2. Starting with self-understanding



Ted Grimsrud


O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.  O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8: 1, 3-9

            Who are we – we human beings who desire empowerment and spiritual wholeness?  What is our self-disposition?  Are we good?  Are we inherently corrupt?  Do we look to our souls for the answer?  Or must we look outside of ourselves because our hearts are self-deceptive and certainly not trustworthy?

            So much of our spirituality, that which empowers us, stems from how we see ourselves and how we see ourselves in relation to God.  My view of human nature is positive.  I believe that our journey toward God and our journey toward self-awareness and self-acceptance both go pretty much along the same path.  The better we know ourselves, the deeper we look inside, then the better we will know others, and the more clearly we will be seeing God.

            I haven’t always had a positive view of human nature, of who human beings are in relation to God.  One experience, the time I walked the sawdust trail, can help illustrate this.  I was twenty years old and had been a born-again Christian for almost exactly three years.  My spiritual pilgrimage in those three years had been a bit uneven.  I had a hard time with spiritual practices – reading the Bible, prayer, and especially evangelizing.  I have referred to my fiasco at the county fair.  I cold turkey witnessed to people and didn’t even know what to do when one actually showed interest in getting saved.  This wasn’t my only hard time.

            Shortly after I went away to college, I got hooked up with a campus pastor who also pushed me to evangelize.  Once he wanted me to distribute letters to people he was then going to call and witness to.  I was uncomfortable even doing that.  So he called one guy who hadn’t got the letter I was supposed to distribute.  Consequently, that guy didn’t know what the evangelist was talking about.  My pastor got on me pretty hard about that, and I did feel quite ashamed.  Even more I felt bad about my inability to witness to my various new friends at college.  After awhile I felt so bad that I quit going to church.

            One possible antidote for such spiritual ineptitude was to go to summer camp.  So, after my sophomore year in college, still feeling like a spiritual failure, I packed up and went off for a week at camp.  This camp put forth a pretty sophisticated effort to hit the campers hard on an emotional level.  We had five days of evangelistic meetings, Bible studies, prayer groups – plus at least some fun and games.  I did have a good time, but the emotion built up as the week went along. One message as the time drew to a close was that you had better act now before it’s too late.

            One of speakers at camp was a missionary on furlough.  He was less flashy than some, but he was extremely intense.  He spoke of a program for Christian living which was only for people who genuinely, fully wanted to serve the Lord.  His program essentially involved, in his language, totally dying to yourself, giving up your will.  By doing so you would allow yourself to be an unhindering vessel for God’s Spirit to live in you and act through you.  Another way of saying it was that he advocated self-eradication.  The last meeting at camp was the emotional apex – everything came to a head.  The preacher finished his last plea and the kids poured forward, most crying and most sincerely seeking to give themselves to God.  I sought out this missionary.  Through my tears I told him, yes, I wanted genuinely, fully to give myself to God.

            He prayed with me and I did feel a major release.  I did feel that my days of being a spiritual failure were over.  I believe now, as I look back, that one of the main elements of that experience was dislike of human nature.  This self-eradication was actually a disrespect of the self.  It led to a view of oneself as bad, as shameful, as needing to quit being who you are.  You needed to create a new identity as a super-spiritual, holy kind of being.  It was an escape from reality.  My spiritual high was in actuality closely tied with intense self-alienation.

            As it turned out, the high didn’t last.  After I returned to my normal life of spiritual “impotence,” I suffered through several more months of shame at my renewed failure.  I drifted for at least six more months before I started in a different direction – one of trusting my motivations and interests more.  I began to find life in intellectual growth and in a community not so focused on so-called “spiritual achievement.”  My shame at my failure served to deepen me some, I think.  In time, it helped me to see problems with such hostility toward human nature.

            In line with this memory, I strongly believe that how we see ourselves as human beings is crucial for our spirituality.  Our self-awareness, our self-disposition serve as our starting point.

            Psalm eight stands as one of the key texts for our understanding of the biblical view of humanness.  This text makes strong affirmations.  Human beings are significant.  God has created us as good.  God loves us.  Human beings are worthwhile – even important – as who we are, in our humanness.  God has crowned human beings “with glory and honor” (v. 5).

            The key problem for our self-understanding as human beings is that of too negative a view of humanness.  As we overcome this too negative a view, affirming ourselves as who we are, tendencies toward self-centeredness and pride will fade away.  Self-centeredness and pride generally stem from insecurity and fear that arise from self-alienation.  As we more accurately see and affirm ourselves for who we are, we will naturally open up to community (connecting with other people) and to worship (connecting with God).

            For a healthy spirituality, a spirituality of who we are, we start with hearing the affirmation of the Psalmist.  We are, in our humanness, significant.  Humanness is good.  This affirmation goes counter to much of popular Christianity.  It certainly goes counter to the forces that played on my emotions and pulled me down the sawdust trail when I was twenty.

            This affirmation goes counter to much of the emphasis in Christianity dating back at least to Augustine, the great theologian of the fifth century.  That emphasis views human beings as irrevocably tainted by “original sin.”  In practice, in the popular mind, this taint has meant that human beings, in their very humanness, are bad, shameful, needing total transformation from outside.  Some people may be worse than others.  However, the self-identity of nearly all Christians has been this: something is significantly wrong with me.  My identity is not so much as a good creation of God but as a sinner.  Human beings do not find spirituality in deeper self-awareness, but in self-denial – as I’ve been saying, self-eradication.

            Of course, the past several hundred years have seen much reaction against traditional Christianity.  Some of this reaction has been a needed corrective to such hostility to humanness.  However, much of this reaction, by the twentieth century has ultimately led to even more hostility toward humanness.  We see this in much modern literature, movies, visual art, and even in science.  The great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, in his book Who Is Man?, speaks of how modern thinkers are hostile toward humanness.

            Humankind “is being excessively denounced and condemned by artists, philosophers, and theologians.  [Humankind] is beastly,” they say.  “The only difference between [human beings] and the other beasts is that [human beings] are beasts who know they will die.  The only honest [person] is the unabashed egotist.  This honest person pours contempt upon the mendacity, the lies, the hypocrisy of others who will not acknowledge their egotism.  [In much modern literature] the one irreducible value is life, which you must cling to as you can and use for the pursuit of pleasure and of power.  The specific ends of life are sex and money.  The great passions are lust and rapacity.  So the human comedy is [seen to be] an outrageous medley of lechery, alcoholism, blasphemy, greed, brutality, hatred, obscenity.  It is not a tragedy because it has not the dignity of a tragedy.  The [person] who plays [one’s] role in it has on [oneself] the marks of a total depravity.  And as for the ultimate and irreducible value, life, that in the end is also a lie.’ ”

            In the light of such a negative view, humankind “has very few friends in the world, certainly very few in the contemporary literature about [humankind].  The Lord in heaven may prove to be [people’s] last friend on earth.”[1]

            To some degree, then, both traditional Christianity and contemporary secularism agree in their low view of humanness.  Heschel argues, and I agree from my own experience, that a low view of humanness is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  “A theory of [humanness] shapes and affects its subject.  Statements about [human beings] magnetize the inner space of [human beings].  We not only describe the ‘nature’ of [humanness], we fashion it.  We become what we think of ourselves.”[2]  We become what we think of ourselves.

            One of my teachers in Berkeley, a philosopher named Hubert Dreyfus, provided an example of this dynamic.  He harshly criticizes attempts to use computers to replace human thinking, so-called “artificial intelligence.”  The more we accept artificial intelligence, the more we reduce human thinking to mere technology, the more human beings become like machines.  Such a reduction, Dreyfus fears, will lead to a loss of much of which makes us human.  This will include losing the role social life, emotions, intuition, and the like play in genuine human intelligence.[3]

            Largely in response to the increasing soul-lessness of modern notions of humanness, we find what’s been called a renaissance in spirituality.  I fear, though, that this spirituality may not adequately address the problem.  To some extent, I see such spirituality attempting to find something from outside to meet our needs.  If we’re looking for the solution from the outside, we still are not trusting ourselves.  We still, I’m afraid, are operating with a negative view of our humanness.  We are not trustworthy.  We need someone or something else to fill the hole.  This spirituality may include wide interest in mythologies from other cultures and other times.  It may include attraction to old traditions from other places such as Eastern Orthodoxy and the desert fathers.

            I don’t mean to say that such interest might not be helpful.  I do fear, though, that these strategies tend for many of us to be adding on something external to our lives, to who we really are.  Rather than looking at our own lives and our own traditions and practices – we look elsewhere.  I fear that partly we look elsewhere because we fear that we don’t have the resources ourselves.  We fear that we simply aren’t good enough to access power for spiritual life as we are.  Partly in response to these concerns, I want to develop a spirituality that affirms who we are.

            Another response to the negative view of humanness pervading our culture has come from “pop-psychology.”  This is the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach – “looking out for number one,” “first-person singular.”  A common, pejorative term for this type of emphasis is “narcissism,” an earnest attempt to focus on ourselves, to convince ourselves that we actually are alright.  However, such efforts often consist of little more than repeating slogans.  They are often desperate attempts to persuade ourselves that we are significant when we overwhelmingly fear that we are not.

            A cartoon from a few years ago captures this dynamic.  A dumpy looking middle aged man lays on a beach blanket by himself.  He has arranged a group of white stones to write the word YES, followed by an exclamation mark.  Then he has an arrow pointing to himself.  The caption reads:  “Glenn uses healing stones to elevate his self-image.”

            Such self-preoccupation, striving to convince ourselves of our significance, usually belies our deep-seated feelings of insignificance.  Thomas Moore, in his book Care of the Soul, writes “narcissism is a condition in which a person does not love oneself.  This failure in love comes through as its opposite because the person tries so hard to find self-acceptance.  We know instinctively that one who talks about oneself all the time must not have a very strong sense of self.”[4]

            Moore argues that the best response to such self-preoccupation is not condemnation and heaping more shame on ourselves for such a failure.  The best response is to listen and learn.  We tend toward narcissism when we are experiencing self-alienation – and our wider culture, inside the church and out, contributes to such an experience.  Narcissism is born out of pain, our soul crying for healing.  We don’t know ourselves.  We don’t love who we are.  Healing starts with self-awareness and self-affirmation.

            I find this book by Moore, Care of the Soul, quite helpful as a resource here.  He offers sound advice regarding narcissism.  Self-preoccupation might well be a signal.  Maybe part of the reason we are so negative about narcissism is that it brings to the surface something we genuinely need.  However, we don’t want to admit it.  We do need to love ourselves, but for various reasons we have internalized an aversion to voicing such a need.  Our moralism tells us we are wrong to be selfish.  We might look bad if others see us as self-centered.

            Maybe, though, when we are focusing on what we perceive as selfish needs our “soul” (to use Moore’s term) is crying out for attention.  So narcissism can be a warning that we need to tend to matters of the soul.  “Soul,” in this context, has to do with the depth of our being.

            Self-preoccupation, then, even when extreme and defensive and fearful, as with narcissism, tells us our soul needs attention.  We might find such self-preoccupation repulsive – perhaps due to our moralism, our idealism about who we should be.  Such repulsion itself should serve as a warning.  If we are repulsed by the cries of our soul, perhaps we are still operating in a self-eradication mode.  Perhaps hostility toward humanness still influences us.

            In this regard, I have found some discussions in my denomination, the Mennonite church, intriguing.  A major cuss-word in recent years has been “individualism.”  It comes up often, for example, in our denominational magazine, the Mennonite.  We read of individualism as the bane of Mennonite community, the reason for the disintegration of our tradition.  Now, individualism certainly is problematic.  So is the kind of narcissism I just mentioned.  Maybe, though, individualism among Mennonites is a cry from the Mennonite soul.  Maybe we can see a soul-need here.  The soul-need would be the need of Mennonites to be individuals, to be personal selves, to be people needing to establish their own separate identity as part of freely functioning in healthy communities.  However, many find such a message repulsive.  I fear that such repulsion could signal anti-humanness.

            Recently at a Mennonite seminary, we learned to know a pretty sharp young woman who impressed us as quite self-confident and talented.  So I felt surprised when someone else told me of a conversation with this woman.  After the other person expressed a strong personal preference, the woman commented that until very recently she had no idea what it meant to do that herself.  She said that she had never known it was okay to have strong personal preferences, much less make them known to others.  She had grown up as a Mennonite and feels that her experience was pretty common.  She thinks Mennonites, especially Mennonite women, are socialized simply to ignore personal feelings.  Maybe souls living with such repression can’t help but cry out.

            Thomas Moore proposes that we listen to such cries.  We best not rigidly deny these cries, even when they might be expressing some hard ideas.  Perhaps they are narcissistic.  Perhaps they are individualistic.  Nonetheless, they reflect a soul that needs better to learn to love itself, in fully appropriate ways.

            A soul that finds love in healthy ways will not be self-preoccupied.  It will not be isolated, proud, hardened to the needs and desires of others.  The route to learning to love others genuinely must include learning to love oneself.  The route to learning to trust others genuinely must include learning to trust oneself.  The route to learning to listen to others genuinely must include learning to listen to oneself.

            As we listen to ourselves, we will discover variety within ourselves that we do well to live with flexibly.  Moore concludes, “we know our habits, our weaknesses, our strengths, our quirks.  Looking at them with interest and love does not have to be narcissistic.  In fact, an awareness of the qualities of soul may help transform narcissism into genuine love of self.”[5]

            I believe genuine love of self means that we find a basic awareness of and trust in who we are.  What this actually means, is a basic awareness of and trust in who God has created us to be.  This, of course, follows from a basic awareness of and trust in who God is.

            So we are back to the affirmations of Psalm 8, one of the key texts providing a biblical understanding of humanness.  This text makes a powerful claim for the significance of the human.  Human beings are created by God.  We are created to live with a sense of meaning, caring for all creation, living in mutual love and respect with each other, and freely worshiping God.

            Such an affirmation is a firm foundation for a healthy spirituality.  It tells us, using more traditional language, that we may – that we must – boldly approach God, just as we are.  That is, we may, we must, fearlessly seek truth about who we are, about what reality is, about who God is.  We may trust that such seeking will lead us to discover that we are beings of great beauty and power.  Spirituality has to do with cultivating this power so we may know and love our own soul, our own self.  In doing so we will find ourselves knowing and loving God and God’s other creatures.

[1]Abraham Heschel,  Who Is Man?  (Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1965), 26-27.

[2]Heschel,  Who Is Man?, 7.

[3]See Hubert Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993) and Hubert Dreyfus and Stuart Dreyfus, Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuitive Expertise in the Era of the Computer (New York: Free Press, 1986).

[4]Moore, Care of the Soul, 71.

[5]Moore, Care of the Soul,  74.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s