Thursday, 8 February 2007

Ten propositions on self-love and related BS

by Kim Fabricius

1. There is a lot of BS talked about “self-love.” Allow me to wield a pitchfork and begin a cleanout of this particular Augean stable, the whiff of which has become unbearable in our shamelessly therapeutic culture.

2. It is often said that self-love is commanded in the Bible itself: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Such a reading of this text suggests either wishful thinking or exegesis gone on holiday. Luther and Calvin read more accurately and insightfully: they saw that neighbour-love begins only where self-love ends, and vice versa. As Robert Jenson observes: “Though it is sometimes supposed that Scripture’s famous mandate makes self-love a standard which our love for the other is to emulate, the relation in Scripture works the other way; Scripture contains no mention of self-love except as a foil for love of the other. The object of love is always other than the love.”

3. How, in fact, do we love ourselves? With a passion – the passion of distorted desire – which is to say with utter self-absorption. How are we to love others? With precisely that as-myself absorption – but directed entirely to the other-than-myself. The paradigms are the Trinity and the cross. Self-love looks inwards; in contrast, observe the gazes, the looks of love of Father, Son and Spirit, in Rublev’s famous icon. Self-love is full of itself; in contrast, other-love is empty of self, i.e. it is kenotic (cf. Philippians 2:1-11).

4. Am I saying, then, that we should hate ourselves? Heaven forbid! Self-hatred simply plays Tweedledum to self-love’s Tweedledee: both are equally forms of self-centredness, of the homo incurvatus in se. We must be delivered from self altogether – and in Christ we are: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

5. By the way, what about the nostrum “Love the sinner (the neighbour) but hate the sin”? It sounds so intuitively right as to be unquestionable. But is the person so easily separable from the work? Is sin merely accidental, or is it not dispositional, if not ontological? An anthropological can of worms opens! Suffice it to say for this discussion that even if it is a distinction that can be drawn in principle, “loving the sinner but hating the sin,” as a populist ethic, is usually more honoured in the breach than the observance, amounting to the sheerest humbug. Look at the way the rhetoric of evil is deployed to deny the human rights of terrorists or the dignity of paedophiles. Or simply ask a gay Christian if he feels loved by the church that regards him as a sinner.

6. But to return to the main thread, “self-esteem” is the particularly modernist version of self-love (not postmodernist: in postmodernism there is no self to love or esteem!). It goes with the demise of the discourse of sin and guilt, and the ascendancy of the culture of narcissism (and victimhood): the crap of “I’m okay, you’re okay” (but that other bugger is blameworthy). Here we lose all contact with reality, because I’m not okay, I suck – and you do too. Well, don’t you? (If you don’t think you do, I refer you to Jeremiah 17:9.) Alcoholics Anonymous is closer to the truth: “I’m not okay, and you’re not okay, but that’s okay.”

7. But why is that okay? Because – and only because – Christ died for our unokayness are we okay, okay with God and therefore really okay – which is a rather vulgar restatement of the Reformation doctrine of the iustificatio impii. Ours is an “alien” okayness, an okayness extra nos, but this is not a fiction, and indeed it is precisely on the basis of the divine imprimatur that we are freed from self-love for other-love (which is why AA’s “but that’s okay” requires a supplement: to Luther’s iustificatio impii, add Calvin’s iustificatio iusti, or regeneratio). In more felicitous non-religious language, Paul Tillich rephrased the justification of the sinner as the “acceptance of the unacceptable.” Given – but only given – the sola gratia, perhaps “self-acceptance” is the word we are looking for. But even that is not the end of the matter…

8. I suggest that there are huge implications here for so-called Christian spirituality. I say “so-called” because in fact much of what now passes for Christian spirituality is simply cod psychology with a halo. Who, for example, needs the desert fathers when you’ve got John Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” (faith without an object), or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (personality without character – or spirit)? And “inner healing” remains a big buzzword on the spirituality circuit. The presumption would seem to be that God only loves those who love themselves (cf. managerialism’s “God only helps those who help themselves”), with its corollary that only as we love ourselves can we love others.

9. But this is a formula for the crassest form of works-righteousness, indeed practical atheism (cf. managerialism’s relentless pelagianism), as well as a recipe for spiritual pride – or despair. Or were the Reformers not right that God’s love for us is a free gift that has nothing whatsoever to do with self-feeling or self-construction? Can we not trust that God’s grace is sufficient to all our needs? And have not the great saints taught us that the capacity for love embraces an askesis of self-denial and the experience of woundedness?

10. Writing of the nineteenth century Abbé Marie-Joseph Huvelin, Rowan Williams observes that he “was not what many would call a whole man,” that he “lived with a sense of his own worthlessness almost unrelieved by the hope and assurance he transmitted to so many others.” And the question Williams poses is this: “can we, with our rhetoric of the identity of holiness and wholeness, begin to cope with the ‘sanctity’ of a man whose mental and emotional balance was so limited? A man less than perfectly sane. We do not here have to do simply with the question of the holy fool, but the question – harder for our day – of the holy neurotic.” A question we’d better answer before we sell a great theological heritage and spiritual tradition for a mess of Jungianism.


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