Now I don't mean to go back on my decision not to offer such a rebuttal. But the other day I stumbled across the research of a UT Austin professor, Kristin Neff, on the psychological benefits of self-compassion--and thinking about her research immediately set me on a trajectory of reflection that brought me back to Hippolitus's claim that Christian teachings are damaging to psychological health--especially her claim that the doctrine of original sin is psychologically demoralizing insofar as it undermines healthy self-esteem.
Let me explain. Neff's research into self-compassion was motivated by her own religious practice as a Buddhist. Self-compassion is an important concept in Buddhism, and she became interested in studying the empirical effects of such compassion. Some of her central conclusions are neatly summarized in the following abstract for one of her professional articles:
This article focuses on the construct of self-compassion and how it differs from self-esteem. First, it discusses the fact that while self-esteem is related to psychological well-being, the pursuit of high self-esteem can be problematic. Next it presents another way to feel good about oneself: self-compassion. Self-compassion entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself. Finally, this article suggests that self-compassion may offer similar mental health benefits as self-esteem, but with fewer downsides. Research is presented which shows that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem, but involves less self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness,and self-enhancement than self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem entails evaluating oneself positively and often involves the need to be special and above average, self-compassion does not entail self-evaluation or comparisons with others. Rather, it is a kind, connected, and clear-sighted way of relating to ourselves even in instances of failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection.
Neff defines compassion in terms of three elements: first, you notice or attend to a person's suffering; second, you feel FOR the suffering person in a manner characterized by "warmth, caring, and the desire to help"; and third, "when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. 'There but for fortune go I.'"
Now as I reflected on this account, what immediately came to mind for me was a book I sometimes read to my children: "You Are Special," by Max Lucado. For those unfamiliar with it, here's the summary of the story that I offered in a post from a couple of years back:
Punchinello, a wooden man, lives in a village of wooden people. These wooden people are called Wemmicks, and all of them were carved by the same craftsman, a man named Eli who lives in his workshop on a hill looking down on the village. The Wemmicks are all in the habit of putting stickers on each other: gold stars on those who impress them with their good looks or talents, dots on those who fall short, who are scratched or clumsy or awkward. Punchinello is one of the latter. He’ s covered in dots.The last time I talked about this story, it was to share the profound disconnect between the metaphorical way that Lucado shares the Christian gospel narrative in a children's book, and the way that too many Christians, too often, turn evangelism into an ugly bit of "come to Jesus or roast in hell" coercion. But what I want to stress now is that the elements of sin and grace that play such a central role in Christian theology can be pieced together in both of these ways--Lucado's way, and the ugly way that lends itself to the "come to Jesus or roast in hell" message.
But one day he meets a Wemmick who has neither stars nor dots on her; and when he asks her why, she smiles and tell him that the stickers don’t stick on her because she visits Eli every day. And so Punchinello goes to see his maker. Eli is delighted by Punchinello’s visit, and offers him a warm welcome, as well as words of wisdom: What the other Wemmicks think of Punchinello doesn’t matter. What matters is that Eli loves Punchinello just the way he is, without conditions or qualifications. The stickers, Eli says, only stick if they matter to you. And once Punchinello is secure in Eli’s love, they won’t matter at all. Punchinello hears, and believes. And a dot falls to the ground.
It is, of course, the latter that Hippolitus picks up on. She takes the doctrine of original sin to be about "believing you are irredeemably defective without someone else," and she notes that this way of thinking has a crushing effect on self-esteem. She likens the Christian's relationship to God to the destructive dynamic that can arise in a relationship when one mate feels wholly inferior to the other and latches onto the merits of the other for the sake of being "saved" or rescued.
This is, clearly, one way of seeing the Christian doctrine of human sin and divine grace. And if you see the doctrine in this way, then the key message becomes this: Unless you get yourself rescued--that is, let God rescue you--you're doomed.
But what Lucado does in his story is offer us a different way of seeing this same doctrine. In the Wemmick's story, the key point is that all the Wemmicks share a common condition: All are flawed, all make mistakes, and what talents and strengths they have are largely out of their hands. Seeking approval through achievement, judging others for their successes and failures--these are tendencies that divide us and make us lose sight of our shared condition. Such comparative judgments need to give way to a higher perspective.
Years ago I remember reading a painstakingly stitched verse on a wall-hanging in the home of an elderly Christian woman I was visiting. It said this: "There is so much good in the worst of us/ And so much bad in the best of us/ That it doesn't do for any of us/ To talk about the rest of us." Perhaps it's cheesy, but I remember that it struck me at the time, and I shared it with my grandparents (my grandfather was a Baptist preacher). They nodded sagely. This, they said, was what Christianity taught in the doctrine of original sin.
But the doctrine is only a piece of a larger fabric. The higher perspective from which our shared finitude and imperfection are laid bare is also, at the same time, a perspective from which that finitude and imperfection cease to define us. We are not fundamentally defined by our finitude, but by the gaze of love--a love that knows no conditions, that does not wait on worth. And, like Punchinello, we are invited to see ourselves from this perspective--to see ourselves as God sees us, that is, as gracious love sees us. In other words, we are invited to look at our failings and finitude with the eyes of compassion. Looking at ourselves with those eyes, we can be honest about our failings rather than trying to hide them or rationalize them in the way we feel compelled to do when our worth hinges upon our achievements.
And hence, paradoxically, we are freed to achieve more. We want to help ourselves because we love ourselves--not because we aren't worthy of love until we're perfect. And because we can be honest with ourselves, our projects of self-improvement and growth are guided by a kind of clarity that just isn't possible when we define our worth by how many gold stars are stuck to us.
When I facilitated nonviolence workshops in prisons, I encountered many inmates who had undergone a transformation in self-perception of precisely this sort. The source of that transformation? Prison ministries, Christian ones that taught the doctrine of sin and grace. They came out of their encounter with that doctrine not with their self-esteem in the gutter, but with greater self-compassion.
It didn't always happen. But I think there is something about the character of those who choose to take the Christian message into prison, and something about the way they tell the Christian story, that conveys an understanding of it fundamentally similar to what emerges in Max Lucado's parable of the Wemmicks.
What we have here is one very traditional way of seeing and experiencing the Christian doctrine of sin and grace--a way of seeing and experiencing this doctrine that differs from Buddhist notions of self-compassion in its trappings, but a way of seeing that nevertheless fits the mold that Kristin Neff is studying. And yes, it is every bit as traditional as that other, uglier understanding. Both have been around a long time.
And I think that if we want to promote greater self-compassion in the world, we are better served by nurturing the former than by identifying Christianity with the latter and pretending that the former does not exist.