Holiness as a basic personality type

In a combox discussion with a Naturalist about why I was a Christian, I kept hitting a brick wall over what “holiness” meant. Christianity, I argued, was the best system I knew for becoming holy, and I wanted to be holy. Considered from this angle, joining the Church was no more remarkable than a drunk going to a bar: both provide a desirable service. The Naturalist kept insisting that either I took my ideas of a good person and attributed these realities to God, or that I decided before the fact that those who followed God were good,  and then concluded that holiness was therefore good. My position was that holiness was a quality of persons which is as basic as any other human quality, and that it no more needed to be explained by reference to something else than a cat needs to be explained by reference to something else. Holiness was not an inference, at least not anymore than any opinion of a person’s character is an inference. Holiness is a unified character that is simply different from compassion or dedication or silence or resolve or chastity or a love of the transcendent, even though it contains all these things and a good deal more.

One can be irritated by holiness, or desire it, or be more or less oblivious to it, but I doubt it is in keeping with anyone’s experience to say that holiness is nothing other than a judgment we form after the fact. A holy person is simply a kind of person, even though we can live our lives in more or less perfect isolation from this kind of person (there is nothing remarkable about this- we live most of our lives in isolation from most of the kinds of person that there are.)

Put in popular terms, holiness is a chief product that the Church produces, and it is the one that it was designed to produce. Churches provide other goods too- a sense of community, a feeling of purpose, various health benefits for those who attend regularly, but for all I know these might be provided just as well by some other institution. The Church promises salvation too, and many might point to this as the chief good it provides, but this strikes me as a misunderstanding: the Church only promises salvation on its own terms: it claims to provide only an eternal opportunity to exercise the virtue of holiness. The rejection of such an opportunity is ipso facto the rejection of salvation. Everyone would want to go to heaven if heaven were a place offering the eternal enjoyment of whatever you happen to want now- but as far as I can tell, no Christian sect has ever claimed that such a place exists. There is a place for those who love the holy, and hell. Faced with such options, it is entirely reasonable to think that when most people look at the options, they say “well, then I guess I’ll go to hell”.

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6 Comments

  1. November 25, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    You refer to the “virtue of holiness”, but it seems to me that holiness is not a single virtue. Rather, holiness seems to me, ultimately, to be the possession of all of the virtues, and particularly Faith, Hope, and Charity. Although we can grow in Faith, Hope, and Charity, they are ultimately a gift from God. And consequently, it seems to me that saying that we can grow in holiness apart from God must be mistaken. More pointedly, the process of becoming holy is the process of learning to love God over all other things.

    It’s clearly possible to recognize holiness, and even to desire it, without appreciating God’s role in the business. Your own experience bears that out, evidently, and one can clearly wish to pursue the Good, the True, and the Beautiful for their own sake without recognizing Him who is our ultimate Good. But it seems very odd to call pursuing Good, Truth, and Beauty in the abstract the pursuit of “holiness”.

  2. November 26, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I always seem to miss the point in these discussions, but I guess it never stops me. . .

    I’ve always considered holiness was a state of grace, as in being set apart, holy unto the Lord. The more we purpose to see ourselves as young Samuel in the temple with a ready answer to the Eternal “where are you?” the more we grow into the state of holy Grace. “Here I am. You called me.” When the Eternal so chooses to use whatever vessel for whatever purpose, it is still set apart, Holy unto the Lord, much like the various implements of the sacrifice in the Temple.

    I think a conscious effort to know Him and the fullness of His glory, and then to say, moment by moment, “Here am I,” will yield the desired effect of holiness; set apart unto the Lord’s purpose. I had never considered it part of the persona, but am intrigued to think more on it.

  3. Peter said,

    November 26, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    I remember that conversation, and hoped that you would take up the issue again.

    FWIW, there is a CE entry on holiness.

    Happy Thanksgiving, btw.

  4. AT said,

    November 27, 2009 at 2:56 am

    “it is entirely reasonable to think that when most people look at the options, they say ‘well, then I guess I’ll go to hell’.”

    The 3rd option: Purgatory.

    And I doubt very much “most people” expect to go to hell or that it’s reasonable for you to think that they expect it. Just my guess but I think most people who give it any thought expect to be saved “holy” or not.

    As for holiness being a character trait, I agree, just as petty, repulsive unholiness defines the character a person has (or is) who has lead a sinful life.

    As for “separation” from daily life being required for holiness, I don’t buy it. St. Francis de Sales didn’t think so, Newman didn’t think so, Escriva didn’t think so and I suspect the two greatest saints – Mary and Joseph didn’t think so, either.

  5. AT said,

    November 27, 2009 at 3:01 am

    When I post I include my email address. Does this mean you can see it? If so, send me your email address. I would like to send an article from the Chesterton Review from 2004. It was (at that time) an unpublished, newly discovered piece Chesterton wrote on Aquinas. It’s loosely related to the current post.

  6. November 27, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Purgutory has a role to play here, and it does introduce the element of imperfect holiness, which in turn raises the question of how imperfect holiness can be.


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