You're So Vain: Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung on Vainglory and Glittering Vices
Yes, vanity of vanities. You probably think this show is about you. Well, it is about you; and me; and all of us. But, as our guest today, explains: “This is not a sin and guilt, beat-yourself-up exercise. I’m not in the shaming and blaming game at all. What I’m trying to do is move people forward toward liberation and freedom.” In this episode, “Queen of the Vices” Philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung talks about vainglory, pride, hypocrisy, authenticity, and the human longing for recognition and being known. Her emphasis on grace motivates us toward a life of healing and freedom, and calls us to live up to the dignity and respect that we already have.
- 0:00 — Podcast intro
- 3:22 — Begin interview, the role of philosophers in contemporary culture and diagnosing the soul
- 4:40 — Vice as a “mirror” or “diagnosis” so that we can move to life and healing
- 6:19 — The historical role of self-knowledge in flourishing
- 6:59 — Problems from the desire for and pursuit of self-understanding
- 10:00 — Today’s culture of authenticity
- 12:04 — The self-defeating cycle of humility and vainglory
- 14:15 — John Cassian story of the preaching monk in the wilderness
- 15:06 — Vainglory in celebrity and social media culture
- 19:47 — Intermission
- 20:57 — “Gift language” that keeps us from being preoccupied with performance
- 25:44 — Faking it and hypocrisy: reference Jennifer Herdt‘s book Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices
- 29:42 — Wanting to be loved vs. wanting applause: vainglory and the need to be loved
- 34:34 — Reference to Stephen Darwall‘s view of recognition self-respect and appraisal self-respect
- 26:13 — The roots of vainglory
- 42:00 — Habits, practices, and spiritual disciplines that fight against vainglory
- 48:13 — End interview, credits
Quotes from Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
- “Evil is a great mystery. Goodness is a great mystery, and they’re all sort of tangled up in our hearts. I would caution people about being both too cavalier about not needing to do that deep excavation, but also being too confident that they’re able to do it fully and finally in one go.”
- “When it comes to healthy self‑love, in some respects, the truth that many of us can’t hear—or can’t register, or can’t take in—is the fact that we’re already unconditionally beloved by God. In some respects, grace is just too good a news for us.”
- “The great thing about the spiritual disciplines, or maybe the not‑so‑great thing, is that God will do whatever work needs to get done to bring you into a more virtuous state.”
- “This culture tends to like to just put itself on display. In some respects, it’s a way of being authentic. ‘See, here I am. No holds barred. I’m filming it live. There’s no editing,’ that kind of stuff. That’s a shallower version of authenticity than the Christian tradition calls for.”
- “This is not a sin and guilt, beat‑yourself‑up exercise. I’m not in the shaming and blaming game at all. What I’m trying to do is move people forward toward liberation and freedom.”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Production Assistance by Laura Crane
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung: I received the worst diagnosis of my entire life from a doctor three years ago in October. That very doctor was also the surgeon who gave me healing, who did the surgery that saved my life. That’s a lovely metaphor for what we’re doing here.
It’s excavation. It’s soul care. It’s difficult work, but it’s also the only path toward life and wholeness. I really want people to capture that frame. This is not a sin and guilt, beat‑yourself‑up exercise.
I’m not in the shaming and blaming game at all. What I’m trying to do is move people forward toward liberation and freedom.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Dealing with appearance and reality, honor and shame, giving and receiving positive or negative attention — these are some of those human practices that make us fundamentally social beings.
We learn from an early age to be deeply concerned about what others think about us. In fact, we form our very sense of self through our earliest attachment relationships, for better or worse.
Being known, being recognized, being appreciated and acknowledged — these are the things we people live for. Where does that go wrong? That’s what this episode confronts. Today, we’re excavating the human soul, spelunking through the caves and recesses of the mind, diving for the lost pearl. I’ll stop.
What we’re doing is talking about vainglory, pride, hypocrisy, authenticity, and the human longing for recognition and respect.
Yes, vanity of vanities. You probably think this show is about you. Well, it is, and me, and all of us. It’s a lot of talk about vices, and we’re talking about them with a woman who has earned the nickname, “Queen of the Vices,” but you know, in a compliment‑y kind of way, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, professor of philosophy at Calvin College.
She’s written and spoken at the intersection of philosophy and spiritual formation for many years now, and is author of “Glittering Vices — A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies,” as well as “Vainglory — The Forgotten Vice.”
What I love about Rebecca’s approach to the vices, besides her ability to clarify the contemporary relevance of that old tried‑and‑true ideas, is her emphasis on grace. She has a way of speaking about the worst in us that motivates and honors human moral capacity and calls us to live up to the dignity and respect that we already have.
Evan: What do you think is the role of a philosopher in contemporary culture?
Rebecca: I think different philosophers have different roles, actually. I see my role as being someone who is in between academia, and the church, and the culture.
Someone who is trying to translate what academic philosophers do, and think about, and figure out back down to a level that’s accessible to parents, and pastors, and people in the church.
Evan: Between scholarship and the church, you’ve made a pretty good name for yourself about the vices.
Rebecca: I’m the queen of the vices. That’s my nickname. [laughs]
Evan: You’re the [laughs] queen of the vices.
Rebecca: Straight out of Gregory the Great and [inaudible 04:02] . Usually, that moniker is left for pride, but I seem to have earned it myself.
Evan: The queen of the vices. I feel like that moniker gives you a right to run for office, maybe.
Rebecca: Unfortunately, that might be true. On the other hand, I think it’s also ironic that coming from a reformed Calvinistic theological background, I turned most of my attention to sin. That was not a deliberate or a theological move on my part.
It was more of a happenstance move or a providential one, if you’d like to put it that way. One of my preoccupation with vice comes with struggling with things, knowing that I struggle with things, and wanting a name for that.
Evan: You say this in a few different places, but you say that vice is this mirror for the human condition.
Rebecca: To some extent. Here’s a different way to put it from John Cassian. It’s a way of getting a diagnosis. You know something’s wrong. It’s nagging at you.
Your life isn’t flowing smoothly. You’re running into obstacles. You’re pretty sure something’s wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it. You need the great physician. You need a name for things. You need a very clear diagnosis.
That can be a devastating word sometimes, but it can also be the only path back toward health. That’s Cassian’s metaphor. We’re looking for people to help us look into the soul and diagnose its diseases so that we can turn to disciplines, and remedies, and ultimately, the great physician of souls to find healing.
As I mentioned to a class that I was teaching, a year ago, I received the worst diagnosis of my entire life from a doctor, three years ago in October. That very doctor was also the surgeon who gave me healing, who did the surgery that saved my life.
That’s a lovely metaphor for what we’re doing here. It’s excavation, soul care. It’s difficult work, but it’s also the only path toward life and wholeness.
I really want people to capture that frame. This is not a sin and guilt, beat‑yourself‑up exercise. I’m not in the shaming and blaming game at all. What I’m trying to do is move people forward toward liberation and freedom.
Evan: Knowledge takes this important place in that kind of freedom. There’s been this long tradition of value for self‑knowledge, like when we know ourselves we feel like this is one of the big prescriptions for flourishing.
Rebecca: Absolutely, I mean, you can hear it in Socrates, but you can also find it in the Desert Fathers, they’ll say, “The virtue of discernment is the key here.” You need to look deep into yourself and that requires some reflective work that requires self‑examination.
That’s one of the key places I find that my philosophical background helps me in this area of thinking about spiritual formation and soul care.
Evan: Looking deep and knowing thyself, maybe, this is a good place to jump in on that. It’s got such a long‑standing history. I read once that Thales suggests that knowing myself is the most difficult thing.
We seem obsessed with this coming to an understanding of ourselves, one of our primary concerns, but it’s also easy to go about it halfheartedly, or just to go off in the wrong direction of self‑understanding. Our self taunts us as a mystery.
I wonder if you could connect this even contemporary pursuit for self‑understanding, and wanting to understand ourselves, and assert ourselves in our relationships, and in our culture. Again, do some diagnosis there about what do you make of this really far‑reaching desire for self‑understanding.
Rebecca: Well, like all good things it has pitfalls on both sides. It’s obviously impulse, I think, that turn inward and the reflective impulse is just natural part of who we are as human beings. It also, as Augustine would tell you, it’s a great way to put you in touch with God, at the same time a culture of authenticity can be a little self‑absorbed.
There can be a little bit of naval gazing. This is sometimes, right? Not a vice that everyone falls into, but sometimes a little bit of the therapeutic playing, maybe a larger rule than it should in our spiritual lives.
We turn to that for easy answers, three quick steps. It’s always easier to diagnose everyone else as the problem in the relationship than ourselves. Sometimes the quest for self‑knowledge isn’t quite a quest for self‑knowledge, it’s a quest for labels. That might be just be too oversimple in some cases.
There are other cases where we don’t want to look at ourselves at all. We’re preoccupied with putting on a show for other people. It’s not authentic discernment in self‑knowledge, because that, of course, is really, really difficult.
We can also be too confident about what we can know about ourselves. I’d be the first one to tell you that you can reread a chapter on the vices and see a new layer in yourself every single time.
I do find that it’s both a word of encouragement and maybe a word of discouragement depending on where you’re at, but God will reveal in this process of reflect yourself examination, what you can work with at that moment. I don’t know that he’s going to reveal all the depths that are there on the first run‑through.
Evil is a great mystery. Goodness is a great mystery, and they’re all sort of tangled up in our hearts. I would caution people about being both too cavalier about not needing to do that deep excavation, but also being too confident that they’re able to do it fully and finally in one go.
For most of us, this is a very long, lifelong process in which we keep coming back and finding new layers. Sometimes, it’s the same thing years after we thought we had gotten to the bottom of something.
Evan: What do you think about authenticity in this pervasive, I think, American value of authenticity in a youth value right now? It’s very depictive of younger generations. To be authentic and to be truly yourself to be an individual and to achieve that kind of individuality and identity.
That authenticity, it’s not a quiet authenticity or a silent authenticity. It’s very much an authenticity to a culture or to the people around us. It’s authenticity, but it doesn’t come without, as you say, a show. [laughs] It feels so self‑defeating to talk about authenticity in a show to other people.
Rebecca: Don’t get me started on self‑defeating issues and vainglory because it’s about what I said.
Evan: I do want you get started on this, actually.
Rebecca: This culture tends to like to just put itself on display. In some respects, it’s a way of being authentic. “See, here I am. No holds barred. I’m filming it live. There’s no editing,” that kind of stuff.
That’s a shallower version of authenticity than the Christian tradition calls for. Genuine authenticity is another way of saying, “We’re trying to strip away the layers of the false self and get down to nothingness.” There, we stand before God in all our nothingness.
Once all those false images of ourselves and the ego, and all the things that we’re hanging onto with a white‑knuckled grip and not giving over to God, all those things need to be stripped away. That’s a painful process. I don’t see people jumping in and documenting that on YouTube or Facebook. That’s soul work. It’s largely inner. It takes a long time.
It’s an exercise in humility. Humility is a very different kind of being one’s self than our culture is looking for. They’re just going for what can be put on display. So much of this is interior work.
Evan: We’re talking about vainglory. We’re talking about humility. These are vices and virtues. There are related vices and virtues as well that do the same thing. As soon as you recognize your own humility, it vanishes.
Rebecca: You can’t talk about them.
Evan: As soon as you deal with your vainglory, you have accomplished something to be approved for.
Rebecca: Our father does have that beautiful, beautiful image of vainglory. It’s an onion. You see the outside layer. You see the vainglory in your own life. You strip off that layer. Lo and behold, there’s another one.
Now that you have stripped off that superficial vainglory, that easy image of yourself to lay down, now you have something to brag about. “Look at me. I’ve made some spiritual progress here. I’m really making strides against vainglory.”
Wait a minute. Why do you need to announce that, even to yourself? Why do you need an audience to know that you’re better now, with respect to vainglory, than you used to be?
Look at an onion. Cut it open sometime. It’s layers all the way down. Then the question is, “Was this just an exercise in futility? Is there no spiritual progress to be made?” What I usually tell people is, “Yes, it’s layers of onion all the way down, but at the same time, it’s going to be a smaller and smaller onion.”
In some respects, you look at the lives of the saints. The more spiritual progress they make, the more they’re aware of the depths of the difficulties that they’re trying to wrestle with and the depths of their sinful struggles.
There is this odd tension between being holier and being more aware of your sin. They do go together, although you’d expect them, the saintly people, to not have to worry so much about sin anymore.
You find — at least in the phenomenology of sanctification — that that is very often the story that they’re telling. I’m going to take their word for it because I don’t put myself up there in that category quite yet. [laughs]
At the same time, I do think the testimonies are fairly consistent in that regard. The more grace you have, the more ability you have, the more confidence you have to look that much deeper and see what still needs to be excavated.
Cassian loves to tell that story about the preaching monk in the wilderness. He’s out there, pretending he’s become so holy, that he’s been dragged back to the city and made a preacher in a local church.
Everyone was flocking to hear his wonderful sermon because he’s become so sanctified and so holy in the wilderness. He starts preaching the sermon out loud. He’s just caught up in this vainglorious fantasy.
You don’t have to be preaching out loud to have run scenarios in your head, where you consider the ways in which your actions or your words will be received by an imaginary audience. Cassian just nails it. He says, “We all have an imaginary audience in our head. That’s the price of being a self‑conscious, reflective being. That’s just one more occasion for vainglory.”
Evan: Apart from the internal audience, there is this fact. Again, still just focusing on our contemporary moment to excavating and diagnosing vainglory. Celebrity culture has really infected the broader culture of otherwise plain people, like you said earlier, of normal people who would otherwise live quiet lives.
American culture, I don’t know if it’s uniquely modern. Maybe, this has always been with us, to some extent. The concept of celebrity and being known for being known, famous for being famous, that tautology that Daniel Boorstin talks about in “The Image.” Maybe, it’s very much like that onion, where you peel away these layers of tautologies.
Being famous for being famous, experience for experience sake, celebrity for a celebrity sake. Going to a concert and holding up your phone to record the concert, instead of actually watching the concert. You peel those layers away. Yes, there is nothing beneath it. It’s this vain enterprise. It’s chasing after the wind. It’s a vanity of vanities.
Rebecca: There are different forms of vainglory. Vainglory often gets tangled up with pride.
The form of vainglory that you’re talking about, just putting on a great show, or as someone just described, the current generation. It’s not an experience unless it’s a shared experience, unless it’s put on public display somehow. That’s just an interesting feature of the world that we live in right now that was not a part of my childhood, for example.
Evan: It’s a problem that comes along with technology.
Rebecca: It comes with, especially, social media. I’m not bashing social media in that regard. It just comes along with the chance to see yourself. Think of a three‑year‑old that you’re videotaping.
When we had an old camcorder, the kids would always be like, “Turn the screen around so I can see myself being recorded,” and dance in front of the camera. Americans, maybe, we just have a special flare for dancing in front of the camera.
Rebecca: That’s our signature cultural trope.
Evan: [laughs] That’s our signature.
Rebecca: I don’t know what the fuss about is at all. I’m not even going to make a comment there. It’s just part of a deeper human need to have attention, to have ourselves validated by response from others. When you dig deep into the human impulses behind our vainglorious pursuits, I do think that’s a big part of it.
We are made for relationship. Vainglory is a relational vice. We want affirmation. We want applause. We want approval. We want appreciation from others. Putting yourself on display, in ways that show off your goodness, is just a classic way to try to manufacture that response for ourselves. You hear the control coming into that program.
I’m trying to elicit this response now. It’s not a free response from my audience. It’s not something that comes to me as a gift or that I even already have. It’s something that I need to make for myself. I need to make my name great. Put myself out there.
That’s pride seeping into the roots of vainglory. In the sense that we’re not taking that deep, deep affirmation of ourselves as already given by God, for example. We’re not taking it as something to be freely given by others. We’re trying to control the experience.
That’s why we’re so hungry for those likes and those hits on social media. It’s just showing the way in which we’re trying to get our sticky, little hands all over this program of glory getting. That shows some of the ways in which pride feeds into vainglory. I will say some very interesting psychological cases happen when pride gets disentangled from vainglory.
For example, when we have a vainglorious person who doesn’t care at all about being superior or having any particular goodness to show, they just want attention, any attention for anything. That’s one of the more shallow forms of vainglory. It’s an interesting case. I can think of plenty of examples of that.
There are also cases where you have a prideful person who thinks they’re so superior that they don’t need feedback from others.
They don’t need the opinions of the vulgar, to use Hume’s phrase. They don’t need the rabble. They’re so great. The rabble’s opinion is worthless to them. It’s beneath them even to ask for feedback. You can get pride without vainglory. You can get vainglory without pride. Most of the time, they’re going to come as a nifty little package.
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Evan: Your description of our programming for giving and receiving attention, it feels like there’s such a currency or economy of fame there. Fame is a scarce resource. Attention is this scarce resource. For those who are particularly tempted by vainglory, there’s only so much of it. There’s only so much limelight to go around.
The temptation to pick up whatever you can from whoever is listening or whoever’s watching. We give and receive it, though. I was just reflecting as I was reading your work about how I mostly tend to pick up on those who seek attention and seek applause, for whom vainglory is their vice.
It’s a vice, not only in the vying for the limelight, but there’s a vice of giving the limelight as well. In the audience, in applausing, we do this evaluating work. We condition people in this way. It’s a form of behavioral conditioning.
Rebecca: The temptation is always to get too attached to the applause. A classic case is when you start genuinely valuing some good thing and desiring to share it because you think it will be beneficial to others.
Then, with the feedback, and the applause, and the clambering for more, and that sensationalism, and the publicity, you get more attached to the feedback than you do of the gift‑sharing.
Augustine is very alert to that. In one of his later sermons when he was bishop of Hippo he says, “What am I supposed to do? I know I’m standing up here as your pastor in the limelight. I’m up on this tall pulpit, and I’m giving the great sermon. I want you to appreciate my sermons because then that will sink in and change your lives.
“That’s my role as a pastor to help shepherd you. But, at the same time, I’m worried that I’m going to be too consumed with the feedback and not care enough about what God thinks about what I’m doing.” He says, “Here’s my solution, people. Share the burden.” He’s calling on an audience to be a good audience.
“Hey, congregation, give me the kind of feedback that will encourage me to think of what I’m doing as gift sharing and not demand sensationalist hype.” Oh, this sermon wasn’t quite as good as last week. You better up your ante, preacher. There’s a demand from the audience that can elicit the wrong kind of delivery of a gift.
We forget that it’s a gift. Now it’s a demand. The pressure is on us. We need to deliver. It becomes performance oriented. Augustine says, “We really need to keep gift language at the center of this. I’m serving you, my congregation, a gift, the bread from the storerooms of the Master on which I’m fed myself.”
Keeping that gift language is at the center of this Augustinian theology which keeps us from being too preoccupied with, “Can I deliver for this audience?” It keeps the audience from being too demanding, “We need this. We deserve this. You need to deliver that.”
If you see your pastor as someone who’s a waiter and not the master of the house, delivering a gift from the Lord, that’s a very different response to the person up front than someone screaming in the front row of a rock concert. You can hear the difference in cultural tropes there.
We can be less demanding audiences. We can be more forgiving, and more humanizing, and more recognizing that the Holy Spirit will work as it works and will deliver the gifts that need to be delivered.
That can often come through our failure, and our embarrassment, and even our public humiliation. It’s not that everything depends on my performance. The self‑preoccupation that goes there is…there’s again where pride and vainglory get tangled together.
It’s all about me pulling this off and being good enough to elicit this response from an audience. The audience saying, “What I want is this good thing for me. Deliver. Deliver.” Both of those responses are unhealthy spiritually.
Evan: That kind of pressure that emerges is a way of dividing people and disconnecting. It’s a way of unhealthy relationships.
Rebecca: It’s forcing you to fake it. Who can deliver all the time? Nobody. I’m up in front of a classroom as part of my job. I do speaking. You don’t have the goods on a given day. There’s the pressure. Can you fake it? Can you fake your way through this? Can you pull it off?
That pressure is something that all of us need to resist. Even in everyday life situations, you don’t have to be a celebrity to worry about that one.
Evan: It’s interesting how that pressure and the faking it…You say that hypocrisy is one of the vices that springs from vainglory. Can you untie what you see as the distinctions between faking it, responding to pressure, and then hypocrisy?
Rebecca: I think the tradition’s concern with hypocrisy is, OK, you’re not a celebrity. You’re not even a wannabe celebrity. You’re just an ordinary Christian trying to do good in the world, trying to follow Christ, trying to become virtuous.
Your program of showing your virtue, and we all have to do this. If you’re a parent, you have to be a good example. Paul even says in the Epistles, “Follow my example. Do as you’ve seen in me and seen me practice.”
Evan: Kids are always watching.
Rebecca: They are, unfortunately, sometimes. We learn by example. We learn by following in the steps of. We learn by watching. Paying attention to other people is, in part, a way we learn to become virtuous.
The tradition’s worry is that the people who are being watched in their virtuous practice can get off‑track and think, “It’s more about how I’m being seen by my audience than it is about genuinely having the virtue and making the practice of those virtues the real deal. The most important feature of the situation.”
Again, that brings up the humility conversation. The fact that sometimes the best virtue is unselfconscious virtue. When it is so deeply a part of us that we’re not deliberately trying to put it on. Let’s face it. For most of us, we’re not there yet.
Learning virtue is a practice of putting it on, and putting it on, and putting it on again until it becomes deeply rooted. Deeply worn into the grooves of our character.
I love Jennifer Hart’s book, “Putting on Virtue.” She is talking about the same sorts of issues. How do you put it on without “putting it on”? Without the hypocrisy. One of the things that I talk about…It’s such a great…
Evan: It’s such a great double meaning there.
Rebecca: Exactly. It’s put on the new self, put on the virtues of Christ. This is sort of Colossians 3, classic material. Most of the time we are putting it on. We’re not 100 percent there yet. How do you distinguish between cases of hypocrisy in virtue and cases in which we’re just trying to be about the show and fake other people out?
I use my own experience as a young piano student in this regard. I could try to play a passage really fast so the teacher wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t practiced it carefully and couldn’t actually play it evenly. I was trying to snow her so that she’d move me onto the next piece, and I could get rid of that one. I would “have made progress.”
If I really want to be a good learner, if I really want to achieve mastery at something like that, I need to make my mistakes plain. I need to let them show as well. I need to accept correction for things that I’m not doing well, or not doing as well as I should have. We need to open ourselves up.
Not just the goodness about us, but also the failures and the struggles, and the weaknesses in ourselves. If we’re open in that way, we’re putting on virtue in the right sort of way. Not falling into hypocrisy, if that makes any sense.
Evan: It’s just the idea of being totally honest and open about the fact of your mistakes, the fact of your inexperience, the fact of your apprenticeship.
Rebecca: It’s to own up to the fact that you’re not there yet. You’re doing the best you can. You’re trying to live into something that you know that you’re not fully into yet. Just acknowledging ourselves as learners is a really important aspect of making genuine progress on virtue.
Evan: I just think about how thoroughgoing vainglory actually is even though you call it a forgotten vice. I wonder if it’s because it’s masked behind such a truly deep need.
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’arche communities, .just a leader in the philosophy of love, he’s got this phrase. We all have this primal cry. “Do you love me?” We’re all looking for the appropriate kind of attention. It’s so easily confused with, “I live for the applause.”
Rebecca: If you look at cases in which people are not seeing, you might think of good glory as loving attentiveness to the genuine goodness in persons.
Evan: That’s so good.
Rebecca: You can take that at a very fundamental level their goodness just as image bearers of God. The L’arche communities are so good at doing that. In part, what makes their love so genuine is that they are genuinely present and attentive to, not just the needs of the other, but the value of the other.
You’re so important that I’m willing to live with you, walk beside you, see you for everything that you are, and still be with you. That, I think, is the primal need. It’s not just to show off, it’s to be known.
It’s 1 Corinthians 13 kind of stuff. Our longing is to know God as we are already known. Sometimes, either we don’t want to acknowledge that we’re already deeply known and loved just the way we are by God, Isaiah 43 style. Psalm 139 is another lovely poetic depiction of just that being deeply known and loved just the way we are.
We also long to manufacture that for ourselves when we don’t trust either that it’s already been given or that God has really given it. We run out into the world and try to manufacture that loving knowledge, that deep acceptance of ourselves for just the way we actually are. We try to manufacture that all over the place.
I think vainglory is the name of that pursuit. We don’t acknowledge that we’ve already received the gift from God of being deeply known, and deeply loved. We ran around trying to find it in the created world and in human relationships as substitutes.
It’s one thing if those echoes in the created world and in our human relationships are just that. They’re echoes, the reflections of their calling for this deep recognition that we’ve already been called those names by God.
The human community, the churches echoing that back for us, and teaching us about God’s love by doing that. If we try to do the sham substitute end run around being truly known by God that we ran into the trouble with vainglory.
It’s a big deal to have this sense that we are known and affirmed just the way we are. Look at children who are neglected, look at situations like racism and sexism where people are not seen for having the soul, beauty, and goodness that they, in fact, do have. The lack of recognition of their goodness is a wound.
Vainglory can also help us understand why those situations where we are not attended to in our goodness are so wounding, and are so deeply offensive to who we are in God’s eyes. Ultimately, if we’re honest, we don’t learn about being known fully and loved just that way. Straight like a bolt out of the blue out of heaven.
We learn to hear God’s voice through the voices of others. That’s why it’s so important that the church do good glory well. Boy, if they could teach the culture anything about that, wouldn’t that be a gift as well?
Evan: That would be amazing. It’s that wound run so deep because it’s a primary cry and a primary need of being known, of being attended to for your value and your dignity.
When that goes missing, you can turn to so many psychological studies that observe how psychological health, mental illness, physical illness, all sort of dysfunction follow from the wrong kind of attention, or inattention, or ignoring, or simply refusing to see the other.
It runs so deep it leads to many of what we look out at the world, and we all lament like this. The rifts, the violence, but it’s coming from the values and are, just what you’re saying, getting glory wrong at some foundational level.
Rebecca: It’s interesting. There’s a distinction originally made by Stephen Darwall, I believe, between what he calls recognition self‑respect and appraisal self‑respect. You could use it as respect for others as well.
You can give other people recognition self‑respect when you attend to their fundamental dignity as human beings, and their worth as the kind of beings that should call for respect from us.
Likewise, he contrasts that with appraisal respect or appraisal self‑respect where they’re the regard and the affirmation that’s being given is based on some achievement or other. You get appraisal self‑respect on the basis of some excellent performance.
Evan: The being versus doing kind of thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. We often are getting those two things confused, too. We don’t realize that we have recognition respect already from God. We run around doing appraisal respect‑worthy things, trying to win not only from a human audience instead of a divine audience. [laughs] Get the right kind of respect.
We’re also getting confused between what appraisal respect can win us and what we really long for, which is recognition respect. There’s a whole number of issues here that [inaudible 35:50] has done some interesting work on it, that could be folded into the same conversation about glory giving and seeking.
Evan: I’d like to talk a little bit more about the roots. We’ve been exposing the vice in its contemporary appearances. The roots, you say, the pride and fear are these dual roots of vainglory. I wonder if we could continue to do some of this moral psychology and diagnosis of the vice, and think about what leads to that, and particularly with respect to pride and fear.
Rebecca: They’re both important to talk about. Tradition spends most of its time discussing the way the vices are rooted in pride.
The ways in which our over‑grasping at things for ourselves turns morally nasty and disordered. The ways in which we’re trying to do for ourselves what we should be receiving as gifts from God, or substituting created goods for the uncreated goods and so on.
It’s a standard Augustinian language. You’ll hear it in Gregory the Great. You’ll hear it in Benedict and plenty of others, Aquinas as well. What got lost in the conversation is the way fear can also be a motivator.
I like to distinguish between prideful vainglory, which plagues people who think they have glory‑worthy selves. They’re trying to put their selves out there, “You know, I’ve got this good stuff and I want to share it.” You hear bragging there as a classic symptom of vainglory.
There’s also a fearful form of vainglory, not talked about very much in the tradition at all. Although, if you went all the way back to the Desert Fathers, and even some work on the Enneagram, you would hear fear more as a theme. I do think that shows up in that very, very early moral psychology of the desert tradition.
At any rate, fearful vainglory is a big deal for those of us who are “glory‑needy selves.” That’s the term I gave it in the book, where we don’t think we’re all that. We don’t think we have much goodness that’s worth displaying.
We’re pretty afraid of other people finding out about that because the cost of not having goodness is that other people won’t love you. When they do know you, they’ll be like, “Well, not much there. Not much worth regarding or respecting. We got no use for you.” That fear of rejection, fear of shame, is also very deep in us.
It’s important to think about fearful vainglory as being approval needy. You see this just woven so many times through the early life of St. Augustine. Why is he stealing pears? Why is he bragging about his exploits with his peers in Carthage?
He’s trying to get approval because he’s pretty sure, if they really knew what he was like, they wouldn’t give it to him. He even pretends to have done things that he hasn’t done in order to be a bad enough boy to be a member of the club.
That stuff is just fearful vainglory through and through. Again, it’s this preoccupation with needing other people’s affirmation and approval in order to feel good about ourselves. That is just a classic case of fearful vainglory. That’s pretty deep in many of us.
Evan: Absolutely. There’s insecurity that is borne out of those wounds when our dignity isn’t acknowledged. Even if it is, it’s just part of the human condition to fail to see our own dignity, to fail to get it right.
This kind of proper self‑love is on my mind if pride and fear are two sides of the same kind of improper self‑love. Fear because we have a low view of ourselves. Pride because we have a high view of ourselves.
I wonder about self‑love. Maybe, that’s connected to humility, a proper approach to loving yourself. It’s easy to go wrong. When we start talking about loving yourself, we all think self‑help.
Rebecca: That’s one thing that’s really important to distinguish. All this self‑examination, spiritual formation talk, not another Christian self‑help movement. We’re not doing that at all.
Evan: Please, no.
Rebecca: If anything, the disciplines that we’re typically involved in, remediating vainglory, more silence and solitude, those are stripping away the false self. Disciplines of detachments, those are not at all “Get out there and fix yourself and become better” kind of moves.
I do think when it comes to healthy self‑love, in some respects, the truth that many of us can’t hear, or can’t register, or can’t take in ‑‑ and I would include myself in this club ‑‑ is the fact that we’re already unconditionally beloved by God. In some respects, grace is just too good a news for us.
We can’t quite believe the deal’s going to be that good, that we’re already there. We’re already in. We don’t have to work for this. We don’t have to engineer it. We don’t have to depend on other people to give it.
There’s a fundamental detachment from all of that emptiness‑fueled‑need that we need to strip away before we can rest in the love that God has for us. That’s freedom. I’m not saying I know that by experience. I know it mostly by reading about other people who are much holier than I am, but I long for it. I know that that’s the place that I want to get to.
This idea that humility is a position where all of the selves that we would manufacture for ourselves, and all the images, and all the goodness that we hold onto on our own behalf, we can just let all of that go. In humility, we realize that without God, we’re nothing, and that with Him, we are full.
We’re not working out of need. We’re working out of fullness. It’s already been gifted. It’s already been given. It takes the vast majority of us a lifetime to get there.
Evan: What I’d love to do is just close with those habits and practices that can be a treatment for the vice of vainglory and move us towards the virtuous mean. You know that Thomas Aquinas cites magnanimity or the great soulness or wholeheartedness is this virtue that can heal and solve some of the vainglory.
I wonder about other virtues. I wonder about the practices that can be implemented, like solitude and what you’ve been saying.
Rebecca: It’s an interesting puzzle, to try to think about how to position vice and virtue in this regard. Then how do we fit spiritual disciplines in this picture? Here’s the way I would like to frame it. I originally thought, “Oh, well, for every vice, there is a virtue.” Maybe, there’s two vices for every virtue, if you’re Aristotelian enough. That’s kind of depressing.
Rebecca: You start out with vice. You move toward virtue by doing virtuous practices. I thought, “OK, that sounds very Aristotelian and wonderful. Oh, my goodness! Have you ever tried to practice virtue?”
Just coming back to that humility theme, in some respects, the more you practice, the more you end up confessing with Augustine, “Why are you relying on yourself only to find yourself unreliable?” That’s one of my favorite quotes from “Confessions, Book Eight.” It just speaks volumes about our own efforts to practice virtue.
One of the ways that I’ve tried to conceptualize this for my students is you start out with the sinful nature and its habits and practices. You’re called to put on Christ like this. You get the whole Colossians 3 list of Christ‑like virtues, or put the fruits of the Spirit there, whatever.
The character markers of a life that’s informed by Christ’s love, that’s what we’re shooting for, to be like the character of Jesus. How do you get there? You don’t get there. This is work that is done in you. What the spiritual disciplines are supposed to do is position you in ways that make you more openhanded, that, as it were, open up a few cracks for the Spirit to get in.
There’s nothing like sitting in solitude and in silence for a while to start making you feel like you’re going crazy. First, you have to calm down all the voices in your head. They’re spinning. They’re churning. You find yourself distracted moment after moment.
You need this repeated practice of laying down all those voices, quieting all that stuff. Eventually, you put yourself in a place of receptivity, where the Spirit can start to do the excavating and getting to work.
The great thing about the spiritual disciplines, or maybe the not‑so‑great thing, is that God will do whatever work needs to get done to bring you into a more virtuous state. That might be the opposite of what you were expecting to get out of the practice.
The interesting thing to me is that it’s not the scripted “Practice virtue and you’ll come out virtuous” program. If only it were that easy, we would all be better parents, right?
Evan: And someone would be rich.
Rebecca: [laughs] That’s right. I would be writing that book.
Rebecca: It’s not going to happen because that book isn’t…
Evan: It’s not writable.
Rebecca: It can’t be told about the human condition. It’s just not true. I like to think of the spiritual disciplines as ways of just standing before God, openhanded, and saying, “OK, I’m going to let you do some excavation here, and I’m going to risk being vulnerable enough to let you do whatever needs doing.”
The spiritual disciplines, it’s important to think of those as a rhythm of life. It’d be great if we could just practice silence once and be done. Like the church here, the disciplines need to be practiced in a rhythm of cyclical return.
We keep coming back in Lent over, and over, and over again to the practices of stripping away and detachment, so that we’re ready to receive the gifts of resurrection and new life on Easter. That’s a nice picture of what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to work over the long‑term.
I will say this, though. One of the best questions I ever got from a student about vainglory was, “OK, so you’ve got all these disciplines of detachment, solitude, and silence, in particular. What’s the counterpart? I mean, what does it look like to do glory well?” He said, “You know, in the Christian tradition, we’ve got a rhythm of fasting and feasting.”
You don’t just do fasting. That’s the practice of detachment or abstinence from a disordered grip on some good. Then there’s the feasting. There’s the celebration of the good in the right way, with the right kind of joy and the right kind of openhanded love and celebration.
He says, “What’s the counterpart of solitude and silence? Where’s the good glory?” I thought, “Wow!” That made me think hard about what does it look like to be a culture that gives glory well, that celebrates goodness in the right sorts of ways, that shows gratitude, that is ready with encouragement, that’s open in its joy over those who are doing good work.
What would that culture of good glory look like? That’s been an intriguing positive practice side of the spiritual disciplines question that I’ve been just thinking more and more about in the last year or two.
Evan: Rebecca, this has been so rich. I’m so thankful for your time here. You’re touching on something that runs deep in a lot of people. My experience of reading your work is, as you write, it’s this experience of seeing the things that were there, but I hadn’t noticed. [laughs]
Rebecca: I love having the name vainglory because it does set a conceptual filter that makes all sorts of things on the landscape pop out, that were already there, but we weren’t paying attention to in the same way.
Evan: You’re good at shining and sharing that light. I just want to thank you again. I’m so thankful for your work.
Rebecca: It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. It’s always interesting to me to see how many layers there are yet to be excavated. Those come through in new conversations every time. Thanks for having me on the program and letting me learn from you as well.
Evan: Deeper into the onion, right?
Rebecca: There you go.
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa. It’s produced by the Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by the Narrativo Group, more at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play, wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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