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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Really Think A Lot of Yourself, Don'tcha?

  My last post spawned a number of conversations (on and off line) which have lead me to question one of my standard operating assumptions about the modern, western anthropology. I remember growing up and being told that while we Christians believe that man is basically evil, those foolish non-Christians believe that man is basically good; that we start with different assumptions and that the other people’s assumption was clearly ridiculous and most likely a product of wishful thinking. That is not the operating assumption. Instead, I have assumed for the last several years that nearly everyone (except Presbyterians) believes that people are, by nature, somewhat good and somewhat evil. Granted not many of us would use those terms, but I thought that most people would say that the majority of the population have some goodness and some badness in them.
  I’m not certain I was right about that.  I’m sure there are many reasons but by limited and entirely anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that many people of all sorts of religious and philosophical persuasions actually believe (or at least claim to believe) that the mass of men are fundamentally good. Most of the reasoning I found behind this goes back to either cultural or general ethical subjectivism. The claim seems to be that we judge other’s actions to be bad because we have different ethical standards (which are arbitrarily ingrained in us thanks to culture and our parents), but that at the end of the day each person generally lives consistently with their own ethical or moral views.

   But this leaves me with something of a dilemma. You see, I don’t live up to my own ethical or moral views. I see myself as rather appallingly bad, and (per my last post) infinitely good. Generally we treat good and evil as being mutually exclusive such that a thing can be good only to the degree that it is not evil and evil only to the extent that it is not good. And this approach makes sense since the two are contraries. But we tend to then conclude that a person’s soul could be plotted on a sort of morality number line. We tend to think of others and ourselves as this good or that evil. But I don’t believe that it actually works that way.

  Instead I think that the human soul is incredibly good. It is glorious beyond anything we can currently comprehend. And it has also gone very wrong. I tend to picture my own soul as something like a diamond with pits and stains and scarring on it. The pits and scratches can be ground off, the stains can be cleaned. Evil is not an equal of good after all, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, and (I think) Augustine first pointed out, evil is a parasite on good; it cannot exist in the absence of good. So the soul is good but has become very bad. And now the task at hand is how can we be fixed?

  Does this resonate with any of you? Is there anyone else out there who is simultaneously aware that you are glorious and good beyond understanding and simultaneously twisted, warped and wretched? What do you think of mankind? Are we basically good or basically evil? Or are those no longer meaningful terms to you?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Impossible Love?

  I have been thinking about self-esteem a good bit over the last several years, largely because I am perplexed by it. The whole concept of having good self esteem confuses me in that I haven't ever been able to really empathize with the way contemporary authors, thinkers and pop-psychologists seem to want to talk about it. Then, when the topic came up on Not the Religious Type, I decided to see if writing about it would clear some things up for me. This is what I came up with:
  The problem for me is that the very idea of good self-esteem seems like an attempt at willful self deception in order to be happy. The reasoning seems to go like this:
1. People want to be happy.
 2. People who see themselves as bad or deficient are not happy about their badness or deficiencies. 
3. Therefore low self-esteem causes unhappiness. 
4. So if we want people to be happy we need to give them higher self-esteem. 
5. We should, therefore, convince unhappy people to see themselves as very good/beautiful/talented/intelligent - basically as possessing the qualities they value people for having.

  You will have noticed that this is bad reasoning. Statement 3 is guilty of non causa, pro causa; it treats a common corellative of unhappiness as the cause of unhappiness. There is no compelling reason to conclude that seeing myself as very bad should cause me unhappiness. At least not unless I want to be good, and improvement is an impossibility. And we have no reason to think that improvement is impossible. As a Christian I believe that perfection is ultimately guaranteed. I get to be perfect some day, so why worry about how far from perfect I am right now? In fact, shouldn't my awareness of my current imperfection give me some happiness when I realize that my God (whom I love) loves me even the gross way I am? If I were perfect I would be able to say something like "well of course God loves me, who wouldn't love this" and I could say it without any arrogance or pride. If I were truly as glorious as I hope to one day be, then any scrupulously honest self appraisal would have to conclude with perfection. I don't think that that would (or will) diminish my appreciation of God's love but isn't that love even more apparent when I see that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us"?
 I think the pop-psychologists have missed this. What do they do with someone who is genuinely untalented, physically ugly (by their own societies standards), not especially talented at anything, generally unkind to everyone around them, and effectively lacking in anything we generally consider lovable? How do you tell someone to look in the mirror and find something wonderful about themselves when there is nothing especially wonderful about them, or at least nothing that falls under the modern rubric of value? I know, generally we haul out the myth of balance to avoid even thinking about this question but when you look yourself in the mirror, the myth will fall to pieces. 
 Or even if a person does have something this world values; say they are especially beautiful. Anyone who is honest with themselves can easily pick out a dozen flaws, imperfections and "unlovable" qualities in their character. The pop-psychologists tell us to pretend they aren't there. Even Christians tell me, "but that's not really me". Really? Then who is it? If I am not the one who has all those terrible thoughts about my closest friends, who is it who does? Sure, I hope to get beyond all that someday but today certainly isn't that day. Today I am spiteful, envious, lustful, discontent and selfish. Pretending otherwise can only last so long. All lies, even self-lies, collapse in the end. All self-esteem based on self-delusion is nothing but a house of cards under the hurricane of life. Simple reality must ultimately blow the pretty bandages off of all our festering wounds. 

  And then where will we be?

  But I don't think that happiness or, even more importantly, Joy has to be built on high self-esteem. I think that the more honest, more real, more true our self-image is, the stronger a foundation it will be for Joy, and even for happiness. When I can look at myself as myself and see first that I am infinitely valuable simply because I exist (a quality I share with everything and everyone else) and then that I am nonetheless weak, twisted, often evil and ugly - when i can see all of that and know that I am loved, then how could anything shake my joy?
 What worries me is that our culture, Christian and secular, seems to be losing it's ability to love through evil.  There is an old Christian platitude: Love the sinner, hate the sin. Some people like it, some people hate it. I have opinions but I don't think they matter much since I don't think the phrase means anything to us any more. Nobody loves sinners. At least, nobody loves sinners as sinners. When we make any attempt to love sinners we seem to invariably begin by pretending that they aren't sinners. We only love sinners as saints. Which is why relationships fall apart when reality inevitably forces us to see the sin. When we just can't ignore their faults any more, we have not tools, no practice, no experience and only one example in the priceless skill of loving the unlovable. 
  Jesus said that they will know we are his followers by the love that we have for one another. Doesn't that mean that our love needs to be a new kind of love? Doesn't that mean that our love has to be a love that is impossible to those who haven't decided to follow Him yet? Is it possible that He was talking about the kind of love that He has for us? Love that loves such a worm as I?