October 1, 2007

More fun with words.

Posted in Personal at 10:08 pm by Caleb Winn

I really do just think about random words quite often. How they sound, how they feel, how they taste. There is an aesthetic quality to words the is lost in the monotony and utility of human speech. 

Words. So powerful that they can stir men to the greatest acts of heroism or the basest acts of barbarism. Our gatekeepers to Truth; our Guardians against lies. The vessel of lies, the obscurers of truth. Words, those most dynamic and powerful of tools. Those most delightful, most damning of ideas. So dangerous that God scattered our language, lest we be as one and confront Him as gods. So wonderful that Christ Himself is called The Word of God, and it was by His Word that there was light to first illuminate the souls of men. 

And we use them to ask our brother to pass the salt.

And what do I have to say about words today? Nothing that justifies that introduction, I’m afraid. I am consistently frustrated by my inability to use words effectively. I’ll sit for hours and write about global geopolitics, only to realize that my writing is laborious to the point of incoherence. What can be done? Perhaps if I can only get back to the building blocks, and try to understand how sounds are formed.

And on that note, the real reason I am writing this post:

One day, sitting at my desk at work, I discovered that you can put almost any vowel sound between the “l” and “ck” sounds, and come up with a word:


The only exceptions that I can think of are leck and loke. Those are not words… yet.  


September 28, 2007

Words that are just fun to say.

Posted in Personal, Poetry at 8:43 pm by Caleb Winn

I’ve been involved with speech and debate for a long time, and  over the years one learns a little bit about the flow of language. It’s not anything I’ve ever really studied or thought consciously about. Over time, one simply learns what works and what doesn’t.

The tone of prosaic speechmaking is very different than the exultant imagery of poetry or the rhythmic rhymes of hip hop, but there is still an amazing degree of nuance, of subconscious expression, that hides behind the words that we choose, the language that we use to breathe meaning into our methodical, asinine arguments. Some words are fun to say, and fun to listen to, and the trick lies in finding those words, those phrases, which express the substance without sacrificing style, so that the words are not mere vessels for communicating ideas, but are decadently decorated, flowing together so well that the argument itself is passively persuasive. 

There are some pretty simple tricks to this. Rhyming is fine, some of the time. Alliteration works wonders. Using rhetorical couplets and trios can be both useful and pretty; they grab the attention, misdirect the focus, and beautify the speech. Establishing a pattern and flow to speech increases the likelihood that the listener will have a generally positive impression, but decreases rational comprehension in order to do this. It can be very effective to vary one’s pace, veering off course to break the ice.

“We must never stand down! We must never surrender! We must never stop fighting! Act now.”

The dramatic effect of the repetitive rhetorical trio only heightens the impact of the culminating statement, which is unique in its structure, in its length, in its grammar (1st person plural declarative to 2nd person command), and should be verbally delivered at a different tone, speed, and volume, and possibly even separated by a short pause.

All of that to say, I often find myself walking down the street, mulling over catchy turns of phrase, and thinking about which words roll trippingly off the tongue. I suppose it’s a weird, nerdy habit, but I’m a rhetorician. It’s what I do.And today I decided that “co” words are fun, especially if they have a hard vowel (like “p”) along for the ride. “-ate” and “-ing” words are great when used in conjunction with like words, because they pseudo-rhyme without any real difficulty. (Mental note: rap would’ve been way easy in Ancient Rome.) And words that are archaic enough to be unusual, but not so much that they are unfamiliar, are great. Especially old violent words, for some reason. They become silly.

Here are some cool words: 


September 24, 2007

On Childhood.

Posted in Personal at 9:19 am by Caleb Winn

We will do the undoable! We will think the unthinkable! We will consider the ineffable and see if we can’t eff it just a bit!

~ Douglas Adams, The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul 

I have a little 4-year-old friend named Emma, and on Friday night I was playing with her outside of a coffee shop, drawing with magic markers, singing songs, and helping her to catch crickets. This girl is so active, so full of energy and life and enthusiasm and curiosity. She is happy to run around and explore new places, and to sit down and create new things. Watching her at play is mesmerizing and, in a way, humbling. To explore for the sake of exploring! To create without self-consciousness, simply for the joy of putting crayon to paper! Would that I had such a taste for the sweet marrow of life.

There is a child-like sense of curiosity, the desire to know, and to learn, and to explore new things, that is an essential human characteristic. They have an innate desire to create, to express the beauty around us and to find a place in this world for the visible and musical expressions of love and joy. Children know better than most that the world is unfathomably large, and that excites them! It’s as if life is a great game, with grand and glorious surprises around every corner. It’s a shame if we ever lose that bold curiosity (as I am sure I had for many years, only to slowly begin to reacquire it).

At the same time, children may be afraid of the unknown. One child will take risks (for he knows not that they are risks!) to explore something new. Another will tremble under his covers, afraid of the dark. Indeed, the same child may do both: one part curious, one part coward. These stand in direct opposition with one another. Curiosity seeks to conquer the unknown, while fear of darkness hides from it. In the one case, children populate the hidden corners of their universe with thrilling fantasies and glorious adventures; in the other case the closets and the spaces beneath their beds become the homes of monsters too horrible to name. The vastness of the world becomes a source of fear, and not of hope.

When confronted with the unknown, we may boldly go where no man has gone before, or we may withdraw into ourselves in fear. These responses are easy to identify in the hearts of children, but they are not absent in adults. We may settle into the mundane routine of life, or we can continue to pursue education for its own sake. We may seek out new experiences and strange companions, or we can shut out anything dangerous or unusual, holding to our bleak suburban lives. Our gut-level response to the unknown will determine a great deal about how we live our lives.

Will I explore the 100-acre wood? Or am I afraid of the dark?

September 20, 2007

Cryptic thought(s) of the day:

Posted in Personal at 11:02 am by Caleb Winn

Redemption isn’t just about the past; it’s about the future.

I’m sure that there is a line between sarcasm and sincerity, but I have no clue whither it lies.

The child who is afraid of the dark can go on the grandest of adventures in his dreams if only he has a little light.

September 18, 2007

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun.

Posted in Personal at 9:24 am by Caleb Winn

Heaven ain’t close in a place like this…

I went to see Stardust again last night. It is a delightful adventure story about a magical Kingdom where fallen stars are more than just space dust: they are men and women who look down on our humble lives and shine with joy and love.

I went outside last night and looked at the stars. I grew up in Southern California, where there aren’t many stars. Even in Texas, light pollution obscures all but a few dozen. But nevertheless, there they were, twinkling away in the heavens. The sheer number of stars, and the realization that there are millions more than I could see, was astounding. And the millions and millions of miles between us was amazing as well. The universe is so great, so big, so mind-bogglingly enormous, that contemplating the heavens should make any man feel humbled to the point of insignificance.

Bring it back down, bring it back down tonight…

But somewhere along the way, we stopped looking at the stars. Maybe it’s because the lights of the city distract us from contemplating the eternal, and so the heavens became unimportant to us.

Or maybe it’s because we tried to bring them down to our level, and bridge that gap between earth and sun. We use telescopes and cameras to understand the world, learning what a star is only to forget what a star means. We seek to learn out of a sense of wonder and whimsy, and somewhere along the way we lose that wonder, and the whimsy is replaced with a lab coat. Rather than being humbled by the enormity of God’s creation, we grow confident in our ability to comprehend the deepest mysteries of the universe, though our understanding is so very superficial. What should cause us to feel small only makes us feel grand indeed, as we shrink the world down into pieces small enough to fit into our tiny brains. We are like the playground bullies who belittle the universe in order to make ourselves feel big and tough and wise.

What does it mean to consider the heavens?

September 16, 2007

This Half-Full Glass Needs To Be Washed…

Posted in Personal at 2:12 am by Caleb Winn

It occurs to me that although life has moments of unbearable agony and indescribable joy, the vast majority of our time is spent in an in-between state, where we mostly eat, sleep, and wash dishes.  At times our cup runneth over. At times we drink from the cup of bitterness. But most often, we just throw the cup in the dishwasher and spend the evening reading a book or doing a Sudoku puzzle: nothing too exciting, but nothing too tragic, either. 

How we evaluate such evenings is important, since they comprise the vast majority of our experiences. Depression likely has its roots in an inability to accept and enjoy this middle ground. If we expect to live in a constant state of indescribable joy, then the boring routines of life will seem like unbearable agony.  

So the trick, then, is to develop a healthy emotional life. We’ve got to learn to be content even when we are not ridiculously happy. We must learn to embrace routine, and not to cultivate an unrealistic longing for constant bliss.

I suspect that stories and music have a major role to play in the development of our emotional states. Especially in this digital era, it is easy to allow ourselves to be constantly bombarded with emotive media. But allowing our expectations about life to be shaped by romantic comedies or pop musicians is a one-way ticket to disappointment. Some discretion is valuable here. To quote Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity

It seems to me that if you place music (and books probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the centre of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it as the finished product. You’ve got to pick at it, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again. Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship. Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realised.’ 

September 14, 2007

A face from long ago…

Posted in Personal at 12:24 am by Caleb Winn

In the spring of 2003, I took a train to San Jose with Kirsten Flewelling and Josh Nadal. On the way back down, we met a friend. His name was Taylor Gustafson. 

We were leaving the Stockton train station, heading south to the next stop at Bakersfield, where we would transfer to a bus for the trip down to L.A. Just three high school students, two seniors and a junior, sharing some laughs and building some memories. But there was a little boy who didn’t want to be aboard the train. He stood just inside the doors, with tears streaming down his cheeks, begging his mom to let him stay there with her, and not to send him back to live with his dad in Bakersfield. He didn’t want to leave. He was only a little boy, 11 or 12, traveling all alone. His name was Taylor Gustafson.

We saw him crying, and took him under our collective wing. Kirsten was the first to reach out to him, and she invited him to join our little 4-person station aboard the train. We asked him questions about his life, and about school, and told jokes until he cheered up. He was living with his dad, but had been visiting his mom, whom he didn’t want to leave. He was also an enormous Pokémon fan, with the playing cards, trading cards, Game Boy games, toys, and VHS tapes to prove it. Since I had friends and brothers who had played the game, I was able to ask him how his Charmander was doing, and whether it was close to evolving into Charmeleon. We invested just a few short hours into his life, learned just a tiny bit about him, and then it was time to go. His stop came, and we transferred to our bus while he waited for his dad to come pick him up. A sad, smart, interesting young boy, whom I will never see again. His name was Taylor Gustafson.

I’ve been thinking about him, lately. I’ve thought about him several times a week, for months. I’ve wondered how he is doing. I’ve wondered how he is enjoying high school. I’ve wondered if he still plays with Pokémon. And I’ve wondered what his name was. Because for the life of me, I couldn’t remember it, until it hit me tonight. His name is Taylor Gustafson.

I’m not sure why this has stuck with me so much. We barely scratched the surface of his life that Sunday afternoon, and then we parted ways. But there is so much depth, so much pain and joy, that lies far below the surface. There is so much more than we can discover through casual conversation. We cross paths with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people every single day, and do not realize just how much there is to know. Most of the time, I can’t even understand myself. To think that there are 6 billion other people with lives as involved as my own is staggering.

I think of the people who read my blog. I get several hits each day from people searching for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I get other visitors, too. I had several visitors who read my post about Psalm 51 in German. I hope that nothing was lost in translation. And I’ve had visits from people who turned to the sacred oracle of Google to find the answers to deep and important questions like, “Can God forgive me when I’ve hurt others?” and “HOW DO I LET GO AND GIVE TO GOD MY PAIN?”

I know nothing about these people. I can only imagine the heart of somebody who asks Google that sort of question, and looks for the answers among this hodgepodge of Buffy, the Bible, and Freud. What great shame causes them to feel unforgivable? What great pain so burdens their hearts? There is no way to know. I can only hope, and pray, that God used my words to bring some of His great peace and comfort.

There are more than 6 billion people in this world, and they are alive – human beings created in the image of God. Some of them ask complete strangers whether they can be forgiven. Others sit aboard trains by themselves, speeding towards unhappy homes, with only Pokémon to keep them company. 6 billion of God’s children, and I have known and touched so very few.

But there is Taylor Gustafson, a little boy that I met on the train 4 and a half years ago. I wonder how he is doing. And I am glad that I remember his name.

September 12, 2007

What Debate Teaches About How To Deal With Life’s Disadvantages

Posted in Personal at 11:30 pm by Caleb Winn

Why Debate?

I have been involved in competitive speech and debate (”forensics”) for 9 years, since I took an Introduction to Speech and Debate camp in the fall of 1998. It has dramatically shaped the way that I think, and the way that I communicate. Speech and debate teach a lot about thinking, a lot about communication, and perhaps most importantly, a lot about the relationship between the two.

This has a lot of implications, not only for the academic game of debate, but for life. Beyond the obvious conclusion that it’s good to know how to speak in public, I’ve given little conscious thought to the lessons that competitive debate might have to offer. But I think that there is a lot to learn from forensics beyond how to make eye contact, and why a counterplan has to be mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, many of the life lessons that I might draw from debate will be of little use to those who do not have some experience in the activity. So in order to explain myself, I’ll go through a little bit of basic debate theory, explaining how arguments work in forensics in order to better understand how they work in the real world. Please bear with me, and if I become incomprehensible to non-debaters, feel free to leave me a comment or email me and I will try to revise and clarify until it makes sense.

How To Make A Disadvantage

In competitive policy debate, both sides attempt to build their case by looking at the pros and cons of the proposed change. The affirmative team argues that their plan will create positive “Advantages,” while the negative insists that it will bring about severe “Disadvantages.” For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus solely on the Disadvantages of the case, which are presented by the Negative team.

These arguments “link” the plan to a factual result, which is then assigned a negative “impact”. It works a little bit like a syllogism:

A (”Plan”) => B (”Link”)

B (”Link”) => C (”Impact”)

A (”Plan”) => C (”Impact”)

For example, the negative team wants to convince the judge that the plan is a bad idea, so they will run a “Disadvantage” about the economy. They argue that:

A. “the plan increases environmental regulations;

B. this will decrease residential construction by 30% (factual ‘link’);

C. this is bad because it will weaken the economy, increasing poverty and lowering the quality of life of the American people (evaluative ‘impact’).”

All of these connections are necessary to constructing an argument. If the plan doesn’t decrease residential construction, there’s no reason to vote against no matter how important residential construction is to the economy overall. If the plan decreases residential construction, but that doesn’t hurt the economy, then there is once again no reason to reject it. The plan has to link to the impact in order for the argument to be persuasive.

How To Respond To An Argument.

When it comes to responding to a disadvantage, there are basically three responses that can be made, either individually or in conjunction with one another. You can:

  1. Attack the link.
  2. Attack the impact.
  3. Grant the argument, and outweigh it.

1. The first approach is to attack the link-level. You can “no link” the argument, by claiming that it is simply untrue. In this context, you would say, “or plan will have no impact on residential housing.” You can also “link turn” the argument, by arguing that your plan would actually do the opposite of what the negative claims. So if the negative says that your plan would decrease construction, you would argue that it would actually increase construction. If less construction is bad, then more construction is good! By Turning the link, you’ve made their disadvantage into an advantage of your case.

2. You can also attack the argument on the impact level, by running a “no impact” or an “impact turn.” Here, you might agree that your plan will decrease residential construction, but insist that it will have no impact on the economy, or even that it will cause the economy to grow. (You could even argue that economic growth is a bad thing, if you wanted to get all wild and crazy about it.) These would be examples of impact-level arguments.

3. The third response is probably not as strategically useful within the debate round, but I think it may be the most realistic argument to be made. Basically, you admit that what the other team is saying is true, but argue that other factors are more important. For example, the affirmative might agree that their plan will hurt the economy, but insist that the benefit to the environment is far more important than the economic impact.

The Disadvantages of Life

It strikes me that this is an interesting metaphor for how we deal with challenges in real life. We are constantly confronted with challenges and disappointments. We are always taking account of our external circumstances (”links”) and evaluating them (”impacts”). As a simple case study, let’s say that life’s “Disadvantage” is that “I have little money, which is bad because I cannot buy nice things.”

In response, we can:

1. Attack the link. Since it’s generally a bad idea to live in a state of denial, the best way to go about this is to try to change the factual circumstances of our lives. If my problem is that I have no money, which keeps me from buying nice things, one solution is to get more money. This is a no-brainer, but sometimes it is simply not possible. For good or for ill, we can’t always control our external circumstances.

2. Attack the impact. Perhaps we cannot change our circumstances, but we can still change how we evaluate those circumstances. Even if we can’t earn more money, we can change how we think about that fact. We can try to convince ourselves that poverty is not bad (”no impact”), because there are lots of nice things that do not require money. We might even come to believe that it is a blessing (”impact turn”) because it allows us to focus on that which is truly important, and not be distracted by shiny baubles.

3. Grant, and outweigh. Sometimes external circumstances just suck, and there’s no way we can no-link or no-impact our way out of them. To the person who has lost a loved one to cancer, the external circumstances are far beyond human control, and the emotional impact is undeniably negative. All we can do is accept reality and find comfort in the fact that other factors outweigh our present pain.

This third strategy is far more powerful in real life than it is in debate. In a debate round, it’s hard to weigh economic impacts against environmental impacts. Nothing can be concretely quantified, and so much is subjective. But in life, the promise of eternal life is so far greater than any temporary pain that the comparison is clear. When there is no resolution to a problem, when no amount of thought or action can bring about positive change, then the ability to focus on other, more positive factors can bring peace.

The Power of Distraction

This is important because when there is no way to resolve the problem, continuing to focus on it is really counter-productive. The more we think about it, the more it will dominate our perspective, and the less we will be able to function with a healthy and robust view of our lives overall. The inability to accept unhappy circumstances and “get over it” is dangerous, as it creates an obsessive cycle that impairs our ability to see the good through the bad.

This has led me to appreciate the power of distraction. When God gives us a problem that is unresolvable, He also gives us the grace to ignore it, and to focus on other things. Whether we turn our thoughts to work, friendships, cathartic stories, or academics, these distractions help us break out of an obsessive cycle of negative self-reflection.

I suppose that various distractions have different values for different people. Some people can lose themselves in their work, while others would only be frustrated even more. Some people find academics engaging, but others would simply be bored. Regardless of how we distract ourselves, it is important to have an activity that can engage our minds and hearts to distract us from the Disadvantages of life.

Along these lines, I think that reflection on the grace of God can be an enormous source of comfort. The Word of God offers more than mere distraction; it offers Hope. We have an infinite, eternal Hope that outweighs any and all finite, temporal suffering. When we cannot change our circumstances, and we cannot accept our circumstances, we still have the blessing of being able to place those in a far greater context, and to realize how small our current pain is in light of the eternal joy that awaits those who are in Christ.

September 6, 2007

Redemption: Erotic Guilt As The Motivation To Make Amends (4/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy, The Church at 11:12 pm by Caleb Winn

As I have thought further on the subject of erotic guilt vs. thanatotic self-punishment, I’ve realized that there may be no clearer image of this dynamic in action than in the character of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, specifically in the episode Amends.

To recap: Angel the vampire (with a soul!) is plagued with images of those whom he has wronged. Unable to bear his guilt, he instead concludes that he is unworthy to live, that he is in fact wholly worthless and evil, and attempts to take his own life. Through seemingly divine intervention, Angel’s life is spared, and he rededicates himself to a life of service in order to make amends for what he has done.

I have already blogged about this here, and Rebecca Card provides further exposition and analysis here. In light of my recent reflections on the nature of repentance, however, the redemption of Angel takes on new light for me. Here are my reflections on the nature of redemption in light of Amends.

Human Love Cannot Bring Redemption.

Buffy’s love cannot save Angel, nor can the forgiveness of everybody whom he has ever wronged. In the face of self-punishment, the soul simply cannot accept the idea of human forgiveness, and cannot recognize any self-worth.

This makes perfect sense if self-punishment is a means of evading real, love-based guilt. Because the torment is not motivated by love for the offended, the love of the offended cannot alleviate the pain. The aggression and hatred cannot be dissolved by the tearful kisses of another, nor by their angry pleas. If Buffy cries I love you! it falls on deaf ears, and if she calls him a coward it only adds fuel to the fire of his self-loathing.

The cause of Angel’s torment is internal, and so the cure is also internal. He must learn to forgive and love himself. And, in his case at least, this process requires divine intervention.

Grace Is A Divine Concept

It takes an act of the divine to break through the cognitive and emotional barriers that keep Angel mired in self-pity and self-directed aggression. Though Angel sought death, the “Powers-That-Be” had other plans for him, and they spared his life. This action allows Angel to confront his guilt, to work through his guilt, and to no longer hide behind the lie that he is irredeemable. Redemption falls all around him, in the form of the blessed snow, and he is freed from his self-destructive despair. He finds purpose and hope in this redemptive act, and through it he understands that he has a higher calling.

The redemption offered by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the effective communion extended through the agency of the Holy Spirit, are far more powerful and meaningful. Though our sins are greater than we can imagine, God’s grace is even greater still! The knowledge that the Son of God became man, and that the blessed Godman took the penalty of my sin upon Himself, allows me to come to terms with my feelings of guilt and shame.

Repentance Seeks Restitution And Regeneration

Angel’s redemption is directly linked to his calling to “help the helpless,” as a means of making amends for his years of wrongdoing. He is called to bring protection and peace where he had brought aggression and destruction. This is appropriate and good, and is surely an example to be followed. True guilt is based in love for the object of our offense, and should compel us to change our actions and seek to repair any damage done. Therefore, wherever possible, we should respond to conviction by seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have offended. However, we must also be willing to accept grace if this is not possible.

The difficulty here is that those he killed were beyond the reach of his redemptive efforts. Try as he might, Angel cannot do anything to undo his misdeeds. The understanding that one’s wrong actions have caused irrevocable damage is damning, and allows for no possibility of earned redemption in the specific sense. Once he has killed a man, Angel can never restore that which he had taken.

This does not mean that Angel cannot seek personal restoration through performing good deeds. Through doing this, he can repair the damage done to himself, even if he can never undo the damage done to Ms. Calendar. His goal, then, is not to undo what had been done, for that is impossible, and attempting to do so will only lead to more despair, and in turn self-destructive penitence. Dwelling on specific past sins is neither healthy, nor productive. Instead, Angel seeks to become a good man. Even where restitution is not possible, Angel seeks internal regeneration, and a life of virtue.

I suspect that this depends on the idea that our sin is ultimately against God, and not our fellow men. (See Psalm 51, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight!”) If our sin is against God, and we feel an appropriate (love-based) guilt over our misdeeds, then we will be motivated to be reconciled to God through sanctification. Even if the particular expressions of our sin have persistent long-term impacts, we may still now the peace of redemption by grace, through faith, in the finished work of Christ.

In Time, Virtue Moves Beyond Catharsis

In a way, Angel’s actions are still motivated by narcissism. Though he makes personal sacrifices to serve others, he does so for the sake of achieving redemption. This is especially apparent in light of the prophecy that comes to light in the spin-off seriesAngel, in which Angel is promised restoration to a human state. This desire for personal satisfaction and the alleviation of guilt motivates much of Angel’s “virtue” throughout the series.

But this is not his entire motivation. Over the course of several seasons, Angel grows to fight more for Good than for personal happiness. By the end of Angel, he is even willing to give up the promise of humanity in order to fight against evil more effectively. He is content to go down fighting for what is right, sacrificing his life in the service of a worthy cause, and not because he felt himself unworthy to live.

Redemption In The “Real” World

Though Angel is a fictional character, his story contains lessons for anybody who, like me, struggles with the thanatotic impulse to self-punishment. When confronted with the realization of horrendous wrongs committed, it is easy to evade true guilt and wallow in self-torment. This is the path that Angel sought to take when he tried to end his life. But there is a far greater path, and Angel shows the way.

(1) Seek the grace of God, and not the approval of man. Even if everybody in the world loved me, that could never alleviate the self-destructive, thanatotic need for punishment. Only the redemptive love of a supernal God can break through and challenge an infernal hate!

(2) Seek restitution where possible, but ultimately move past the place of sin, pressing towards righteousness for its own sake, and not for the sake of easing one’s troubled conscience. A man’s life need not be defined by his greatest failures. Rather, he should seek to transcend those failures and pursue the good life, neither wallowing in past sins, nor being complacent to remain in them.

Through a committed reliance on God, and through practical efforts at sanctification through His strength, man is made whole, and freed from the self-punishment that accompanies the Law of Sin and Death. There is no more condemnation!

September 1, 2007

Sin: Idolatry As Narcissistic Self-Love (2/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy at 10:00 pm by Caleb Winn

As I reflect further on the subject of idolatry, I realize that idolatry is not vested in the object, but rather in the self. If I make an idol of another person, or of any object or ideal, I am not truly loving the object for its own sake; rather, I am loving the object as an expression of narcissistic self-love.

Freud’s Two Loves

This occurred to me as I thought about Freud’s description of the “narcissistic libido” in Civilization and its Discontents. Freud argues that we may love an object for our own sake, or for the sake of the object itself. The former type of narcissistic love is immature and self-centered, while the latter is more mature and developed. But the two seem to be separated more by chronology and emotional development than by some sort of categorical distinction.

I’m primarily interested in the narcissistic libido. If I am hungry, I desire bread, not for the sake of the bread, but for the sake of my own hunger. I “love” the bread, but only because it fulfills my own needs. The love that we hold for the beloved (whatever or whomever that may be) is merely a projection of self-love, so that our narcissism is fulfilled through the possession of a gratifying external good.

This narcissistic love is not limited to inanimate objects. Interpersonal relationships can also be subject to this sort of dynamic. We can turn to others for intellectual, physical, and emotional gratification, without truly caring for the person for his or her own sake.

This is the most basic, immature, natural form of human love. As infants and as toddlers, we love our parents because they provide us with food and protection. We do not truly care for their happiness, and have little concern for how our cries disturb their sleep. We are focused on our own wants and needs, and value our mothers for their ability to meet those wants and needs, and for nothing else.

However, though it may begin in a place of immaturity, human love may mature and develop beyond this. Although we begin selfishly, desiring objects for our gratification, we need not remain in a state of emotional infancy. The baby may grow to love the mother, not because she provides for his needs, but for her own sake. There can come a point where love for the object transcends our own narcissism, and the well-being of the beloved becomes more highly valued that the well-being of the self. This occurs at the point of self-sacrifice, where the beloved is practically valued above the self. For, “greater love hath no man than that he would lay down his life for a friend.”

False Love As Idolatry of Self

With this in mind, it becomes clear to me that intensity of emotion does not True Love make. No matter how desperately one may desire fame, fortune, or the love of another person, the desire may remain essentially narcissistic. The experience of intense desire is not evidence of noble intention or a mature love, though it may also not be evidence that such a noble love does not exist.

The test, then, becomes what happens when the good of self conflicts with the good of the beloved? For if the love is essentially rooted in narcissism then it may transform into bitterness and hatred when the object of our love is not readily attained. If, instead of valuing the object for its own sake, we only value our attainment of it, an inability to attain our object may cause anger, and even motivate us to strike out at that which we claim to love. If, on the other hand, we possess a mature love that values the beloved for its own sake, then we ought to be ready and willing to make sacrifices for the sake of that which we love, putting its well-being above our own.

In light of this, then, I need to refine my views on idolatry. Idolatry is not excessive love (as in, selflessness), as I previously claimed. For idolatry does not ultimately rest in the love of the object, but rather in the love of the self. We worship the golden calf, not for its sake, but for our own! When we chase excessively after wealth, fame, or human love, we do not seek to orient our lives around a false God in worship; rather, we demand that wealth, fame, and human love serve us, and meet our needs. There is false worship, to be sure, but the God that we worship is within, and not without. Wealth, fame, and human love are not false gods whom we serve; they are the sacrifices that we seek to offer up on the altar of the ego. We ultimately seek to serve only ourselves.

This strips away any sense of nobility, and exposes the root narcissism of idolatry. When I chase after money, success, respect, or affection, I do not do so out of genuine, selfless love. When I pursue objects for the sake of my own personal gratification, there is no nobility to be found. There is no room to play the martyr, or to be filled with self-pity, simply because the objects of my desire remain beyond reach. One might as well be an young child, throwing a temper tantrum and a pity party because he cannot get his way.Instead, the answer is to turn to God with a broken and contrite heart, seeking earnestly to lay aside my own desires and to find His will for my life. The answer is to acknowledge the narcissism of idolatry, to admit that it is I, and I alone, who receives my worship, and to turn away from selfish, desire-based “love” and try to learn true Love from the One whose love truly is greater than that of any man.

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