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The Religious Wisdom of Authentic Self-Love

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A dangerous thought: suppose we measured the worth of our religious traditions pragmatically? What if the merit of a tradition hinged on its capacity to help us live out the wisdom it commends? Of course, our traditions are treasuries containing spiritual resources that can inform us about how best to live human life. But do our traditions effectively transmit practical wisdom to the people who inhabit them? Do they transform? Even if we grant that they have been efficacious in the past, the question remains: are they effective now, in this historical moment?

Let's take up one concrete concern: how well do our traditions -- Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and others -- communicate the importance of authentic self-love? Standard Christian preaching and teaching give the impression that self-love is tantamount to self-obsession, or, at the very least, selfishness. In my many years of churchgoing, I cannot recall hearing a single sermon commending an ardent desire for the self's own flourishing as a positive virtue.

The call to lose ourselves in the service of our neighbor is profound; it is a true aim and goal of all authentic spiritual life. But can I lose or give away a self I do not have? What can I give if I believe I have nothing to offer?

Do our traditions intimate that we are ourselves priceless treasures, that we ought to desire our own well-being, not at the expense of others but as a precondition and prerequisite for loving others? An important moment prompted me to take this theme with greater seriousness. In the Eastern Religions classes I taught many years ago, I showed a now-dated but lovely film, "The Footprint of the Buddha." In that film, the interviewer and narrator Ronald Eyre asks a Buddhist monk the question, "Can a person who does not love himself love another?" And the sagacious monk responds with an irrepressible chuckle and emphatic seriousness, "It is impossible." Eyre adds later in his narration, "Come to think of it, even Jesus said, 'Love your neighbor as yourself' -- not more than yourself and certainly not less than yourself."

Eyre is right. But Christians should ask forthrightly if this simple wisdom is communicated in the life of Christian churches, especially in total depravity traditions, traditions which insist that because of the Fall, the human being is utterly broken and haplessly driven by self-centeredness. Might it be possible to recognize the truth of our brokenness without vitiating the vital importance of self-love? Perhaps a mark of our "depravity" is our limited or broken capacity for authentic self-love -- that we confuse care for self with narcissism?

Even the core Christian doctrine of justification by faith through grace is typically communicated to believers as teaching that God loves us despite the fact that we are unlovely and unlovable. Other resources in Christian traditions, like the teaching that we are made in the imago dei and the doctrine of the goodness of creation, are regularly undermined by a radical emphasis on the human being as a sinner who stands lost through primordial fallenness that has besmirched and even erased what once was lovely in us. How might those who stand broken by violence and trauma, persons who already feel ugly and damned, hear and receive such teachings? In what way does the idea that we are loved despite the fact that we are in truth unlovable serve to heal and console?

And what are the practices whereby we actualize in ourselves the wisdom of longing for one's own flourishing and growth? As it happens, there are crucial meditative disciplines of loving-kindness in Buddhist traditions for just this purpose. It may seem astonishing that the tradition that most emphatically insists that there is no self (anatta) may routinely do a better job at transmitting the wise practice of self-care and than do Christian traditions which customarily insist on an eternal soul.

These questions are complicated by a curious sense of spiritual democracy derived from the Protestant notion of the "priesthood of all believers." For some Protestants, this has come to mean that no one knows any more about how to live the spiritual life than anyone else does. The idea that contemplatives across traditions may know more about the stages of religious life because of their proficiency in spiritual discipline seems to many a curiously illiberal idea. For Protestants, the notion seems also to emit the odor of "works righteousness."

If we are to discover our way to authentic self-love, I fear our religious traditions, left to their own devices, may not suffice. They are far too often patriarchal, elaborated by male monastics who loathe women's bodies and who are too often averse to bodies in general, including their own, whose desires are felt to be intrinsically unruly and essentially distorted.

In addition to the diligent contemplative practice that our traditions commend, they need to be corrected by good feminist/womanist reflection and sound psychotherapeutic wisdom to escape temptations toward self-loathing and body-loathing. We need therefore not just the wisdom of comparative theology -- traditions learning from and correcting each other -- but we need feminist comparative theology and secular philosophies of right erotic desire, for the love of the body, and also desire for our own embodied flourishing in this very life.

Ultimately, we need this wisdom to be practical -- practice rich so as to be practicable. How are we to feel, think and live our way into the wisdom of authentic self-love? This is a vital question not because self-love is close to the end of the spiritual path (Whitney Houston is wrong; this is not the greatest love of all), but because it may well be the precondition for passionate self-giving love for the human other and the Divine Not-Other (who is Love itself). Authentic self-love is not the end of the spiritual path, but it is nonetheless a precious gate through which we must pass.

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