I am standing in the supermarket check-out line, reading the tabloid headlines about political candidates and the Kardashians, and checking my phone, distractedly ‘liking’ a few friends’ posts on Facebook and laughing at their comments while I wait. As the conveyer belt hums forward bearing cereal and canned goods with brightly colored advertisements (“new and improved!” “8 essential vitamins and minerals!”), my mind turns to the afternoon’s remaining tasks. I wonder if I have any new insights worth sharing about the vice of vainglory for this essay, what the audience reading it will think of my academic competence or Christian insight. Oh, and maybe I will also have to add a “bio” for the end of the essay listing my academic credentials and accolades. Hmmm.
And that about sums up this essay.
Vainglory Longs for the LimelightJesus once gave a sermon in which he tells us to let our light shine so that others would see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matt 5:16). In that same sermon, he also tells us not to do our good deeds before others, to be seen by them (Matt 6:1). It’s not surprise that in this apparently paradoxical advice, he shows us how well he knows our divided hearts. We long for both the limelight and for the Light of the World.
“‘Glory’ is a theologically loaded term.”Vainglory is an ancient, even archaic, name for a very familiar pattern in our lives—a pattern of disordered desire for glory. It doesn’t take much experience to see that having this term in our current lexicon would help illuminate moral blots on our contemporary landscape as well, blots that turn out to be signature features of both our culture and our own hearts. “Vain” usually means “empty,” but there are different ways to get glory wrong besides sheer vanity. As in, all the ways catalogued above—and then some. Better to start first by getting clear on the good that this vice targets. “Glory” is a theologically loaded term. Soli Deo Gloria. Is that the end of the story about glory? Well, yes and no. “Glory” in the tradition of Christian ethics that originally named this vice referred to any occasion of goodness being on display. When goodness is shown and known, that’s a case of glory. God’s goodness is the paradigm case. But other cases count, too, and this is reflected in other uses of the term. A glorious sunset, my hydrangeas blooming in glorious profusion, a glorious rendition of Brahms’ first piano concerto—these are all experiences that call attention to some goodness on display, offered for us to rejoice in and appreciate.
Our displaying of and desiring glory can go wrong in many ways, of course. We can fake having goodness, putting on a show (of virtue, or other, lesser goods). My daughter just spent a year filling out college applications and scholarship contests. We all know how that self-marketing game works, and how high the stakes are. Whether on an application, a CV, a Pinterest page, a social media profile, or a resume, even a technically truthful self-presentation can present a carefully selective, and even deliberately photoshopped, image of ourselves. We can also have genuine goods—no fakery involved at all—but seek attention for these goods that is disproportionate to its worth. Outrageous tattoos (or tattoos of Bible verses), perfectly coiffed (or uncoiffed) hair, extravagant bling (or tastefully classy diamond earrings), job titles, letters behind our names, the greenest, well-manicured lawn, knowledge of the best wines, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive (or the fact that we don’t own a car at all): we can use all and any of these things to craft an image for a certain audience and win their approval.
Vainglory Exploits Virtue for PraiseMost importantly in the Christian tradition, however, is the type of vainglory that takes genuine virtue or spiritual gifts and exploits their potential for applause. Just as the Romans sought to have their names go down in history for their great political and military exploits, so too Christians can seek to make a name for themselves based on their sanctity: “I’m a prayer warrior for this good cause.” “I’m a faithful church attender.” “I’m the lead pastor of a growing church.” Or how about this? “Of course, we’re not those kind of people.” Or my current favorite (as a parent of teenagers): “I’m a respectable Christian parent whose children would never, ever do such a thing.” To paraphrase Carly Simon: You’re so vain you probably think this post is about you, don’t you?
“The desert fathers likened vainglory to an onion. Every time you peel off a layer, another occasion for vainglory stares you in the face. It’s no surprise that the end of that kind of self-examination, we’re all crying.”
Wisdom from the Desert FathersDesert father John Cassian warns us to beware of our spiritual successes, and especially our victories over sin, lest they become an occasion of showing off…and falling to vice. In fact, he deliberately set up the list of eight capital vices to include all the usual suspects (lust, gluttony, greed, etc.) as a set of six, with vainglory and pride as a pair we must battle at the end of the rest of our spiritual progress. The idea is, that any headway we make in our “long obedience in the same direction” then makes us easy prey for vainglory. Just take a moment to congratulate yourselves for your progress in sanctity, or show it off for an awed audience of new Christians. Likewise, we also fall prey to pride when we take credit for our progress as if it were our own achievement and not dependent on grace. So vainglory and pride have the potential to undercut all our hard-won virtue. The desert fathers likened vainglory to an onion. Every time you peel off a layer, another occasion for vainglory stares you in the face. It’s no surprise that the end of that kind of self-examination, we’re all crying. Why are we tempted by vainglory? And why are we so desperate for affirmation and acclaim from others? Augustine’s and Aquinas’s moral insight is that every vice is a sham substitute for some good thing that we try to self-manufacture, rather than receiving as a gift from God. What’s the good we hunger for when tempted by vainglory? Being known and loved. We long for the attentive love of others. In fact, you might say that appreciative attention is a way of showing love. Think of God’s words in Isaiah 43: “You are precious and honored in my sight.” Or Psalm 139: “Before you were even born, I knew you and knit you together.” Or I Corinthians 13’s account of love and our longing to know God even as we are already fully known. The giving and receiving of loving attentiveness and affirmation is a gift. You might even say it’s a gift we can’t live without. But to give and receive gifts is to be vulnerable. And here is where pride and fear step in.
“The early Christian monastic tradition recommended silence and solitude as practices that the Spirit uses to cultivate resistance to vainglorious temptations.”In prideful vainglory, the glory-worthy self seeks to display its excellence. Bragging and monster dunks, name-dropping, and bumper-sticker displays of one’s children’s academic accolades or elite sports are familiar examples. At the office, I project competence. On social media, I post the brightest and shiniest side of my life, with exclamation points! Do you see me? Do you like me? Do you know how successful/beautiful/erudite/witty/humbly self-deprecating I am? In fearful vainglory, we see the defensive flip side of the show-off. Those with glory-needy selves fear rejection and disapproval. So they conceal the parts of themselves that will not go over well with their audiences. The cosmetic industry is not for women who already know how beautiful they are. St. Augustine’s confession that he was “ashamed not to be shameless” is the sort of posturing we still hear in locker rooms today. The image we project is often a mask for the shameful or second-rate self we would prefer no one to see. How many Monday mornings do you put on your superhero costume, and hope the fraying seams will not show?