I swear, this isn’t going to be a random internet rant on how terrible Donald Trump is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about faith lately, mostly as a consequence of reading books that use religion as a central plot point, with various degrees of seriousness.
For example, I’ve been thinking about the idea of pride as a sin. The classic question about pride is, when does it count as a sin? Is it a sin to say “Well I make a pretty good apple pie, if I do say so myself”? Or do I have to claim I make a better apple pie than GOD HIMSELF?1
The answer, as I understood it, goes something like this: The sin of pride isn’t in having self-esteem, or confidence. It’s about thinking of things in terms of how they affect you, and your self-worth in particular. To quote Iroh, “pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source.” We are more vulnerable to shame when we feel pride, because we’re thinking of things in terms of how they reflect our self-worth, and we feel more keenly anything that would affect it negatively.
Going back to the pie, the sin would be in just thinking of making the pie in terms of how it reflects my status. If I didn’t truly care about the fact that actual people were going to eat the pie, that’s a sin. Here’s a way to measure it: Say I find out someone doesn’t like the pie. If I’m a truly great and humble man, I’ll be disappointed that he didn’t enjoy himself, and resolve to try something else with the next pie to make it taste better. If I’m just a normal guy, I’ll be a bit hurt that someone didn’t like my pie, and move on. And if I’m unusually prideful, I’ll get very angry at him. I’ll make up all sorts of shady excuses about how he has no ability to appreciate pie, how he’s just out to get me, how he’s just an idiot who’s opinion shouldn’t count. Because I’ve tied my self-worth to the pie, and if my pie is terrible, that means I must be terrible too. And I will fight tooth and nail to avoid having to think that I’m terrible.
Having lived in America for just over four years, I recently made a christian friend, who I asked about this. And he reminded me of an important hole in my attempt to understand the religious view on pride; I’d forgotten about God.
His explanation of the christian view of pride went like this: Pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, because it’s the lack of sufficiency in Christ. And if God isn’t enough for you, you turn to the other sins to compensate – gluttony is trying to fill up the God-shaped hole in you with food, Greed is trying to fill it up with money, and so forth. We all need God, and when we lose him, we desperately reach for anything we can to fill the void, but it’s never enough, and we hurt ourselves and others by reaching for the wrong things.
In some ways, this isn’t too different from my original idea. If you don’t think of God, you start thinking too much of yourself (an expression which can mean both thinking too highly of yourself, and thinking about yourself too much; this is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence). In terms of the pie, the sin is in basing your self-worth on the quality of your cooking, because you can’t base it on God’s love. Unlike my original version2, this version offers a solution: When you feel prideful, look for you connection to God and base yourself in that, rather than your pride.
This brings me back to the title. Donald Trump may call himself a christian, but if there is one thing he has never had, it is sufficiency in God. He builds giant towers and puts his name on them in golden letters and that’s still not enough fame and glory for him, because nothing will ever be enough.
Compare the vaguely unreligious Bill Gates, or at least his generic public image, as I don’t know him personally. He seems like a shy, somewhat nerdy guy who somehow ended up with more money than he knew what to do with. He wound up giving most of it to people who needed it – not because he’s a saint who lives in monklike austerity, but because he has more than enough money for what he needs, and doesn’t mind giving some of it away. Because he has sufficiency, though probably not in God.
I’m not religious, and don’t see God as a necessary part of sufficiency. For me, sufficiency is about relaxing your worries about your self-worth and realizing you have enough. I think of church as a social and emotional experience, not a mystical one.
In Geometry, it sometimes helps to add theoretical “points at infinity”. For example, we sometimes like to think of straight lines as circles with infinite radius, that pass through this point at infinity. We can use this to solve regular geometric problems that seem like they have nothing to do with any “points at infinity”. I think of God in the same way: As a theoretical concept, but a concept that’s useful for solving problems in the real worlds, if we believe in it. And there is evidence for this. Religious people are happier and healthier than non-religious people in similar circumstances. It’s almost enough to make me wish I believed in God (though judaism has a much worse ritual-to-community-action rtio than most variants of christianity, and I’m far too culturally jewish to ever consider conversion anyways). And we can think about sufficiency in this way: true sufficiency is just being happy in yourself, but faith can help you get there.
But the interesting thing about this is that it could also work backwards! Let’s assume that that the christians are right about God. If there is a benevolent God who watches the fall of every sparrow, then he most assuredly watches over us, who are more valuable than many sparrows. Can you imagine that we wouldn’t be able to feel it, if we opened our eyes and looked?
But if we didn’t believe in God, if we didn’t like going to church or had just plain never heard of religion, we wouldn’t associate it to God. We’d just feel generally at peace. And we’d assume that was all we were feeling, that we had just found a way to feel sufficiency in ourselves and let go of our pride. And we still wouldn’t verbally believe in God – but in the way that truly mattered, we would already be connected to Him.
I have to admit, I secretly hope this is true.
1. For anyone out there who wants to play the reverse game, and try to be as sinful as possible: Caps Lock are always a good way to go.↩
2. My non-God-involving version does appear, in a way, to offer a solution by suggesting you worry less about your self-worth and more about the actual effects of what you do. This isn’t particularly helpful, since it doesn’t give much new information beyond “be nicer and less prideful!”. The closest I’ve come to an actual solution is to try and spend more time with people you like and respect, which over time makes it feel more natural to consider others’ feelings (and has the added benefit of being something you should probably do regardless). Again, this isn’t exactly revolutionary.↩