The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 2, Beyond Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a comparative social metric that registers in our psyche as neurosis.

We compare ourselves to our colleagues, neighbors, friends, family and cultural standards of success and worthiness. If we measure up as "average" to "above average," we experience satisfaction. However, this satisfaction is tinged with anxiety about the potential for loss and failure.

If we measure up as "below average" we experience feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

Because it's a comparative social metric that is a source of psychic pain and suffering, self-esteem is also a source of rivalry, competition and violence. Since self-esteem is rooted in social comparison, self-esteem creates a rivalrous, competitive relationship between ourselves and the world.

In sum, these are the two problems of the ego: neurosis and violence.

How can we escape this comparative, competitive dynamic?

Many wisdom, religious, philosophical, and therapeutic systems have proposed pathways toward a "quiet ego." A common theme in these systems is how quieting the ego (reducing neurosis) is critical in cultivating compassion (reducing violence). Again, neurosis and violence go hand in hand.

A key part of this process is transcendence, extracting the self from the matrix of social evaluation and comparison, allowing the self to stand above cultural standards of beauty, worth, and significance. A metaphysical self. But where is this transcendent, metaphysical self located?

In Christianity the transcendent self is located in God. We are "hidden in Christ." David Kelsey, in an insight I borrow in The Slavery of Death, calls this an eccentric identity, an identity located outside of ourselves, an identity that is received as gift.

The power of eccentricity to alleviate neurosis is described by Howard Thurman in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman explains why African Americans in the United States were so powerfully attracted to Jesus. The reason, according to Thurman, is that Christianity allowed blacks to extract and protect their identities from the social metrics of a white supremacist society. With their egos now hidden in Christ, black Christians had transcendent, metaphysical identities that made them immune to shame and stigma. Thurman describing this:
The core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God...This idea--that God is mindful of the individual--is of tremendous import...In this world the socially disadvantaged man is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: "Who am I? What am I?" The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a man feels that he does not belong in a way in which it is perfectly normal for others to belong, then he develops a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls the inferiority complex. It is quite possible for a man to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.

[Seeing oneself as a child God establishes] the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth can absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value. The first task is to get the self immunized against the most radical results of the threat of violence. When this is accomplished, relaxation takes the place of churning fear. The individual now feels that he counts, that he belongs. 
Again, the Christian approach isn't the only path one could follow to quiet the ego. But some sort of metaphysical answer has to be given to the fundamental issues of identity: cultivating a profound existential assurance of belonging, counting and mattering. Especially for socially disadvantaged persons. For without this metaphysical answer--the axiomatic givenness that you do matter, that you do belong, that you are of inestimable worth--one is trapped in the neurotic, violent matrix of social evaluation and comparison, forever dogged by a profound sense of insecurity and the fear of what Brene Brown calls "the shame based fear of being ordinary."

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