Love 3h: Personalism

The commandment we are given is “love your neighbor,” not “love humanity” or even “love your neighbors.” True, sometimes loving my neighbor will involve a wider view. For example, bringing clean water to a neighbor will often mean bringing clean water to a neighborhood. But what about the person whose home is where the future reservoir falls on the map? There also I have encountered a neighbor, and there “love your neighbor” applies.

    “Personalism” is the name for a variety of philosophies that emphasize the individual human. As soon as one begins to describe it, one must also say what applies to this version of personalism and not to that one. But a “Christian personalism” might be defined simply as recognition of that distinction between love for neighbor and love for humanity.

    I wish I could remember the title, the composer, the performers, or some of the words of a song that I heard back in the 1960s. If anyone does, let me know. It was performed by one of the male folky groups of that era — one of the trios or quartets inspired by the huge success the Kingston Trio had with “Tom Dooley.” It was about the TVA — the Tennessee Valley Authority — which had for several years been the symbol and primary example of the good and bad that can be done by huge government-funded projects. This song sounded particularly apt in the time of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It was about a woman living alone in her cabin as the one holdout in the way of a reservoir. After three verses or so of difficulties between this lady and various personifications of the government,  she stays where she is in her cabin on her lot, which has become an island in the middle of the great big reservoir. That’s presented as a good thing (nice for commercialized folkies who don’t want to be too political), not least because now she can waterski right outside her door. The TVA is, in theory, good for humanity.  But Mrs. ____ (she is a widow) wants what is good for her,  which is to stay right where she is. She may well have been happy if she had moved to an apartment building, but that is to imagine a different story than the one told in this song.
    The song tells an impossible story. One doesn’t even have to consider questions of engineering, because we have imminent domain: almost always, if Mrs. ____’s cabin falls inside the map of the future reservoir, she moves, no matter what resistance she may offer. There are countless quite true stories of people displaced by such maps of the future. Three such stories that I’ve followed in the past come to my mind right away.

    So the personalism I am describing is not practical, meaning that it won’t work as a political philosophy because politics is the science of the collective, of the neighborhood rather than the neighbor. A political philosophy of some sort could possibly conclude that the TVA and its ilk are evil, or it could even begin at that point. If a political philosophy of that kind or another is your project, I cannot help you, and, I would argue, neither will Jesus. If you regard a political philosophy, a philosophy focused on the collective, as the only useful philosophy, then my argument would have to be that the lack of a political philosophy will never be what prevents any of us from loving his or her neighbor.

    Perhaps, though, there is a way for neighbor-love to be a political philosophy of an anarchist or primitivist sort, or perhaps an anti-political philosophy. Some Christians have taken that sort of direction, such as Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul (who are likely to be misunderstood today, and indeed are, but I won’t name names in that regard). The key thing for such heroes of “Christian personalism” is, I would argue, love for neighbor. That is, that key thing is not  my freedom from government, or anyone’s freedom for that matter. Neighbor-love does not require or even ask what supposed ideals or realities government runs itself by or even whether government is good or bad. It does recognize that government always tries both to scare us off from some expressions of neighbor-love and to seduce us away from others, the latter often by supposedly rendering our involvement unnecessary.

    That is quite enough, and I will have to branch off “personalism” from “love” if I say anything more about it.