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.


Anonymous said...

So many have made three commandments out of the two on which Jesus hung the whole law.

Not only that, but Paul instructs Timothy that "there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money..." What Paul considered first in problematic behavior, people today recommend as the first thing one must learn to do in order to love God and others. Pretty crazy huh? Jesus and Paul assumed self-love. Indeed it is "Cod Pyschology with a halo!"

Shane said...

". . . We must be delivered from self altogether . . ."

I'll say a loud "Om" to that.


PamBG said...

I didn't get to number four because I stopped reading at the first paragraph, so I didn't hear your good news.

What I learned in church as a kid was that God hates sin and I'm a sinner therefore, I reckoned, God hated me.

It's a good sermon for those who are convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and that what we need in church is a little more discipline.

I doubt it will reach those who genuinely hate themselves, though. And I'm afraid that I do think that hating oneself is a sin.

Shane said...

In other news:

"Because – and only because – Christ died for our unokayness are we okay, okay with God and therefore really okay".

while I appreciate the attempt to connect with the colloquial idiom, I think glossing sinfulness as 'unokayness' takes it a bit far. I'm also confused Kim, do you think homosexual sex is inherently sinful or not? It seems like your view is "yeah, it's sinful, but hey aren't we all?"

Surely this must be mistaken. If homosexual sex is inherently sinful, then one ought not to have homosexual sex, (because one ought never to sin).

It isn't that homosexual sex kind of annoys God, but he's going to overlook it for a while, "no, whatever, do what you want to, it's ok." Rather, if homosexual sex is inherently sinful then God dislikes it in each and every instance and it is not 'okay' to keep doing it. If homosexual sex isn't inherently sinful then presumably at least some homosexual sex is 'okay,' but in that case it would require no forgiveness at all because there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the act to begin with.

Christ's redemptive death does not make sinful acts nonsinful; it makes sinners nonsinners (at least hypothetically).

so which is it? Is homosexual intercourse inherently sinful or not? inquiring minds want to know.


Isaac M. Alderman said...

I think that a theological approach to self-esteem can be a very good thing, provided it is properly understood. I think that RH Schuller, for example, is right when he encourages self-esteem by noting that our value is related to our redemption in christ, not our material success. Therefore we are free from the fear of failure/success becuase our value does not lie in whether our endeavours are successful or not.
Additionally, I think that Jesus' statement about self-love is simply noting that we do take care of ourselves; we make sure that we have food, shelter etc. and will go to terrific lengths to ensure our survival. we should go to those same lengths to assure the survival of others.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pam,

You should have hung in there - at least to 4 and 5: I think they might have forestalled what's bugging you - as would 7 and 9. By the way, imagine someone saying, "I read Romans 1-7, and I thought, "Well, blow this and bugger the rest!'"

Hi Shane, the "Have gun, will travel" of the theo-blogosphere!

Um ... - or should I say "Om"! But, no, the self-deliverance I am talking about is not along the lines of eastern mysticism. But I presume you know that and are just being mischievous.

As for your second comments(s)... First, I fully admitted in 7 that the language of "un/okayness" is theologically "vulgar" - but then immediately alluded to the Reformers' real thing.

As for your query about gay sex, that you can even pose the question suggests that you are, again, taking the piss, for you have read my "Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church". No, I "duh" not think that all homosexual intercourse is inherently sinful. But can we move on? We've been there and done that - I reckon the over 90 comments to the 12 Ps suggests a pretty good discussion. And I assure you that the critical responses, particularly the Blue Raja's, continue to rattle my brain.

Shane said...


No, No. My point is not to recover ground that, God knows, we've been over a million times. I just want to make sure I have heard what you are saying right.

Now what I want to see from you is what you think the essence of holiness and sinfulness consist in.

I bring up your use of 'okay'ness because it reminded me of something. I once had an acquantaince who was doing a ph.d. in queer theology. He and I were discussing moral theology with the Rev. Jack Daniels. The queer theologian identified homophobes, republicans and evangelicals and said, "those people just aren't okay with me." Then Bro. Jack objected rather pointedly that what was okay with the queer theologian was pretty clearly not okay with other people and asked if the queer theologian had any stronger moral language to describe an action than "X is okay/not okay with me"? Bro. Jack retorted that he had liked this theory of morality a lot better the first time he had heard it back in the 20's when it was still called emotivism.

Now Kim you seem to have a much stronger moral grammar than the queer theologian because you can say "X is good/bad". (And hence you will avoid the silliness of emotivism). So my question to you is: what makes an action good or bad?

Now, you can't take the easy answer so beloved of Barthian theologians and just say "Jesus", precisely because, as I elaborated in my earlier post, Jesus did not make sins non-sins (nor nonsense--against the queer theologians!), but to make the sinner a non-sinner.

My question about homosexuality is just meant to put a human face on a rather abstract and technical kind of problem. I don't like to let people formulate definitions of sin without thinking about the people they are judging with their abstractions. (I applaud your presentation of the difficulties of the love the sinner/hate the sin dichotomy).

If you want me to, I'll show my cards and give you the quick version of my take on the issue, but I'd rather see your answer to the problem first:

What makes homosexual sex inherently good (or at least makes it not to be inherently evil)?

Anonymous said...

This is an Augean stable cleaning?
I really don’t understand what points you are making.
What is the self? Is it the same as the soul or different? Is it the personality or the character, or the conscious intellect or the unconscious intellect or all or any of these things in combination?
Are you equating self-love with selfish love? Or is there a difference?
Are you saying that the self should not love itself, period?
Are you saying that to be delivered from self altogether means neither to love oneself or hate oneself?
Does the postmodernist sounding proposal that “you should love yourself as the other” make any sense to you?
Do you believe that to be absolutely concerned for the eternal welfare of oneself is to love oneself?
What does it mean that we should become perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect?

Sharad Yadav said...

Excellent stuff here, Kim - truly. As a pastor, I long for a biblical psychology that is truly rooted in Christian tradition without succumbing to repackaged modernist drivel on the one hand and naive bibliolatry in the name of Scripture's "sufficiency" on the other hand. There are glimpses of self-consciously Christian approaches, but nowhere grand visions of them.

Halden said...

Not to hijack the comments, but since the homosexuality issue was mentioned again, Kim, I just thought I'd let you know that I poted a few theses of my own on that topic that you may be interested in on my blog.

I'd be curious to see your response.

Anonymous said...


Short answer (short of a harmatology): sin is disobedience to the will of God, to which Catholics would add the corollary that it is a breach of natural law, both of which points I contest in my 12 Ps.

On your final question, no sex is inherently good, nor can intention or feeling (your quite rightly negative reference to "emotivism") make it good (though certainly intention is a relevant moral category). And of course the liberal criterion of "as long as what I do is not hurting anybody" is a theological non-starter.

Rowan Williams (no liberal!) puts what I would want to say well in "The Body's Grace" (which has been called "the best lecture about sexuality in the 20th century"): "... the moral question, I suspect, ought to be one of how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body's capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects." If the (homo)sexual act heals and enlarges the life of other subjects, it is not a sinful act; indeed it is holy.

I hope that suffices.

And, Anonymous, I am sorry we are on different planets on this one (and of course it may be me who is on Zog). And there is a certain imprecision in my deployment of terms. I do define self-love as selfish love, and I suggest it is precisely that which has to be converted to the other as selfless love. And, yes, I do think that to be concerned about my eternal welfare is a misdirected concern (which, by the way, skewers so much evangelical preaching). Simone Weil: "It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me." And, of course -the second great commandment - it is my business to think about my neighbour, as in Bonhoeffer's "Jesus -the man for others".

I am sorry not to answer all 11 of your questions, but that's a start, and I hope it is helpful - or at least clarifying so you've got something tangible to disagree with!

Anonymous said...


You say (to Shane) "the self-deliverance I am talking about is not along the lines of eastern mysticism." Just curious as why those lines should be ignored, given that they have been extensively explored and practiced to achieve that which is desired, namely, the absence of self-obsession. What may be more immediately useful is that they (I'm thinking of Buddhist logicians) have developed a vocabulary to address some of the difficulties of just talking about selves, warning about not taking it as given either that there is a self or that there is not (i.e., the postmodern answer doesn't work either) (for more on this see here).

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

I certainly do not think the anthropology of eastern religions should be "ignored", indeed there is much wisdom in it (e.g. in the Four Noble Truths), including ethical wisdom (though I am hardly an expert!). I just do not think that the ultimate dissolution of the (let's call it) the transcendental self, either into "nothingness" or into the "absolute", which is common to much, if not all, eastern "eschatology", can be squared with Christian teaching.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Hi Kim - re #2, and in contrast to Luther and Calvin, I've always read 'love thy neighbour as thyself' as about abolishing the distinction between self and other. In other words your neighbour is a part of you - you take care of your neighbour for the same reason as you take care of your own body - for they ARE your own body...

Just my two pennies.

PamBG said...

You should have hung in there - at least to 4 and 5:

Obviously, I did hang in there, or I'd not have known number 4 was there, right?

I think that HOW we say things is equally as important as WHAT we say.

I honestly don't think anyone who truly hates themselves will stick around to get to point four.

Shane said...


I believe I have proven your position on homosexuality incorrect mathematically. If you send me an email at shane dot wilkins at student dot kuleuven dot be I will send you what I have and see if it is persuasive to you.

Shane said...

and by the way, I didn't like that piece by william at all, because it seemed to me to miss the heart of the entire debate.

Anonymous said...


Re your comment I just do not think that the ultimate dissolution of the (let's call it) the transcendental self, either into "nothingness" or into the "absolute", which is common to much, if not all, eastern "eschatology", can be squared with Christian teaching.

It's not the transcendental self that I was referring to, but the everyday self, that one needs Buddhist logic to talk about, and this talk is perfectly compatible with Christian teaching. It's pretty much the same as Coleridge used (he called it "polarity") in applications to both anthropology and to trinitarian teaching.

- Scott

Shane said...

i'm also curious why you say, "no sex is inherently good".

I think I might see what you mean, but I want to be sure.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response. It’s more than the list of questions deserved. But please, just one more. Do you think it is possible to love oneself selflessly?

Richard Beck said...

Just a note of agreement about your #5. As psychologist, there is a lot to say about the interplay of love/disgust which is relevant to your comment. Summarizing greatly, love and disgust are two sides of the same coin; they are both boundary emotions. Disgust erects and monitors physical and sociomoral boundaries while love involves allowing boundary transgressions (i.e., physical and emotional intimacy). Phrased another way, disgust recognizes an Other (as potential pollutant) while love breaks down that distinction. Obviously, this is the dynamic at play when Jesus shared table with the “unclean.” You cannot embrace what you also consider to be a source of spiritual defilement. It's an either/or. Given, then, that love and disgust are reciprocally related—psychologically speaking—it is clear why the "Love the sinner but hate the sin" formulation fails: It's psychologically unworkable.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for that; it explains a lot.

And, Anonymous, how is this: through sanctification the Holy Spirit teaches us to love as God the Trinity loves. Would you say that the Father loves himself, or the Son loves himself? Would you not rather say that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father? Love, I take it, is always other-directed.

And let me say very clearly that it is the Reformers' sola gratia and extra nos that deliver us from all forms of self-hatred or self-loathing, precisely because they deliver us from ourselves and ground our salvation in the unconditional love of God.

Aric Clark said...


I sympathize a lot with your point of view, though I think you give psychology a rough time not entirely deserved. We shouldn't expect psychological theorists to be theologians afterall and there has been much good done for mental and emotional health through their work.

I do think that the critiques by Sally McFague, Elizabeth Johnson and others of the one-sided view of sin historically presented by all male theologians are relevant here. Agape "other-centered" love is the appropriate solution if one considers sin primarily as a form of pride (as you do - describing it as disobedience). This is a very masculine way of thinking. McFague and others, rightfully I think, point out that for women and the oppressed it is not excessive prideful self that is the problem, but a deflated despairing self. For these people demanding (in rather harsh language as Pam was trying to point out) that they be more other-centered is not only incorrect it's abusive.

I agree that much pop-psychology and day-time television discussion of "self-love" is hogwash, but it might be worth considering whether there is a real need they are attempting to address here. You are much better at reasoned argumentation than I, so doubtless you will find all sorts of logical flaws in this line of thought, but I urge you to consider, as a man that your view of sin might be conditioned by your position in life and might not be an appropriate diagnosis for all people. Great harm can be done by misdiagnosing the problem or prescribing the same cure for every illness.

Aric Clark said...

and before you respond that despair is just another kind of self-centerdness, it is not precisely the same as self-hate, which you are talking about. I am referring to the house-wife who has been taught from childhood that her happiness consists in supporting her husband. She isn't self-centered or self-hating, she merely has an underdeveloped sense of self.

This is extremely common to various degrees in women. In the US the present statistic is that 2/3 of all women will at some point in their life experience sexual abuse by a man in their life. I really don't think we can take the plight of women seriously enough and male theologians who don't take it into consideration in their account of sin are partly culpable.

AndrewE said...

Thanks Kim for a fascinating set of thoughts. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Hi Miner,

Thank you for your very sane thoughts. A couple of things.

I am, of course, aware of the feminist critique, now nearly a half-century old, of the particulalrly Western understanding of sin (Augustine through Calvin to Niebuhr) that (a) "privileges" the amor sui, interpreted as pride, and (b) has little to say about being sinned against, and it makes some palpable hits. I can only say that I don't think my own negative evaluation of self-love has such oppressive implications. To preempt this misunderstanding (and the associated misunderstanding of self-hatred), perhaps I should have said something about what might be called "self-worth", but, again, grounded not in self but in the extra me of God's unconditional love, which empowers a liberative praxis.

I also hear what you are saying about "despair". Theologically, the medieval theologians were right, technically, to call despair a sin. It is the extreme case of Luther's homo incurvatus in se. But as Luther himself discovered, and as any sensible and sensitive minister (i.e any minister who isn't an idiot!) who has counselled the depressed will confirm, the answer to despair is not confession and penitence but the exploration of its source (often in the abusive power of an authority figure internalised as an accusative god) and the discovery of the God of grace. (There is a great case study in Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Theology and Pastoral Counselling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (1995), on "Eva and Her 'Black Despairs'". (By the way, I myself was hunted down and captured for faith during a period of intense shame and deep hopelessness.)

Which leads me to say, finally, that I do not intend to diss the soft science of psychology, or the counselling profession as such. Psychodynamic and relations theory in particular have undoubtedly added to self-understanding. I am simply insisting, first, that they should not get past the church's doors without theological critique - their anthropological presuppositions are often profoundly Promethean (and yet when I have have pointed out their pre-judices to secular therapists I have usually been met, interestingly, with denial and disbelief, as if they had no presuppositions and their understanding of what it means to be human were above dispute). And I am insisting, second, that psychology not assimilate spirituality and colonise pastoral care as it did during the second half of the 20th century. Ultimately the self cannot be understood apart from God (Calvin!), or transformed apart from the Holy Spirit, about which psychology tells us nothing; and, for example, the deployment of prayer as a "resource" for care drives me nuts.

Does this help to clarify my position?

Anonymous said...


Many fine comments. Only, I wasn't sure how the "hate the sin/love the sinner" related to the topic at hand. The self-loving man can easily hate his sin (or his unokayness) and love his sinful self.

I know it's an often abused and often trite axiom, but there is at least one example in which a person is able to love another person while truly hating that other person's deeds: the parent who loves his or her wayward or criminal child.

I would say it's quite possible to distinguish between person and work. Whether I'm one who actually does this with any kind of ease, well ... that's another matter. It's easy with family and longtime friends. It's much harder with someone I don't know at all. In any case, in order to "hate the sin, love the sinner," one must certainly step outside of the confines of self-love.

Here's a relevant passage from Isaac of Nineveh:

"Love sinners but despise their deeds. Do not treat them with contempt because of their faults, lest you also be tempted with the same faults. Rembember that you share in the stench of Adam, and you also are clothed in his infirmity. To the one who has need of ardent prayer and soothing words do not give a reproof instead, lest you destroy him and his soul be required from your hands. Imitate doctors who use cold things against fevers.
"When you meet your neighbor force yourself to honor him beyond his measure. ... Keep this disposition toward all persons. And if you become indignant with anyone, and you burn with zeal for the sake of the faith or because of his evil works, or you accuse him or blame him, be attentive to your soul. We all have a just judge in heaven. But if you have pity and seek to turn him to the truth, certainly you must suffer for his sake. And with tears and with love you must speak a word or two to him, and not be enraged against him; you must even put away from your face any sign of hostility. Love does not know how to be angry; it is not enraged; it does not reprove passionately. Wherever there is a sign of love and knowledge, there is profound humility from within the mind.

God bless you,

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jeff.

Yes, the "loving the sinner but hating the sin" was, if not off topic, perhaps parenthetical. And as you say, it has good theological (Augustinian) pedigree. But I think it is based on presuppositions that need some teasing out and examining, which 5 is really just flagging up. I suppose the real reason why I mention it is the abuse to which it is often put, as in the examples I give. I simply submit that putative sinners whom the nostrum is supposed to encompass rarely feel loved by those who espouse it. And see Richard Beck's comment above.

Richard Beck said...

Jeff and Kim,
Just to elaborate on my comment above about "hating" the sin. My analysis goes to a particular kind of "hate": Feelings of sociomoral defilement (which activates the human disgust/contamination response). This particular form of hate is noxious because contact goes to the core of the issue. That is, if contact creates contamination then the "unclean" group must be put at a distance. And, obviously, you can't claim to love those people you are pushing away. Further, attributing disgust properties to a group is inherently dehumanizing, a form of violence. As Martha Nussbaum has observed:
"Thus, throughout history, certain disgust properties—sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness—have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with, indeed projected onto, groups by reference to whom privileged groups seek to define their superior human status.

Generally, this dynamic is in play with sexual sin, particularly homosexuality. Given that many church going folk find homosexuality to be "disgusting" their ability to love is severely compromised. Thus, if they claim to love all people they are going to have to do some work in reconfiguring their attitudes/responses to homosexual persons. They are going to have to change the way the instinctively feel when in contact with homosexual persons. And that is going to take some intentional and prolonged effort. But if love is their goal, this is the road before them.

But beyond social stigma, self-loathing and self-disgust are also in play for sexual "sin." The metaphorical structure of sexual sin is "sexual purity." And this is unique in that most other sins are described in the pews with ambulatory metaphors ("Sin as stumbling/falling"). There are psychological consequences for using these different metaphors. Appraising that you have "stumbled" produces much less self-loathing than appraising that you have become "defiled." In short, the metaphorical structures of our sin categories are setting up sexual sinners for greater self-laothing and social stigma. No other sin category gets this treatment in America.

In sum, as a psychologist, I'd just like to encourage theologians and church leaders to attend to the psychological implications of their systems. As in this example, metaphors for sin might seem to be innocent territory. But the purity metaphor uniquely interfaces with the human emotional system eliciting a feeling--revulsion toward self or other--that has moral implications.

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for the elaboration. The pathology of defilement/disgust that you highlight, particularly with respect to homosexuality, I usually refer to as the "Yuk" factor, and when it is present, it is difficult indeed to move the local church's discussion from the guts to the head.

Can I just add that the theology of taint at work here is at work too in other ecclesiastical areas of contention, women priests/bishops probably being the best example. But as a University chaplain I also get it from students in the conservative Christian Union, most of whom avoid me (and my colleague Richard Hall whose blog is "Connexions") like - and I choose the word carefully - the plague, as if our bad ("unsound") theology were contagious.

Jesus, of course, looked at the matter the other way round - it is goodness that is catching.

Thanks again for lending your clinical experience and insights to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Kim said..And, Anonymous, how is this: through sanctification the Holy Spirit teaches us to love as God the Trinity loves. Would you say that the Father loves himself, or the Son loves himself? Would you not rather say that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father? Love, I take it, is always other-directed.

And let me say very clearly that it is the Reformers' sola gratia and extra nos that deliver us from all forms of self-hatred or self-loathing, precisely because they deliver us from ourselves and ground our salvation in the unconditional love of God.

In the garden Jesus asked the Father to spare him, if that was the Father’s will, but not to spare him if it was not the Father’s will. Not my will but your will. Nevertheless, Jesus did will to be spared. It seems to me that he was concerned for his life (his own self?).
I can well believe that no man shows a greater love for his friends than to lay down his life for them. But I can also believe that the man who loves his life and who lays it down for his friends makes the more loving sacrifice than the man who does not love his life.
When Jesus subordinated his will (his charity to himself?) to that of the Father’s, he placed his love of life in a lower place than his love of the Father. Yet his love for his life did find a place, it wasn’t obliterated.
Simone Weil, whom you mentioned earlier, also said that love goes further and further, but it has a limit, beyond which it turns into hatred. As with so much of her writings, I am not sure of what she meant, but it is very suggestive. The direction of love can be defined at a minimum by two reference points; the point of departure or where one currently is and the point to which one aims to reach or pass through. If self-love is lost then the first point is lost and so is the direction.
You spoke of a conversion from selfish love to selfless love. But I believe that the real conversion is from a selfish love of the self to a selfless love of the self. And it is a selfless love of the self that can keep us in touch with reality as we experience it and that can make us both worthy of loving and being loved.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

I applaud the majority of what you say, especially exposing the false beliefs that have filtered into the church about self-love.

However, it would be good to hear you say how people who really, really struggle with having any kind of positive self-image at all can find this through their faith. People who hate themselves - as a pastor, you'll know that many do - will almost certainly struggle to love others.

I see what you mean about the need to be delivered from self altogether, and I accept your point about the 'holy neurotic'. But I feel that self-hatred is a terrible load for an individual to bear, which will almost always end up in greater self-absorption. The 'holy' neurotic is an unusual neurotic.

A healthy measure of positive self-image, on the other hand, leads us away from this. Do you agree that this is desirable, and if so, how can a Christian who hates themself experience it?

In summary, I like your theology but feel that it needs a bit more application to the pastoral.

Anonymous said...

Hi EE,

I have been a minister for nearly 25 years, and I have become more, not less, convinced that the best and most helpful pastoral practice is one that is theologically informed. And the alpha and omega for those suffering from self-loathing - tried and tested first on me, myself, and I - is: "I hate me. God loves me. Who are you going to trust and believe?" That is the only secure foundation for a "positive self-image".

I am a Barthian, and some folk wonder, however heavenly a theologian Barth was, how his theology could be of any earthly, pastoral use. For an answer, check out the book I mention above: Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Theology and Pastoral Counselling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (1995).

PamBG said...

However, it would be good to hear you say how people who really, really struggle with having any kind of positive self-image at all can find this through their faith. People who hate themselves - as a pastor, you'll know that many do - will almost certainly struggle to love others.

Amen! Thank you!

I have a small modicum of sympathy for the original post theologically but I still honestly struggle with the concept of "To whom is this scenario supposed to apply in real life?"

Personally, I still do not agree with the argument that God does not want us to love ourselves. In unsophisticated language, I think that there is "good and Godly love" we can have for ourselves as well as "bad and sinful love" that we can have for ourselves. If we don't have the former, I don't think we are capable of loving others. If another human being is "supposed" to agape-love me, why is it that God does not want me to treat myself that way?

I think what I'm finding particularly irritating this week is that I've just had to have a pastoral visit with someone and try to convince them that being a Christian isn't about pointless mortification. If justice and righteousness must be done, then we are called to suffer, but not suffering just for the sake of making ourselves miserable. (I suppose that's "pop psychology" of course.)

Aric Clark said...


You clarified your position well and came across in your response to me with compassion - something which was lacking in the original post. Indeed I think you are basically right about the nature of despair, about the importance of self-worth being based in God's evaluation of us rather than our own, about the discipline of psychology (along with all other disciplines) being resistant to external critique etc... etc... Basically, Amen!

I think the original 10 propositions would benefit greatly by you clarifying who your audience is (psychologists or pastors or parishioners?) and by taking a compassionate rather than polemical approach.

Anonymous said...

Hi Miner,

Thank you for your generous last comment.

My audience? The readers of this blog, who, from the comment sections, would seem to be mainly ministers, theologians, theological students, and learned lay folk.

The polemical tone, of course, was intentional. As my (80 year-old!) mother would say, "Kimmy's got a bug up his ass on this one." But I'm glad I've been able to expand and explain in a less apocalyptic tone.

Three things I will leave for further consideration. One is a more biblically and theologically informed answer from those who disagree with my take on self-love (see 2), based on the second great commandment and Jesus' command of self-denial (remembering that I do not take this to mean self-hatred, but insist that it cannot mean self-esteem).

A second is a look at the great Christian spiritual traditions, e.g. of the desert fathers, the Carmelites, Ignatius, and so on in support of alternative positions.

Finally, a reaction to Rowan Williams' query of the equation of holiness and "wholness" (sic) in the contemporary "healing ministry".

Anyway, thanks everyone for even taking an interest in what I have say, and for pushing me on consistency and coherence.

PamBG said...

Three things I will leave for further consideration. One is a more biblically and theologically informed answer from those who disagree with my take on self-love (see 2), based on the second great commandment and Jesus' command of self-denial (remembering that I do not take this to mean self-hatred, but insist that it cannot mean self-esteem).

With due respect, Kim, I don't think it's about the rest of us being biblically uninformed.

To me, the issue is that you have insisted on defining a word ("love") in a very precise and limited way and you do not appear (correct me if I'm wrong) to be willing to brook any discussion of the fact that preaching "God does not want you to love yourself" to a congregation could potentially result in gross misunderstanding and, in fact, lead them TO "bad theology" rather than away from it.

I preach about sin and humankind being sinners quite a bit. I preach quite a bit about self-giving love. But I honestly think that I've managed to do this and still also communicate good news. I hope that, in most cases, people don't leave church feeling that my preaching has weighed them down with huge burdens. That's my aim at least.

I believe that it's possible to preach about sin without leaving people feeling beaten up.

Anonymous said...

Interestingy, Pam, I never preach about sin, or at least only as the aftermath of grace, because sin can only be known as already forgiven. We cannot know ourselves as sinners apart from Christ. Which is why, as Van Deusen Hunsinger puts it: "Therefore, knowledge of oneself as a sinner cannot possibly perpetuate debilitating shame (in the sense of low self-worth) but finally only gratitude."

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