Dietrich von Hildebrand on Metanoia

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a name only vaguely familiar to me when I received an e-mail from someone involved in the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project asking me to help publicize their upcoming conference aimed at unpacking the original insights of Hildebrand’s, The Nature of Love. I am grateful for this impetus to learn something of this Catholic philospher, who has been hailed by Pope Benedict XVI and others as one of the most prominent Christian thinkers of the twentieth century.

A helpful work for those new to von Hildebrand is The Dietrick von Hildebrand Life Guide, a short book which contains excerpts of his thoughs divided by topic (e.g. Truth, Freedom, Virtue, Love and Community). Although there is much that I was drawn to on any number of subjects, I think von Hildebrand’s discussion of what is required for transformation in Christ is a good one for all of us who claim discipleship in Christ. He writes:

A strong desire must fill us to become different beings, to mortify our old selves to become different [persons] in Christ. This desire, this readiness to “decrease” so that “He may grow in us,” is the first elementary precondition for the transformation in Christ….Our surrender in Christ implies a readiness to let Him fully transform us, without setting any limit on the modification of our nature under His influence.

There is no question that true transformation requires an unconditional “yes” that does not impose any limits on God, that accepts whatever may come from the encounter with Christ. Alas, I think von Hildebrand is also correct in his belief that

[t]here are many religious Catholics whose readiness to change is merely a conditional one. They exert themselves to keep the commandments and to get rid of such qualities as they have recognized to be sinful. But they lack the will and the readiness to become new [persons] all in all…They prefer to evade the act of metanoia: a true “conversion” of the heart.

He gives some examples which I think are worthy of reflection. It is worth considering the extent to which what he describes operates within us in a way that limits our openness to conversion.

For example, they do not feel the obligation of loving their enemies; they let their pride have its way within certain limits; they insist on the right of giving play to their natural reactions in answer to any humiliation. They maintain as self-evident their claim to the world’s respect, they dread being looked upon as “fools of Christ”; they accord a certain role to human respect, and are anxious to stand justified in the eyes of the world also. They are not ready for a total breach with the world and its standards; they are swayed by certain conventional considerations; nor do they refrain from “letting themselves go” within reasonable limits.

What is it that blocks our readiness to change? To give ourselves completely over to Christ?

For those who are interested in the conference:The Christian Personalism of Dietrich von Hildebrand: Exploring His Philosophy of Love, co-sponsored by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project and the Pontifical Univesrity of the Holy Cross, will be held May 27-29 in Rome. The conference will bring together philosophers, theologians, psychologists, physicians, scientists and artists to unpack the insights of The Nature of Love, newly translated into English. The conference will be broadcast live on the Legacy Project’s website. For more information about the conference and to register for it, visit the Legacy Project website here.