Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Faith and Self Love

In a post over at thehardestquestion, Carol Howard Merritt recently pitched out a really solid reflection on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.   The essence of her reflection revolves around the contrast between Spirit and Flesh that the Apostle Paul glances off of in this section, but develops more fully elsewhere.  She then uses that to reflect on the toxic approach our culture takes towards the flesh, particularly the flesh of women who look at themselves and find that they are not the airbrushed perfection they're told they're supposed to be.   It's open, honest and thought provoking, as her writing tends to be.

In response to a comment I left, Carol said:

"How do you understand/explain the nuances between loving oneself and self-seeking?"

This had the unfortunate effect of sending me off into a conceptual cascade that was waaay to long for a comment, which I'm going to subject you to here.   Just warnin' ya.  There's still time to escape.

Honestly, when I went a-parsing down that road, I found myself mightily struggling with the idea of "loving myself."

Love, as I understand it both conceptually and from the ground of my faith, is relational.  It's something that exists between selves.  In it's highest form, it bridges the chasm of existential separation that divides us, as in it we share in the joys and sorrows of the beloved.  Not to mention it being both the Most Excellent Way and the essential nature of God.

But when I look to the heart of Christian faith, to the Great Commandment, self-love is hard to find.  Love of God?  Check.  Love of Neighbor.  Check.  But of self?  Hmmm.  It's the measure of how you love your's not much else there.

Meaningfully saying "I love myself" requires a fragmentation of being, a separation of self from self.  You can only love yourself if you are not at one with yourself.  This is the odd actuality of our existence as sentient and self-aware creatures.  In self-awareness, the self reflects on itself, and is aware of itself as a being relative to other beings.  There is, in self-awareness, the capacity to look at who you are and be either pleased or horrified.   It's an essential characteristic of being human.

I'd insert a Sarah Palin joke here, but my self awareness tells me that wouldn't be gracious.

Oh.  Oops.

But unlike loving others unconditionally, loving yourself unconditionally often results in sociopathic unpleasantness.   That's Narcissus in a nutshell, forever poring over his beauty and the wonder that is him, trapped in a recursive feedback loop of self-regard.  It's true for self-hate, too.  Dark Narcissus can sit by that bleak pool, forever lamenting his thin lipped pimply visage and his stammering incompetence at all things.   That form of self-seeking-self-love is a closed circle prison, harming not just an individual but also those around them.

For self-love to be transforming and liberating, it needs to be both rational and ecstatic.   The rational part springs from our self-awareness as a thinking being.  Presbyterians do this great.  Ecstasy, though, comes harder for us.  The term "ecstasy" means essentially to "stand outside" of oneself.   Love does this.  And the love of God that is the first element of the great commandment does this best.  Pouring all your heart and all your mind and all your soul into the Love from which we all spring is the highest form of human ecstasy.

This love, as I see it, is also a form of love of self.  That's not to say that we are God.  Not at all.  Do I look like Feuerbach?   Yeah, ok, maybe a little, but I don't think like him theologically.

Rather, this comes from the rather theologically basic statement that God knows us completely, and that God knows what we would be were we fully conformed to God's grace.  It is that self that is worthy of love.  That's not a love of the self you know.  Not the love of the self whose value is defined by your sociocultural context.  But a love of the self God sees, a self transformed as you empty yourself into God, and the love of God fills you and transforms you and heals and completes you.  George MacDonald, C.S. Lewises master, described this as your "True Name," your identity as you would be were you perfected.  As, in the knowledge of my Creator, I already am. 

That is the self that I am not.  And as I love God, that is the self that I love, unconditionally. 

That, as I still struggle my way through it, is the difference.