Thursday, September 10, 2009

Losing/Finding the Self

I’ve been reading and enjoying Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Love of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2006). I like books that mine personal experience. This paragraph caught my eye.

“ ‘Self’ has been, for me, so hard-won. Catholic children of the fifties were taught ‘unselfishness’ until they barely knew who inhabited their skins. Therefore, at this point in m life, I think of self-abnegation as a semi suicidal impulse. I’ve been reading a book called Proverbs of Ashes by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in which these two feminist scholars discuss their awakening--as pastors and professors of theology--to the way the story of Jesus has been used to justify the brutal suppression of an individual’s true vocation, especially a woman’s sense of call. … Self--I would argue, along with Brock and Parker--is too precious to be conjoined with sacrifice. Selfhood is a kind of mysterious extraterrestrial jewel one is entrusted with. Human beings are born with an imperative to defend this treasure” (p. 92).

I affirm O’Reilley’s experiences and struggles from my own viewpoint--a Protestant kid in the 60s and 70s--but I wrestle with that sentence, “Self is too precious to be conjoined with sacrifice.”

As O’Reilley notes, the self is a “jewel” because it is one’s very identity. If that is stolen--because of sexism, racism, or other ways--you’ve lost something precious, and that is a tragedy.

Even “everyday” kinds of sacrifices--sacrifices motivated by initial feelings of love and right resolve--can harm one’s sense of identity:

The caregiver who buckles under the unending demands of the sick or infirm person.
The pastor who is overwhelmed with "putting out fires" and petty concerns.
The child who works hard to win the approval of hard-to-please parents and then struggles, well into adulthood, for self-esteem.
The spouse who puts personal needs ahead of husband or wife and realizes that s/he has lost a strong sense of self and purpose.
The person who has a strong sense of calling and purpose but feels stymied and undermined by the “system.”
The person who puts heart and soul into any kind of situation and, at the end, feels abandoned or betrayed.

And yet, most religions teach the virtue of sacrifice. Self and sacrifice are conjoined. Christians are taught so early that we “should” put others before ourselves. Matt. 10:39 admonishes us to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus, for instance.

Romans 12:1-3 is a classic text.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

If you wanted a proof-text to teach self-abnegation, this would certainly be one! A person could even misunderstand the text and think that God demands personal sacrifices (in the metaphorical sense) from us in order to earn and merit God’s favor.

But the phrase mercies of God is key, and also is the word transformed. God has already done everything necessary, through Christ, to gain for us God’s mercies and ultimate salvation. We do not have to deny ourselves to earn God's love and favor; we already have those things in abundance. Furthermore, God has given us a source of power, the Holy Spirit, that we might be transformed and strengthened.

Our worship, according to this text, is to give God ourselves--our Selves. We find our true selves in the “holy and acceptable” sacrifice of discipleship. We’re not thereby giving God “junk”, and God isn‘t calling us to become belittled and suppressed.

But this kind of presentation--this relinquishment of control--of ourselves to God is not easy! I don’t want to imply that a suitable kind of sacrifice is easier than the unhealthy, “semi suicidal” sacrifices to which O’Reilley alludes. We still encounter suffering, weariness, disappointments, and other hard things. We still encounter systems and situations that would steal from us our personal call and vocation. We may have to grow in a relationship with God over a period of years before God’s call for us falls into place and God‘s will becomes clear. One of the reasons I’ve clung to faith over the years is, in fact, the way God gives me measures of clarity about events in my own life over the long haul.

As I reflect on O’Reilley’s sentence, I want to say that any healthy notion of Christian sacrifice must be strongly and explicitly rooted in the never-ever-earned love of God, otherwise we begin to teach and practice sacrifice in an impoverished, hurtful way. Because of its power to build a sense of self, we should all memorize Desmond Tutu’s saying before we undertake any sacrifice, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. God’s love for you is infinite, perfect, and eternal.”[1]

1. Quoted in Lorraine Kisly (ed.), Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), p. 192.

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