Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Natural Talent and the Real Me

Behind both [Roman Catholic and Protestant] views of baptism is the notion that the "real me," what makes me uniquely me, is some internal ghostly me that remains unaffected by what happens outside and is unchanged by what happens to my body. Neither the Protestant nor Catholic considers a third option, the possibility that baptism, precisely as an external and physical ritual, might actually affect who I am. Both the Protestant and Catholic, in short, seek to locate some eternal, unchangeable, autonomous "me" deep within. Ultimately, this is idolatrous. It is an effort to find some divine me inside the human race. Christians aren't supposed to believe any such thing. (The Baptized Body, Peter J. Leithart, "Starting Before the Beginning".)

When Christians say to a talented person, "You've been given a gift," oftentimes (not always, granted) there is an implicit presupposition there. We're talking about some raw propensity or ability that God simply infused in this person's soul. If Jay Greenberg had been born in the 8th century, he still would have been Jay Greenberg, the Gifted Musician. The more realistic crowd (ostensibly) chalks it all up to genetics, but it's often expected in the religious world to really attribute this to some sort of supernatural activity. God gave me a real gift, and that's a part of Who I Am, no matter what context I'm in. I was born with it.

I think the implicit assumption here is the same as the one Leithart identified in modern Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the sacraments. There's some sort of Inner Me, the part of my soul that's unchangeable and the way it is, regardless of my environment or whether or not I can help. In the end, the notion of "giftings" as we see it today is based on a flawed anthropology. It's-Just-The-Way-I-Am can be the justification for pedophilia or congressmen who have affairs, if you buy the notion, but it shouldn't be the way Christians account for people who are darn good at playing the violin. It certainly wasn't always the way Christians accounted for it. (Nor is it particularly flattering to the violinist, whose gift from God was, more likely, the discipline to practice incessantly.)


Anonymous said...

It may not do any good to comment, but if I say that "you have been given a gift", it is shorthand for "you have been given many gifts- in music this would probably include the ear to perceive pitch and rhythm,the right physical structure to play the instrument you are playing, the mother who made you practice ( most likely) and someone who paid for lessons, as well as everything else that goes into making a musician, like persistence." Those who don't know everything that goes into being a musician, still recognize that, despite all the effort that you put into it, the wonder did not originate with you.

John Richard Ahern said...


Yeah, I think that's a pretty good explanation of it. I may quibble with the idea that a person has the ear to perceive pitch and rhythm genetically (and I'm not sure you meant that), but I think we do agree.

All this is simply to illustrate the fact that Person A says "Musician B (or, even better, Composer-Musician B) is talented" is not a way of saying, "He does something that would be impossible for me ever to have achieved." In other words, musical talent, by and large, is not somebody else's excuse for not being a musician.

As you rightly point out, a lot of the time people say, "You're gifted," and mean just what you said. Some of the time, though, someone can say "You're quite talented" in a totally self-serving way, just as a way of attributing their own failure to achieve a certain level not to their lack of persistence, or a mother who made them practice, or lessons getting played, but to their genetics.