Thursday, 10 December 2009
Critique of Christianity part II: Demonization of Pride
To begin with, then.
Christian ideology has an underlying dialectical organization, one most explicitly revealed in the opposition of heaven versus hell. The fate that is assumed for the human soul is dual: you are either saved or not saved. There is no inbetween (purgatory is not mentioned in the Gospels and was only introduced at a later date, and anyway it’s only a suspension or transition between the two poles, not an alternative; incidentally the vast architecture of heaven and hell was conceptualised mostly in later periods as Roman and especially medieval imaginations were allowed to run rampant, but the foundations for the notion of heaven and hell are pretty obvious in the Gospel). The dualism which is assumed in such a cosmological organization reflects itself, in Christianity, in its representation of spiritual virtue. In other words, it establishes the opposition humility versus pride, then assigns all good to humility and all evil to pride.
This is my first note of dissent with Christianity. I simply cannot commit myself to such an absolute point of view – more specifically, I cannot identify the sentiment of pride with evil. I have spent a few words on the virtues of humility, but I don’t think these virtues are enough to make of pride an ‘evil’ or ‘unvirtuous’ sentiment. The fact that munificence has some virtues (generosity, anti-materialism), for example, doesn’t mean that parsimony is inherently evil (unless we flip the question through semantics – instead of saying ‘parsimonious’ we say ‘miserly,’ thus inserting the condemnation already in the choice of words. But this is untenable because it can instantly be reverted; what prevents me from changing ‘munificent’ to ‘lavish’ and turning the entire ethical principle on its head?).
Pride can be a source of evil council inasmuch as it can lead us to refuse what’s good (for us, for others) only as a way of preserving the integrity of its sentiment. God gives us salvation and love, but we are too proud to accept it – this is the classical view of damnation, and this is why it is by our own fault rather than God’s that we plunge into hell. And indeed it is wrong to be so proud, and in such a way.
But this view of pride is limited. Much like there is a negative side to pride, one which goes hand in hand with the negative self-deprecation and inertia that results from excessive/formal humility, so there is a different side to pride – one which reminds us of who we are and what the worth of our dignity is. Consider the following three situations.
a.) A guy really likes a girl and makes out with her one night, then a few days later she makes out with another bloke when they are out together. She then feels like perhaps she has wronged him and she re-approaches, offering friendship and warmth. The guy remains civil but he does not respond to her approaches anymore and from then on is cold with her whenever they cross. (The sexes can be swapped – I’ve known it to happen both ways).
b.) Here is a joke, abbreviated: a group of cannibals renowned for killing people and using their skins to build canoes capture an innocent way-wanderer. They tell him they’ll kill him, but they grant that they’ll satisfy any last wish he has, be it sex with a dozen women or a shot of the cleanest heroine ever or the greatest banquet in the world. He simply asks for a fork: when they bring it to him he starts stabbing himself with it, telling them as he dies, ‘You’re not going to make a canoe out of me.’
c.) In World War II, a Russian soldier whose entire family has been slaughtered by the Nazis is fighting in the battle of Leningrad. He is wounded by a grenade and falls in the hands of a group of Nazi soldiers. These soldiers appear to have no problem with the idea that their prisoner might recover, so they don’t keep their medication away from his access. But the Russian refuses to use their medication when they offer it to him and he dies of blood-loss instead.
These three situations all describe instantiations of pride; they all describe a case in which someone is offered something good, yet refuses it because of pride. The guy refuses the love of the girl he fancies, the wanderer refuses the indulgence of pleasures that is being offered to him in exchange for a painful death, and the soldier refuses medication. Pride leads us to hurting ourselves with no good coming out for anyone.
Yet all of these little stories contain a message. The boy is telling the girl, ‘I’m not going to be your toy; you cannot use me, throw me away and then pick me up again as you please.’ The wanderer, by putting his self-damage above his pleasure, asserts the barbarism of using a human body as building material for a canoe. And the soldier asserts the evil of the family-murdering Nazis by refusing their right to offer what is good.
The first story in particular gives an example of the necessity for pride in the human spirit. If the boy had no pride, what prevents him from becoming the object and toy of any girl he becomes infatuated with? This is why the expression ‘Have you no pride?’ is usually employed as a reproach. It recognizes the importance of pride in asserting oneself and preventing other people from stepping all over us. In Christianity, all forms of pride are demonized. Pride is the first of the capital sins and the sin par excellence of Lucifer (admittedly here I’m steering towards later sources than the Gospels, but the traditions have become so engrained in Christian ideology that I feel it’s legitimate to cite them as well; anyway they’re not in contradiction with anything in the original text and they’re quite concordant with teachings in the Old Testament). By taking away the evil inherent in pride, you end up taking away the good as well (much like Dawkins does with religion itself). A man who takes no pride in his work does not do that work well. A man who takes no pride in his culture will not stand up to defend it.
Above it all, a spark of pride asserts one’s agency in whatever the situation. Much like the boy declares by his act of refusal that he is not an object to be played with, and demonstrates this by his own decision to select a trying solitude over pleasing company, so the self-defeating act that we identify with pride is at the core of all free will. Lucifer assumed infinite pride, and first declared free will by demonstration. He assumed an infinite punishment for this. The repression of pride by Christianity then makes sense in the light of an hierarchical system of heaven (it is, after all, called the kingdom of heaven). Something like Christianity could not have sustained itself across the ages if it offered to its subordinates the possibility of independent action that is also ethical; that is to say, the possibility of a sentiment that originates from the self without being attached to or stemming from the kingdom of God, yet is still ethical and legitimate and dignified and right. This is exactly what a feeling of pride represents – the sense that we have a right to exercise our will and that no-one from the outside, however powerful, however mighty, can tell us ‘your feelings are wrong.’ For obvious reasons such a sentiment is not compatible with the concept of a God, and for this Christianity must reject it, painting it as the ultimate evil.
One of the reasons why this is not sustainable is that it fails to acknowledge that being a Christian means, primarily, assuming Christ as a choice, in other words, by an act of free will. There is an element of ‘rejecting the good’ in this choice too, since Christians choose poverty, asceticism, persecution and offering the other cheek over all the possible pleasures of the world, but this is kind of invalidated by the fact that greater good is later promised in heaven. At all events, in rejecting the human element of pride, Christianity unwarily blasts the seed that is at the core of its own promised salvation.
This is why the human spirit cannot be understood in dialectical terms (much less absolute ones), at least not from a moral point of view. Christianity not only contradicts itself by disowning the foundation of pride necessary for the free will which it invokes, it also denies the greatness of the human spirit by failing to account for its inherent ambiguity – its capacity, its necessity to contain and utilise both pride and humility, alternating elements of both in our walk of maturation.
A cursory look at the history of our literature better exemplifies this ambiguity. There’s poems which preach humility and call it the way towards wisdom (Eliot off the top of my head). There’s others which refuse to be humble, assert pride and also speak of its necessity (Baudelaire and Rimbaud, though somewhat erratically). So if two points of view are in contradiction, which one is right? The answer is – both of them, because they speak about different things (the possibility of several contradictory statements all being true simultaneously is important and I shall come back to it). Pride is what we need to face up to the outside world; if someone wishes to use you, your pride will keep you from being used, however seducing his / her offers may be. Humility is what we need to deal with our inner world; by understanding our own limits, we learn how much (or how little) we really deserve, and that measure becomes the wisdom by which we are humble to others and treat them with at least as much respect as we wish to be treated ourselves.
Christianity does not recognise this duality in the human spirit and does not forgive the pride I put in all the things I do. As such, it does not respect a true aspect of my self and my experience, and for this reason I cannot abide to its doctrine.