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John Calvin and Tony Soprano on Self-Knowledge and Righteousness

December 17, 2013

John Calvin opens the final version of his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, with this sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom wepossess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” This is a profound insight that will work its way through everything else Calvin wants to say. We just can’t remove ourselves from the equation when we talk about God; we can’t make God an object of disinterested academic discussion. To talk about God is to talk about the source and judge of our existence. That means our knowledge (or ignorance) of him is an inescapably personal thing for each of us. Put another way, you learn quite a lot about a person in what they have to say about God. Likewise, a person’s thoughts about themselves reveal quite a bit about their view of God. The two things just cannot be separated.

This leads Calvin, however, to an important but perhaps subtle qualification. The mutuality of God-knowledge and self-knowledge doesn’t mean we can start from either side. Calvin argues for a particular ordering here, moving from God to ourselves: “it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge ofhimself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”  The world and even the church, however, often work in the other direction. We are continually encouraged to reflect on our experiences, our personal “God-story”, our feelings about what we are currently going through, our deepest needs and fears, and use such reflection as a foundation from which to see who God is. Theology is replaced with Me-ology.

The problem with this ordering of things is that it fails to recognize our constant temptation to delude ourselves in self-righteousness. When we start with ourselves, we make our perspectives and feelings the measure of righteousness. Calvin puts it this way:

because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us. And because nothing appears within or around that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure—so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption.

This is why The Sopranos is one of my favorite tv shows ever made. We are given a window into the inner self-knowledge of a man (a New Jersey mafia boss) we would rightly identify as evil. The great benefit of this show, apart from the brutal violence and greasy (male)/plastic (female) sexuality the viewer is made to endure, is the shock of awareness that this guy make himself feel good about himself in the same way we all do: a little introspection, self-awareness, and empathy for others are all that are needed to pat himself on the back and say “I’m ok – I’m a good person.” Religion, for which Tony himself has basically no time but most of the other characters indulge in to some degree, serves only to reinforce the feeling of self-satisfaction. The righteousness of God is not seen to be something that overwhelms and calls to repentance and new life. God is in fact obscured behind a blanket of religious self-congratulation, allowing those who give their token observance to claim, as Paulie does somewhat regularly, to be “covered” like the holder of an insurance policy. The viewer is made to wonder “am I as self-deluded as these people?” As long as I seek to understand myself before and apart from knowledge of God as he reveals himself, yes, I am that deluded.

The point of all of this is to say that we ought not to be satisfied with self-knowledge as amounting to righteousness. Even if that self-knowledge is framed in the religious vocabulary of “my identity in Christ”, if the primary object of my reflection remains me rather than Christ, something quite less than Calvin’s integration of God-knowledge and self-knowledge has been reached. For those of us in ministry, that we means we cannot be satisfied if we have merely brought those we minister to think and talk about themselves with some new sense of clarity. Even when our conversations are soaked with references to scripture or when the excessive narcissism is spiritualized by talking of ourselves as “God’s child”, if it all boils down to getting people to feel better and think more about themselves, we haven’t really gotten anywhere. The Christian life is first and foremost about contemplating and loving God. That is what really enables us to know ourselves and at the same time be transformed to reflect God’s righteousness by making us less self-obsessed.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2013 12:01 pm

    Thanks for this, Adam. A great reminder from Calvin. Here are two thoughts I had in response:

    An important factor in all of this is the church, I think. Our relationship to God involves others – it can never be merely personal. God gives us others in community and in so doing calls us to “give up all thought of self and, so to speak, get out of [ourselves].” (III.vii) This has theological ramifications. Our theology is of course “inescapably personal.” Yet as church dogmatics our personality cannot and must not have the final say, since the church provides a multiformity of differing personal perspectives that we cannot ignore. Theology as a church activity rather than merely a personal activity helps us to “get out of ourselves.” I cannot merely talk about “my identity in Christ” because my identity is bound up with the identity of this community. And because, as Calvin says, the church is under Christ’s headship, not man’s, an individual personality cannot dominate or reign within her doors.

    The other point I would make is that self-obsession does not necessarily result in self-righteousness. Certainly that sort of narcissism is one of its perils, but the other is a sort of constant internal horror at one’s own sinfulness, an over-obsession with hamartiology. I think we find this in some strands of the Reformed tradition, particularly those obsessed with spiritual introspection. This is not to say that introspection and repentance are not necessary parts of the Christian life, only that, when detached from the mercy of God in Christ, they become a sort of devastating self-flagellation. There are certain theological traditions that seem to talk about depravity more than anything else.

  2. December 17, 2013 2:05 pm

    Excellent points, Shep. Whole heartedly agree. On the first point especially, I am a part of a community (seeker-sensitive conservative baptist) that does not intuitively look to the church itself as authoritative teacher but as a community of persons seeking intimacy with God on the individual level. Helping my community to see our involvement as not just with each other in the immediate contexts of our social interactions but with the totality of Christ’s kingdom extended across time from the calling of Abraham to his future return is big part of what drives me pastorally. That then lets us see our personal relationships to God as established and nurtured within Christ’s Lordship of his people and guided by the church’s historic confession of faith.

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