Saturday, September 9, 2017

Rational Self Denail

The term Kenosis as adapted from the Gospels and St. Paul can be read as incarnational theology in which Jesus "empties himself" of divinity to become fully human and to suffer and die. There are also those disturbing injunctions to followers of Jesus "take up the cross". These have been spiritualized by mystics, ancient and modern, to mean a metaphorical self denial that leads to growth, renewal, rebirth, enlightenment, divinization, etc. In some cases, they run counter to the incarnational conception of becoming more human.

In the early church self denial often meant persistence in faith while being rejected by family, friends, and even attacked or made into a literal martyr for the kingdom of God (there's another gem to try to understand). Martyrs were venerated and even emulated. The ascetics tended to spiritualize the severe teachings of Jesus to the degree that "mortification of the flesh" seemed the most noble attempt at godliness.

A lot of good came out of the efforts of spiritual athletes, but it came mainly after the era of desert hermits and stylites. The mature monks created communities with rational boundaries. The monastic orders became centers of scholarship and industry. They founded universities and did scientific research based on their erudition in many cultural traditions.

There have been many attempts to draw parallels between the idea of Christian kenosis and Hindu, Buddhist spirituality. Again the Eastern mystics say or imply that emptying the self, even annihilation of the self, leads to spiritual growth or divinization. I think to the degree that this makes sense it is similarity of the ascetic overreach of Christian mystics and ascetic overreach of Eastern mystics.

I think self denial can induce spiritual growth if it is rational: that is to say, it serves some purpose, other than an attempt to be god. People deny themselves for many reasons. Parents deny themselves many pleasures to raise children well. Artists deny themselves to pursue their music or literary careers. Married people sacrifice a certain autonomy to live together harmoniously. In this sense, self denial is more self discipline. Christians have the severe teachings of Jesus that call them to sacrifice for the kingdom of God (again, try to decipher that).

I'm pretty verbose on this subject, so I'll refer to more than you'll likely want to read in a couple of places. The opera Thais is an artistic rendering of the battle of flesh and spirit:
Also, the "self denying receptivity to God's formative power" is a considerably feminine virtue. Don't blame me for the title of this one; that was the editor's cute idea:

Finally, there is the question of whether there is anything left if one succeeds in self denial.  To succeed at anything requires discipline, but self denial, in some sense, could negate the object of the discipline.  Ayn Rand, the advocate of selfishness, notes that a woman who denies herself a new wardrobe to support the expense of raising her child is not sacrificing much unless she values a new dress more than her child.  An musician trying to sustain his art doesn't sacrifice self by living in penury to continue being a musician.  Sacrificing self would be giving up the music to deny what he most wants in life.

Who we are is what we have to give to other people and to the achievements to which we strive.  It's a delicate balance at times, trying to make everything we are and what we hope to achieve fit into one lifetime.  The mystical impulse to become a spiritual athlete by mortification  of the flesh and any and all aspirations is likely to lead to some quandaries.