Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Should we welcome our weaknesses?

A few days ago I wrote a post criticising a homily given by a local priest. The priest had argued that Mary was not favoured because she was special but because she was a poor confused peasant girl and that God favours the poor, broken down and marginalised. The equivalent of Mary in the modern world, continued the priest, are the likes of the Sri Lankan refugees and the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

I agreed with the priest that it is sometimes when we are at our lowest that the egoistic self gives way and we become more receptive to God. But I wrote too that:
I find it difficult to believe that we should automatically side with whoever seems to be most powerless, as if being powerless defines you as good.

In the comments I added some further thoughts, which several readers have urged me to include in a post. The gist of it is that focusing always on being weak or powerless can be one factor in alienating men from Christianity:
I know people whose fathers have died and it sometimes affects them very deeply. Not just in the sense of mourning a lost one, but in the sense of their existential stability. The father brought a sense of assurance and stability to their lives.

And this is an aspect of men attempting to be strong for the benefit of those around them, those they are responsible for.

The interpretation of Christianity made by my local priest suggests that a man who is successfully strong in this way is separating himself from the good. He should instead focus on and identify with being powerless, broken down, marginalised etc.

If this is true it sets up an irresolvable contradiction in the lives of men. Our worldly role would be to be strong; our religious role would be to be weak.

I don't think this is how Christianity was understood by previous generations of Christians. I think instead the idea that we should treat well "the least amongst you" meant that those who were strong should not abuse those less fortunate.

You can see this is in the ethos of the Christian knight; you can see it in Western literature (as when in a Jane Austen novel the heroine is chastised for mocking a poor widow).

Is it not true that men should be morally strong and self-disciplined? That men should be strong in wisdom and prudence? That men should be strong in discharging their duties to family and community? Whilst at the same time serving God in a spirit of humility? (i.e. not adopting a stance of arrogant, closed off self-sufficiency).

Cannot the Church sometimes encourage men to be strong? (For instance, in their role as husbands and fathers within a family?)

Maybe this is part of the reason why many men don't feel as connected to Christianity as they might. They know that they have to develop their masculine strengths as best they can, but when they sit in a church they hear a message that identifies the good with being broken down, weak and marginalised.

It's not that churches shouldn't challenge the way people ordinarily think, but in this case the churches are challenging genuine duties held by men. It makes the message heard by men in the churches feel alien to their deeper conscience.

I'd like to hear a sermon which praises men for a strength of perseverance in working to support their families. Or for a strength in maintaining composure when there is stress within their families. Or for exercising a masculine protectiveness in stepping in when their wives need support. And so on.

And rather than charity meaning supporting Palestinians against Israelis, maybe it could be an encouragement to do something practical and local, for instance, helping an elderly person maintain their home, or doing some maintenance work for the local kindergarten.

I wrote this several days ago, but the significance of it has been confirmed by the Christmas Day sermon of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby. In this sermon, you get the same theme that Christians should aim to be vulnerable and weak as this is what makes a man receptive to God's transforming love. I can't reproduce the whole sermon but here are some snippets:
This is the true triumph, of utter vulnerability that in weakness overthrows every apparent strength.

Glorifying God, leaking into the world the love that he leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives

we do in the world what God does in us. We receive His love where we are vulnerable and weak, and lose sight of it when we claim strength and power. Christians reach to the jagged edges of our society, and of the world in general.

we must begin with weakness and vulnerability

God comes to us through the breaches and wounds of our lives because He comes in utter vulnerability. We are to be those who allow Him to make us vulnerable, welcome the weakness we have

It's not that I think this is entirely false. There are people who on hearing this kind of message might let go of their egoistic defences and become more receptive to the Christian message.

But think of the logic of what is being proposed in Bishop Welby's sermon. If it's true that we receive God's love when we are vulnerable and weak, then presumably we are to aim at being vulnerable and weak (we are to welcome our weaknesses, rather than trying to overcome them). And mere powerlessness, rather than goodness or faithfulness, becomes the deciding factor in who is most blessed. The Palestinians get to be defined as the good guys not because their cause is deemed just or because their acts are deemed more moral, but simply because they don't as yet have the upper hand. And if they do get the upper hand, then they won't be the good guys anymore - they'll drop back in moral status.

Nor is it true, in my opinion, that we are only open to God "in extremity". It could be claimed equally that the religious experience is often a "peak experience" - one that comes to us most forcefully when we are physically and mentally at our best. And when this happens, we have a sense not of powerlessness but of our powers being held in their proper place. It is a feeling of being completed or fulfilled in who we are, and it is that feeling which brings us a sense of peace, of a natural sense of humility before God, of the Biblical virtue of "prautes" (a measured, deliberate, self-possessed response to things) and of a desire to serve God's will. But it is definitely not an experience of weakness or powerlessness.

Finally, I don't think it's true either that the only way for a church to encourage people to be open to the religious experience is by emphasising our weakness as a way of dissolving an excessive egoism. Churches might also encourage time for contemplation and prayer; inspiring forms of architecture, music and art; a form of the mass that imparts a sense of the sacred; and a striving toward moral virtue.

And many people are led toward a religious outlook by what they experience as beautiful, good and true and which then inspires their particular loves. They might be inspired in this way by an ideal of manhood or womanhood, by the love they feel for their spouse or children, by the higher forms of art and culture, by the beauty of nature or by the goodness they discern within a communal life and tradition.

Bishop Welby's Christianity doesn't and can't speak to any of this, as it defines the good narrowly in terms of weakness, vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't think this is a form of Christianity that is likely to stand in the longer term. It leaves too much out and, as I argued in my comment, it establishes a particular difficulty for men who are called on to be strong for the benefit of those around them.


  1. "And mere powerlessness, rather than goodness or faithfulness, becomes the deciding factor in who is most blessed."

    By their logic in that statement if god is all powerful that means he is not all good.

    How about the promotion of Moral strength that leads to a strong society.

    Moral courage, Honor and Self-mastery.

  2. Christianity shouldn't be viewed as a religion for weaklings, the Bible refers to finding strength and becoming empowered continually.

  3. I suppose that it may be true that a proud and self-satisfied man is sometimes brought to God through tragedy, despair, or wretchedness, but this does not mean that these states have intrinsic spiritual value, or that a Christian should should seek them out. The fact that God can bring good out of evil does not make the evil good. The Archbishop seems to be confusing one sort of conversion experience for the Christian life.

  4. The Archbishop seems to be confusing one sort of conversion experience for the Christian life.

    In a nutshell.

    And he seems to me to have argued Christianity into a corner, in a way that is incompatible with the concept of a Christian civilisation.

    1. In short he is making the Christian case for equality.

      If equality is the highest and most noble good, then whoever is weak must be supported simply because they are weaker.

      No other moral judgement comes into the leftist mind.

  5. Jesus wasn't weak. The apostles ceased to be weak when they were filled by the Holy Spirit. The Christian martyrs were not weak.

    Jesus blessed the lowly, but I don't recall weakness ever being presented as a virtue per se. And his crack to the rich man about the camel/rope and needle was after the rich man had kept on pestering him with more and more demands of ways to prove his virtue - Jesus was yanking his chain, quite deservedly.

    Jesus taught that God is with us even when we feel weakest and most vulnerable. He never taught that God ceases to be with us when we are blessed with strength and happiness!

  6. Without a doubt, he is urging the supposedly powerful white males to embrace weakness, not the already weak (women, minorities, homos, etc.). When he tells blacks and women to embrace weakness and subservience, maybe I'll take him seriously.

    All part of the white male genocide program!

  7. I think these effette characters forget that the conversion of our (European) barbarian forefathers was partly through convincing them that god/Jesus was stronger than them (and the old gods), not through asking to forego ones own strength(s). Those proselytes that tried that path are now considered 'martyrs'. I want no part of this maniacal devotion of the pitiable.

  8. A series of links took me to this post and I want to say that I am quite impressed and agree with you wholeheartedly. My own father serves as a great example to me of the Christian man of power and strength and at the same time, was also the very soul of kindness and compassion.

    Yes, God will uplight the miserable and the downtrodden, but they have to have the strength to reach out to God and to accept His hand. I think many of the weak will not do this. I think that it is not the weak who inspire others to reach out to God, but it is stories of how the weak that can be strengthened by doing so that may lead others to God. But there can hardly be a stronger example than a powerful man who has also accepted God, as I very much know from growing up in the household that I did. There may be countless stories of this, but what pops into my head from the Bible is the parable of the Roman Centurion. Here was a powerful soldier who had compassion for his servant (or slave), but he sought the help of Jesus. And I think we all remember what Jesus said to honor him: "I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith."

  9. I mean to write "God will UPLIFT the miserable" but instead wrote a very interesting typo--"God will UPLIGHT the miserable"...hum, I wonder why that happened? I kind of like it....

  10. Sage McLaughlin has some extraordinary examples of the poor and marginalised being literally sanctified in Catholic Churches in the US.

  11. Just attend the Latin Mass at St Aloysius, Caulfield North. The best inoculation against liberalism possible.

  12. The strength of Christianity is Christ. He was no weakling, not in the least! He probably did over two thousand miles of walking in Palestine judging by what can be gleaned from the gospels. I would suggest that for men to get a glimpse of the truly Christian view of manhood they may want to take a in depth look at the life of Christ.