That’s So Second Millennium
CNAG: Self-Love

CNAG: Self-Love

February 6, 2019

One of the most fraught issues in our "post-Christian" society is the complex of questions around the issue of how to regard oneself in a moral sense. I find myself thinking my way into a morass of terminology trying to make that more clear, so instead let me just cut to the specific dilemma I want to face today.

A great deal of your typical self-help literature and culture in modern America encourages you to love yourself. Jen Sincero ends every single chapter in You Are a Badass with the section header "Love Yourself" followed by some hopefully pithy reflection related to the chapter content.

The theologic/philosophic tradition I am heir to often defines love as "to will the good of another." Self-love can then be taken as almost a self-contradiction. If not, of course, it simply means to will my own good, and Christian thought can exhibit something of a split personality about this.

"Self-love" is very commonly used in Christian writings as a synonym for "selfishness." I'm not aware of much of anyone, aside from fictional characters meant to embody negative tropes, liable to use the word "selfish" in any but a negative context. We nearly all agree there is some such thing as "selfishness," and I think it is commonly understood to revolve around choosing good things, real or apparent, for ourselves at an undue cost to other people. What "undue cost" is then becomes an all-important thing to discern, along with whether a good we will for ourselves is real or not.

On the other hand, as much as Christianity depends on love of neighbor, there is an irreducible individualistic element in it. We will receive an individual reward or punishment for our own actions (loc. cit.!). We cannot save one another, although interestingly enough, St. Peter exhorts us to save ourselves. St. Paul even comments in passing, as if it were an obvious thing and in no contrast to either Christianity or plain common sense, that no one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it.

Ultimately, I think we all have to accept that self-love is a very critical term to understand in a properly nuanced way. The Big Red Book of the Twelve Step program called Adult Children of Alcoholics has an entire chapter on Self Love, which contains some important attempts to clarify these issues:

"We cannot address the issue of self-love without examining some of the confusion surrounding this important spiritual principle. On one side, there are those who argue that self-love always leads to the slippery slope of narcissism. In this line of thinking, self-love is cast as self-absorption. These critics usually cannot define self-love because they are too absorbed in saying what it is not. They liken self-love to Narcissus, the character of Greek mythology who “fell in love” with his own image. Transfixed by the pool, gazing at himself, Narcissus dies emotionally and physically due to his inability to connect with another person or God. This is not self-love. Narcissism and self-love often get linked together, but these two concepts could not be more different. One is self-absorption while the other is self-awareness. The person who practices true self-love cannot be narcissistic. The practicing narcissist can never know self-love.

"There are some sincere, religious folks who think that self-love diminishes the authority of God. They believe it elevates the human side of the person while lowering the Almighty. These well-meaning folks stand ready to correct any talk of self-love or self-worth. They fear that selfishness or unclean motives can rule the person and society. This attitude is akin to defining self-love wrongly as narcissism...

"We also have seen thoughtful people who confuse self-love and self-esteem. This confusion represents a segment of the self-esteem movement that seems to place too much emphasis on affirmations and positive self-talk while attempting to neutralize anything negative in a person’s life. Under this model of self-esteem, the person experiencing failure or challenge is encouraged to minimize any uncomfortable feelings associated with an event. This is all noble and kind, but a key element of building true self-esteem is left out in some cases...  Self-love as we understand it does not eliminate pain or the need to try harder in some circumstances."

Ultimately, in my own life, I rely on the results of my own inadvertent experimentation on myself. Very young, I internalized the idea that hating myself, focusing on how hateful my actions (which I could not separate from myself) were to God, was the way to self-discipline and virtue. As I later saw it summed up in a therapist's handout sheet, I thought I could "horsewhip myself into compliance." I failed, or at any rate, I stalled out at a very low plateau. No one would ever confuse the me of the past with Don Bosco or Mother Theresa. Of course, sadly, they still couldn't, but I have come a long way, and I have done so by means of the Second Step of the Twelve Steps, which is stated and later augmented in Ch. 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Came to believe that a Higher Power could restore me to sanity... God could and would if He were sought." God only does this because He "wills the good of another"--that is, me, and it just fails to make sense to me that I should hate myself when God loves me.

More on this next week, when we tackle the word "deserve."

CNAG is the Catholic-New Age Glossary... not backed by Webster's or any other authority. These meditations are here on That's So Second Millennium because they are an attempt to find maximum harmony between different strands of psychology and spirituality as they are being explored and lived out in Western culture today. It flows from a respect for people's reasons for doing what they do and thinking what they think.

Episode 045 - Daniel Hinshaw and the human microcosmos

Episode 045 - Daniel Hinshaw and the human microcosmos

February 4, 2019

Today we start a two-part series with Daniel Hinshaw, a professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Michigan, who has come to focus on palliative care for the dying. He sees his work as having deep roots in the Christian tradition, and has written on the subject of "kenosis" (the Scriptural concept of "emptying" or "reduction" or "wasting away" that is key to our understanding of the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus Christ) as a useful concept for understanding our own mortality, at the scale of our individual cells as well as our whole composite being.

He shared some interesting spiritual perspectives with us. As someone who in his mature years moved from the Seventh Day Adventists and sought out the apostolic churches, he now belong to the Orthodox Church. We spent some time discussing the "microcosmos," John Chrysostom's idea that the human being contains all creation in miniature, and how that is oddly true in certain respects: we are each communities of organisms. Our gut microbiome, for example.

Daniel went on to talk some heavy duty biochemical shop. We discussed the oxidizing agents (e.g., hydrogen peroxide) involved in inflammatory ailments. He touched on the fact that some of the worst chemical warfare agents, like sulfur mustard gas, operate in a similar oxidizing mechanism, triggering apoptosis, and discussed some of his work on finding remedies for these agents, as well as how similar they are to the earliest generation of chemotherapy agents.

We shifted back to the question of faith, and discussed how both Daniel and his wife confronted suffering in their work (his wife as a psychiatrist treating AIDS patients in particular) and this was a core part of their journey. Daniel pointed out the provocative fact that we really seem to be programmed to age and die, and that the only exceptions to this... are cancer cells.

Another moral point we discover in modern biology has to do with epigenetics. As human beings, we can abuse our bodies to the point that we leave effects on our germ cells that can carry on the "sins of the father" to future generations.

Post Christian: Intellectual Triumphalism

Post Christian: Intellectual Triumphalism

February 2, 2019

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a massive change in economics and intellectual culture, centered on Europe, but rapidly affecting the entire world.

A significant part of that massive change was the fact that it was centered on Europe, a point that I thought was well made by Donald Herreld in his Great Courses lectures on economic history. At no time in prior world history had Europe come to stand in such a position of dominance. By the end of the period, the European states--fractured and warring states, in no way unified in their goals--were unquestionably the military and scientific rulers of the planet. It had never been that way before. In prior centuries, India, China, the Muslim states, or pre-Muslim Persia and Egypt had been peers or obvious superiors to any European state, even unified Rome.

The effects of this on Christian thought should not be understated. In the early centuries, Christian thinkers were continuously occupied with apologetics, the laying out of arguments for the intellectual credibility of Christianity as opposed to the other philosophical traditions at large in the Mediterranean and wider world. Even after Constantine, pagan thought gave ground only slowly. Persian thought remained non-Christian, and Persia remained a political and intellectual rival to Rome, all the way up to the Muslim explosion of the seventh century.

In the medieval era, Christians were in constant tension with Muslims, intellectually as well as politically and in the most basic tenets of faith in God. Thomas Aquinas was hardly alone in dedicating considerable time to his Contra Gentiles, a set of arguments for an intellectual outlook fully consistent with orthodox, catholic Christianity as opposed to the intellectual traditions forged from ancient philosophy within the culture of the early centuries of Islam.

Yet by the thirteenth century, things were already changing. The Crusades marked the beginning of the military counterattack by Christendom against Muslim states, as uneven as that would be. Although the Turks remained dangerous foes into the seventeenth century, and came close in the sixteenth to wreaking tremendous havoc in the Mediterranean, they were no longer serious intellectual rivals of Italians, Spaniards, and Northern Europeans.

Precisely because there were no longer perceived to be serious intellectual rivals to European, Christian thinkers, I would propose that various ridiculous ideas reached the height of fashionability, and have left distorted schools of Christian thought in their wake down to the present. They did not start in the sixteenth or even fifteenth century, nor did they completely rule the scene even in that period, but they flourished and bore the largest share of their bad fruit then. I mean ideas like:

  • The Christian scriptures are to be taken as literally [read: simplistically] as possible.
  • God's will is entirely "sovereign" [read: arbitrary] and people are chosen for salvation or damnation essentially at random.
  • Human beings are entirely corrupt and hateful...
    • ...except for a very few people who actually respond to God's grace, or
    • ...entirely, and "salvation" is just a matter of God choosing to ignore this fact for certain people.
    • In any case, everyone outside the Christian Church is definitely a moral zero.
  • God is basically interested in the public statement of adherence to some doctrine of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth and not in human beings choosing to do good for one another.

I am certainly a Roman Catholic, and I look with horror back at many of the doctrines of the first Protestants, but it is most assuredly true that many Catholics at the time followed them or even led them down these very paths. I think that other Catholics felt driven to express themselves in similar language or else risk losing their audience.

In the centuries since, members of these same Christian societies began to be so scandalized by these ideas that they rebelled against Christianity--really, the distorted version of it where these ideas are so prominent, but in their minds, that was all Christianity was.

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

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