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On Selfishness

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The concept of selfishness has such a wide variety of meanings and contradictory nuances that it is almost impossible to disentangle them all. Selfishness has been lauded as a virtue and castigated as a vice. Some have even attributed selfishness to objects that have no ‘self’: most notably to genes and memes. So let’s start with a definition:

Selfishness: the pursuit of one’s own happiness.

This is a very simple definition, but I think it helps us disentangle some of the contradictions bound up in the concept of selfishness. Pascal, in a famous passage from his Penseés says,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Selfishness, by this definition is both universal and indispensable. In fact, despite Christian diatribes against selfishness, the Bible says almost nothing against it. Quite the contrary. The Bible assumes that people are selfish and addresses them accordingly with appeals to their happiness and self interest. You won’t find God encouraging self sacrifice for it’s own sake. If there is no vice in selfishness, there is certainly no virtue in unselfishness. There is nothing to be gained by harsh treatment of oneself. When Peter, apparently seeking commendation, tells Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” Jesus replies,

“I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

The implication is clear. “You got a bargain, Peter. Whatever you gave up, you get back in spades, and to top it all off, you get eternal life.” In giving everything up to follow Jesus, Peter had only acted with intelligent self interest. Even Jesus pursued his own happiness, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame.”

If selfishness is universal and indispensable, why is it considered such a vice? Why do we teach children not to be selfish? Why do we revile the titans of industry who put their own interests ahead of their companies’?

That last question contains a clue. Hardly anyone objects to corporate executives reaping rewards for their diligent efforts as long as those rewards do not come at the expense of their employees or their customers or of taxpayers. When your pursuit of happiness infringes on mine, then I’m perfectly willing to denounce your selfishness. The idea is that in pursuing our own happiness we ought to take care not to obstruct others’ pursuit of their happiness. Selfishness becomes most selfish not when it is concerned with self but when it is unconcerned with others. This leads to a second definition.

Selfishness: indifference to others.

It’s not necessary to reconcile these two definitions; words can have more than one meaning. We just need to be clear what meaning we are using. The first definition leads us to a universal, essential characteristic of humans. But indifference to others need not be universal nor essential. In fact, taken to an extreme, indifference to others thwarts our pursuit of happiness.

Of course, some level of indifference is essential to our health and happiness. If I were really concerned about the plight of everyone in need, whether AIDS victims in Africa, child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, or poor people driven from their homes right here in America, I would be paralyzed by the magnitude of raw need. I can only be really concerned about those who come within my purview, those who are my neighbors.

This neighborly concern is not in conflict with my self interest. By showing kindness to my neighbors, I am making my neighborhood more civil, more charitable. If I have mercy on them, someone may have mercy on me when I am in need. Real kindness, however, does not spring from such enlightened self interest. It springs from genuine affection for others.

When Jesus wanted to illustrate neighborly love, he told the story of the good Samaritan. In the story, the religious “good guys” concerned with their position and reputation, do not see a fellow sufferer. They see an annoyance. The Samaritan, however, has compassion on him. When he sees the man bloodied and hurt, he hurts too. He is motivated not by self interest but by spontaneous affection for another human being. He suffers with him, envisioning himself in the same predicament. This upwelling of compassion compels him to tend the man’s wounds, take him to Urgent Care, and pay for his treatment.

Does the Samaritan act unselfishly? Yes and no. Certainly he was not indifferent to the wounded man. Love, by its very nature, is other centered. Love takes pleasure in serving the one loved. The Samaritan was not annoyed at having to stop. He was not grudging in his efforts to help. He gave freely and unconstrainedly. It was his pleasure to serve. In serving, he pursued his own happiness and no doubt found greater fulfillment than the priest and Levite who had each passed by the man and left him to die.

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America’s Biggest Problem

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Health care reform is an urgent issue. Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured. While there are differences about what role government ought to play in health care, there is nearly universal agreement about the need for reform. Yet health care reform is not our biggest problem.

The financial crisis that resulted from the collapse of the housing bubble has led to a worldwide recession. In the United States, unemployment has risen into double digits, and many people have stopped receiving unemployment benefits because they have been so long without a job. Home foreclosures continue at an alarming rate, and occupations once considered secure, still face further cuts. Yet the economic crisis is not our biggest problem.

Since the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we have fought to contain and eventually eliminate terrorism. Our efforts have certainly curtailed terrorist activities, yet we still face massive military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In exchange for security we have given up personal freedoms we once held dear. Yet neither terrorism nor the loss of our freedoms is our biggest problem.

Our biggest problem is the oldest in history. It has been with us since the founding of our nation and will continue until history itself comes to an end. America’s biggest problem is sin.

Some people when they hear “sin” think immediately of sexual immorality. This sort of sin has been so long derided by our media that hardly anyone thinks of it as sin any more. As destructive as sexual immorality is to our health and to our future, it is not what I mean by “sin.”

Other people think of the long and varied list of things good Christians are not supposed to do: drinking, dancing, smoking, gambling, and using recreational drugs. Those who assiduously avoid such things certainly appear to have some form of godliness or holiness, but it’s a form our media have mocked until the very concept of godliness seems quaint, like the plain-style furnishings you can buy from Amish retailers. Neither is this what I mean by “sin”

I think of sin the way Heidegger thought of being thrown: it pervades our human condition. By the time we become aware of it, we are already guilty. If we look at the archetypal sin, the first one committed in the Garden (Genesis 3), there is nothing inherently immoral about it. Adam and Eve did not break any law that we would recognize as universal today. They didn’t steal of kill or lie or destroy. All they did was eat what God had forbidden, and they did so under provocation from a tempter who filled their heads with visions of God-like grandeur. What was so damnable about that?

In fact, the sin I mean is what we Americans regard as our greatest virtue. It is our independence from God. Throughout our history, we have been torn between our near idolization of independence and our acknowledgment of God (even the feeble, antiseptic acknowledgment permitted by our modern understanding of religious freedom under the Constitution). Our independence of God is our biggest problem.

Our prophets, instead of calling for national repentance, are too busy casting stones at their political enemies. Since we are evidently reaping the harvest of our greed, why are there so few Christian leaders calling for repentance and urging the church to serve those most injured by it? Why so few warnings about future judgment? Do we really think we can indefinitely postpone the payment for our sins? That the bill for the billions we are borrowing now to stave off depression will not come due at a most inopportune time?

Let us repent. The problems we have are of our own making. We have tried to do good on our own without God’s wisdom and guidance. Now we are trying to correct our mistakes without admitting our guilt or asking for help. Let us repent as a nation. Let those of us who believe in God turn to him on behalf of those who do not. Let us stop castigating our political opponents and acknowledge that we ourselves have been guilty of independence from God. Let us plead for his mercy and grace. Let us serve the poor and share with those in need. Let us practice true religion (James 1:27). A humble, penitent, obedient church might once again display the power of God to a watching world.

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Parable of the Demons

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The church was overcoming the darkness. The kingdom of heaven was advancing. So Satan held a council of war to determine the best way to defeat the church.
“Who will devise a strategy to stop this troublesome church?” asked Satan.
A cruel-looking demon stepped forward. His flesh was covered with ulcerated sores, and his face was hideously deformed. When he spoke it sounded like acid dripping on hot stones.
“I will persecute the church,” he said. “I will put them to death and beat them and hound them from place to place. I will imprison them and cause them to suffer for daring to side with our Enemy.”
“No!” said a smooth, reasonable voice, and another demon stepped forward. He was a handsome devil, worldly and urbane. “When you persecute the church, she grows stronger. Listen to me. I will give them what they want most.”
“What will you give them?” asked Satan.
“I will give them respectability,” said the debonair demon. “I will cause them to be esteemed in their community. I will flatter them with honor and respect until they love the praises of men more than the praises of our Enemy. Before long they will not dare to do anything uncivilized or risk losing their respectability.”
“Yes,” agreed Satan. “Go and do as you have said.”
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