Theological Temptations: Grandiosity

Of the many theological temptations that can plague the theologian, grandiosity may be one of the most subtle. Grandiosity is that aspect of fleshliness that allows one to find their identity in what they do – and it is used as a means to create a self that is greater, stronger and solidified in a way their true self is not. It tends to trade knowledge of theology for knowledge of God and self, being convinced that one’s labors are always kingdom labors, and that one’s effort is of the highest order.

In this sense, it inclines the theologian towards existential bi-polar angst. In other words, there is no middle ground. Everything they do jumps from perfection to pointlessness. Their craft as a theologian lacks purity because it is done to seek approval from others and is grounded in their self-identity and meaning. Praise for their work fuels the endeavor while critique sheds light on their deepest fears that they really don’t know what they are talking about. Other theologians who are brighter, more well-read and advanced in their theological reasoning are either seen as necessary compatriots who they need to be aligned with, or they must be in some way undermined, either in character, in viewpoints or in background.

The closer one is to fundamentalism, in many cases, the more grandiose is one’s view. This stems, in part ( I believe) from the apologetic character of fundamentalist theology. This kind of thinker becomes the theological equivalent of William Wallace, wielding apologetic material rather than a two-handed broad-sword. I have no doubt that you can imagine certain theologians who see their own work as single-handedly holding back the forces of darkness. They become convinced that if they stumble, so falls the church and God’s work in the world (we might call this an Elijah complex (1 Kings 19:10)).

But, of course, this cannot be tied to fundamentalism alone. Theology easily becomes the mode in which to work out angst against one’s fundamentalist background, against authority, against….anything. The theologian, in no lesser terms, can will to power, seeking to advance their own cause even through liberating prose. Soon, and just as easily, theology is so tied to one’s identity that proving their point equals proving their worth. The quest for perfection in both work and life leads to a lack of realism in both work and life, and all theologians can fall into this trap. Realism is attached to vocation. In Thomas Merton’s words,

…the fulfillment of every individual vocation demands not only the renouncement of what is evil in itself, but also of all the precise goods that are not willed by God.

Grandiosity is a struggle with what call God has not given. James’ words are not irrelevant: “But the brother in humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation…” (James 1:9) This person’s struggle makes it impossible to speak Paul’s words, “…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” His was an appropriately detached understanding of vocation. His desire to go to Spain was thwarted, and instead of collapsing with defeat in his imprisonment he gloried in his opportunity. I think most of us spend our time wishing we were out of prison rather than writing the letter to the Philippians. Our grandiosity keeps us from satisfaction in our vocation.

Those who crash against the rocks of this temptation do so because they hear the siren call of importance/meaning- but it is a value in which they grasp, control and in the end abuse for their own ends. In short, grandiosity becomes the theological outlet for self-love. Grandiosity necessarily pushes against the call to reason for the church, and morphs into a desire to reason for an identity.

I wanted to talk about grandiosity because of how foundational of a temptation it is. In theological circles, these thinkers are usually just seen as arrogant because the grandiose thinker has tied their entire identity, and many times the gospel itself, to their ideas. Faith becomes faith in themselves, and their own ability to properly conceive of Christianity. This has led many to assume that people with “wrong” views are just bad people – people who are seeking to tear down the pillars of the gospel. The idea that others are seeking to read the text faithfully, under God’s judgment and for God’s church, and still have fundamentally different ideas on what that means and what that looks like is such a devastating concept, that oftentimes it leads to one of two extremes: questioning their own faithfulness, or just demonizing their counterparts.

I’ve always been impressed by Karl Barth in this regard, who has a million sayings to choose from, but one I ran across recently was in a letter to another prominent theologian. In closing, he referred back to being called “honored and venerable professor” by the man, and said in response, “I never was this and shall not be or become so in my remaining days.”

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5 thoughts on “Theological Temptations: Grandiosity

  1. Kyle, I enjoyed your blog here much, and appreciate your reflections on theological integrity and honesty in carrying out theological work. I think your gloss on the idolatry of grandiosity and its spiritual concomitants important; theological vocation is a part of theological existence, and the moment the theologian becomes engrossed with his/herself, and less with the Sache of Scripture, is the moment the theologian re-entangles his/herself in the web of idolatry’s manifold delusions and spiritual maladies. I think here of Calvin’s notion of humans (and theologians in particular) as being idol-making machines. This temptation is always at hand because it is so definitive of our fallen nature. And the cost of such a giving into this temptation is a dangerous disordering of our very lives and our theological produce.

    I think it also significant to widen your point out of the enclave of theological work and identity and highlight its import for anthropological considerations more generally. Your point about the existential ‘bi-polar angst’ that grows out of a person’s anchoring of his/her identity in their individual significance, whether it be their roles, functions or productivity, is a helpful way into localising one of the variant ways in which idolatrous living disorders and disorients human existence. The polarised extremes of dislocated selves in modern life and the unhealthy role that certain types of perfectionism (fundamentalist spiritualities or their secularised equivalents) play in the bifurcations are fragments of the larger story of sin and its radical consequence. But the good news is found in sin’s overcoming, an overcoming which transposes the idolatrous self into the majestic presence of God upon the liberating announcement of our restoration in Christ. This liberation has the grand consequence of teaching us to ‘be creatures’ (as Nicholas Lash so often reminded us). Here there is a grand freedom. Firstly, it is the freedom of not having our selves defined by anything other than our createdness and ultimate dependence on God. In the knowlede of God in Christ is revealed too the mystery of our createdness, and the centring of our being and action in eschatological existence. Here, our central identity is not located in ‘our’ vocation, production, social alliances (as absolute magnitudes), etc, but in God’s good ordering of the world and our place in it as receiving our true selves in God’s self-giving (which includes these things but not as absolutes determining our existence). Secondly, it is the freedom that we don’t have to be perfectionists. To quote Lash ‘The story of this learning process (on learning to be a creature) is the history of Jewish and Christian doctrines of God…there is a sense in which each generation, and indeed each individual, has to take the time to learn this for themselves; has to grow, or fail to grow, into something of what it means to be, in every fibre of one’s being, absolutely dependent on the mystery that we call God’ {Lash, Theology for Pilgrims, pp. 25}.

    Lash’s last point I think great for your theme here. That the temptation of thinking ‘we’ are central is fundamentally the idolatrous thinking that we are not creatures but ‘God’… the central significant for determing our selves and our relations. And the spiritual consequence of this has been the ‘hells’ of life. However, the liberation that comes from attuning afresh to God’s self-manifestation in Christ is not simply the re-placement of ourselves as the central object of our concern, devotion and self-interpretation, but its the very ground that gives us the right kind of reading of our lives and significance in our place in the ordering of the world. We do our best work and love when we’re not fixated on ourselves.

  2. The Merton quote is from the “Vocation” chapter in “No Man Is An Island”

    Thomas, thanks for your input – it is always incredibly thoughtful. With James, I am thinking that I need to pick up Lash’s Theology of Pilgrims as well.

  3. Yes, James, there is much commonality of themes in Rowan Williams and Nicholas Lash, and, being that they’re seasoned friends, I find this all the more impressive. Glad you and Kyle will be purchasing the book (I’m sure Prof. Lash will be too..haha). Ever since I attended Lash’s lectures on ‘Believing Three Ways in God’ and his fabled seminar on analogy (during his last series of away terms given at Duke upon his retirement), I’ve found this theological insight into the gospel’s core consequence of helping humans ‘be weaned from idolatry’ and become a people of worshipful living to be a profound leitmotif running through his work. And it’s trinitarian and incarnational anchorage all the more impressive in articulating theological existence (although I’d adjust things along a more Reformed line, I do find great overlap on this focus). Hence, if you haven’t read these already, save those funds and also grab Lash’s ‘Believing Three Ways in God’ and ‘Theology on the Road to Emmaus’ and ‘Easter in Ordinary’ (and no I don’t work for Lash or the publishing house….haha).
    Pax et Spes

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