An exercise in arrogance

An exercise in arrogance September 15, 2010

This post is one in a series about Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series.  I am using the books as a frame for talking about what kind of religion I might feel comfortable in.  Check out all posts on this topic at the series index.

The adventures of Nita and Kit in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series have a fierce urgency.  No matter whether they are called on to save a planet or to save a single person, they always have a duty and a purpose they gladly serve.  As is the case in most YA books, every character, even side characters, prove to be indispensable.  I wished to able to follow the example of Duane’s characters and be able to bring my talents, whatever they were, to bear in epic struggles.

Unfortunately, Christianity has practically the opposite message for me: the complete insignificance of my own efforts contrasted with the power of God.  I have a hard time stomaching Christian ideas of humility and irresistible grace (the idea we cannot earn salvation or be in any way deserving of forgiveness).

C.S. Lewis’s excellent book The Great Divorce is well known for its diverse portraits of sinners who reject God’s offer of grace, and I’m pretty sure I know which one I match.  I most closely resemble the theologian from early in the book.  As a scholar, he claims to be willing to enter Heaven, but he has some stipulations:

“I am perfectly ready to consider it.  Of course I should require some assurances… I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness–and scope for the talents that God has given me…”

“No,” said the other.  “I can promise you none of those things.  No sphere of usefulness; you are not needed there at all.  No scope for your talents; only forgiveness for having perverted them.”

Obviously, my discomfort with this idea is not a disproof, but I do find it extremely off-putting.  If I believed Christianity were true, I would have to accustom myself to this kind of humility, and I suspect I would find it extremely difficult to do.

I am a person who likes to be of use.  I like solving problems, not merely for the sake of a puzzle (though I do love that aspect), but also so I can perform a service for my friends and others.  I like to be able to think I am necessary, that I managed to help my friends more than I burdened them.

Ultimately, I can’t imagine a god looking at the wretched creatures described by Lewis and other apologists with love instead of simple pity.

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  • Oddly the point you make in the last three paragraphs are exactly what the christians keep telling us. The you need monumental humility, and that you can't understand the depths of god's love/mercy!

  • of the most difficult prayers I've encountered. You may find his explanation helpful?I think, essentially, that while one can never "earn" salvation, one is still called to be "of use" here on earth, and to use their virtues and strengths for the glorification of God, which takes many forms. The point is not to deny one's virtues but to acknowledge whence they came. I think you're falling into a trap lots of young smart people fall into (myself included!), which is too much reading and pushing of things to logical extremes and not enough simple understanding through lived experience. The Desert Fathers contradict each other ALL THE TIME; this doesn't mean Christianity is incoherent, or that the Fathers were stupid. I think the desire to totalize and essentialize everything is rather modern. And now for one of my favorite crypto-fideist quotes: "Thou, simple, ignorant, and humble Russia, stay faithful to the plain, naive gospel wherein eternal life is found, and not the phrase-mongering Aristotle or the obscurity of pagan sciences. Why set up Latin and Polish schools? We have not had them up to now and that has not kept us from being saved!" – Ivan Vyshensky

  • B. R. Lind

    I would point out that the _Young Wizards_ series takes place on Earth, while the C.S. Lewis scene takes place at the gates of Heaven; naturally the demand for human services is much greater down here than it is in the Kingdom of Heaven. I suppose this goes back to the question (addressed a while back in your blog) of what Heaven is or should be.As Trystan Bloom points out, Christianity, like most religions, does call upon its practitioners to solve problems and help others. Judaism calls it "tikkun olam" – repairing the world. Humans are considered "partners in creation" with God and the stewards of Earth (Jewish environmental activists use this language a lot).And yet, let's face it – if there really is a god who created heaven and earth out of the void, our own powers are pretty damn insignificant compared to his.Humility is very important to me, but I'm not sure if my concept of "humility" is anything like the Christian one (probably not, seeing as I don't believe in God). To me, humility just means believing that I am not more important or more worthy of living than anyone else. It is like the "cynicism fast" described on the "Finding God in 5 Easy Steps" page you linked to earlier; it's the lesson of "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." It means striving to be compassionate and forgiving, because I can't possibly know everything about other people's journeys and how they came to be who they are now.

  • I'm reminded of what Lewis says in Mere Christianity: “The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object”.I don't want to be part of a system that requires me to feel this way about myself.

  • I've really been posting all over … I really do admire the blog, so please don't take offense.I'm discerning a vocation at the moment, and so I've only recently been introduced to a basic point of discernment. In yourself, consider whether you are motivated by a prohibition from fear or whether you are motivated by an inner peace. Inner peace — not in the Eastern sense, as you know — is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and this guides us to where we should be at the moment. If a man is motivated to join the priesthood out of the fear of the responsibility of being responsible for children or the fear of being betrayed and alone, then this is a false vocation. Another principle: On a journey from point A to point Z, God rarely gives us more than one step at a time. Don't expect a full explanation when, honestly, you wouldn't know what to do with a full explanation.If you are inoculated against believing in God, this is a moot point.

  • R.C.


    This is an extremely belated response. And your own personal understanding of some of these things has already changed radically, Leah.

    But for the benefit of others, I thought I’d add the following:

    When Lewis said that, in the presence of God, one would see oneself as a “small, dirty object” or not at all, he was correct given one set of circumstances, but that is not the whole truth.

    And on a related note, Leah, you might want to be useful and this kind of mortification of pride might seem like an impossible hurdle, but, again, acknowledging one’s uselessness is not the whole truth.

    Remember how God is both classical and romantic: He creates hierarchies in everything, and then glories in upsetting them: Nine choirs of superintellectual immortal angels, and then he has those angels be judged by men and elevates a rustic girl from Palestine, probably with a harsh northern accent, to Gebireh-Queenship over them all (but, then, “lots of planets have a north”).

    Remember that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Remember that “he who loses his life will save it.”

    The point is that, as Lewis points out in “Beyond Personality” (the last part of Mere Christianity) you can never become a full person until you have given up worrying about your personhood and personality; you cannot be humble by constantly focusing on the question “am I being humble?”; you cannot be useful to your neighbors by constantly worrying about whether you’re being useful to your neighbors. Unless a seed go into the ground it cannot sprout; unless you die you cannot be raised to eternal life.

    To put it differently: A person is designed to immortality from the get-go; but somehow our race failed at stepping up at that final stage of evolution and fell back to the previous stage of being mortal beings. We are supposed to be, according to one sense of the word, “gods”: Perhaps something rather like Dr. Manhattan in (the graphic novel version of) The Watchmen, except with more warmth and empathy. (And there are similarities to the resurrected Christ, the “firstborn of many brethren,” now that I come to think of it.)

    So the goal or end-point is not to be a “small dirty thing” by any means.

    But there are errors which are inevitable in attempting to keep the glorious endpoint in mind and try to pursue it in our own way: It has been proven by experience that this does not work and indeed produces evil.

    So the smart thing to do is abandon thinking about the glorious endpoint as a near-term set of instructions. Forget about it; you can’t handle that thought at the moment, at least not as a practical guide to action. It’ll serve only as a reassurance. In the meantime, it helps more to maintain awareness of one’s neediness and helplessness apart from God. Get into God, be incorporated into His body, and let your membership in His body nourish, guide, and purify you as a bloodstream, nervous system, and lymphatic system nourishes, guides, and purifies a member of any other body. Without Him you can do nothing (at least, nothing to the purpose), but in Him you can do all things through Him who strengthens you.

    The end, then, is certainly not uselessness or helplessness. But don’t focus on maximizing your use and power now, because doing that separates you from being in the body, which reduces nourishment, guidance, and purification, causing atrophy, spasm, and infection.