In the next few posts, we will wrap up our current series by turning our attention to a collection of ideas that oppose themselves to the pursuit of excellence in the name of Christianity. The common thread of these last ideas is that they share an antipathy toward any kind of elite and they support this antipathy with a (spurious) appeal to the Christian gospel. At its worst, this antipathy tragically gives some justification to Nietzsche’s accusation that Christianity is nothing more than a “slave morality.” One hears frequently in sermons, for instance, that the Pharisees were the “religious elite” of Jesus’s day, and hence Jesus’s opposition to the Pharisees is interpreted as a general opposition to any kind of religious excellence, church hierarchy, or moral authority. We will break this antipathy down, however, into three more basic categories: (i) the appeal to humility as a reason to ignore or oppose the pursuit of excellence, (ii) the appeal to our love for the “least of these” as a reason to level all distinctions between the lowly and the great, and (iii) the appeal to various practices of asceticism as a way to invalidate other forms of excellence.
We begin with false humility: A man who looks for excellence, it is thought, must surely be both proud and judgmental. In some circles, one gets the impression that the good news of the Gospel is that human beings will always and forever be terrible at everything they do, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief and stop trying. If some trouble-maker comes in and suggests that we can do better at this or that, such exhortation is interpreted as a case of “human striving.” In such circles, the main point of most sermons seems to be that we all think we are pretty hot stuff and God’s primary purpose is to take us down a few pegs.
Once again, there is a truth in all this. Human beings really are prone to think that they are doing well even when they are not. We are prone to relying foolishly on our own resources. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, so dead in our sins that we need the outside grace of God to save us. No amount of striving for excellence will rectify our sin or get us into heaven. We can further recognize that pride is the perennial trap of mankind. When people begin to do better than they have been, and become conscious of this fact, there will always be the temptation—sometimes subtle, sometimes gross—to swell with demonic pride.
The fact that doing something will always be attended with certain temptations, however, is no decisive argument against doing it. It is merely an argument that we should be on guard against the temptations. For example, a father disciplining his child runs the risk of being too harsh. The presence of this risk, however, should not lead him to the conclusion that he must never discipline his child. Making any kind of living runs the risk of falling into avarice, but most of us are not called to take a vow of poverty. This has been a common thread in several of the previous posts. The objections to excellence are often grounded in a real awareness of a real danger. Such objections try to avert the danger by avoiding excellence, but the right response would be to pursue excellence, while at the same time wisely guarding against the danger itself.
This principle is never more important than when it comes to guarding against pride. Every single good thing we could ever do—and many bad things besides—is attended by the danger of pride. It is in the very nature of pride to abuse all goodness. It twists our attention from gazing upon goodness itself to the glow that the goodness casts upon us. From there, pride begins to conceive of goodness as a mere means for making ourselves glow. We could protect against this insidious evil by never pursuing any goodness, by constantly lowering our gaze, by self-abasement. By doing such things, however, we are still pursuing what we take to be a good—the good of what we falsely conceive as “humility.” Here pride is at home again! The more we radically pursue this line, the more we are in danger of taking pride in just how humble we have become.
The solution to this is simple (although very difficult to achieve): We must fix our attention steadily upon whatever good it is that we pursue and resist the temptation to divert our attention back upon ourselves. It will be true that as we pursue good we do begin to glow, but we must steadily continue to train our attention upon the original light of objective goodness rather than the reflected light of our own achievements. We must be like the waxing moon looking toward the sun.
Importantly, this cannot involve lying or even flinching from truth. Genuine humility must not require, for example, that Tara pretend she received a lower score on her calculus test than she really did. Such a requirement would fundamentally corrupt Tara’s relationship with reality—the virtue of honesty—and in the last analysis, one virtue can never require the corruption of another. Humility does not require that Tara remain ignorant of her excellent performance or that she delude herself into thinking that it was not a real achievement. We typically find it insufferably disingenuous when people attempt to cultivate a pseudo-humility in such ways.
Genuine humility does require, however, that Tara turn her attention away from her superior score. Something has gone wrong when Tara becomes preoccupied by this truth even though it’s good for her to know it. She must not gloat or preen. Instead, she must focus on the goodness of excelling in calculus itself independent of her own performance. Christian humility further requires that Tara turn her attention toward Emily in love, never allowing the difference in their performance to be an obstacle to this, and doing what she can to help Emily climb up toward excellence too.
Let the Christian who strives for excellence, then, make himself a sign in big block letters to remind himself to never think that his striving makes him hot stuff, that his striving saves him, that he can strive without God’s grace, that his striving gives him some excuse not to love, or that he has become something very great on account of his doing well at tennis. But let him keep striving nonetheless.