For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love.
1 Peter 1:5-7
But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!” So they seized him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
In his “Blessed Among Us” feature which is offered daily in Give Us This Day, Robert Ellsberg offers this quote from the “saint” of the day, Maurice Blondel: “Our God dwells within us and the only way we can become one with God is to become one with our authentic self.” Without question Blondel describes the reason we are alive and our deepest and principal desire in life — to live truly the life and call we have been given. Yet, this is, in fact, the most difficult task of all.
As we read from Mark the parable of the tenant farmers, we can ask why it is that the tenants find it necessary to kill the son of the landowner. No small part of the answer, I suspect, is that it is because the “heir” enters their world, a world constituted by the illusion that its inhabitants are owners and not tenants, as a challenge and a threat to them. In Blondel’s terms he comes into an inauthentic world as an authentic self. His very existence and presence remind the tenants of their true place, and so he brings low their false sense of themselves as autarchic.
In the reading from 1 Peter, we hear of the long hard road of formation, reformation, and transformation into love of each other. it is our illusory sense of pride and autarchy that makes love so foreign to us. As we are busy asserting the truth of our illusions about ourselves, failing to become one with our authentic selves, we are unable to touch who we really are our innate capacity and foundational desire for mutual affection and love. As the “stages” in the development of love that the author of 1 Peter describe, we must engage in the disciplining of our pride forms, or the assertions of our false selves, if we are to come to touch the depth of devotion, affection, and love that is the very “heart of our authentic selves.
Adrian van Kaam writes of a stage of development that is often overlooked. He calls this stage “public adulthood.” This “stage” is one between adolescence and what van Kaam calls “personal maturity,” that is the living out in all aspects of our lives of our “authentic selves.” In adolescence, van Kaam points out, we experience both a desire to conform as well as a very powerful desire to resist conformity in service to our own originality. Modern society has, by creating a separate adolescent counterculture or subculture, created this new stage of development where one is to overcome those resistances to conformity to cultural values and norms and to adopt them, suppressing or repressing whatever resists those values and norms.
The danger to which van Kaam is pointing is that this “public adulthood” is often taken to be adulthood itself. In this case the human spirit and so the capacity for transcendence in us becomes repressed. We live as if there were no “authentic self” that is, in its very essence, a challenge to the cultural and social norms and demands for conformity, as is the son of the landowner in the parable. In fact, the level of our inauthenticity can be measure by how we react to one whose originality is a threat to our false confirmed selves.
This aspect of van Kaam’s thought affords us an insight, I think, into a certain aspect of the history of our religious congregation. After the renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council, it became apparent to some that aspects of our initial formation into religious life and the conformity of our way of living community had created a certain development deficit in many of us. For example, many were not able to personally be responsible for and manage their or the community’s finances. Given the way in which we had been institutionalized from a young age, we lacked the knowledge and skills to manage life in and according to the norms of our culture. Given the ways that the vows were practiced, largely externally and regulated in every respect by the institution, some of us, certainly not all, were trapped in a seemingly permanent stage of adolescence. In an attempt to respond to this lack, there was encouragement to become more personally responsible for life and to begin to learn the demands of our culture in terms of independence, responsibility, and relationship. The hope was for a much fuller human development through a growing sense of responsibility for oneself and for one’s relationships to the culture, to finances, and hopefully to other persons. The result for many was definitely growth in development and maturity, although we have largely struggled ever since to discern the meaning of our call to community in this new context.
There seemed to be, however, as there is inevitably, unintended consequences. One of these, and this is speaking merely in the congregational context of the United States, is due to the fact that to become “an adult” in our cultural context is in large part to become a “public adult.” In late 20th and early 21st century America, a responsible adult is one who conforms to its capitalist and secular values and norms. The demands of the culture, as those of the tenant farmers, is a total conformity and submission to its illusory values. Personal worth and personal finance, for example, are inextricably intertwined. Human potency is confused with the power to dominate, control, and manipulate. Human relationship serves ones autarchy and personal projects, rather than one’s whole life being in the service of one’s relationships.
The unintended consequence then, of this needed and well-intentioned aspect of “renewal,” was that certain core elements of the path of the evangelical counsels became lost to us, in particular those aspects of the life of the three-fold path which are intended to relativize our identity as “public adults” so that we may come to know our true originality, or in Blondel’s terms our “authentic selves.” For example, the American value of self-determination tended to override the call to obedience as a listening to the call through the entire field of formation, not merely within oneself but with the others with whom one is in relationship, as well as the immediate situation of one’s life and the needs of the larger world. The culture’s measure of one’s acceptability and worth as residing in one’s possessions and financial status has made a recovery of the significance and implementation of common ownership and voluntary poverty very difficult. The formative or deformitive power of the cultural mores and the effects of a “public adulthood” that has conformed to them makes the living out of transcendent directives, which are so counter-cultural, extremely problematic.
Contemporary humanity, at least in the so-called developed countries of the west, is experiencing a profound crisis of transcendence. It can appear as if we have replaced the universal call to human flourishing with the value of economic development and hegemony. This is the same experience that the religious leaders to whom Jesus addressed the parable as well as the tenants in the parable experienced. There came to be one among them who did not conform to their illusions, one who was an “authentic self.” Where power and wealth rules, the authentic will always be threatened. The task, says van Kaam, is to “learn to live originally in an unoriginal world.” Of course, we must first learn to live and navigate adequately in that world. But human maturity does not rest in the level of our ability to do so. To become truly human, to recognize the divine within, we must transcend the comfort of conformity and live more and more the tension of being original amidst the unoriginal.
Public adulthood seems to be a new phase of human development, falling between adolescence and personal maturity. Its appearance has many causes. One cause is the creation of an adolescent counterculture, or subculture, which tends to isolate the adolescent from adult life. Hence, after adolescence, a period of training in the publicly acceptable adult style of life is necessary if the adolescent wants to be effective in society. Another cause of the emergence of the stage of public adulthood is the increase of rituals and skills associated with adult life. Such an increase comes about as a result of the expansion and differentiation of social functions, rites, and regulations. it takes time to become well versed in these rituals. Finally, helping to create this transitional phase to adulthood is the social pressure for conformity. Unfortunately, the same pressure tends to imprison people in this period of transition. Preparatory adulthood is then taken to be adulthood itself.
We could say, then, that public adulthood is the last, perhaps most formidable, hindrance to be overcome by modern persons in their search for a self-motivated life. This struggle may require more wisdom and fortitude than the struggle to advance beyond adolescence. I can neither reject the demands of society wholesale nor accept them wholeheartedly. I must learn to live originally in an unoriginal world. In some instances this may even mean being called with others to revolutionize this world.
Adrian van Kaam, Living Creatively, pp. 122-123