Selfish Self-Denial?

St Paul the Hermit by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)

Paul the Hermit by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)

Can self-abnegation, a basic tenet of Neoplatonic Mysticism and other spiritualities, ultimately be selfish and self-centered?  In The Gospel of the Incarnation (NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, 1893), pp. 52 f., renowned Bible scholar Benjamin B. Warfield thought so.

Our self-abnegation is thus not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.  And thus it is not to mere self-denial that Christ calls us, but specifically to self-sacrifice:  not to unselfing ourselves, but to unselfishing ourselves.  Self-denial for its own sake is in its very nature ascetic, monkish.  It concentrates our whole attention on self—self-knowledge, self-control—and can, therefore, eventuate in nothing other than the very apotheosis of selfishness.  At best it succeeds only in subjecting the outer self to the inner self, or the lower self to the higher self; and only the more surely falls into the slough of self-seeking, that it partially conceals the selfishness of its goal by refining its ideal of self and excluding its grosser and more outward elements.  Self-denial, then, drives to the cloister; narrows and contracts the soul; murders within us all innocent desires, dries up all the springs of sympathy, and nurses and coddles our self-importance until we grow so great in our own esteem as to be careless of the trials and sufferings, the joys and aspirations, the strivings and failures and successes of our fellow-men.  Self-denial, thus understood, will make us cold, hard, unsympathetic, —proud, arrogant, self-esteeming,—fanatical, overbearing, cruel.  It may make monks and Stoics,—it cannot make Christians.


One Comment on “Selfish Self-Denial?”

  1. Polly Glot says:

    Or, as Paul puts it: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh [or “are of no value, serving only to indulge the flesh].” Especially that last sentence is a real kicker!

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