Awhile ago, Roger Mugs started a ‘Big Sin Meme‘, asking bloggers: ‘If you were to be taken out by one sin (or a couple, whatever) what would it be?’
Not surprisingly, the big three (money, sex, power) showed up frequently in the responses of various bloggers. However, as I’ve thought about this question on-and-off for the last few weeks, I think those answers are a bit of a cop-out.
I mean, sure, most anybody has the potential to be taken out by any combination of these three things, but I’m more interested in asking what sin is there in my life that is already acting as an obstacle and has the potential to do future damage? Thus, rather than positing some hypothetical scenario that may or may not occur in the future, I’m more interested in asking myself, ‘What is the big sin in my life that is already ‘taking me out’?’
The answer? I am convinced that my desire for recognition from others is the ‘big sin’ in my life that does take me out, and has the potential to totally do me in, in the future. That is to say, it is the search for (increased) status that I think could be very devastating in my own life.
Now, I don’t think that I’m alone in my struggle with this sin. In fact, in a world dominated by capitalism, in what Guy Debord refers to the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, the ubiquity and force of brands, and the process of branding, tends to reduce us to self-disciplining, self-branding individuals. Hence, each one of us is driven to advance our own personal brand status. There are many seemingly contradictory ways of pursuing this — increasing my own brand status as a competent businessperson, increasingly my own brand status as a committed clergy member, increasingly my own brand status as a radical Christian — but the contradictions between these paths are often more apparent than actual. In one way or another, we become enmeshed in the pursuit of status and the marketing of Me™.
Now, there are a few things that make this search for status especially insidious. First of all, is the observation that branding is primarily about image. We advance our own brands not by being a certain way, or by doing certain things but, first and foremost, by appearing in certain ways. Hence, I affirm Debord’s observation that in the Society of the Spectacle — wherein social relationships between people are mediated by images — social being has devolved from being (pre-capitalism), through having (early capitalism), to appearing (contemporary or ‘late’ capitalism). This means that we are all inclined to desire to appear to be a certain way, and are not accustomed to thinking about whether or not who we actually are aligns with this appearance — or, rather, we are used to thinking that we are who we appear to be, when this is usually not the case. (This, by the way, is why Žižek can refer to ‘culture’ as ‘the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously.”‘ This then, Žižek argues, is why we treat fundamentalists as a barbaric threat to our culture — ‘they dare to take their beliefs seriously’.)
Thus, I can’t help but ask myself: am I truly living as a person committed to the Way of Jesus Christ, or am I simply manifesting a simulacrum thereof (NB: the notion of simulacra is how Jean Baudrillard develops Debord’s reflections on the Spectacle)? The simulacrum part comes fairly easily — it’s low-cost and carries a high pay-off. Let me give a few examples:
- I work with street-involved youth and have spent quite a bit of time with sex workers. This gains me a lot of ‘Christian radical’ respect dollars. But, really, it’s a job, and I get paid to do it. It’s a far cry from solidarity with the marginalised or that sort of thing.
- I spent a couple of years living in the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada (Oooo! Ahhh!) in an ‘intentional community’. However, I found it very easy to live in that neighbourhood but not really engage the community or become known by our neighbours. Again, I gain a lot of ‘Christian radical’ respect dollars, but the cost, for me, is quite low — a far cry from the costly discipleship we are called to in Christ.
- I have a blog (with a picture of one of the alleys in Vancouver’s downtown eastside!) which I use to talk about issues of justice, solidarity, cruciformity and so on. This also gains me ‘Christian radical’ respect dollars, but it costs me pretty much nothing. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about things like solidarity, but that talk is a far cry from actually practising solidarity.
So, I don’t know if the search for (brand) status will take me out in the future, but it’s already doing a number on me now!
Secondly, this search for status is insidious because it necessarily produces hypocrisy. Here it is important to precisely define what the bible means when it speaks of ‘hypocrisy’. In particular, the bible doesn’t usually mean what we think it means — people who just play a role and ‘fake’ being good or whatever. Rather, according the the bible, ‘hypocrisy’ describes ‘a person whose conduct is not determined by God and is thus ‘godless.” (I’m indebted to Joel B. Green’s commentary on Luke for this understanding). Hence, hypocrites are not ‘play-actors’ but those who are ‘misdirected in their fundamental understanding of God’s purpose and, therefore, incapable of discerning the authentic meaning of Scripture and, therefore, unable to present anything other than the impression of piety’ (Green again).
Therefore, when we act out of the desire to advance our own brand status, we are acting as hypocrites because our focus is on ourselves, not upon God’s purposes (even if we talk a lot about those). We are acting as godless people and all of our (highly praised!) actions are simply impressions of piety — simulacra of piety.
Again, applying this to myself and to the whole notion of ‘Christian radicals’, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees are more directly aimed at me, and others in this bracket, and not at the figureheads of the type of Christianity that dominated modernity (I reckon Jesus’ words to the Sadducees are more convicting for that lot!).
Thirdly, this search for status is insidious because it is self-destructive. This is true across the board but is, perhaps, most easily observed in the search for respect one finds in street-culture. ‘Respect’ (i.e. status) is one of the dominant themes in street-culture. Thus, for example, people are willing to beat, torture, and kill others, if they feel disrespected — even in very small ways (say you look at a person wrong, you make the wrong joke at the wrong time, etc.). Yet this desire for respect then develops into a downward spiral, as Philippe Bourgois notes in In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio: ‘although street culture emerges from a personal search for dignity and a rejection of racism and subjugation, it ultimately becomes an active agent in personal degradation and community ruin’. The same is true of other more acceptable or middle-class efforts to attain respect and status.
Thus, to once again apply this to myself, by simply posing as a person who loves others in ‘radical’ ways, I am in fact doing no good and thereby contribute to the ongoing oppression of the poor and the maintenance of the status quo wherein all of us are dehumanised.
In conclusion, I find it particularly interesting that the New Testament voices, especially the voices of Jesus and Paul, are united in an unrelenting campaign against social ways of being that are driven by the notion of status. It is interesting how, in the world of contemporary capitalism (wherein social relationships are mediated by the process of branding) we find ourselves in a situation that has some amazing parallels to the Graeco-Roman world in the first-century CE. Both of these cultures were and are dominated by the desire for status, and both of these cultures were and are confronted with a Gospel that overthrows this desire and replaces it with a call to show unconditional hospitality, serve all people, and (tangibly) love even our enemies. Rather than being motivated by notions of status, we are called to disregard such issues and humiliate ourselves in the service of others.
I’ve been reading (and being challenged by) your stuff for a while now but have never commented. I doubt you remember me, but I was a fellow Stackhouse thesis-er at Regent for the last year or so and observed with interest some of your back and forth with him over my time there…
Anyway, I just wanted to say that I resonate very much with what you’ve written here. I think you’ve held up a mirror for a lot of us and what we (or at least I) see isn’t very pretty. Thank you for your honesty and forthrightness. I wish you all the best in the future.
Ditto, what Ryan says. I guess I’m guilty of molding the Gospel to my life rather than molding my life to the Gospel.
Thank you for reminding me of the just how radical the Gospel is.
A couple of years back I thought about a cartoon which could be drawn about a reversal of the story of the Publican and the Pharisee in the temple. The Publican would be all pleased with himself and the Pharisee would be beating his breast with the likes: “I’m such a hypocrite; I’m such a useless Pharisee”.
Unfortunately, I can’t draw. But I like the Nietzschean undertones of this reversal, and the massive potential for oppression which it entails, when, once again, it is the privileged who claim God and the unprivileged who “don’t get it”, but this time in an even more devious sort of way.
My solution is to take myself less seriously: yeah, sometimes I crave status and recognition, big fat deal. I get myself caught in the holier-than-thou mentality. So did the apostles. No can I please get on with the rest of my life?
I do remember you. Congratulations on finishing your thesis so much faster than me! I’m only now coming to the end of my research stage. I’ve read your abstract for your thesis, and I would be curious to read more and see how you develop your argument. I often think that Christians are too hasty in accusing atheists of having no foundation for their morality, so I would be interested in reading a more sustained argument related to your topic. Oh, and I’m glad that this post resonated with you (and with Niko).
I guess the true test of your approach is how you respond when others take you less seriously.
A useful challenge… I think the way theology is done academically all too often thrives on self-promotion and “making a name” for yourself. It does sometimes make me think it’s not worth playing the game at all…
Dan, I think that your concern about Christians being too hasty to accuse is a very valid one. I certainly am not of the opinion that only Christians or “theists” are the only people who have good reasons to be moral (although I do think that we have the best ones).
In the thesis I more or less try to locate atheists/theists in the same “moral universe” – to show that we’re all trying to answer the same questions and responding to the same limitations. My hope was that this would move the discussion out of the realm of “superstition vs. reason” and into the realm of making sense of a morally ambiguous world. Whether or not I was successful is another matter…
If you’re still interested, I had a synopsis of the thesis published in The Other Journal a while back that you can access from here.
Good points, Dan. I think von Balthasar nailed this one:
“It requires more humility to recognize one’s hopeless mediocrity than to proclaim oneself a great sinner.”
That is a fantastic and difficult quote! What’s the source (book? article?)?
I read (and enjoyed) your article and like the idea of trying to build bridges in the way that you have. Good luck with that… sometimes it feels like we’re just building bridges to nowhere (now who does that remind me of?).
Also, I don’t know if you have read any Camus, but I strongly recommend “The Plague”. Camus’ form of atheism is, I think, the strongest form there is.
I actually don’t think that the game is worth perpetuating as it is… which is why I’m trying to gather together a group of scholars and social activists in order to create an alternative academy that goes about things quite differently.
Dan, i want to compliment you on your honest humility and willingness to share your brokenness…uh…wait a minute…gosh darn it, forget you read that.
reminds me of one of the dessert fathers (Abba Moses i think). The devil comes to tempt him. first with gold which Abba Moses easily refuses. Then with food (He was known for much fasting) which the Abba merely scoffed at. Then the devil tempted him with a beautiful women and the Abba laughed! Then the devil marveled at the holiness of Abba Moses and said to him, “Abba I has heard that you were a holy man and beyond temptation but now i too believe you are indeed a saint and righteous above all men.” And at that acclamation of the devil Abba Moses fell weeping to the floor and cried out “Lord save me or I am lost.”