Stringfellow on Sainthood

"[B]ecoming and being a saint does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not not mean being exceptionally religious, or being religious at all, it means being liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human; it does not mean being otherworldly, but it means being deeply implicated in the practical existence of this world without succumbing to this world or any aspect of this world, no matter how beguiling. Being holy means a radical self-knowledge; a sense of who one is, a consciousness of one's identity so thorough that it is no longer confused with the identities of others, of persons or of any creatures or of God or of any idols.

For human beings, relief and remedy from such profound confusion concerning a person's own identity and the identity and character of the Word of God becomes the indispensable and authenticating ingredient of being holy, and it is the most crucial aspect of becoming mature--or of being fulfilled--as a human in this world, in fallen creation. This is, at the same time, the manner through which humans can live humanly, in sanity and conscience, in the fallen world as it is. And these twin faculties, sanity and conscience--rather than some sentimental or pietistic or self-serving notion of moral perfection--constitute the usual marks of sanctification. That which distinguishes the saint is not eccentricity but sanity, not perfection but conscience."

--William Stringfellow, from The Politics of Spirituality

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

12 thoughts on “Stringfellow on Sainthood”

  1. He kind of goes back and forth between lines that strike me as profound and lines that make me question where he's going with this.

    My starting point is that Jesus reveals the Humanity of God. Our identity reflects that grace. Our humanity is redefined as it is redeemed. I agree that pretense and perfection give way to a genuine wholeness. I'm not sure from the quote what he means by sanity and conscience.

  2. The mention of sanity and conscience is what drew me to the quote.
    What I like about Stringfellow is how he describes the Christian life atyptically. Generally, we hear the Christian life described in value terms like this, "He's a good person," "I don't want to be a bad person." But you read Stringfellow and he says things like "The Christian is a sane person" or "A Christian is a person of conscience." And while those terms might be unfamiliar and vague they are no more vague than the typical terms we use to describe the Christian life.  And, for my part, Stringfellow's way of describing the Christian life causes me to think about things a bit differently. What does it mean to be sane in this world? Or a person of conscience?

  3. In my ebook on comparative mysticism I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt: “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

  4. All people are always defined by their relationship to Jesus Christ and not by humanistic terms like good, bad, sane, or perfect. Human comparisons of humans are always fallacious because of the fallen nature of man. Therefore Stringfellow's adjectives to descibe a holy person are just as wrong as traditional adjectives to describe a holy person. They all start with the person as the focus rather than Christ.

  5. Do you think the fruits of the Spirit are applicable to people? Could we say, for example, that a person should be kind?

  6. "Not so most noble Festus, whether we be beside ourselves or clothed in our right minds, it is all for the glory of God."  Those God calls become what He calls them to be and aren't contained by Mr Stringfellow, sanity to the believer must surely consist in their discovering the will of God for them.

  7. The fruits of the Spirit are ...well, the Spirit's fruits.  If one has been led by the Spirit (who let's say produces kindness in this instance) then the person can be said to be 'bearing' the fruit of kindness.  The person never is shown in Scripture (at least to my limited knowledge) to be the producer of any Spiritual fruit.  Thus for a person to 'try' to be kind apart from the filling of the HS, is ... well a waste of time.  But, I'll bet they do feel good thinking "I am a 'kind' person."

  8. That's a fine point. But the quote above and my question isn't going to the issue of causality. People are objecting to the adjectives as adjectives. My point is simply that adjectives like "kindness" or "sanity" are perfectly legitimate ways to describe the Christ-like life.

  9. "Mediating clarity" might be relative. I find Stringfellow very clear. Then again, I loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintance but everyone who has ever read the book on my recommendation couldn't make heads or tales of it.

    Regarding the quote above I think what Stringfellow is trying to do is rescue Christianity from religion, piety, and moralism. Phariseeism. In its place he wants to restore a vital humanity--which here he describes as sanity and conscience--best exemplified in the life of Jesus. Was Jesus moral? Pious? Religious? Or was he simply sane in an insane world?

    To my eye, Jesus looks more sane than moral. Though, to be fair, he was accused of being both insane and immoral.

  10. Richard,

    I loved that book too. And what's not clear about it? It's a quest, not an explanation. 
    Anyway, I agree that Jesus looked more sane than moral, at least in this sense. Moralities purvey benefit to insiders and detriment to outsiders under the guise of right judgment, though outsiders do not agree with the judgment. Thus moralities tend to function as excuses for power plays that advantage the power brokers of a community. Jesus paid a heavy price for exposing several layers of such power brokers and then refusing to join the club by becoming one himself. (Nietzschian hermeneutics open up the point of the gospel narratives beautifully, IMO. Isn't life fun?) That variety of sham is a wholesale form of insanity, and Jesus would have none of it.I think that insight is a core, if not the core, story line of the gospel. So to be Christian means seeing and confronting that insanity--at least. But one would never know it by stepping into an American church on Sundays. Which brings me to the Thoreau point. Perhaps finding a retreat is the safest way to preserve sanity, at least for a time...Thanks for a place to vent.        

  11. I'm with you now. Yes, I wonder, a million times a week, if Jesus would have ever darkened the door of a church or even adopted the label "Christian." For many of the reasons you note.

Leave a Reply