Pulling Back the Curtain

6:00:00 AMJulia Premus

It’s strange how much is invisible the naked eye: the biochemical processes happening inside ourselves and others; the millions of world musicians playing in a simultaneous cacophony; the movement of our solar system through the cosmic landscape at about 370 miles per second. Still, this kind of blindness is less of our own fault and more the fault of our evolution failing to achieve telepathy. What is our responsibility is whether or not we let this sensory ignorance turn us into human islands. Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his book Transformation in Christ, challenges us to an adventurous existential exercise which will ultimately allow us to enter into the consciousness of God: “Our surrender to Christ implies a readiness to let Him transform us, without setting any limit to the modification of our nature under His influence.” (1) But how possible is it for us in our human nature to not set limits? How can we transcend our human blindnesses, logical fallacies, and preconceived notions? How, in the chaotic nature of our existence, can we grasp even the first rung in our ascent to those things which lie beyond ourselves? Poets and philosophers alike have grappled with these questions and we have yet to reach a fully inclusive answer. However, Hildebrand's personalism may be a place to start when considering which perspective is the most effective for transformation. Personalism is, after all, the call to leave our island and respond to the needs of all those other sentient beings around us. It is not through abstract speculation or musing but rather through the interaction with and generous response to the diverse needs and nuances of the human person that we enter into the consciousness of God. For God is not a mere philosophical construct but a person, and thus is most vividly made manifest to us through our interaction with and response to the human person.

This call is simple in principle and honestly difficult in action even for the most well-intentioned person, a truth made apparent in the essay ‘The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted" from Hildebrand’s book, My Battle Against Hitler. In this essay, Hildebrand says that despite our natural tendencies toward personal interest and safety, we have to try and retain an intimate sensitivity and alertness to the needs of all people, particularly the vulnerable and marginalized, who walk on a thin tightrope of an unaccommodating and frequently abusive society. Having a foundation of sensitivity is especially relevant to us now in an age where the intersectionality of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and other forms of prejudice remain vitriolically ingrained in our society. Many assume that because they don’t experience a form of prejudice in their own lives that others also don’t. Some are aware that oppression exists and may even perpetuate it themselves, but choose not to acknowledge or respond to its real effects on the lives of others. Burying our heads in the sand of our comfortable lives ultimately lead to our own destruction, however. Hildebrand is keen to note the dangers of clinging to an illusion or false construct, as it can lead to a vicious cycle of self alienation and an immobile mentality. Hildebrand goes so far as to say that “such persons will then become much less accessible to elevating influences, less receptive to fresh stimuli (we are still speaking on purely natural presuppositions). We can no longer expect them to revise their mentality and to re-educate themselves, for they are already cast in a rigid mold.” (2) 

Hildebrand himself lived in a time where this kind of “islanding” allowed for the institutional targeting and genocide of the Jewish, Romani, LGBT, disabled, and other marginalized communities to occur. Hildebrand's call to an entry into the consciousness of God, therefore, comes from an age where the personalist approach of interaction and dialogue was illegal. His thought remains relevant in light of the new contexts of 2015 as a call to us to reevaluate those prejudices which still remain active in our society both covertly and overtly, and to retain our sensitivity to that which lies outside our personal border of experience. Whether we’re responding to the Syrian refugee overseas, the local homeless veteran, the young pregnant woman, or anyone in need, we should respond not with inconvenience or paternalistic condescension but rather with solidarity and understanding.

One allegory that depicts this concept of being sensitive to the things beyond ourselves features a 16th century monk named Giordano Bruno. After reading a book by Lucretius about the concept of infinity, Bruno had a dream that he was trapped beneath a curtain of stars. In this dream, he approached the curtain and pulled it away, flying out into what lay beyond his individual perception and gradually ascending into an awareness of all that went on in the entire universe. This ascent into such a godlike consciousness could all be traced back, however, to the initial moment that Bruno pulled the curtain and acknowledged that there was a world greater than his own perception and experiences - a world that demanded his response. Likewise, our transformation in Christ depends on how often we make the attempt to pull back this illusive curtain and recognize the relevancy of each human person in our lives, in all their diverse needs and nuances.

Hildebrand’s personalist approach is necessary but challenging, for it demands a radical alteration of listening to and validating the experiences of each individual without giving into the desire to impose a cold analysis and categorization of them as less of a priority than ourselves. Hildebrand writes, “Not only is fidelity towards errors and false ideals a mistaken attitude; we are also bound to dissolve the bonds that unite us with such cultural or human milieus as cannot withstand the test of confrontation with Christ.” (3) In taking this leap of mobility and fluidity into the human community, we truly begin to enter to consciousness of God, “who will transform us by His light beyond any measure we might ourselves intend.” (4)

1 - Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ. Kindle Edition. Page 263.
2 - Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ. Kindle Edition. Page 392.
3 - Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ. Kindle Edition. Page 598.
4 - Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ. Kindle Edition. Page 317.
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