In very beginning of perhaps his greatest work, Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand says the perquisite to holiness (i.e. being transformed in Christ) is simply a “readiness to change”. This is, however, not the mere desire to improve one’s self that all men of natural virtue should possess. There is a sharp distinction between wanting to improve and desiring a fundamental change to our being. The former can come about naturally in all men of good will. The latter is of supernatural origin. In the opening chapter to Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand draws this distinction with great lucidity, and challenges us in the process. Emphasis is von Hildebrand’s:
Readiness to change vs. natural optimism
In regard to their perspective readiness to change, the difference between the Christian and the natural idealist is obvious. The idealist is suffused with optimism concerning human nature as such. He underestimates the depth of our defects; he is unaware of the wound, incurable by human means, with which our nature is afflicted. He overlooks our impotence to erase a moral guilt or to bring about autonomously a moral regeneration of ourselves. Moreover, his infatuation with activity prevents him from understanding even the necessity of a basic renewal. He fails to sense the essential inadequacy of all natural morality, as well as the incomparable superiority of virtue supernaturally founded, let alone the full presence of such virtue – holiness.
His readiness to change will differ, therefore, from that of the Christian, above all in the following respects. First, he has in mind a relative change only: an evolution immanent to nature. His endeavor is not, as is the Christian’s, to let his nature as a whole be transformed from above, nor to let his character be stamped with a new coinage, a new face, as it were, whose features far transcend human nature and all its possibilities. His object is not to be reborn: to become radically – from the root, that is – another man; he merely wants to perfect himself within the framework of his natural dispositions. He is intent on ensuring an unhampered evolution of these dispositions and potentialities. Sometimes even an express approval of his own nature is implicit therein, and a self-evident confidence in the given tendencies of his nature as they are before being worked upon by conscious self-criticism. Such was, for instance, Goethe’s case. Invariably in the idealist, the readiness to change is limited to a concept of nature’s immanent evolution or self-perfection: it’s scope remains exclusively human. Whereas with the Christian, it refers to a basic transformation and redemption of things human by things divine: to a supernatural goal.
A second point of difference is closely connected with this. The idealist’s readiness to change is aimed at certain details or aspects only, never at his character as a whole. The aspiring man of natural morality is intent on eradicating this defect, on acquiring that virtue; the Christian, however, is intent on becoming another man in all things, in regard to both what is bad and what is naturally good in him. He knows that what is naturally good, too, is insufficient before God; that it, too, must submit to supernatural transformation – to a re-creation, we might say, by the new principle of supernatural life conveyed to him by Baptism.
Thirdly, the man of natural moral endeavor, willing as he may be to change in one way or another, will always stick to the firm ground of Nature. How could he be asked to relinquish that foothold, tumbling off into the void? Yet it is precisely this firm ground which the Christian does leave. His readiness to change impels him to break with his unredeemed nature as a whole: he wills to leave the firm ground of unredeemed nature under his feet and to tumble, so to speak, into the arms of Christ. Only he who may say with St. Paul, “I know in whom I have believed” can risk the enormous adventure of dying unto himself and of relinquishing the natural foundation.
Want more? Click here for the audio for all 40 episodes of A Knight for Truth – an EWTN series with Thomas Howard and Alice von Hildebrand, dedicated to the life and work (specifically Transformation in Christ) of Dietrich von Hildebrand.