Pride has traditionally been disparaged by Christianity as not only a vice but as the chief vice. Christianity has gone so far as to recommend humility as one of the highest virtues for a human being. The theological reasons for this begin with the way that traditional Christianity understands human beings primarily relationally, as in an essentially inferior position with respect to God which is interpreted as having profound and far reaching implications for our self-understanding. This relationship essentially deprives us of all the credit and praise that might accrue to us as potentially both morally and otherwise powerful and impressive beings. In the following I will explore the logic of power and value that traditional Christianity ties to the idea of an omnipotent self-centered being in order to ruin the concepts of pride, free will, and humility.
In traditional Christian understandings, God is the source of all being and we, as mere beings, are utterly and completely dependent on God for everything we are and can be. On the Christian logic of power, complete dependence entails complete servitude as only proper. If a being is wholly responsible for another’s very existence, both in terms of its creation and its sustained being, and can obliterate that dependent’s existence at whim, then, on the traditional Christian logic of power, the dependent being has no rights whatsoever against the more powerful being; no rights to self-assertion, no rights to take credit for anything which it does (but curiously all rights to blame!), and no meaning or purpose to its existence but to glorify and slave on behalf of the greater being.
On the traditional Christian view of human nature, this supposed fact that we are contingent beings completely dependent upon a personal, supreme, unstoppable power’s creative and destructive whims, is the most important thing about us. Our particular powers are only praiseworthy insofar as they are gifts of the divine. You cannot praise us for our powers but must praise the divine source for them. And these powers themselves are only estimable insofar as they reflect the divine’s own nature (usually only in some cryptically specified sense).
But even though all of our powers are all God’s handiwork and presumably should lead to his praise rather than ours, at least we have supposedly have a free will. And a free will, by Augustine’s definition, needs both the possibility to do good and to do evil without decisive external influence. If a will cannot opt both for good and for evil without something else determining its choice, then it is not a free will. And wherever and insofar as something else conditions a choice, the will in that case is not free. This would, at first, seem to introduce the possibility of things we can do that can be to our credit. If God gave us a free will and by its very nature it is something that only we, and not He, can control, then at least those good actions which come from this will must be creditable to us and matters of personal merit for us, right? Well, no.
Traditional Christianity sees God as the sort of omnipotent creator/sustainer/obliterator who created utterly dependent beings to worship him, equipped them with free will presumably so that they could worship genuinely rather than only from the coercion of his determination–and then promptly stripped them of even their actual powers of free will to do good the first time they used their free wills to choose to disobey him. And, bafflingly, he allegedly punished them for this before giving them the knowledge to know the difference before good and evil so that they could even know that disobeying him was actually evil.
He gave them the ability to make choices without giving them the knowledge of good and evil, decided (arbitrarily) that disobeying him was evil, and then when they chose to disobey him, he cursed them by taking away their ability to choose to avoid sinning. According to the doctrine of Original Sin, He completely rigged the game. He gave them a will for choices without the component that discerned good from evil, used their arbitrarily defined “evil” action as grounds to punish them, and cursed and shamed some of them in perpetuity and others only until He unveiled a way to “save“ them which involved re-enslaving them.
So even in creating a being with the excellence of free will, this God did not create a genuine possibility for the being to attain to a merit free from those that only reflected on Him himself. He rather gave them the free will for choices, waited for a disobedient one that was ignorant of the evils of disobedience, used the infraction of his arbitrarily specified law as the technical grounds for cursing them and punishing not only them but all of their children so that their children are born with cursed wills that cannot but sin.
We are born, on St. Augustine’s overwhelmingly influential interpretation, incapable of not sinning. The curse of Original Sin is allegedly that our free wills cannot actually choose good or evil equally but are ruined by a depraved nature, cursed to us by God for an infraction of our first parents who did not even understand good from evil. And this depraved nature forces us into sins for which we are rightly tormented eternally according to God’s (wholly arbitrary, cruel, and unfair) law. And all of this seems to be done so that God could take credit even for the good works of our wills by then “regenerating” some of us so that by his grace alone we can do good deeds.
Our free wills which might have been sources of merit to us, which might have been the place where we could genuinely choose good or genuinely choose bad without any external influence determining our choice and which could have thus been the real source of credit (or blame) for us ourselves, are instead turned into either slaves of a cursed nature or into the puppets of a self-aggrandizing divinity that turns our wills towards glorifying Him for himself, calls this the highest moral action we can commit and gives Himself the credit for doing it for us through our own wills by His “grace“.
So in this situation, not only are we to defer all the credit for our powers, excellences, and achievements to God (since they are all ultimately due to his agency), but we must also credit all of our righteousness to Him since our damaged natures are helplessly wicked under His curse and can only do good when by his grace he twists our wills towards the right. Of course it is puzzling how we could be blamed for sins committed through cursed wills which are born incapable of not sinning. This requires that we be judged on the objective wrongness of our actions regardless of whether or not we had any ability whatsoever to do otherwise.
In light of this stupefying, unfair conception of credit and blame and the rights of the powerful over their dependents, we can see the Christian basis for denigrating pride and promoting humility. The only proud being who may rightly, and unrestrainedly does, take glory and honor and power for Himself is the divine source of all reality who created all of us for the satisfaction of His own narcissism. He created us to show off His power, to love us as the products of His power, and to soak in our praise of His power. And to make sure we are completely dependent even morally, He gave us a free will in name only, let us inevitably fail, used this as an excuse to shame and abuse us, warp us with a nature that harms ourselves and gives Him excuse (on His crazy laws) to torture us forever if He wants or to turn us into eternally grateful and groveling servants if He wants.And then for the most morbidly hilarious insult of all, He decides to incarnate Himself as a human being, assure for Himself that He does not have either Adam and Eve’s ignorance of good and evil or their progeny’s curse of Original Sin and then, with the aid of his divinely perfect powers and His uniquely uncursed human nature (which He refuses to give the rest of us) He lives a perfect life. And then He wants everyone the world over to know about and praise for its excellence and expects us to admire that life as a model and feel inferior for failing even to approximate its example–even though he so rigged our own natures against us so that we could never have equaled the model ourselves even if we had tried! Give me both divine powers and an uncursed human nature and let’s see if I cannot be as righteous as Jesus! (Actually, given the accounts of Jesus we have, I am not impressed that he was actually all that great a human being anyway, but I’m just keeping with the logic of the Christian tradition here.) And then we are to be amazed and eternally grateful when this showboat suffers a dramatic, over the top, bloody several hours of tortuous death so that He can hold it over all of our heads for eternity that he sacrificed so much for us pathetic sinners and earn himself the passive aggressively shamed love of humanity for eternity.
It is all rather staggeringly narcissistic of this divine being when you think about it. Every road in creation leads to our denigration and His glorification. He seeks to take credit for all our powers, to hobble us in some of them and then to take on an unhobbled form and embarrass us by outdoing us at our own nature. He seeks to make us into nothing but eternal slaves and grovellers.
And so, consistent with this story, traditional Christianity trains us as hard as it can to take no pride in ourselves, in our accomplishments, or in our righteousness, but instead to be as utterly humbled (read: humiliated) as possible. The one who is least in power and in assertiveness is the least threatening to the divine tyrant and the most praised by Him. The foolish are preferred to the wise, the weak to the strong, and those who reject their reason for blind trust in Him over those who demand reasons for beliefs. All our powers and possibilities were created so that we can renounce them before God. The greater the powers, the greater the renunciation, and, presumably the greater propped up feeling of superiority in the insecure divine ego. And simultaneously the greater the powers, the greater credit that goes all to God wherever they are exercised. All that really matters is that in all things we get no credit and no praise and have no self-assertion.
As should be crystal clear by now I find this all to be a false, cruel, harmful, arbitrary, and wicked thing to teach people about their own natures and their relationship to the source of their being–whatever it really is. I think it relies on awful conceptions of morality, value, power, rights, dessert, love, flourishing, excellence, and justice.
In two other posts, I provide a better account of pride and humility for those who reject this anti-human one as not only factually wrong but pernicious. They are Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects and The Harmony Of Humility And Pride.
If you enjoy reading my philosophical blog posts, consider taking one of my online philosophy classes! I earned my PhD and taught 93 university classes before I went into business for myself. My online classes involve live, interactive class discussions with me and your fellow students held over videoconference (using Google Hangout, which downloads in just seconds). Classes involve personalized attention to your own ideas and questions. Course content winds up tailored to your interests as lively and rigorous class discussions determine where exactly we go. Classes are flexible enough to meet the needs of both beginners and students with existing philosophical background
My classes require no outside reading or homework or grades–only a once weekly 2.5 hour commitment that fits the schedules of busy people. My classes are university quality but I can offer no university credit whatsoever. New classes start up every month and you can join existing groups of students if you want. Click on the classes that interest you below and find the course descriptions, up-to-date schedules, and self-registration. 1-on-1 classes can be arranged by appointment if you write me at email@example.com.