Pascal's Pensées: Week 11, Let Us Both Love and Hate Ourselves


Let each of us now judge our own worth, let us love ourselves, for there is within us a nature capable of good; but that is no reason for us to love the vileness within ourselves. Let us despise ourselves because this capacity remains unfilled; but that is no reason for us to despise this natural capacity. Let us both hate and love ourselves; we have within us the capacity for knowing truth and being happy, but we possess no truth which is either abiding or satisfactory. 


I can't remember when or where I had this conversation. I think it was face to face and not on the blog. I was sharing about the power of the practice of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Hearing this a person shared, "I like that prayer, but I don't like that last part--'a sinner.' So I leave that out."

Well, of course you do. Heaven forbid we own up to the harm we do in the world. How worrisome.

One of the reasons I've moved on from progressive Christianity into a post-progressive space is that, by and large, progressive Christianity has lost any ability to talk about sin. We can't see or describe ourselves as sinners. We leave that part out.

Of course we know why this is often the case. Many progressive Christians are ex-evangelicals and ex-fundamentalists and so have been on a journey toward grace and away from guilt, shame and "sinners in the hands of an angry God." And so, Pascal's call to "hate ourselves" is going to sound pretty toxic.

And yet, Pascal's balance here, to both love and hate ourselves, is the same sort of balance that keeps me separate from both evangelical and progressive Christians. I do hate myself, but I don't hate all of me. I confess I'm depraved, but I'm not totally depraved. I agree with Pascal's very humanistic belief that there exists within each of us a natural capacity for good. Because of this humanism I resist a lot of what I hear in evangelical spaces about a wholly corrupt human nature.

And yet, at the same time I find progressive Christians insufferable in their inability to own a word like "sinner." Because are two truths I know with absolute certainty. First, that God loves me unconditionally. Second, that I am, most definitely, a sinner. 

But do I hate myself? Yes, I do. And before you take to the comment section to worry, because we all love worried comments, let me put before us the dictionary definition of hate: "an intense dislike for something or someone." So, are there parts of myself and my behavior that I feel "intense dislike" for? Ummm, yeah. Most definitely. Don't you?

But again, following Pascal, this intense dislike is only for parts of me. I also love myself. I love myself great deal, in fact. I think I have a lot of wonderful qualities. I feel pride and satisfaction in being a good husband, father, co-worker, neighbor and friend. I think I've done a lot of good in this world. Any intense dislike I have for myself is precisely because I want to do good, and more of it, in this world. 

Yes, of course, intense dislike for our failures can become morbid and unhealthy. As psychologist, you don't need to remind me that depression exists. I'm aware. But any charitable reading of Pascal can see he's not talking about self-loathing or a morbid self-esteem. He's talking about honesty and balance in how we take a moral inventory of ourselves. 

Perhaps the word "hate" isn't the best word to use here, and I've wasted our time defending a poor word choice. Still, I enjoy provocations. They wake me up. Good morning everyone! But again, I think all Pascal is saying is that we're mixed bags and that we should admit it. The good and the bad. Full of kindnesses and grace, but prone to darkness as well. This seems to me to be obvious and banal. And I think that is why I'm showing all this prickly irritation. Christianity has lot its ability to say commonsensical things.

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