Humility, Democracy, and Finding Jesus … Irritating
Let’s start with a good definition of humility, shall we? It’s not despising yourself. It doesn’t consist of tall men insisting they’re short. Nor gorgeous women claiming they’re ugly. Or even smart folks asserting their own hidden stupidity. That’s radio static and distraction. And for many of us it serves to discredit the virtue of Humility in advance.
In my own criminally under-rated book (you see?), The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, I offer a better definition. One that aims at the Golden Mean between two evil distortions. Humility is honesty about yourself, your sins, your gifts, and their sources. The good things come from God, the sins from you. And that’s it.
The Funhouse Mirrors of Sin
But our personal Screwtapes goad us to prefer distortions, funhouse mirrors that tell us we’re vastly better than we are. (That’s the deadly sin of Vainglory.) Or that we’re far worse, and probably hopeless. (That’s the deadly neurosis of Scrupulosity.)
The opposite vice of a deadly sin is just as deadly. That’s a point that Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas insisted on, but most of us have forgotten. Someone who conquers thunderous Wrath by zipping straight past Patience into cringing Servility? He’s no better off than when he started. He’s of no use to anyone.
In fact, most of the weirdness, dysfunction, and self-defeating behavior in Christian subcultures are easy to diagnose. They’re what you get when you embrace the opposite vice of every deadly sin at once. When you look at the natural power God gave you to use in a virtue, and decide that it’s just too dangerous. So you choke it to death, then stumble through life like a zombie.
All that is true. And I’ve written thousands of words rebuking the Scrupulosity that squats on Humility’s throne.
My Secret Vice, Revealed
But now it’s time for me to fess up, as well. I’ve suffered for many decades from a secret, undiagnosed vice. It’s not a small one, nor a rare one. In fact, I think I know exactly how I developed it, because it’s a widespread “default” stance that most modern Westerners soak in from the culture. One that’s inadvertently encouraged by well-meaning religious rhetoric and imagery over the centuries.
I’d like to credit The Stream’s Tom Gilson with waking me up to this. Not in some fervent “accountability” meeting or some such thing, but via his great new book. Or upcoming book, I should say, since it launches August 1. The title? Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality. (You can subscribe for updates on the book’s release here — and get an immediate free preview chapter.)
Make sure to read it. I’m glad I did. Here’s what I said in my cover blurb: “Tom Gilson’s book made me think about the Bible in fresh new ways – and helped me to answer certain nagging difficulties I’ve always had that made me read it LESS than I should.”
Now let me explain that. Gilson’s book analyzes the human character of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels. He shows why Jesus stands out as absolutely unique, among all historical figures. And he diagnoses our struggles in coming to terms with Christ. I found this enormously helpful for one simple reason.
I’d always found Jesus obnoxious.
When Popular Religion Backfires
Religious teachers told me I should “make friends” with Jesus, and remember that He was fully human as well as divine. Reading His words in the Gospels, I didn’t want to be His friend. I found Him bossy, enigmatic, and often confusing. I couldn’t understand why the apostles followed Him, nor blame the Pharisees for walking away when He insulted them. It took a wise Jesuit, Fr. John Hardon, to teach me that Christ had the power to read people’s hearts. So He knew which Pharisees were really hypocrites — He wasn’t just lashing out. That helped.
Of course, I’d keep reminding myself, “But He was also God, so who are you to question?” And then I’d do the logical thing, and stop reading altogether. That’s why I can quote chapter and verse as well as any evangelical — except that I’m citing The Silmarillion (Old Testament) and The Lord of the Rings (New Testament). Even Gandalf and Aragorn struck me as far more approachable than “gentle Jesus.”
When I read St. Augustine’s Confessions, I found his tone … annoying. Must he constantly apologize for every last bad decision? Must he address his audience (God Himself, in this unusual memoir-written-as-prayer) in a way that struck me (God help me!) as so … cringing and servile? Does God really want us squeaking up at him as we wriggle in the muck?
Likewise in prayer, I’ve found myself addressing God much the way Abraham did when they haggled over the future fate of Sodom. It verges on … negotiation, albeit from a position of considerable weakness.
From Awe-Full to Awesome!
How did I end up this way? Am I the only Christian who struggles with this? I don’t think so. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton reminds us that the Jesus of stained glass windows, inspirational biblical prints, and popular culture is much … softer-edged than the Christ of the Gospels.
A fascinating scholarly work I read long ago, God or Christ?, looks at that distortion in depth. The author, Jean Milet, examines the awe-full Otherness of God as revealed to the Jews. Then he moves on to medieval pictures (both graphic and literary) of the Cosmic Christ, solemnly judging the world at the end of time. Even Renaissance humanist paintings portray Jesus as imbued with an otherworldly, unattainable perfection.
Milet theorizes that the rise of Calvinism and Jansenism (Calvinism in Catholic vestments) drove many Christians to despair. They saw Christ as impossibly distant, implacable and inscrutable. So the Catholic Church (and later, many Protestants) sought to soften His image a bit. They switched their depictions of Jesus (both written and pictorial) to emphasize His humanity, gentleness, and tenderness. The Pantocrator judging the world at the end of time gave way to the Good Shepherd. Paintings of Christ got feminized, to the point where in some He appears to sport mascara.
Jesus Our President
And that’s the picture of Christ which my religion teachers, even the orthodox ones, always purveyed. The heretics, of course, denounced all talk of His “kingship.” I remember one saying: “As democratic Americans, of course, we can’t accept that. Maybe we should think of Jesus as our president.”
American culture plays a role here too. Alexis de Tocqueville warned, in Democracy in America, that our national obsession with equality could go to dangerous lengths. Having said to George III, in bullets, “No King but Jesus!,” we might keep going in that direction, till we said, “No kings at all!”
The brilliant apologetics writer Denise McAllister wrote recently on Twitter: “We are slaves of Jesus.” If your gut reaction to that is to angrily wonder where you can join the Abolitionists … you might just be a modern Westerner too.
What I like about Gilson’s book is that he doesn’t try to gloss over or explain away the unsettling aspects of Jesus’ personality. No long explanations here about “cultural differences” or “the rhetoric of the time.” Instead he emphasizes the fact of Christ’s utter uniqueness.
No, He shouldn’t seem like any other religious founder, just better. Or like any other leader, but braver. Or like one of our friends, but much more … sinless. Instead, the phenomenon of God incarnate is absolutely unprecedented. It ought to shock and disturb us, haunt us and challenge us. And that’s precisely why the person of Jesus has eluded all the critics, explicators, and theologians over the centuries. He’s too big for our minds to ken, which is why He must capture our hearts. It’s for us not to fight Him off.