by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
Recently, Father Kimel posted a meditation on the connection between proper love of self and theosis. These thoughts were inspired by some of Father Herbert McCabe’s practical cogitations on living the Christian life. Some readers, however, wondered if it were wise to make self-love a strong prerequisite for advancement in holiness. Isn’t charity precisely a forgetting of self? Surely, there is something selfless in agape that ought to caution one against an easy advocacy for self-love. Still, I think it is a mistake to equate the need for love of self as a symptom of pathology and to therefore see a “selfless” outward-directed love where “perhaps a love of self isn’t necessary for that to happen” as the optimum state of being. Here, I would warn against reading patristic texts through an unreconstructed modern lens. For example, there are typical warnings in early Christian teaching against carnality and the passions. If one reads these counsels as a kind of moralism, one will inevitably interpret them as positing a divide between the spirit and the body. A poet like Hawthorne was struck by the tension and despair built into Puritan spirituality, where the artist, nature, and erotic love were placed under suspicion and ultimately censured from sanctified living. When one follows out this logic, one implicitly accepts a theology in which fallen nature is not wounded, but corrupt beyond repair, and in which grace is plastered over a perduring cesspool like Luther’s snow-covered dunghills. The self then becomes the repository of intractable egotism, something that cannot be loved, but must be repudiated or “declared innocent” whilst remaining metaphysically ruinous. I think this is an inherently destructive mode of understanding. The person is constituted as a desire for the Good. One cannot annul desire without annihilating the self. This is much closer in the West to Schopenhaur’s compassionate despair, which many others have rightly compared to some forms of Buddhist spirituality.
However, all this is wrongly discerned. To go back to a distinction of William Desmond’s that I often make, one should distinguish between the passio essendi (our being as fundamentally gifted prior to our choices, actions, and determinations) and the conatus essendi (the result of all our striving efforts). There is no doubt, as the insightful work of James E Loder has emphasized in The Logic of the Spirit, that the normal formation of identity is fraught with a sense of life’s precarious uncertainty. The nothing from which we are called is experienced as a threat to our being, the solicitude of parental beings is understood to be perhaps capricious and certainly subject to vicissitudes and dangerous fate. Hence, the ego is a frail, vulnerable construction liable to find itself more or less delusional, more or less a mask for forces both powerful and often monstrous, always incomplete, imperfect, vain, weak, and dying. Yet that is far from the last word on the self.
Another distinction that has become common is to recognize a difference between the modern individual and the person. The individual is posited by modern political philosophers from Hobbes to Locke. The state of nature is said to be a war of all against all. The social contract is understood to be a “mythic” founding in which human society accepts a limitation on individual liberty for the sake of safety and general benefit. In this case, the relation to the other is always secondary and a matter of prudential expediency. There are epistemological commitments that usually accompany individualism. Empiricism, nominalism, and voluntarism often sympathetically coexist. The “truth” of the other becomes one of representation where an isolated idea that is sustained by the isolated individual is said to correspond more or less to an extrinsic reality that is “out there.” Cause is understood as extrinsic force; relations are mediated forms of force, otherness is alien to the self and something one must protect oneself against since it is “always already” a potential threat. The highest good is conceived as radical self-sufficiency in which one no longer “needs” the other, where the freedom of the other is neutralized, or the other is absorbed into the self so that otherness is rendered nugatory. All this is to recapitulate the modern thing. Those forms of Christianity that think of the self and of its relations in these terms—even if a different language is used that veils an implicit metaphysics—are incompatible with the authentic witness of the Gospel.
Here is a different narrative: The person is not a static thing. The person is always an event. The person is open to infinite dramatic possibilities. Insofar as the person becomes utterly repetitious, predictable, shallow, closed-off, unloving, and riven by fear, one is confronted with a distorted, wounded condition that is the opposite of genuine personhood. The person is both a gift and a calling. Personhood is from the beginning, but the flourishing of personhood requires eternity, requires a resurrected body no longer narrowed by the restrictions of fallen time. Yet human personhood must begin in time. The human person is first called into personal being by the loving smile of the mother—indeed, all of nature requires the nurturing sympathy and initial call of maternal love. Persons do not begin in striving, but in wondrous receptivity. Whatever accidents or cruelties of perverse malice that later come and put in question the goodness of existence, primal development will not happen without the womb, without a nesting and a love that welcomes the newborn into existence. A feral child, bereft of human community, will not acquire proper language, will not be capable of initiating or sustaining truly human relations. The person, in short, is intrinsically and fundamentally a relational being. Relations are not “added on” to an initially separate “atomized self.” The whole modern conception is built on a failure of understanding or upon a lie.
Yet this is only an analogy of being. Analogy points towards a reality that outdistances our conceptual comprehension and our imaginative reach. Nonetheless, we are creatures “made for revelation.” We are the face of nature given lips to kiss the divine. Before the conatus essendi, there is the passio essendi. Before the call of the mother, there is the call of the Father. The call of the Father is for the Son—and all of creation participates in the Logos. The logoi of creation find their root in this eternal event. This is why the true name of everything is Christological. This is also why the person transcends the limits of egological construction. The uniqueness of the person, the singularity of an irreplaceable being—and I personally extend this to all being, the beasts, the plants, the granules of sand, though the realization of singularity finds its optimal expression in spiritual being—this “self” is simply the loving will of the Father that the other should be. To refuse to love this self is an act of arrogant ingratitude. It is only in acceptance of the gift of personhood that one is metaphysically capable of love.
And here many other conceptions open up. I can only touch on them in a cursory fashion now. What one finds, to return to our initial allusion to patristic warnings against the flesh and the passions, is a very subtle irony. In reality, it is Christianity which has the highest respect for nature and for incarnation. It is Christianity that recognizes that the zenith of spiritual life is enfleshed. The warning is not out of hatred or contempt for nature or the body. The warning is out of reverence and delight, out of radical wonder before a good so precious and mysterious, that utmost care produces zealous “anxiety.” For it is only by attending to the spiritual root, the invisible source of gift, that the meaning of the sensible world is made transparent. The modern, empirical mode—the subjectification of secondary qualities after Galileo and the scientific penchant for mathesis—superficially attends to nature, but this nature is unreal. The world as we know it is a shadow realm without inherent dignity, worth, or meaning. We then desperately attempt to project meaning upon a neutral thing that cannot be loved, that has no beauty to surprise us, no deep otherness to enrich us with wondrous, dramatic gift. In short, the warnings make sense if one sees them as directed against false selvings, but only in that context.
Finally, one should always recollect that the archetype for personhood is Trinitarian. The mysterious God who is love shows us what love is and what it means to be a person. We are offered a mirror for contemplation where the Father’s love for his Son inspires the Son’s limitless desire that the Father’s loving intent be realized for the cosmos in its entirety. Note: God is not satisfied unless every last sheep is made part of the loving joy of the kingdom. In light of the Gospel, the nothing is revealed not as ultimate threat and presage of doom, but as the “enabling condition” that allows for creaturely being. Nothing is transformed from threat as the ego almost inevitably must feel it into a realization that it is ingredient, “sign” of Love’s freedom from necessity, of the creature’s being beloved not for any merit, but purely out of radical, unconditional, faithful, everlasting giving. But even further, Love paradoxically gives to the nothing an irreplaceable, unique goodness. It is this goodness that is each singular participation in the Divine Name. When we are struck by beauty, this is what brings forth the wound of love. There is an “eros” of “agape” that passionately desires the creatures who, participating in their being, knowingly or by instinct, in the life of the Son, desire the Source, seek the face of the Father. And the Father, as we know from the greatest parable, longingly searches for the lost ones. It is the Spirit’s kenosis to be hiddenly present, even now, as the world appears wounded by tragedy, violence, loneliness, malice, and vulgar imbecility. It is the Spirit that is working, in whimsy and boldness, secretly, and sometimes in glimpses of radiant light, to bring us all into the victory of Christ’s resurrected flesh.