Monday, 28 February 2011

Fatal Arrogance

"The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? Even if thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and even if thou set they nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down saith the Lord." Obadiah 1:3-4

I was blessed to be born and raised in the UK because both my parents and grandparents escaped the limitations and stagnation of a dictator's rule to live a life of freedom and opportunity. Listening to my grandfather talk about his life under the brutal General Franco, and following as I have been the appalling situation in Libya reveals to me, certain parallels. Both these dictators (and indeed all dictators) seem to be defined by the negative character trait of arrogance. Ostensibly they all start out their "careers" with the aim of improving their nation, and for the melodramatic amongst them, "saving" their nation. When in power they promise that they shall shortly hand over power to others or to the people, a promise that soon vanishes into the ether. In all they say, in speech after speech, they communicate that they see themselves as the realisation of the nation. Gaddafi is Libya, Mugabe is Zimbabwe, Castro is Cuba. Or to use Gaddafi's own words "Gaddafi is (Libya's) glory". Soon enough criticism of the dictator is treated as treason, as unpatriotic, a logical view, no doubt, in the twisted mind of these autocrats.

It seems that Gaddafi, like many before him, especially Hitler, would prefer to see the destruction of his country before power is taken from him. No doubt his reasoning goes something like; "I am Libya, without me there is no Libya, so who cares if the country is destroyed, without me it is destroyed anyway".

The sages of Israel had quite a bit to say regarding the evils of haughtiness, best expressed by their saying;

"The Holy One, Blessed be He, says: "I and he (the arrogant person) cannot live together in the same world".

This dictum is perhaps currently realised in the happenings in Tripoli. There certainly is not much godliness surrounding Mr Gaddafi at the moment, and what's more, he clearly doesn't see it in those around him, willing as he is to end their lives to protect his power.

In the spirit of the worlds of scripture such as King Solomon's words:

"The haughty of heart are abominable before the Lord" Proverbs 16:5

Or in the words of King David:

"The arrogant of eye, and the broad or heart-him I cannot bear" Psalm 101:5

It is perhaps unsurprising that the sages of Israel declare arrogance as nothing less than idolatry. In essence the arrogant worship themselves and view themselves as the pinnacle of creation. What room is then left for God?

This being the case it is truly tragic that arrogance has often found its worst expression in the behaviour of those in the religious world. This is not to say that arrogance is absent from the non-religious world, it is of course a human phenomena and no segment of humanity is free from it. Sadly even in our time we see the fruits of religious imperiousness, for example in the oppressive theocracies of Iran, Gaza, and Saudi Arabia, and in the insults and demonisation of homosexuals by Christians in Uganda.

Religious arrogance seems to exist in two main forms.

The first is the "I have the truth, and you're all evil and going to hell because you don't have it" argument. These self-satisfied individuals have an immense sense of God being on their side in every situation. They rarely ponder if their own behaviour lives up to the standards they set for others. I often feel that this has roots in the individual's formation of God in their own image. In life we seldom agree wholeheartedly with another person, there is always the phenomenon of conflicting wills, and this means that concession and compromise are the stuff of life. Why should this be any different in our relation to the Divine? Surely our relationship with God should be challenging, as we try to adapt ourselves to His will. If you find that the God you believe in and worship, likes all the things you like, and hates all the things you hate, and approves wholeheartedly of all the things you do, you may in fact discover that the god you are adoring and prostrating yourself before, is yourself.

The second type of haughtiness comes from those genuinely pious people, who struggle daily to serve God and make His will their own. These otherwise good and well-meaning people, can sometimes find themselves looking down on all those others who seemingly have failed to live faithful, holy lives. Our teacher Jesus had a parable to illustrate the failings of this attitude.

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector. I fast twice weekly; I give tithes of all I possess." And the tax collector, standing far off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" Luke 18:10.

I think the antidote to this second malady is to meditate on two things. The immensity and majesty of God, and the endless challenge to improve our devotion to him. Moses himself, about whose greatness we are told;

"..My servant Moses; in my entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him" Numbers 12:7-8

"Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord has known face to face" Deuteronomy 34:10

Is described, despite his elevation, as the most humble of men. From this surely we learn that the closer one is to God, the more we should realise our own smallness, the closer we are to God, the more we should value His children upon whom His image is stamped.

It might be assumed that Unitarians, both those who hold to the more classical Christian variety and those of the less theologically defined school would be more free from faith-based haughtiness. The openness to other's beliefs and understandings, and the strong belief in freedom of thought and faith seem almost guaranteed to diminish arrogance in the hearts of Unitarians. Is this however really the case? I think it clear that there is a prominent "group-think" if not on theological grounds, then certainly on social and political grounds, that on occasion emerges as an arrogance, which pours undisguised scorn on those not as "enlightened". How open and tolerant are we really?

I shall myself while praying that the Almighty pull down the dictators from their prideful thrones, look inward at my own heart and see if there is not, deep down, some small Gaddafi, motivating me in my relationship with my Heavenly Father and with all those around me.

"He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly."
Luke 1:51-52

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