March 06, 2008

Mortify Your Masochism

My post last week opposing “€œunselfishness”€ as a modern, secular liberal perversion of Christian ethics provoked quite a bit of comment, on this site and others. One poster, Kari Konkola (see the comments thread here) helpfully supplied a Puritan account of the meaning of the virtue of humility, derived he said from Protestant adaptations of the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. I’m not going to critique a Kempis”€”I’m no theologian”€”but I’m happy to address the central assertions which Konkola offers as the essence of Christian humility. Here are the ones which caught my attention:

[A] truly humble person takes the same instinctive pleasure in criticism that a proud/selfish person takes in being praised.  The negatives have also reversed:  a humble person experiences the same revulsion in praise that a proud person experiences in criticism.

[T]he spiritual man is dead and senseless to the things of the flesh, and has no savour in those things that are other men’s delights . . . He tastes no more sweetness in their pleasures than in a chip.

[H]e is a truly humble Man, that does despise himself, and is contented to be counted not only humble, but vile, and wretched too; that . . . is contented his defects and infirmities should be known, bears Injuries patiently, is glad of mean employments to show his love to God, does not care for being known . . . and looks upon himself as nothing; is circumspect, and modest, delights not in superfluous talk, laughs but seldom . . . is well pleased with being made the filth of the World, and as the off-scouring of all things:  That does think himself unworthy of the least crumb he eats, of the least drop of drink, he drinks . . . .

My first reaction to all this is simple, instinctive revulsion. It seems a piece of the extremist view which many early Protestants took of the Fall”€”asserting that our reason was so completely extinguished by man’s first sin that no trace of God’s original intention remains in Creation. Hence natural theology is impossible, reason is a “€œwhore”€ (Luther), and there is no analogy between God’s goodness and our own (Luther, seconding William of Occam). Calvinists and after them the Jansenists found the denial of analogy very useful in defending the idea that God is both “€œjust”€ and “€œmerciful”€ in damning to Hell those whom He’d denied sufficient Grace for salvation”€”for instance, unbaptized infants. It sounds unmerciful, even unjust to you? That’s because your reason is fallen!

If reason is so far fallen, how much further must be such instincts (which Aquinas taught were fundamentally healthy and good) as the creature’s desire to feed, protect, and reproduce itself; the craving for physical comfort and consolation; the joys of the marital bed; the happiness taken in a job well done; the satisfaction taken in praise that is justified; the anger one experiences when one is subjected to injustice. All these natural reactions, which Aquinas and the Catholic tradition would assert were essentially good, but subject to perversion and exaggeration, are transformed by Luther’s notion of the absolute fall of man into objects not just of suspicion, but contempt. This pushes “€œpure”€ Protestantism (happily, it rarely occurs in pure form) in the direction of ancient gnosticism”€”which consistently refuses to see the goodness of creation, focusing exclusively on its “€œfallenness”€ from an inaccessible, unknowable past state. Even some fathers of the Eastern Church were prone to this; at least one taught that sexual intercourse itself is a punishment for Original Sin. (Thank you, Lord, may we have another?)

I’ll agree with such spiritual masters as St. Ignatius that the animal instincts are easily subject to distortion; as someone who’d once been guilty of the extreme self-assertion to which Spanish aristocrats were prone, Ignatius had to undertake some extreme forms of penance to right the balance. But hard cases make bad law. Ignatius actually forbade his followers to practice such penances”€”which wrecked his health and damaged his effectiveness as a priest.

Happily, the Catholic and Anglican tradition of thinking about virtue have been profoundly influenced by Aristotle, and presented virtues as the golden mean between opposing vices. If pride consists in an unduly high, inaccurate account of the self, its virtues, and claims, then humility amounts not to self-loathing or cringing inward contempt, but to an appropriate, accurate account. (C.S. Lewis sensibly wrote in Mere Christianity that humility amounted not to self-contempt but a healthy disinterest in the assertiveness of the ego, induced by a holy focus on the Good.) Following this tradition, while it is most common for people to assert too much for themselves, it is also possible for them to assert too little. The first sin is well-known, and we call it pride. The second is less commonly identified, but it is fundamental to modern liberalism. Since it so resembles the psychological disease which bears the name, let’s call it masochism.

Of course, compared to God, one rightly sees himself as almost (not quite!) nothing. But compared to other people? Compared to them, one is not really nothing. In fact, one has rights as well as duties, claims as well as debts. It is in fact sometimes sinful not to assert these rights”€”because by doing so, one is cooperating with and encouraging someone else in sin. Here are some examples: the battered wife who doesn’t remove herself from danger, the worker who is complicit in his own exploitation, the co-dependent who “€œenables”€ an addict to continue poisoning himself, the businessman who lets his employees steal from him.

To make this clearer, let’s move from the micro to the macrocosm; if Christian ethics are real and consistent, they apply from bottom to top. The sort of “€œhumility”€ cum-masochism which Konkola advises, applied to a family, would prevent a father from defending his children, an ethnic group or social class from demanding justice, and a nation from resisting invasion. A true humility would call on each of us (individually, and collectively) to “€œturn the other cheek,”€ and shrug off meaningless insults”€”but it emphatically does not counsel Gandhian pacifism, on either the personal or national scale. (Quakers and Amish will disagree here”€”and I respect them for their consistency.) That’s my answer to the good Archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishops and politicians who work for open borders.

I’ll suggest a patristic source for a truer standard by which to judge how and when to defend and assert one’s rights against perceived injustice: Augustine’s criteria for just war. They are fairly stringent, and have often been abused, but they’re still the canonical standard for serious Christians of most denominations. The just war teaching focuses on defense rather than offense, on rectifying injustice by minimal and proportional means, avoiding collateral damage to innocents, and abandoning hopeless causes. It is this standard which our nation should apply to prospective wars”€”as Ron Paul eloquently argues.

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The same standard should govern the West in its responses to aggressive Islam”€”and each of us as we make our way through a fallen but emphatically good and wondrous Creation.

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