"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

26 July 2007

On Loving One's Neighbor as Oneself

Recently I was reading one of those books that tells us we must first learn to love ourselves, then we can figure out how to love our neighbors. I've always taken issue with this progression.

The Lord says: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

He doesn't say, "Love yourself so you can love your neighbor."

The distinction seems obvious to me. He assumes that we love ourselves, and therefore we already know how to love others: do to them as we would have them do to us.

Where this tends to get hung up is when we witness self-loathing in some people. "Oh, I'm a rotten person, I hate myself, the world would be better off without me." Surely this person must learn how to love himself before he can be expected to love others.

But I think this is not really the issue, not at heart. I think the person who claims to loathe himself is actually mired in a kind of improper self-love, an inversion of arrogant egotism. I say this, by the way, as one who has been through -- and still goes through far too often -- the self-loathing litany.

Consider: the egotist obviously loves himself improperly because he thinks too highly of himself. He shows off in one way or another, drawing attention to his wonderful self and expecting everyone to bow before his brilliance. What is this but an inordinant self-absorption?

The one who claims to loathe himself may actually think too little of himself. Or he may actually think quite highly of himself: oh, poor me, nobody appreciates me the way I should be appreciated. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll go into the garden and eat worms. In any case, his self-loathing is a means of drawing attention to himself, of expecting everyone to cater to him, to feel sorry for him, to bow down to his neediness by telling him how wonderful he really is. What is this but another kind of inordinant self-absorption, a self-love that is just as improper as that of the egotist?

In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis says that the humble person doesn't go around thinking of himself as less than he is (a talented musician doesn't pretend to be untalented or a pretty woman to be plain), trying to make everyone think he isn't arrogant. The humble person does his work for the Lord and his neighbor the best he can and is unconcerned with himself. If he does his best with what he has, he is content. If someone else does better, he is content. His focus is not on himself but on the Lord and others.

I'm also reminded of Lewis's discussion of gluttony, in which he points out that the person who refuses to eat what is put before him, demanding "less" and putting everyone out by "not wanting so much" or "so rich" food, is just as much a glutton as the person who stuffs himself -- because he has made food his idol. It seems to me that the self-loather is as much an idolator of self as the egotist, in a similar way as the dainty glutton is an idolator of food.

The cure is the same for the egotist and the self-loather: stop focusing on the self. It will not help the egotist to stand in front of the mirror saying 1000 times "I am not the center of the world," nor will it help the self-loather to stand in front of the mirror saying 1000 times "I am a person of infinite worth." What they both need is to get out from in front of the mirror!

That doesn't mean that some salutary understandings of value (I am of value to the God who gave His Son for me; but I am of no more value than my neighbor) aren't ever in order. But I have found that for me this comes most clearly when I stop studying about my value and focus my attention on the Lord and on serving the neighbors He brings into my way. When I do this, I generally find that without realizing it I have stumbled into a balanced understanding of my own value -- and also that it really doesn't matter that much anymore because I'm doing what I was designed to do in the first place.

20 July 2007

"Feeling Unabstracted"

Some thoughts stimulated by yesterday's quote from Gardner: "True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt."

The YM and I have been reading Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences this summer. One thing Weaver stresses is the need for "abstraction" -- for what he calls a "metaphysical dream" (a worldview that takes into account something above and beyond us) -- in order to place the physical observations we make and experiences we have in a context which gives our lives meaning and purpose. He was objecting in particular, in 1948, to the philosophy of nominalism, the emphasis on the material world as all there is which leads to materialism and desire for comfort, ease, physical well-being above all else.

Nominalism, for all that I understand it is not accepted in philosophical circles these days, has made its mark well on our culture, and I would say that most of us probably, practically speaking, pretty much live as though the material world is all that is (or all that matters, anyway). (Patrick Henry Reardon has
a good article on this at Touchstone.)

But even more than material goods and comfort, we seem to have moved to an idolatry of emotional well-being these days. One sees it everywhere, but I am always discouraged by my observations on this Christian campus. The large majority of our students certainly claim to have a "metaphysical dream," to embrace the Christian worldview as a foundation for their lives. Yet a significant portion of them live in a world of emotional reaction devoid of any clear connection to that supposed foundation.

So long as they are "happy," then all is well. If a chapel service makes them cry and lift their hands and laugh and feel warm and fuzzy about their faith, then all is well. Never mind that they might have stayed up half the night playing video games or blogging at myspace or texting with someone in the next room, then started on their homework at 3:00 a.m. and come to classes late, sleepy, and unprepared. What does that have to do with faith?

And if we dare to point this out, they resent our "attack" on their "walk with the Lord," which is obviously fine because it makes them feel happy (or, in some cases, it has made them feel sad, and that's also good because feeling sad is the same as repentence, right? Then they can feel happy about having felt sad and thus feel happy about themselves again).

"Feeling unabstracted." "Abstraction unfelt." This is where they live. Their feelings are self-justified, their claimed foundation moves them not at all. Or, rather, they confuse their feelings with the worldview itself.

How does one battle this? I think that Gardner is right, that it must come through art somehow. (Yes, yes, I know that it is the Holy Spirit --but how can He work if we give Him nothing to work with? "How shall they hear without a preacher?") Some, of course, will "get it" from a clear exposition of what they are doing to themselves. But most won't listen or can't hear it this way.

And we have so little time to reach them through art. One course in literature. One novel in another required course. It's not enough, and most of them don't and won't read more -- or won't read any better works than the junk that passes for literature in the Christian community today, which only affirms their wrong understanding of faith.

If art is the answer, if art is the conduit, then we must somehow find a way to reach them with true art so that it can have its effect. And I don't see how that will happen, here or anywhere else.

"[G]iving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love" (2 Peter 1:5).

In art lies the means for inculcating virtue, not just in preaching it from the parental or church pulpit. If our art is not virtuous, or if we silence our best artists by refusing to read their works, how will we understand and desire to practice virtue? And without virtue, knowledge is dangerous, and we will not add to it self-control and the rest, but we will only add to it more self-centered manipulations of the world to gain "happiness."

I really believe this. And right now it is making me despair. So few, so few that we can reach . . .

On a Criminal Minds re-run the other night, Gideon said to Hotch, who was near despair about the apparent futility of their work, "Save one life, save the world." I guess I will have to embrace that philosophy, because it's all one person can do at a time.

19 July 2007

True Art

More from John Gardner's On Moral Fiction:

"True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt."

09 July 2007

On Commitment

Some of us have been exploring the concept of Christian liberal arts education this summer, and in one of the books we've been reading, Arthur F. Holmes' The Idea of a Christian College, we found some comments I may start including on my syllabi:

"The pursuit of truth [. . .] carries with it certain moral prerequisites: the willingness and determination to learn, intellectual honesty, a self-discipline that makes lesser and more selfish satisfactions wait."

The student needs to understand that "education is a Christian vocation, one's prime calling for these years, that education must be an act of love, of worship, of stewardship, a wholehearted response to God. Attitude and motivation accordingly afford but a beginning: this personal contact between faith and learning should extend to disciplined scholarship and to intellectual and artistic integrity."

"How a student may feel about a teacher or administrator or about rules and requirements is secondary to his moral commitment to [the] task [of education]. I do not expect students to like everything about me or my courses or the college, but I do expect them to be committed to gaining an education. It is that which qualifies them as members of an academic community."

I would say that if a young person doesn't have these attitudes toward education, he will be better off finding a different task for the present. This will not, however, remove from him the need for commitment and self-discipline.

Because, clearly, one can change the "college education" of Holmes' remarks to any task whatsoever and the admonitions still apply. Whatever one sets out to learn, whatever one wishes to accomplish in life, these attitudes of commitment to the task are paramount, or mediocrity will be the earned reward. As Richard Weaver points out in Ideas Have Consequences, this is a hard concept to sell to a culture which has rejected transcendentals, lives for comfort, and expects the rewards of excellence without work.

Pray for the parents and teachers who are trying to counteract what everything around us teaches the young people entrusted to our care.

05 July 2007


At the end of the two-part "Fisher King" episode of Criminal Minds (repeated last night), Reid speaks this quotation by Rose Kennedy:

"It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone."

This makes intuitive sense to me. I agree that wounds never "go away." However, sometimes the building of the scar tissue actually makes the wounded site stronger, not just less painful. For this to happen, one has to go through the pain of the injury, and it is the injury itself that is the indirect, but necessary, cause of the new strength. The injury isn't "gone" -- but it is re-formed, and we are better off for it.

On the other hand, writers have said that the only way to write truly is to explore the wounds, to keep the scar tissue from getting too thick while using the pain to understand something important -- not just about the self but about this world we find ourselves set down in. Perhaps the writing, the fingering of the wound for the purpose of understanding, is the writer's way of keeping sanity. (Of course, if this be so, the results are not always encouraging; writers are not known for their sanity as a general rule.)

Hmm. I have no idea where this thought is going. We know that pain in this fallen world can be a source of despair or a source of strength, depending on our response to it. So do we let scar tissue form and lessen the pain, or do we worry the wound to find what it may teach us? Or both, somehow, to find our way through?