers. In its fullest and richest meaning it is born of the great Church councils, and it has remained the central reality of Catholic metaphysics, morality, and spirituality; but beyond Christian circles it is by no means an uncontroverted notion. It would be naive to think otherwise” (p. 39). It is a good reminder as we dive deeply into Catholic thought to have a clear picture of which aspects are distinctly Catholic so as not to take them for granted as being widely accepted by most.

One aspect that St. John Paul II found lacking in other philosophers’ thinking was the need to “explain why ethical life and ethical science must find their proper form and structure in action” (p. 43). A lot of the discussion centered on action, freedom, and liberty. An example of when the role of freedom was highlighted is “[…] the good is freedom as the essential mode of spiritual being. Wojtyła may be seen as seeking to articulate a concept of spirit, not simply as immaterial being, but as ordered to the distinctive good of being in the form of spirit. Freedom, then, is the good that is convertible with being as spirit. To describe freedom as the proper mode of spiritual being is to secure the realism that is an unshakeable objective of Wojtyła’s anthropology” (p. 55). Schmitz addressed the role of liberty in St. John Paul II’s thinking linked to self-efficacy, noting, “Wojtyła recognizes opening to grace at the very center of the human existence” (p. 76). Then, the concepts were tied together, stating, “The human person is more than his or her liberty; but it is in action that the whole person is gathered into the task of responsible freedom” (p. 77). Another layer was, “The personal project, then, is carried out through self-determining actions grounded in self-possession and self-governance” (p. 81).

One of my favorite lines that wove together many of the concepts was, “the subjective measure of our freedom is the degree to which we have succeeded in integrating the complex strands of our consciousness and the various dynamisms within our whole being as concrete persons. In the degree to which someone has achieved such integration, he or she has realized the inherent and unique potentiality of his or her concrete personhood” (p. 84). I also loved, “This is, surely, an old insight given new life, namely, the insight that it is neither the intellect that knows nor the will that decides, but it is the human being as acting person who recognizes, initiates, and determines. To act with efficacy is to integrate the rich complexity of the embodied human agent in a way that transforms him or her. And to do this, the acting person needs both integration and transcendence, which are inseparable in the fulfillment of properly human action” (p. 86).

Further attention to the essence of action for Christians was described as, “purely theoretical knowledge needs to be completed in some way and at some time by some kind of action: by prayer which maintains a conversation with God, by celebration which increases joy in glory, by teaching which deepens the understanding of truth, by artistic creation which certifies freedom, by productivity which enhances life, or by service which whispers the primacy of love. Such is the substance and the life to which Christ calls each acting person” (p. 120). This conviction can be a great source for intimacy with the Lord while navigating over time when and how to act.

These sections pointed toward thinking that illuminated layers of the process of becoming, “the concrete double task of personal integration and transcendence” (p. 128), including, “Only in transcendence do we go beyond ourselves toward the promise of one’s unique humanity” (p. 86), “We are called to a vertical transcendence, in the sense that we are called to progress toward the highest realization of values. In this way, genuine change takes place in us, as we return to ourselves, once we have surrendered the self that we presently are to the self that we might become” (p. 86), and “The structure of the human person, however, is such that the individual human being is called to integrate his or her complex dynamisms and to redeem the promise of what is both a received human nature and a unique personal project” (p. 89). There was attention to how this work happens in community, as well as how it is expansive work that goes beyond ourselves, another section that was fascinating for me.

In general, I loved seeing as an adult how I can relate to St. John Paul II – someone that I admired as a youth but did not ever think about how intellectually (the way his mind worked) and spiritually he might be similar to me. It was evident that St. John Paul II would think deeply about different lines of thought out there, capture what was original about their thinking, synthesize them, and then add in layers of his insight to the conversation.Though we have different interests, I could see similarities with our approaches to learning. My mom used to describe me as a quiet one with a lot on my mind.

The way in which this book highlighted the value of St. John Paul II’s interdisciplinary thinking, helped me to realize the importance of allowing my own disciplinary thinking to shape my work with Beauty of Becoming and as a teacher educator because it will allow for a richness and depth that would not be shared if I only focus on a more narrow lens in individual contexts. As I was reflecting on this, I also thought of Bishop Barron and how he weaves together insights from many different subject areas as well.

As I mentioned at the start, I know that I did not grasp the depths of St. John Paul II’s thinking. It is important to note that this book gives an extensive consideration of his work, while also acknowledging that there is much more left to discuss. For example, at one point Schmitz noted, “The brief indication that follows cannot convey the vigor of the argument of these early lectures, their attention to detail and the more finely nuanced judgments–all carried on throughout more than four hundred printed pages” (p. 42). Schmitz also referred to one of his works by saying, “the book repays a patient scrutiny” (p. 63). All that’s to say St. John Paul II’s writing and teaching seem like an ocean of knowledge, and I have just dipped my toe in the water. I look forward to continue learning – to see how his work will be woven into the CPMAP certification and the ways in which the structure of the program will support the deepening of my comprehension.

Copyright 2022 Amanda Villagómez

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