There’s a little book that I’ve read a number of times throughout my life, Saint Teresa de Avila’s Interior Castle or Castillo Interior, as I originally read it in Spanish. I’m rereading it now because I’m trying to figure out why it appealed to me so much when I was a young adult. I wrote poems in Spanish and English dedicated to this saint and her book. While it’s true that I have a weird relationship to people who have lived long ago, few of them have merited my poetry (Alexander Pope, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mary Leopor, and Mary Astell are only the others I can think of at the moment.)
I was caught by a section detailing the common misgivings of humans that are falsely attributed to humility. She says:
Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls the devil must have ruined in this way! They think that all these misgivings, and many more that I could describe, arise from humility, whereas they really come from our lack of self-knowledge.
This portion of text is in the first section of the book, in one of the chapters detailing the “first mansion,” as she puts it. This first mansion must be dealt with in order to move through to the ultimate mansion, the seventh. Self-knowledge, she admits, is never the endpoint. But without it, we have difficulty moving forward in our spiritual walk with God because we have too many hangups.
It got me thinking about false humility, most of which is either promoted by a person blind to his own ego traps and failings (what Teresa de Avila is talking about here) or somebody who is willfully trying to blind others to his failings. In the aforementioned group, false humility often leads to a lack of confidence because these people don’t recognize their true weaknesses or their strengths, and they become recalcitrant and difficult to work with.
But as my mind goes, this line of thinking connected to a peculiar doctrine in modern churches, that of “He must increase, and I must decrease.” I have to admit that in the days when my husband and I were still attending a Protestant congregation (nondenominational), I would become recalcitrant (word of the day) over that doctrine of false humility. I refused to sing songs or speak “affirmations” that were worded similarly.
When I say this is a belief in modern churches, I mean those that sing tiresome songs repeating that line, I must decrease that God may increase. There is a modern praise song out there that does exactly that with an informal take on it: More of you, less of me. Ironically, the first line reads I made my castle tall, I built up every wall (lyrics by Colton Dixon, according to the internet).
Self-denigration isn’t a particularly new doctrine. I mentioned Sor Juana in the first paragraph; she is famous for giving up her worldly pursuits of studying and writing in a declaration, in which she famously stated: Yo la peor de todo. However, there is evidence she did not give up these pursuits, and the declaration was more likely a rhetorical flourish to appease the pesky bishop who threatened her with the tail end of the Spanish Inquisition over a debate she’d been having with him.
Breast-beating, self-flagellation — these are parts of historical Christianity. I don’t want to denigrate my own modern epoch too much. But I can’t deny that it is a doctrine dour Protestants have picked up from, as far as I can tell, an odd misreading of Scripture. The doctrine is derived from John 3, in which John the Baptist is answering his followers, who’ve noted that Jesus is also baptizing people beyond Jordan. John tells his followers the truth: he is only a forerunner to Jesus, and his [John’s] ministry must decrease in order for Jesus’s ministry to increase. In other words, the times are changing. No longer will the Israelite people be under the old covenant, but a new one that John only bore witness to.
It seems to me, though, that Christians misuse this verse to put on a false sense of humility, in which they declare that they must be drained of their personhoods in order for God to reign in their lives. There is no doubt that all humans need to repent of their wickedness and be cleansed by the blood of Jesus, and they need to continuously be in a state of repentance to keep themselves from impurity. I would never deny that. What I do deny is that God wants us to give up who we are as individuals so that he can better use us.
This hatred of humans, this anti-life denigration of the creatures whom God created in his own image is a doctrine of perverse men. It’s a doctrine we get stuck on because we get stuck in that first mansion Saint Teresa writes about, where we are supposed to be doing self-examination but where many of us never come to understand who we truly are in God. If God despised us to such a degree that he would want us to become empty shells for him to fill up as helium fills a balloon, why would he have sent his son to sacrifice his life for us? If he loves only himself and not the children he made in his image, why does he tell us he loves us?
I cannot reconcile this doctrine of self-immolation with a God who died for me. I just can’t. I utterly reject this foolish false humility. There are times when I need to do a little breast-beating. I sin through my own fault, just as it says in the liturgy. I don’t do what I should, and I do what I shouldn’t. I need to be self-aware enough to recognize this, confess my sins, and turn away from them so that I can be the individual God planned for me to be, not a persona non grata cum deus en machina. That’s enough tortured Latin for the day.