Why our Christianity is founded on the toxic myth of selflessness (and why it doesn’t have to be)
The attempt to construct a selfless self is doomed to catastrophic failure. What we need is not selflessness, but a self well grounded. The people that think of as truly selfless are so well grounded in themselves that they can be fully receptive and attentive to others.
This is a lesson that I have been developing the need to learn since my religious awakening the summer I turned fourteen. Now, twenty-eight years later, I am only beginning to learn it. The best way that I can describe my dominate mode of being during those years is “hovercraft spirituality”. This is the conviction, conscious or unconscious, that in order to be what I am supposed to be, what I am expected to be, what I expect myself to be, it is necessary to maintain a constant “air pressure”: to keep the fan running and the air bladders full, or I will sink. You could also call it “hot air balloon spirituality”, but that doesn’t capture how exhausting the endeavor really is, unless you imagine that the only way to keep the balloon full of hot air is by constant hyperventilation, by huffing and puffing as if we would “blow the house down”, except that what we are really doing is attempting to keep the whole bouncy castle up.
Another phrase for this effort keeps coming to my mind, and I had to look it up: “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” It’s embarrassing to admit that I never made it to Macbeth. Apparently, the phrase derives from tightening a crossbow. And it turns out that the context in the play is instructive. Lady Macbeth is trying to get her husband to be what he is not: the king of Scotland. It is the effort to be what we are not that requires this constant, unbearable tightening, this unrelenting tension. We have to constantly hype ourselves up to a level at which we cannot rest, because it is above ourselves.
This is the ever-present, deadly temptation of religion, especially religion that takes pride in not being religious. It is all too easy for Christians, myself included, to equate “religion” with “works righteousness”, or a supposed Pharisaical adherence to outward forms or human rules, and suppose that we are way too enlightened to fall into that. No, I am talking specifically about the constant pressure to “live by faith”, “put on Christ”, “walk by the spirit”, even to “rest in Christ”, in other words, the exhausting search for ease within the “gospel of grace”.
What’s wrong? Why is rest so elusive? Why doesn’t the gospel work? For myself, I am coming to believe that at the heart of our Christian worldview is a toxic assumption about our selfhood that dooms the whole endeavor to failure. It is the assumption that self is evil and has to be gotten rid of, that we are only living “in Christ” when we are living somehow above or outside of our selves. This, of course, is the hot air balloon concept. What we are trying to avoid, by desperately “resting in Christ”, is crashing back to the ground–the only ground that can support our beings.
I am convinced that as long as our life is characterized by this constant tightening, this effort to winch ourselves up into performance mode (even, or perhaps especially if that performance is Christian “selflessness” or “love”) it is only a matter of time before the spectacular collapse. And the more successful we are at it, and the longer we are successful at it, the more spectacular and devastating that inevitable crash becomes.
This is now what I see when I hear about enormously successful Christian ministers who are suddenly exposed for having an affair, embezzling money, or some other personal scandal. Yes, it is hubris that leads to these falls, but it is not necessarily a hubris to which we can safely give a monstrous, foreign shape, dissociating it from ourselves. As long as you constantly have to keep the fan running, and the air bladders full, it is no wonder that you turn out to be “puffed up”. I keep thinking of that fine phrase from Colossians 1, eike physioumenos, “emptily inflated”. What else can you be when you have to maintain a hot air balloon flight above yourself?
The more that I understand about how I have lived that way, how it has raised my blood pressure and made me surly and ungenerous to the people who matter most to me, the more I have compassion for the Christian minister who has hurt me the most, my own mother-in-law. It would be nice if I could keep her out of it, but, whether I like it or not, she is the shape of the condemning voice that hovers in my consciousness, applying the screws. The current sporting phrase would be that she lives rent-free in my head. It’s not fair to her, of course, to assume that the shade that haunts me represents who she is as a person. But as I try to reclaim a healthy sense of self, I have found it impossible not to deal with the way she treated me, and how it has affected me.
What has made the effort to sort through my toxic relationship to her so difficult is how effectively she persuaded me that she was the victim of everything I perceived her as doing to me. Until recently, it was an intractable riddle to me how someone whose whole message is about “walking in the Spirit” and “walking in love” could so emotionally abuse and manipulate those around her, while convincing her victims that everything they complained about was wholly and solely a “projection” of what they themselves were doing to her. It made me feel insane. Now, apparently, there is a trendy word, “gaslighting”, for this phenomenon. I had never heard of the word until recently, when her own twin sister used it to describe the same treatment (from the same person).
My description may make her sound like a monster. But that is the problem. If I call her a monster, in the same act I apply the label to myself, for I am too much like her. She is an all-consuming, ravenous personality, dominating every room that she enters. She is what the faddish language of the moment styles a “narcissist”. Yet, I am coming to believe that she puts such unrelenting pressure on the people around her because of the unrelenting pressure she feels obligated to place upon herself–and this is what swings me toward compassion, because this is what I have done to myself (even before she entered the picture), and I, too, have placed the same impossible burdens on the people closest to me.
It is dangerous and potentially unfair to psychoanalyze someone at a distance, especially someone from whom you are intentionally maintaining a distance. With the full understanding that I could be completely and utterly wrong in what I am saying, I hope that I am only trying to understand so that I am more able to forgive. I suspect, from her testimony, that her religious conversion, her traumatic and lasting experience of “death to self”, took place under a theology, notably that of Watchman Nee, that perpetuates the destructive myth of the need to “break the self”.
In saying this, I am not dismissing the experiences that she has had with God’s love, the ability she gained to show love to at least two of her children, or the undoubtedly long list of people she has genuinely helped through her ministry (and I think I can even include myself and my family in that category). I certainly have potential bias in viewing her alienation of her adopted daughter (my wife), along with the alienation of many other members of her family, as evidence of cracks in the foundation, of a spectacular failure that is perhaps still masked by her apparent continued success in the ministry. How else can I account for what feels like a tragic discrepancy between her public persona, and the way that many people (like me) have actually experienced her?
The crucial thing is that I do not believe that there is deliberate hypocrisy in her. Ironically, her whole ministry is built on her supposed great discernment between the “flesh” and the “spirit”, between people’s “true self” and “false personality”. I venture to say that in almost any gathering, she would claim, and fiercely claim, to be the most “real” person in the room. Yet I think that playing a part is inevitably necessary if you believe that your constant task is to “stay above” self, to keep it “dead” and “crucified”. She would not characterize things that way–she believes that she is long past the stage of needing to continually “go to the cross”. She went through all that a long time ago. Yet her constant need to talk about how hard her life is gives evidence of the “cross” she continues to impose upon herself. I cannot doubt that she genuinely experiences her life as hard. She has destroyed her health for the cause, and she works, if not constantly, then at least consistently, putting out a great deal of real mental, emotional, and spiritual effort. Yes, her need to remind everyone of her hardships, and of how easy others have it compared to her (or perhaps because of her) is consistent with a narcissistic personality. But where does it all come from? I’m guilty of much the same thing myself. It is hard–this life of self-denial. If we choose it, I’m not sure how we can avoid setting up the same harsh standard for everyone around us. It is inevitable. We crucify ourselves–and everyone around us.
It is no coincidence that it was the consuming fire of her passion that first attracted me to her twenty-two years ago, that made me long to call her “mother”. I admire her singleness, her devotion. All my life I have sought the same. Only slowly have I been instructed in the terrible dangers of this passion in the ungrounded self. There is nothing more admirable, in my estimation, than this burning desire to live “wholly for God”. And yet it seems to me now that there is nothing that more inevitably goes astray.
I refuse to accept that the answer is to drop belief in God, as if it were his fault. Isn’t better if we can calm down for long enough to take a deep breath, think about the state of our selves, and reflect on how we can stop abusing them? Maybe then we will be able to stop abusing other people in God’s name, that is, in the name of the Absolute to which we have devoted ourselves. There is nothing wrong with absolute devotion. I even think that it is part of our path to wholeness. But it cannot be a constant effort to “crucify self”, which seems to lead us, primarily, only to crucify everyone else.
I don’t even believe that the answer is to abandon the cross as a meaningless or harmful symbol. Let it stand as a reminder of what, in the impotent rage of our failed self-construction, we are capable of doing to an innocent person. If you must wear it around your neck, wear it as an albatross. There should be blood dripping down onto your shirt, for there is certainly blood on our hands–the blood of all the “nonbelievers” and “deceived people” whom we have mistreated, not in complete ignorance, and not (usually) in calculated malice, but in our fate to treat others the way we treat ourselves.
See, the hard thing is that the moral law really does remain. It really does matter how I treat my wife, my children, my students–and not just now and then, but every moment of every day. My relationships place constant demands on me, which I either meet with outflowing love, or by a tragic, unfair, and destructive lack of generosity. It matters. It’s understandable that we get into “performance mode”, that we see our constant failures as evidence that self is evil.
Is the message just that we need to be kind to ourselves? How is that “Christian”–and does it matter whether or not it is? I have no use for something too simplistic to be liberating–but is it that far from the truth? This is what I am just beginning to learn. I could almost call it learning to relax. I can almost feel the deflating of the airbags, the easing of the pressure, the immeasurable sense of relief–and falling. I think it was that sense of vertigo that kept me from ever truly resting for long. How unshakable was my conviction that I had to be “on”, that I had to rise to meet the next occasion!
Now, I am determined that I am going to let myself fall until I hit the ground, and then I am going to stay on the ground. More than anything, I have been helped by Kierkegaard’s formula for a life free of despair: “in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” It is still remarkable to me that Kierkegaard, the thoroughgoing Lutheran, the social misfit, the complete failure at human relationships, could have reached such a penetratingly healthful analysis of self. It gives me hope for humanity–and gives me hope that Christianity is in fact consistent with a healthy view of self.
Perhaps comically, up until very recently I believed that the “transparent grounding” of self in its Source that Kierkegaard was speaking of was only attainable by the constant effort of devotion. Thus it affected me as another “hovercraft” narrative. But this is all wrong. God is the ground of our being in the tremendous sense envisioned by the greatest medieval Christian mystics, such as Jan van Ruysbroeck. His being grounds mine without my effort. In contemporary language, it would be easy to say simply that he accepts me unconditionally for who I am. That still sounds a little too much like “pop psychology” to me. Yet it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what I do–it is the recognition that I will never be able to consistently treat other people well unless I simply allow myself to be loved and received. I don’t have to try to be who I am not. If this is an abandonment of Christianity, then the sooner we abandon it, the better! It is certainly understandable if you feel like you have to abandon your Christianity to get healthy–it almost seems like the whole Christian worldview is founded on the assumption that we cannot dare to be ourselves, that the self is inherently evil.
But there is no obvious reason to me why this should be something essential to Christianity. Yes, I think there are a lot of things that you potentially have be ready to throw out in order to rid your faith of this curse. The belief that we are saved because “Jesus took our place” in suffering the effects of God’s righteous anger, the belief that the Scriptures are necessarily without error and a complete and authoritative guide to all truth–these are only a couple. But these are things that I jettisoned long ago, and their loss has not made my faith in God (or in Jesus, for that matter) less precious to me. Another faddish term I’ve been exposed to recently is “deconstruction”, or “deconstruction journey”. Mine started, interestingly, just before I met my future mother-in-law and her family, when I encountered the sermons of George MacDonald.
The encouraging thing I’ve found, in the twenty-two years since, is that, when you deconstruct, you eventually hit the ground, and that ground is stable. It’s taken a long time for the change to reach the core of my selfhood, and how I handle it. The process is certainly not done yet. But I’m feeling the dust around my toes. I am envisioning the possibility of permanently abandoning the hovercraft. I’m daring to challenge the gripping fear that if I let down my guard, I will lapse into all kinds of unforgivable sin. I might even become a nicer person someday–one who doesn’t feel the need to crucify their loved ones as they crucify themselves.