02 October 2009

The courage to be (the least)

[N.B. I made the coffee a little strong this morning. . .]

26th Week OT (F): Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Rosary Priory, Houston

Is there any threat more frightening to the postmodern American soul than the prospect of losing one's sense of Self? Most of us were born and bred in a cultural stew of individualism, identity politics, self-esteem narcissism, and the unapologetic righteousness of our duty to dissent. There is little anyone can ask a modern American to do that will earn his scorn faster than to ask him to step to the back of the line. We will wait our turn if the service is efficient and quick. But don't dare tell us that our choices are limited or (God forbid!) wrong. And you had better duck and cover if you even think about suggesting that Who We Are or Who We Want To Be is somehow misguided, misunderstood, or just plain immoral. We expect—and usually get—the reassuring affirmations that our Oprahfied, therapeutic culture dictates as the only proper response to every assertion of personal need or self-identification. No claim is too outrageous or demanding that it is not met with rushed approval and demands for accommodation. Sex change surgery for a 12 year old boy? Done. Billions of dollars in pharmaceutical research for a drug to thicken eyelashes? Done. Applause and pardon for an unrepentant “artist” who drugged and raped a 13 year old girl? Done and done. As the center of the universe, the Self defines all it surveys in terms of its own needs. But which Self will be the Real Center? Well, mine, of course. . .for me. And yours for you. With so many competing yet mutually tolerated self-centers, the universe can't help but spin chaotically out of control. Thus, Jesus teaches his disciples, “If you will be the greatest, be the least.”

If the slightly (!) exaggerated cultural portrait painted above is even remotely accurate, Christians living in such a world have a moral duty to our neighbors that requires a great deal of courage. Being among the least in a social marathon that rewards only those with the most is not an easy thing to swallow. A little courage helps all that pride, narcissism, and entitlement slide right on down to be digested in the juices of Christian humility. Paul Tillich, that giant of mid-20th century Protestant existentialist theology, summarizes St. Ambrose's notion of Christian courage: “Courage listens to reason and carries out the intention of the mind. It is the strength of the soul to win victory in ultimate danger. . .Courage gives consolation, patience, and experience and becomes indistinguishable from faith and hope”(8). Tillich rejects this notion of courage because it is not clear how Christian courage is different from faith and hope—both of which depend on the strength of another in a loving relationship. He writes, “Courage is self-affirmation 'in-spite-of,' that is in spite of that which tends to prevent the self from affirming itself” (32). As a response to the anxiety we feel at the prospect of annihilation (non-being), courage is all about affirming our being, our existence and presence. Nothing wrong with affirming one's being. But how easy is it for me to move from “affirming my being” to “I am the center of the universe”? Removing Christian courage from the company of faith and hope leaves us in the strange paradox of being Nihilistic Narcissists!

Given Christ's teaching on humility, what's so humble about Christian courage? Whether we use the word “least” as an adjective or adverb, it is always superlative, meaning that it always indicates the fullest degree in a relationship—little, less, least. “Least” only makes sense in a relationship with other measurable things. If we are to be the most humble, we must be the least prideful, the least self-centered. And to achieve that degree of minimal pride, we need the courage that only faith and hope can provide. Knowing that God is doing the Work and trusting in His providence and fully expecting that His promises will be met—Self steps to the back of the line; resists the temptation to assert prerogative, or to demand an entitlement. Mighty-Self-All-Alone becomes mini-self with everyone else, and, in time and with lots of practice, servant to all.

Christian courage allows us to defy and defeat the danger of believing that to be the greatest we must be the least humble.

Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, 1980.

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