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Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood

Appendix C: On ‘Spiritual Pride’

Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood
Appendix C: On ‘Spiritual Pride’

I wish to add a few observations here about a concept which has in my opinion done a great deal to darken counsel in religious ethics not least within recent times. I refer to what is called ‘spiritual pride’.

The essence of spiritual pride in general is I take it an excessive self-satisfaction with one's own moral and spiritual attainments. In the religious context (with which we are alone here concerned) spiritual pride is a deadly sin for it denotes in greater or less degree a failure in the person who exhibits it to make due acknowledgment of his creaturely relationship to God. Such failure may disclose itself in at least two distinguishable forms. In the first place a man may claim much more than is its due for the efficacy of his personal effort in e.g. a successful resistance to temptation recognising only inadequately or not at all the role of divine grace. In the second place even if there be no reason to presume a specific operation of divine grace in the situation even if the man is to that extent justified in attributing his success to the free exercise of his own personal effort his very sense of personal achievement may beget in him a tendency to glorify himself and to forget that in the last resort all that he is and has—including his ‘free will’—comes from God the Creator.
Now concerning the second of these manifestations of spiritual pride I have no particular observations to make. Given religious premises the sin is grave and the temptation to commit it very real. No one would wish to hold that from the standpoint of religion it is of less than paramount importance that men should be admonished to ‘remember their Creator’ and above all in those moments of high personal achievement when the inducements to forget are especially powerful.
But concerning what we distinguished as the first form of these manifestations there are I think some things that very much require to be said.
It ought for example to be said plainly and at whatever risk of giving offence that a certain view with much current appeal is despite its popularity totally inadmissible. I mean the view that man is guilty of spiritual pride if he takes any credit to himself at all for a ‘good’ act since in so doing he is arrogating to himself a power that is not his but God's. This view has plausibility only on the assumption that man is utterly incapable of resisting moral temptation by his own unaided effort. But as I have already argued not only is that assumption completely at variance with the most fundamental intuitions of moral experience it is hardly less at variance with the premises of religion itself. For in making nonsense of human goodness the assumption must equally make nonsense of human badness and hence of the religious concept of sin. If a man can do nothing on his own part to resist temptation it is just as absurd to hold him blameworthy if he succumbs to it as to deem him praiseworthy if he resists it. And it would be a Pickwickian sense indeed of the term ‘sin’ which did not imply the blameworthiness of the sinner!
Let us take as agreed then what is really implied in the very possibility of sinning that man does have some power of his own to resist temptation. If that is so it follows that when he takes credit to himself for resisting temptation he need by no means be arrogating to himself a power that is not his. On the other hand of course he may be. Even if he has made a personal effort and that personal effort has had some efficacy its efficacy may have been supplemented by an operation of divine grace which his claim to credit does not acknowledge.
Whether or not however in any given case of successful resistance to temptation a man claims for his personal effort more than is in fact its due there would seem to be no external way of telling. Where a man's personal effort receives divine reinforcement this influx of aid from without will presumably be felt as such by the man himself. If there is in fact no experience of it it is hard to see on what grounds its occurrence can be alleged; hard to see therefore on what grounds one can condemn the man's belief—which is then wholly natural if not indeed inevitable—that it is the personal effort which he does experience that is the direct source of his success. To accuse the man of spiritual pride in these circumstances seems quite gratuitous. If on the other hand aid from without is experienced as such by the man it might no doubt happen that overweening self-conceit induced in him disregard of it and perhaps oblivion of it and thus led him to claim for himself a credit to which he was not entitled. In that case he would admittedly be guilty of spiritual pride. But whether in a given case of claim to personal credit this hypothetical state of affairs is actualised seems to me a matter upon which the external observer simply has not the data upon which to pronounce a judgment.
It comes to this then. If we agree that God has endowed man with a power to resist temptation by a moral effort which he is absolutely free to exert or refrain from exerting then man is in general justified in a claim to personal achievement when he resists temptation and he is guilty of spiritual pride in making the claim only where that claim ignores or fails to take due account of empirical evidence of an ad hoc intervention of divine grace. He is not guilty of spiritual pride merely in virtue of claiming credit for he need not thereby be arrogating to himself a power that is not his. It is natural indeed that he should feel ‘pride’—for how can he fail to enjoy a certain enhancement of self-respect in having (as he believes) won a battle against his ‘lower nature’? But this pride of achievement is not ‘pride’ in any dyslogistic sense of that term. Why should he not feel such pride so long as (like pride of achievement in other fields) it is kept within reasonable bounds? There is surely nothing irreligious about taking pride in ourselves for using the freedom given us by God in the way that we know God wants us to use it any more than there is in despising ourselves when we use that freedom in a way we know that God would disapprove? And this pride of achievement be it noted is completely compatible with humbly and reverently acknowledging that the power which makes our resistance possible itself comes from God. It in no way entails that man arrogantly disowns his creaturely status and asserts in himself a power comparable to the power of the Creator from whom he derives all that he has and is.
It goes without saying that pride of moral achievement like pride of achievement in other fields may find exaggerated expression. It may beget the ‘worthier than thou’ attitude which is what perhaps most people have in mind when they speak of ‘spiritual pride’. But there seems no particular reason why it should. Indeed there would seem to be rather greater likelihood of a ‘worthier than thou’ attitude afflicting the man who believes that whatever good thing he achieves is directly due to God working in him. For suppose that such a man is (or fancies he is) more than ordinarily successful in ‘doing good’. He may then well be tempted to fancy himself one of ‘God's elect’—a specially chosen vessel for the execution of Divine purposes—and ‘to thank God that he is not as other men’. Whether we regard this as a third distinguishable form of spiritual pride or prefer to give it some other name is little to the point. It is a sufficiently ugly and pernicious thing whatever we choose to call it: and I suggest that there is at least as much risk of its occurrence where men reject the efficacy of personal effort as there is of spiritual pride occurring (in the senses earlier distinguished) where the efficacy of personal effort is accepted.

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