The Age of Rampant Pride
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.
These words are timeless, and have a singular relevance to our own day, when it is not just the kings of the earth, the rulers, who counsel against the Lord and his Christ, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart, and cast their cords from us.” Times were bad enough when the kings of the earth pursued this occupation: today this pride is the avocation of the rank-and-file, the spiritual vocation embraced by John Q. Public.
Pride has always been present as an adversary to our well-being, but sociologists say that each generation is more “narcissistic” than the last: each generation is more deeply enmeshed in pride. When I was growing up I was urged on all fronts to have a healthy self-esteem; I was to feel I was special. Both these things would alarm the Church Fathers; speaking of “a healthy self-esteem” is like speaking of an alcoholic having “a healthy insatiable thirst for for eighty proof hard liquor.” The next generation after me is the generation that has to have its birthdays and other celebrations be a cut apart from the “ordinary”: the old formula of inviting a child’s friends and friend’s parents, ensuring a plentiful supply of sugary food, and hanging out for a couple of hours just doesn’t cut it. There has to be some special stamp imprinted on it, like a little girl having hours of costume and makeup to dress up as a fairy. To be adequate, a celebration need not merely be a cut above the old formula; it should ideally be a cut above the other “special” celebrations.
Pride has been called “the flaw of Narcissus,” and it is astonishing how well pride is represented and portrayed in the story. Before the end of the story, Narcissus was haughty, even scorning those who adored him—it is the character of pride, not only to view oneself highly, but to scorn others. (And it is the nature of humility, not only to view oneself modestly, but to genuinely admire and respect others.) But the central feature of the story is how Narcissus meets his end: even though no other person assaulted him, he was doomed as soon as he saw his own reflection in the water and stared in rapt fascination at his own beauty, until he pined away to nothing. He died because not even his bodily needs could take his attention from his entranced admiration of his own beauty. (“Narcissus” etymologically comes from “narke”, meaning sleep or drug-like drowsiness, and Narcissus might as well have been on drugs.) If you want a glimpse into the soul of Narcissism, read the myth of Narcissus.
Pick it up by the heart and it is called narcissism, pride, or self-esteem; pick it up by the head and it is called subjectivism. Subjectivism is insisting on believing what you want to believe, even when you know, or used to know, that it’s wrong. The increasing standard of narcissism in people’s lives is matched by an increasing standard of subjectivism at the university, an issue argued by the scholar who wrote C. S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme. Here “problem of evil” does not refer to theodicy, but subjectivism. Subjectivism says, “I will believe what I want to believe,” and far enough into it, subjectivism says, “I am right and God is wrong.” At a low dose, subjectivism is called “wishful thinking;” at a high enough dose it is called blasphemy. And subjectism comes from pride and builds up pride.
Pride Unfurls and Unfolds
The poison of pride unfurls in many ways.
Where does “gay pride” fit into this? As a full-fledged member of pride unfurling, and as the wrong medicine. There is a lot of queer pain and suffering, and the idea that being queer is something to take pride in is to seek medication for this. It may be the wrong approach, but just as enough alcohol will seem to solve any problem for the short term, gay pride promises to medicate pain.
And the term is well chosen. It may not call itself subjectivism, but transgendered surgery is an effort to set right what God got wrong. Now gay pride may not on the surface claim to be pride; it may be on every conscious level an effort to come to terms with reality and celebrate who you really are. But pride cannot deliver that; only repentance and humility can make such a delivery. Only repentance and humility can make good on the promise. Narcissism in general is counterfeit coin: the classic Narcissism: Denial of the True Self could well enough have been written about gay pride. I have known one person who faced strong homosexual temptations who was at home with himself and truly happy; he came to terms with who he was, and he did it as ex-gay.
But if you think, “I’m straight; I don’t have to face that issue,” you are wrong. There are many ways we drink the same poison; LGBTQ’s are just honest enough to correctly name their salve as “pride.”
Gnosticism is another theatre for this to play out in. Some years back, a few lone voices warned that the heresy of Gnosticism was coming back. Now you have to be pretty obtuse to deny a resurgence of Gnosticism; you can say if you want that contemporary attempts to resurrect the heresy are creating another beast altogether, but it is rather provocative to deny that recent years have seen a substantial interest in Gnosticism.
At one level of insight, one may enumerate various ideas and claims found in Gnosticism. At the next level, one may notice that Gnosticism is not a stable system of ideas; it is a process that moves from one point to another, and to study it as a historical phenomenon is to force it into something it isn’t, just as a study of untreated cancer across history would be mistaken, grossly mistaken, to find historical vogues, trends, and patterns in how tumors have grown in different ages in history. But there is one more level of insight worth mentioning.
Gnosticism, at its core, is not powered by a framework of ideas (for that matter, neither is Orthodoxy, even if her ideas are more stable). It offers a good news of escape that hinges on a mood of despair, and Gnostic esoterica are a kind of spiritual pornography, almost, that slakes the thirst of someone thirsting for an escape from despair. And there is bad news and good news for people pursuing such projects. The bad news is that escape is not possible beyond a shimmer that leaves one thirsting; the good news is announced,
Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
The bad news is that escape is not possible. The good news is that escape is not needed, and in the story of St. Photini, the woman at the well, she tried to enlist his help in fleeing from her shame and her pain, and he pulled her through her shame, helping her face what she was trying to flee, and left her running without shame through the whole city, “He told me all that I ever did.”
The despair that builds a thirst for Gnosticism and escape appears in times of plenty; it can also occur in times of economic collapse and loss. But the final assessment applies to both: escape is not possible. But escape is not needed.
And what does this have to do with pride? As much as the spiritual honesty of humility helps open one’s eyes to the beauty of others and the world (“in humility count others better than yourselves“), pride bears blindness and leaves one seeing a despicable world from which one can only wish escape. Hubris is called blinding arrogance, and it alike blinds you from your weaknesses and blinds you to what is delightful and good in the world around you. Walk far enough along the path of Narcissus, and like him you will find yourself despising those who adore you.
And I would like to comment in particular on “in humility count others better than yourselves.” This is bitter medicine and an insult to our pride. I don’t like it personally, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a person who can read those words and not squirm. I’m not near that spiritual maturity, but for all that I recognize and confess that this is not only Scripture, but that it specifically is a gateway to joy.
“How?”, you may ask: “How on earth?” The answer is almost in the text. If you are proud like Narcissus, you will despise others. And if you despise people, it is awfully hard to enjoy their company. But if, “in humiliy,” you “cosnsider other people better than yourself,” you will learn respect for others who are made in the image of God, and you will enjoy the company of the worst of sinners. Conflicts may happen, but if we follow the supreme humility of one whose (almost) dying words were a prayer for his murderers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Is there humility beyond seeing the good, and seeking the good, for the people who are trying to kill you?)
Let’s look at a light, seemingly innocuous form of subjectivism: wishful thinking. I wrote of one specific kind of wishful thinking:
We have a lot of ways of wishing that God had placed us someplace else, someplace different. One of the most interesting books I’ve glanced through, but not read, was covered in pink rosy foliage, and said that it was dealing with the #1 cause of unhappiness in women’s relationships. And that #1 cause was a surprise: romantic fantasies. The point was that dreaming up a romantic fantasy and then trying to make it real is a recipe, not for fulfillment, but for heartbreaking disappointment in circumstances where you could be truly happy. (When you have your heart set on a fantasy of just how the perfect man will fulfill all your desires and transform your world, no real man can seem anything but a disappointing shadow next to your fantasy.)
And I’ve done worse, with wishing I was in the world of Arthurian legends, and I was somehow a knight with the Holy Grail. i even wrote a novel out of that silliness. At least a happy romance and marriage is a natural enough wish; the Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail are not. And this list of two kinds of wishful thinking leaves a lot out. In Exotic golden ages and restoring harmony with nature: Anatomy of a Passion, the passage above continues,
This is not just a point about fantasies in romance. It is also a point that has something to do with technological wonders, secret societies, fascination with the paranormal, Star Trek, World of Warcraft, television, Dungeons and Dragons, sacramental shopping, SecondLife, conspiracy theories, smartphones, daydreams, Halloween, Harry Potter, Wicked, Wicca, The Golden Compass, special effects movies, alienated feminism, radical conservativism, Utopian dreams, political plans to transform the world, and every other way that we tell God, “Sorry, what you have given me is not good enough”—or what is much the same, wish God had given us something quite different.
And on a banal level, wishful thinking is a way to waste more time at work. for programmers, when you write something and it doesn’t work, it is not the right thing to try again and hope it will fix itself; the right thing to do is investigate what is wrong and fix it. And I was half-shocked when I paid attention to the time and energy I wasted wishfully trying something out again in the wishful hope it would magically fix itself.
Money and Technology
Dostoevsky, in a quote in The Brothers Karamazov that I can’t immediately trace, makes the point that money is something that people will think is good because it reduces their dependence on their neighbors. And while Alyosha indeed acknowledges that more money means less dependence, he sees this as a bad thing: perhaps it is God’s design for people to be dependent on their neighbors and not on sums of money. And this skepticism towards how good money really is is straight from the Bible. To pick one of innumerable quotes, let me cite the most politically incorrect sermon in history:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Sandwiched between words about money are words about the health of one’s spiritual eye, which is darkened if it is greedy or stingy. If, perhaps, it is proud, with such pride as would substitute dependence on money for dependence on one’s neighbor.
And whatever cautions the Bible makes about money apply fourfold to our technological labyrinth. The Bible has warnings about alcohol when the strongest drink you could get was at 4% alcohol: weaker than most beer. Today we live in a world when if you have access to alcohol you can probably buy hard liquor at 40% alcohol: a strong enough drink that it is drunk with special little shot glasses that are too small to drink anything one would drink to slake thirst. And it’s not just alcoholic beverages that are on steroids. There’s something about smartphones that is in the same key.
One of the rules at alcohol, whether at 4% or 40%, is that it needs to be used in a discipline of moderation, with restraint. The wrong use is precisely to lay the reins on the horse’s neck and just go with the flow. And smartphones, like the matrix of technologies we live in, need to be used with a discipline of restraint and not lay the reins on the horse’s neck.
Once in a while we get a clue that texting and driving is as dangerous as drinking and driving, but we have not as a society put much more restraint than that. One may occasionally read in a newspaper that texting is eating away at teen’s sleep because the stream of new texts doesn’t shut off at bedtime, but the idea that texting, for instance, should be used in a disciplined way, does not dawn on us as a whole.
It is pride that seeks independence from one’s neighbor, and it is pride that seeks independence from one’s surroundings by means of technology. Back in the days of Walkmans, a friend’s grandmother commented that running with a Walkman is a way of disdainfully detaching yourself from attentiveness to your surroundings: an old tape-eating Walkman was a way to carry your own reality with you. And carrying one’s own reality with oneself is in the service of pride, and not a good thing.
I once thought of writing “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” and describing how to use technology appropriately. In a word it would have been:
Use technologies in ways that arise from and support spiritual discipline, and do not use technologies in ways that arise from and support pride and other vices, including taking you to an alternate private world.
I stopped my attempt to write it because I was not writing anything particularly good, but I would love to see it written, if only as that summary above.
Someone said that the difference between good and bad literature is that bad literature is used to escape reality, while good literature is used to engage reality. I’ve said that television is a pack of cigarettes for the mind, but television can be used to check weather and traffic, which is not at all turning on the television and entering a state where your body burns fewer calories than when sleeping. But it’s not just television. I had originally intended to revise Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” into Plato: The Allegory of the Television, but I ended with a title of Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? In both cases Plato’s lesson is applied twice to bad use of technology in which the user is twice imprisoned and far from contemplation of God. And so much of the value proposition of special effects movies, smartphones, role playing games, video games, and the like is escape. Reality isn’t good enough, not for the likes of us. We’re tripping over the same root again, the root called “pride.”
And that’s not all.
More could perhaps be said. What has been said about pride and despairing escapism, or pride and Gnosticism, or pride and technology, might as well be said about magic as an attempt to escape reality and enter another reality, however subtle the means. I haven’t talked about spellbound fascination with one’s own inner world. (The inner world is real, and it contains Heaven and Hell, but you’re selling yourself short if you think it’s just a place for “Me! Me! Me!” This is much for the same reason one priest says he doesn’t like hearing people talking about “my life:” his answer is that there is only one life, meaning God’s Life, and either you’re in it or you’re not.) I have not touched the dizzying abyss of postmodernism as spiritual
drunkenness adventure, or a curious attitude towards sex that sees children as its liability and places its goodness in entirely the wrong place. On that last score, see the discussion in The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. But perhaps this is enough meditation on evil.
Is there anything good to be learned? Yes indeed, the humility that opens our eyes to the beauty of God and Creation. St. John of the Latter asked where humility came from, and wrote only:
Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal her parent’s name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene: “Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God as your possesssion. To Whom be glory forever.”
But if pride has served as an opening point, let us close with humility. One picture of humility is illuminated in Tales From a Magic Monastery:
The Crystal Globe
I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.
“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”
“Yes,” I said.
He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”
But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made me a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of that beauty would be a joy forever.
But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly into my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew that it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and to be silent?
This is holy humility. This is what it means to see the image of God in others. This is what it means to “in humility count others better than yourself.”
Let us make this our goal.