Self-Knowledge in Christ

This Dietrich von Hildebrand fellow is really good. Someone should take an interest in him and try to revive his works or something. Oh, who can we find to do such a thing!

In this passage from Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand makes a distinction between true self-knowledge rooted in the removal of vice from our lives, and a false self-knowledge that seeks to know ourselves merely because we find ourselves to be interesting.

Whenever we take a purely psychological interest in ourselves and thus analyze our character in the manner of mere spectators, we peruse a false and sterile self-knowledge… The fact that the person in question happens to be ourselves merely intensifies our curiosity, without changing its quality. We experience ourselves as we would a character in a novel, without in any way feeling responsible for his defects…

This type of self-knowledge is not rooted in any willingness to change, and so it is completely sterile from the standpoint of moral progress. People who are wont to diagnose their blemishes in this neutral and purely psychological mood will draw from such discoveries no increased power to overcome their defects. On the contrary, such an indolently neutral self-knowledge will make them even more inclined to resign themselves to those defects as a matter of course. They are more remote from the chance of curing those ills than they would if they knew nothing about them. They are often disposed to admit their faults overtly, without restraint or reticence: not however from the motive of humility, nor under the impulse of guilt-consciousness, but because they pique themselves on presenting their vices, a psychologically absorbing sight.

Clearly, this false type of self-knowledge is much more common in our day and age. Rarely do we find anyone who is serious about rooting out sin in their lives. I suspect this is because what used to be thought of as sin is no longer thought of as such. Quite the contrary, what was formerly called a vice is now something to be proud of – one characteristic among many that make up who we are. I like the Beatles. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’m good at math. I enjoy masturbation. (I’m pretty sure I heard this list in my college days).

This is in no way meant to condemn the greater culture, but rather a challenge to those who have been (hopefully) radically transformed by the Gospel message and are thus called to be a light to the world, the salt of the earth. If sin is no longer recognized as such, it is surely our fault. If it is we who are called to “go forth and make disciples of all nations”, then the reason vice is exalted in our age is because we have failed to carry out this commission of Christ. We have failed to proclaim the good news – that Christ is Lord and sin no longer has any power over us.

Does this mean we are to go around condemning the sins of others, “beating them over the head”, as it were, pretending that we are the holy, the few, the true righteous? Of course, not! At the heart of the Gospel message is a love that, while standing firmly in the truth of our moral responsibilities, does not condemn the world. Surely, sin is to be abhorred in all of its forms, but this is not the abhorrence of the self-righteous, but the lament of a lover. When we see someone we love (and we are called to love all, even, and perhaps most especially, our enemies) bound by something we know to be mortally wounding to their soul, it is out of love that we plead for their freedom and salvation. This plea is most immediately raised toward Our Lord, in whom we, and those we love, have such freedom from sin. We intercede on behalf of the beloved, recognizing the stain of sin on our own souls, and that the mercy God has shown us will now be bestowed on the one we love.

Of course, we are to convey our grievous concerns to those whom we have the surety (and often we do not) of sinful behavior. It is our moral duty. But if such a duty, and how tough a duty it is to carry out, is not rooted in love, it will be of little or no avail.

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I do not often pontificate like this on my blog. I intend this blog to be more of a commonplace book than a lecture podium, and as such my blog tends to be a collection of quotes from those far more eloquent than I. Only once in a very long while does this commonplace book turn into a journal. I suppose this is one of those times.

As far as the “homily”, I just needed to get this topic off my chest – to think out loud. Of late, I have been struck by the literally overwhelming love of God. I have a hard time putting it into words, as many who know me may be able to attest. Sometimes I think I end up talking about “love” so much and with such ineloquence that I end up explaining God’s love with no more depth than a bumper sticker. I know that love is at the heart of the Gospel. I know love is why Christ came. And more fundamentally, love is why we exist. This is a love so unfathomable that it is beyond all words. It is the love that animated Mother Teresa and the many, many Saints throughout the ages. To quote a great Catholic theologian of the last century, “love alone is credible” – all else fades away and is purged by the fire.

I am often surprised by the numbers of people visiting this blog. I expect many are accidental or very brief visits, and while “all are welcome” (to quote a very bad Catholic hymn) the intended audience is often myself. I publish this post in the knowledge that someone other than myself may find it helpful.

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