Saturday, October 16, 2010

Historical Self-Righteousness

Self-righteousness is the attitude of the man who says, "I thank God that I am not like other men. I do all the right stuff. I don't do the wrong stuff. I stand alone on the moral mountain. I look down, and pity everyone else below, mired as they are in the moral sewer (cf. Lk. 18.9-14)."

Self-righteous people tend to:
1) Judge others for their mistakes, "You should have... How could you... "
2) Complain of how they have been slighted, "Everyone has done me wrong. Poor me."
3) Walk around with a sense of stupefied moral outrage, "I can't believe those people did that. How dare they! How could they?"
4) Assume they are the last righteous person on a sea of moral shipwrecks, "All those Christians are hypocrites."
5) Have a very high view of their own moral abilities, and supreme confidence in their own judgment, "I will never compromise. Even if all others stray, I'll stand strong. They failed, but I would have done better."

Generally, we speak of self-righteous people as they relate to their contemporaries, especially their family, friends, fellow workers, and even Church.

However, I believe self-righteousness can also show itself as we relate to our forefathers. Let's call this historical self-righteousness. This is the attitude of the person who looks back in history, condemns all who went before, and concludes that the present generation is the first (and only) morally clean seed of Adam.

Historical self-righteousness seems to be on the rise. Note, for example, how many scathing biographies have come out in recent years. The targets have included  men like George Washington, George Whitfield, Francis Schaeffer, and C.S. Lewis. The sole purpose of these biographies seems to be tearing down these lofty figures for all their supposed faults. The authors pride themselves on having a superior moral position.

I want to make a few simple points in response to this trend:

First -- I doubt you (Mr. Biographer) or I would have done better under similar circumstances. Remember, when we consider the great men of history, we are considering men that are gifted above most people who ever lived (including YOU and ME). Thus, I doubt we would have done better in their circumstances. I'm sure we would have done worse.

Second -- don't forget that we ourselves have our own generational sins. Our great-great grand children will look back, 100 years from now, and say, "How could those people have been so blind about .... Why didn't they do more to stop it... Did they really believe...?"

Third -- historical self-righteousness is as dangerous as any other self-righteousness. It separates you from past humanity because you are 'so superior.' It shuts your ears to what you might learn from previous generations. It cuts you off from the ability to see your own sins (or those of your own generation). It blinds you to your own need of God's grace.

So, as we look back on our forefathers, let us not have the basic attitude of self-righteousness. Instead, let us pray, "We are not worthy even to look up to heaven. God have mercy on us."

Finally, a word to biographers. Aren't we all biographers? Aren't we all engaged in processing the figures of history?  We 'write' the lives of those who went before us whenever we speak about them. This includes 'writing' about our grandparents and parents. This includes 'writing' about the heroes of history: Socrates, Julius Caeser, George Washington, et. al. This also includes 'writing' about the heroes of the faith: Augustine, Chrysostom, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis, et. al., and all who comprise the cloud of witnesses who went before us. All who, even now, are with Christ in glory.

My final word is a word of warning to all us biographers. This is from Michael Jose's review of A.N. Wilson's bitterly critical and self-righteous biography of C.S. Lewis:

"I am strongly reminded of the position in which John Betjeman's biographer, Bevis Hillier found himself. He tells us that he decided to avoid producing a 'critical biography', which is an illegitimate art-form, as it 'yokes together historical narrative and literary criticism'. This is Wilson's error, and he compounds it with his own repetitious and subjective brand of psychoanalysis. It is as if he cannot restrict himself to any one role, or even a coherent set of roles. He wants to be an honest broker, iconoclast, Devil's Advocate, psychoanalyst, literary critic, and historian by turns. He fails."

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