November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 16, 2007
He was a humble man, proud of his craft. A pioneer immigrant, he had very little. But he had a skill. He was a carpenter. He built the pine boxes for the mothers, fathers, and children who didn’t always make it on the new frontier. The most difficult, I am sure, was the box for his eight-year old son and his thirty-nine year old wife. I draw a picture in my mind of this man with his rough-hewn hands polishing the wood until it shone, him weeping, the tears pushing him to create a box worthy of those he loved so deeply. I was not there, but knowing what I have heard of my grandfather, a beloved man, a humble man, I have come to understand that his grief would only add dimension to his craft. Each box after crafting those for his own would be even more gently and lovingly made. For his pride, you see, was not for his own self-advancement, but was his gift from God to give to others.
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In considering pride in the context of the seven deadly sins, we must first consider that we honor God when we live fully into our createdness. That stated, we dishonor God when we misplace our value as solely our own, neglecting to see that our gift, our talent is one part of the community of faith. Furthermore, this talent is to be used for the glory of God in the service and love of the other. Pride, as intended by God, is the communal self. It is the totality of God-in-the-world, through our love for the other.
Contrawise, pride as it is referred to as a deadly sin, is self that is for self and not for the other. This is perhaps why pride has been stated to be the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, for it is the sin of pride that shelters all other sins. It is for this reason that McFayden can describe sin as: “the disruption of our proper relation to God.”1 Pride, understood theologically, shifts our understanding of being (ontology) from God to the self.
In our attempts to define ourselves by ourselves, we make the self the ground of one’s being, rather than understanding the self in relationship to, and dependent upon, the Creator God. Pride is the distortion that we are our own creation and that we are independent of any deity or other. It is our pride that confronts the very nature of God, who is the loving Creator, who loves what has been created, and who is present in creation.
Although psychology does not lend itself to the discussion of sin, (leaving that to the theologians), it is increasingly moving towards a greater understanding of the self that the self-in-relation is indeed the healthy self. Psychology’s understanding of pride is seen as a defense against self-contempt, and as something that is not willed. Pride, from a psychological perspective, is always grounded relationally, both in its origins and in its production. Psychology places the pathology of pride (although pride is not a term psychology uses), within the crucible of an interpersonal ecology. Psychology’s strength is its notion that all pathology stems from misalignments in our early developmental years. These misalignments, in turn, create a variety of defensive structures that serve to allow one to go on living, but often at the expense of others.
Pride, as noted, is not a term used to delineate psychological diagnoses. It is, however, indirectly used to describe a disorder of the self, referred to as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.2 This particular diagnosis involves a pervasive and enduring pattern of perceiving and interpreting the self that is harmful to the self and others. Interpersonal relations are typically impaired due to problems derived from entitlement, the need for admiration, and the relative disregard for the sensitivities of others. Persons of this diagnosis are envious and are interpersonally exploitative.
The nomenclature used to diagnose Narcissistic Personality Disorder is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. In that story, Narcissus falls in love with his own image and eventually dies because his love of self cannot be consummated. Thinking he needed no other in defining himself, he denies the other access and succumbs to his death. This image of Narcissus peering into the waters of his own image, refusing to see in the reflection the image of God, and of all creation reflecting back to him not only his beauty, but the beauty of all, is a very sad tale. In his blindness, Narcissus cannot survive.
Pride/narcissism essentially violates the self, by negating the Creator God and, in turn, all of creation. Consistent within theology and psychology is the notion that pride/narcissism are shaped from distrust and envy. Theologically—from the Christian perspective—we understand this concept from the story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were doing just fine, wandering around paradise, until they began to distrust the words of their Creator, believing that God was keeping something from them. They also wanted to have what the Creator possessed, envying God’s possession and greedily wanting it for themselves.
Distrust and envy thus formed a new dialectic between the two. In the evening, as God enters the garden, more problems arise for Adam and Eve and they hide because they are ashamed. The God with whom they had communed, is now the God from whom to hide. The plot thickens when God directly addresses Adam and Adam blames the whole mess on the woman God gave him, hastily explaining that it was she who caused their indiscretion! It is she who is to blame. This story’s progression from distrust to envy, from shame to blame, illuminates the foundation of pride.
The rest of this story we know intimately. We all experience colluding with our first parents, hiding behind the pretext of perfection in distrust and envy. We accuse others as imperfect, all in an effort to defend against a shameful self. This is pride: the action of negating the other in order to grant definition to a self.
Psychology’s contribution to understanding pride as shaped from distrust and envy understands the etiology of narcissism as self-contempt. We ask: if pride cometh before the fall, what then cometh before pride? The shadow beyond pride is self-contempt. Therefore, pride is a double edged sword which violates the image of the other, and distorts the image of oneself. Pride and arrogance parade as self-containment and strength, a façade aimed at control of a self that is afraid. All activities are conducted to maintain a healthy image, but behind such activities lie self-loathing. Shame from our actions of greed and fear distort reality. We create opposites and assign blame in search of gaining some sort of equilibrium, to gather together our fragile lives. This is pride. It is the action of negating the other in order to hold ground for a weak definition of a self.
It was September 11, 2001. The world sat stunned by a violent attack on our nation. For a few days, the world stopped and our vulnerability and grief held us ever so gently. The physical attack was also a psychological one, and the narcissistic injury became too much to bear, burning deeply into our national psyche, revealing to us our insecurity. Thus, we created our own image of the other and went to war. Our invincibility was injured, and we discovered we were as vulnerable as others in this world. Soon our humility turned to injury. We forgot our commonness and went to battle to prove our prowess. I will always wonder what would have happened if we would have found a way to respond in humility. Where would we be today if we had cooperated with other nations to sort out the state of affairs in the world and to discover ways to build bridges, instead of destroying them?
As columnist George Will wrote: “It is a peculiar kind of patriot today that says that by this war, America “will get its pride back.” Since when has American pride derived primarily from military episodes? A nation that constantly worries about its pride should worry. It is apt to confect military occasions for bucking itself up, using foreign policy for psychotherapy.”3
What we did at that moment, nationally, is what we do personally every day, creating an other in order to do harm. Psychologist William James chillingly tells us, “[that,] the hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.”4 Pride is insistent in fashioning an opposite in order to define itself. The bondage to pride is that the other must always be kept in their place. Consequently, pride is competitive; it objectifies the other and harms by demeaning them. The other is made different and less-than. We create the other in our own negative image to deny the reality of our co-humanity, deceiving ourselves from the reality that we are more human than otherwise. When we look at pride from a psychological perspective, it is always within the dynamics of the interpersonal (for example, the harm done to others in negating their participation in identity formation). This is compatible theologically, for the self that denies God also denies that which God has created, negating both God and the other in the understanding of one’s own identity.
We are, however, and above all, created in the image of God. Furthermore, God entered this world as a humble servant and continues the presence of love and creativity through the Spirit of God, who lives within us, relying upon us to be the humble presence of God on this earth. The incarnation is a stunning story of love so urgent that God entered history through the person of Jesus, to restore us to the image of God. Therefore, any understanding of sin must also honor the priority of grace. Jesus did not let the violence of the cross have the final word. Rather, Jesus’ death and resurrection again defined that sin is not the originator of our selves, nor is it the victor. Grace and redemption are a gift from God, restoring us to the image of God. Grace, therefore, is christoform, meaning that in the incarnation, God disclosed through Christ, “the human condition as well as a way out of it. . . . [Christ’s death and resurrection provided] a remedy from sin into a freedom in which we do not allow the evil done to us to define us.”5
We misunderstand the doctrine of original sin when, “we sever it from revelation and, specifically, from Easter.”6 If we attempt to justify sin by seeking a first cause (for example, that Adam and Eve brought it upon us), we find ourselves seeking to blame rather than confessing to our position of complicity. If we focus our attention on sin, without first considering the Easter story, we get stuck on our behaviors, rather than upon what Christ has done for us. Therefore, any moral theology must posit itself with the primacy of God’s love and grace, which invites us to a morality of charity. Emphasis on our own and others’ depravity leads to a loss of confidence in who God is and the position that God holds in our lives. “Invocation of sin as a moral language of blame or condemnation fuels scapegoating and self-justification.” 7 What we learn from this is that God is positioned in our lives particularly. We are defined through creation and through the humility of the incarnation. In remembering our locatedness and our forgiveness, we remember that we are creatures created in the image of God, redeemed by the incarnate one, who invites us to join in the creative act of creating and recreating here on earth the act of love and forgiveness. Pride is the refusal to let God be God and to live as Christ has lived.
Pride’s opposite is humility. Humility honors the other as a fellow sojourner created in the image of God, purposed to bring grace, forgiveness, and restoration to one another. False humility deprecates one’s own createdness, gifts, and talents in order to manipulate praise and encouragement from others, falsely suggesting that I am less than what I am. Authentic humility recognizes the self as it was created to be—fully alive and living toward its potential. In fact, to deny the self that God created is its own form of pride, denying the glory of God reflected in our very creation. St. Francis de Sales points out that, “there is no need to fear that knowledge of [our] gifts will make us proud if only we remember this truth: that none of the good in us comes from ourselves. . . a lively consideration of grace received makes us humble because knowledge of them begets gratitude for them.” 8
Genuine humility approaches the other from a confessional point of view, surrendering our defenses in order to be in an authentic relationship. After the fall, God came to Adam and Eve in kindness and humility, longing to see them and commune with them. God also came into this world in the person of Christ as servant not as king, for it is God’s nature to embody. The Christian story is one of integration, not of separation. It is one of wholeness, not of parts. Lorraine Kisley, in her reflections on the garden of Eden, states that when Adam and Eve, “cut themselves off from the wisdom of the whole. . ., wisdom was darkened and they came to live in the darkness of ignorance. . . . the one who had been their ground—ever-present and speaking—became alien, distant, and finally absent.” 9
Psychology has often failed in its attempts to help the individual consider the individual’s life within the greater whole. Often psychology has been a place to get one’s own way, rather than to find one’s way within the collective community.10 Thus, psychology has been seen to be amoral and to have nurtured a culture that plays to the individual, rather than to any deity or community. Theology has also failed. Though theology holds to an understanding of pride as sin against the other, it has not always remembered the resolve of sin within the context of the greater whole. Forgiveness has often been couched as a transcendent, private exchange between God and the individual, not toward reconciliation with the other. Any good psychology, though, must hold to a morality of the self in relationship to the world, even if it does not give a nod to the Deity. And any theology worth its salt must always point us toward a restoration of our brokenness within the context of our harm toward the other.
A hopeful theology posits itself within the primacy of God’s grace. Grace changes the face of community, reminding the community that it is not our call to throw the first stone, but to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is within this context that pride is confronted. It is in our humility that our complicity in pride is revealed. It is in our awareness of this complicity that healing has hope. From this position of humility, formed within community, we are called to acts of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. It is here that God can be God. It is here that we remember, once again, the God of light, not of darkness, and where we can live in the light that is often shaded by our self-in-self—rather than by our self-in-God—story.
A moral psychology calls forth a similar hope. A moral psychology moves the patient beyond self-justification and discovers that meaning is found in co-creating, in supporting and caring for others, and in the discovery that the self-in-relation is the self of worth. In the end we see that psychology and theology meet. Because any self-in-relation theory requires humility formed within community, calling forth acts of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. It is not the self that is self-contained, but it is the self that is capable of being loved and of loving others that is considered healthy. Psychologically, when we are less conflicted, we are able to be persons more able to be effective in our relationships. Ultimately, any self-that-is-for-the-other is the self-that-is-for-God. Theology, from a relational perspective, also understands well-being within the context of an other and that God is present within the meeting of the two. As we heal, we become persons capable of reciprocity and mutuality. This is the goal of both disciplines.
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Sally Edwards is her name. She is a world-class athlete and a member of the Triathlon Hall of Fame. Yet, for the past seventeen years, she has lost every Danskin Triathlon. The Danskin is a triathlon for amateur women ages fourteen to eighteen—running, swimming, and biking for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Sally intentionally follows the last person over the finish line. Why? So that no amateur athlete has to carry that distinction home with her. Medaled and famed Edwards believes that the Danskin Triathlon is the most valuable work she has ever done. She stated: “helping hundreds of thousands of women cross that finish line is the most important thing I could have done in my life.”11 I have no doubt that Ms. Edwards has stood on many a podium proud of her gifts and talents, but she has learned something far more important about our co-humanity. She understands that her gifts and accomplishments were never meant only for her—they were meant for the whole. She enjoys her gift proudly and then in humility offers it back to others. She is, as was my grandfather, a person who, in possessing a gift and a talent, with humility then offers her gift toward the all. It is this stance of pride and humility that offers healing to our injured souls.
I recently took a Seven Deadly Sins quiz discovered somewhere in cyberspace.12 Given my results, I sadly report that I did not make it into heaven. But—thank God,—neighter did I get condemned to hell (whew!). Rather, given my sin, I was sent to purgatory where I was told, “that the dew of my repentance would wash off the stain of my sin and gird my spirit with humility.” I guess I have been exposed. Pride is my sin. It is my prayer that I will join in the complicity of my humanity, be revealed and revealing, confessional and forgiving, restored and restoring, and find my way as I was intended by God to be. But I will need you, so I invite you to join me as well.
This effort of knowing God and of knowing ourselves within the context of community requires us both. And in the give-and-take of our care for one another, the possibility of repair to our tattered selves is made possible.13
1. Alistair McFayden, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin: Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine, no. 6. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
2. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IVR. (Washington D.C: American Psychiatric Association, 2002)
3. Columnist George Will is quoted in Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997)
4. William James, Principles of Psychology. (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, 1952), 83.
5. Darlene Weaver, “How Sin Works,” Journal of Religious Ethics 29 (2001): 495.
6. Ibid, 493.
7. Ibid, 481.
8. Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47.
9. Lorraine Kisley, “The seven deadly sins,” Parabola 10, 4 (1985): 4-18, 12.
10. Ryan LaMothe in “An Analysis of Pride Systems and the Dynamics of Faith”, Pastoral Psychology 53, 2 (2005): 239-253, speaks well to this and says, “pride systems, then are ‘good’ to the extent that they shore up a sense of self and community and ‘bad,’ or inherently deadly, to the extent that ‘goodness’ depends on the subtle or overt alienation of a person or group.” 240.
11. Donna Blankenship, “Loser Makes Sure Everyone is a Winner,” The Seattle Times, September 23, 2007.
12. The Seven Deadly Sins Quiz www.4degreez.com/misc/seven_deadly_sins.html
13. Ryan LaMothe in “An Analysis of Pride Systems and the Dynamics of Faith,” Pastoral Psychology 53, 2, (2005): 239-253, states within the collective there exists a dialectic of belief-disbelief, trust-distrust and loyalty-disloyalty, hope-hopelessness, as we do our work in defining who we are in the context of community. He says, Hierarchical, comparative estimations oaf worth are inextricably related to the dynamics of faith. ‘Faith,’ Karl Rahner stated, is, ‘an abiding feature of man’s mode of existence as a person’ (Rahner, 1984, p. 496). It is faith, not pride that is constitutive for the very existence and development of selfhood and personhood (Tillich, 1957). Neibuhr (1989) helpfully argued that faith comprises three interrelated, dialectical pairs – belief-disbelief, trust-distrust and loyalty-disloyalty (I would add hope-hopelessness). We come to believe a person, for example because we trust her, and we trust her because she has demonstrated her loyalty to us. Neibuhr recognized that human beings live and interact between the poles of these pairs. That is, no one lives in perfect trust and fidelity, just as no one can live or survive in absolute distrust and betrayal. Yet, given enough trust, fidelity and the social capacity to repair distrust and betrayal, a human being would come to experience him/herself and others as persons.
Roy Barsness, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. His primary interest is in the intersection of psychoanalytic thought and theology. He is particularly interested in how both disciplines address not only personal growth/salvation, but calls forth and assists the person towards the common good.