Summer 1982, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 155-165.

Donald Goergen: Current Trends:
      Self-Love, Self-Knowledge, and True Humility

Father Goergen, O.P., formerly professor of Christology at Aquinas Institute (now located in St. Louis, Missouri), is doing theological research in Madison, Wisconsin.

ARE self-love and humility compatible? This is just one of the current questions which affect Christian life in the contemporary world. Humility is one of the more prominent virtues in Christian tradition; self-image one of the major concerns of contemporary American society. The spiritual life requires that we recognize the tension as well as the degree of compatibility between the two. There are many expressions that manifest the contemporary theme of self-love: self-esteem, self-respect, self-concept, self-acceptance, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self-realization, self-transcendence, self-image. And there are expressions of a spirit very akin to humility: mortification, self-sacrifice, self-denial.

Not only has the world changed in the past twenty years; so have the Christian churches, and noteworthy among them has been the Roman Catholic church since the papacy of John XXIII. If, as a Catholic, I reflect on the recent past, not all the change has been good, nor all bad. If we try to capture popular spirituality prior to the last two decades, we must admit, I would think, a destructive aspect to the way in which humility was frequently understood. It was not explicated in a wrong fashion theologically, but it was frequently understood as if Christian humility were incompatible with liking or loving oneself. To like oneself "too much" seemed to be pride; self-rejection or even self-hatred could parade itself as virtue. It was certainly better to be humble than proud, and taking pride in oneself or one's accomplishments was exactly that -- pride; whereas denigrating oneself was not seen as vicious, in the sense of vice, but more likely a manifestation of the Christian virtue of humility. In our own day perhaps the other extreme has become more common: humility no longer seems a highly valued virtue. Which would we rather have: self-esteem or Christian humility? Perhaps we have come to a point where we can recognize that these two need not be mutually exclusive.

As we recognize that much which passed for humility in the past may indeed have been self-rejection and self-punishment,(1) so we must admit that much which parades as self-love within the present generation is a self-preoccupation and ego-centered ness.(2) We need only observe some of the currents which emphasize human potential, the creative self, self-image, "my" needs, feeling good, sensuality, a "self'-consciousness in contrast to a "social"-consciousness where development means self-development rather than developing nations. Not all of this self-awareness is bad; on the other hand, neither is all of it good.


The "self' has been one of the valid concerns of modern philosophy. The nature of consciousness has been a concern of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy and psychology. Greater self-understanding has been a goal of modern existential thought, but a goal in continuity with the early Greek desire for self-knowledge. Initially we must recognize that part of our problem is the failure in our use of language to do justice to the wide variety of meanings contained within this word self. Is self to be identified with a deeper and inner self, the depth of ourselves, the source of our being, our "soul," so to speak, our spiritual self, or with our conscious self, our self as separate from others, our ego, our personal identity? How is self related to the many aspects of myself -- to my physicality or body, my emotionality or feelings, my mentality or thoughts and choices, my spirituality or capacity for transcendence, my sociality or relationships, my world or cultural roots? Does the word self refer to my "best self," my redeemed self, my natural self, or my "worst self," my sinful self, my pseudo self? Indeed, we see that there are many selves, or at least many meanings of self. The nature of self has been a subject of much discussion in religion and spirituality as well.

Many times the seeming conflict between theology and psychology in this regard reflects the use of the same word for different realities. Moralists can make anger sound evil, yet therapists make the expression of it good. But the seeming contradiction between the two perspectives is not a true contradiction. Two disciplines are using the same word to indicate different realities. The therapist is using the word anger to describe a feeling or emotion; these feelings in themselves are ordinarily neither moral nor immoral; they are indicators of the way in which I experience a reality, situation, or person. Like pain, they tell me something. And it is certainly better to diffuse or give expression to such anger than to let it collect, harden, and become insoluble resentment. But when the moralist speaks of anger, he is not speaking of an emotion in the modern sense but of something that has a hold on our wills, something seldom spoken of or acknowledged in modern psychology.

The moralist is referring to an anger that has a willed or willful aspect, a wishing harm on another; the moralist is concerned with how we express the feeling or felt aspect and transform it into behavior. While an angry feeling is neither moral nor immoral, the way we will to harbor it or reject it, or the way we choose to express it in behavior, usually is. Angry attitudes, behavior, and actions are of moral concern. Expressing anger by shouting in the presence of a therapist or writing in a journal is moral; destroying someone's property or life or reputation is something else, as is bearing and nurturing a grudge against someone.

Thus in themselves the seemingly contrasted perspectives of the therapist and the moralist need not be opposed to each other. Guilt is another excellent example: one word, two realities. The therapist sees guilt as a feeling, feeling bad about myself, feeling negative toward self. But the moralist is talking about a consciousness of responsibility. Owning my response-ability (freedom) implies a willed and controllable factor in personality. Saying "I am guilty" in the sense of "I am responsible" or "I can behave differently" is constructive; saying "I am guilty" in the sense of "I am no good" is not. All of this points to the need we all have to clarify our use of the even more varied ways in which we use the word self. To what reality is one referring when the word is being used?


Before one can go further, however, several other clarifications need to be made with respect to problems that lie behind the conflicts between a psychological point of view and a theological point of view. Not all of the conflicts are simply a question of clarification, for example, anger as an emotion or anger as willed. In addition to a willed aspect to human life, Christians affirm a spiritual aspect. Sometimes these aspects are explicitly denied by modern psychology, or at least unacknowledged or unarticulated. Thus there can be a difference in the starting point as to how to understand the human person. The "voluntary/" and "spiritual" dimensions of personality are not simply to be taken lightly. They pertain strongly to what it means to be human. The contrast ought not be so much between a psychological perspective and a theological one as between a secular perspective and a theistic one. A psychological perspective need not exclude in principle the reality of spirit. The affirmation of the reality of spirit by theological anthropology, in contrast to many secular theories of personality, is the issue. Is there a reality, or an aspect to reality, that can be called spirit?

One has to admit that, even for many contemporary Christians, the reality of spirit is not so clear. Even many Catholics who seek "spiritual" direction would be hard put to explain how this may differ from "psychological" guidance. That there is more to our interior life than psychism alone, that spiritual or religious experience cannot be reduced to psychic experience alone, that the biblical distinction between psyche and pneuma flows from a valid and experienced perspective is not something all are willing to admit. But it is a significant question in any discussion of the self. The self, for a Christian, cannot be reduced to physicality, emotionality, and mentality alone, nor even to individuality and sociality alone; there is still "more" to me than all of these. A religious psychology in contrast to a secular psychology openly affirms the reality of spirit and the need to incorporate this into any holistic anthropology. Hence, there is a legitimate distinction between the spiritual self and the more empirical dimensions of self. Empirical psychology, moreover, ought not completely ignore the spiritual self. To be a human person is to be spirit as well as flesh, in relationship to God as well as in relationship to the world.

But mention of relationality in reference to God raises our consciousness once again, not only to the perspective of spirit, of our being spiritual, of our "pneumatic" core, but also to faith, that spiritual possibility through which the Divine Spirit enters into contact with the human spirit, that door through which God enters into our lives by our being open and willing to trust in one who transcends our way of being in the world. This is the first meaning of faith -- trusting in God. Before it says anything about a particular way of life or particular system of belief, it is an openness to, and trust in, the Lord. Faith allows the Lord access into our lives through the realm of spirit. Faith establishes not only a new but a new kind of relationship for us. The human person is not only individual and social but also spiritual, not only a nature but also more than a nature. There is more to us than ourselves alone; there is the Lord as well. And sometimes it is not I but he who acts in me. Thus there is my individual self (my uniqueness) and my social self (others who have relationally become a part of me) and my spiritual self (the Divine Presence or Holy Spirit in contact with, and dwelling within, my human spirit which is embodied within a physical, emotional, mental, and social being rooted in the world and its varying cultures).

Just as spirit, so faith cannot be dismissed. It is a starting point for understanding the lives and the self-understanding of many human beings. But just as spirit and faith, so grace. Proper self-understanding implies that there is "more" to me than "my self' alone, or more to me than my human nature alone; but this supernature, this grace, is intimately tied up with me and who I am. My complete self is my individual self (my individuality), others (my relationality) and also spirit and grace (my spirituality and capacity for self-transcendence into self-actualization and union with God). But this kind of self-actualization does not take place apart from faith and grace. It is not "my/" project alone. It involves others, and a world of others, and the Lord our God. There is no authentic self-actualization apart from spiritualization (which does not mean negation of the power or reality or beauty of matter). Actualization of the spiritual self always involves grace.


After all this we have come to a point where we can say something more clearly about self-consciousness, about selves-consciousness. This is certainly no exhaustive effort to resolve such questions, but I would like for the sake of simplicity to speak of three uses of the word self to refer to (1) my human self, (2) my graced self, and (3) my false Self. Let us not try to identify these with disciplines like psychology and theology, nor with world or church, nor with modernity or tradition, nor even with humanism or Christianity. For these set up unnecessary either/or antagonisms. There is much confused thinking in both psychology and theology, in both previous ages and modern times, in both the world and the church -- and all are also our access to Truth. Thus here we need only to attempt to clarify three ways of understanding the self.

The human self. This could just as easily be referred to as "the natural self." It is actually a composite of many selves, a blend of my individual self (my particularity, singularity, and uniqueness) and social self (my relationality with world, other human beings, and God), also a blend of my physical, emotional, mental, sociocultural, and spiritual aspects. It is "me" and my many facets, but "me" as good, as whole, as I can be and often am, a human person as an exemplification of the good that lies within humanity, of human goodness. It is not always the person that I am experiencing, but is a person with its limitations, weaknesses, imperfections -- the multifaceted' aspects of who I am as a human being -- a living, natural, vulnerable, imperfect, good, social individual. This human self, which I feel I sometimes experience, may be something of an abstraction, a reference to a core humanness which exists but is often not experienced existentially. More often I experience the graced self or the false Self.

The graced self. Robert McAfee Brown writes:

To speak of grace is to say that finally our lives are not our own, that we are not only recipients of a gift we did not create, the very gift of life itself, but that throughout our life we are given gifts we do not deserve -- friends, experiences, joy in the midst of pain -- and that at the end we will be upheld by a power we do not control, promising a fulfillment not of what we have crafted, but of what the giver of grace continually crafts through us, with us, and despite us.(3)

Grace is not really I strictly speaking, but it so fills me, upholds me, permeates me, that there is a unifying grace which can be distinguished from the uncreated grace that God is in himself. One may recall in my reflections about the desert and beauty in the previous issue of this journal that there is a point where the distinction between transcendence and immanence breaks down, because that which is so transcendent is precisely that which is so immanent. So likewise the distinction between Grace in Himself and actualizing or unifying grace can be a verbal distinction. Grace involves a relationship, and our way of understanding a relationship can help. In a relationship, that which is over there or other than me is also here or within me. Relationally others are a part of me. I am not who I am apart from these others who are a part of me. The experience of grief is literally that of being torn apart. There is more to me than my individual self, my individuality alone. It is now not I but others who are a part of me. Thus, just as a relationship has two poles (the other and me) and I have two poles (the individual me and the other as part of me), so grace manifests that same character -- there are I and the Other as part of me. It is now not I but God in me. Myself includes all three poles: my individual self, my relational self, and my graced self. This grace is both I and not I, as is any other person to whom I am related. As graced I am even more my self than I am as my human self alone. Frequently, when I experience what I think of as my humanity, what in fact I am experiencing is my human self as graced.

The false Self. Frequently it is neither the human self or the graced self that we experience or that is the object of empirical study. Even the object or subject of humanistic psychology is often not the human self but the false Self, the sinful Self, the selfish Self, the egoistic Self, the ego-centered rather than healthily self-centered self. I shall capitalize S when conveying the notion of the egoistic or false Self which exaggerates or misunderstands the self. Thus the contrast between self-love and Self-love is that between an effect of grace or an effect of sin and what it is within me that is being valued. The false Self defines itself over against others rather than in relationship to others, in domination over creation rather than in harmony with creation, to the exclusion or negation of God rather than in relationship to God, as either material or spiritual rather than as psychosomatic, as an ego rather than as participating in something or someone greater than oneself. The false Self is demanding, craving, selfish, hostile, arrogant in contrast to the graced self which is loving, kind, gentle, joyful, peaceful, faithful, patient, and capable of self-control. Given the domineering and dominating force behind or within my false Self, the true self or human self is often at a loss, were it not for grace and for others. Thus it is that my true self, what my human self is and longs to be, cannot readily be distinguished in the concrete from my graced self. For practical purposes, then, we can distinguish between my true, human, graced self, and my false, subhuman, alienated Self.(4)


Now we can return to the question raised about the compatibility of self-love, self-knowledge, and humility. Humility, as traditionally understood, was always seen as true self-knowledge. Well, then, the question is: What is the truth about ourselves? The truth is that I am capable of being both a self and Self, both true and false, both graced and sinful, both human and subhuman. To know myself is to know both sides of myself. It is to know that I am both "OK"and "not OK." Self-knowledge relates to which self I am knowledgeable of and to the knowledge of both selves that I am capable of. Is it now I, or the sin in me, or the grace in me? Love of Self that flows from false Self-knowledge, Self-love, Self-actualization, and Self-esteem is destructive; but self-love, self-actualization, and self-esteem are profoundly Christian. Self-knowledge then, true humility, recognizes the need for both self-love and Self-denial. In fact, the true self grows in inverse proportion to the false Self, or egoism. A narcissistic Self-love, or love of the narcissistic and false Self, must be uprooted for the altruistic self to develop. Thus, when we come to questions about self-esteem and self-actualization, we must ask: Which self do we esteem? Which self do we wish to actualize? True self-knowledge and self-esteem recognize the need for both self-love and Self-denial, both self-affirmation and Self-sacrifice, both self-fulfillment and Self-mortification -- precisely because we are many selves or complex, multifaceted beings.

I attempted to make this point in my discussion of self-esteem in the book The Power of Love.(5) The concept of self-esteem is distorted if we do not see it in a complementary relationship with Self-denial. Which is more important for the Christian, self-esteem or Self-denial? Which is more important, inhaling or exhaling? Part of the difficulty is the way in which we pose the question. Must we speak of a psychological and human value in self-esteem over against a spiritual value in Self-denial? The answer is yes when we conceptualize the problem in an either/or fashion. But a both/and conceptual possibility enables us to see how we can both love ourselves and deny ourselves. A true self-concept does not end in a false ego but in a true humility, true self-knowledge, authentic self-love, freely chosen Self-denial.

A major difficulty in much thought about this topic is a failure to clarify the use of the word self. It may be the false, egoistic, selfish Self that is being esteemed, fulfilled, or actualized, and the true, altruistic, graced human self that is being deprived, rejected, or repressed.

This is an important human and religious question: How important am I? Self-importance falsely understood has serious consequences. And this Self-importance can be false in two ways -- either through exaggeration or through underestimation. The tendency in modern secularism is to exaggerate our Self-importance. The tendency in some religious traditions has been to underestimate it. But the truth is: I am both important and not as important as my ego would have me believe.(6)

I am an important person. And I am good. I have worth and value. I have been created in the image of God and I am called to develop that likeness. I can be a "sacrament" of the Lord. I have an important role to play in society, a responsible role that I cannot shirk by falsely underestimating what I can do. The Lord has called me to be a responsible co-creator of the future. I cannot diminish my part. The Scriptures exhort me to love my neighbor as I love myself. I am important, but it is a self-importance which sees the human person in harmony and relationship to others who are also significant.

But I am also not as important as I sometimes believe. My self-importance must increase, but my Self-importance must decrease. My graced and human selves are important, but it is frequently the false or selfish Self which is the basis of my consciousness, Self-fulfillment, or Self-esteem.

Self-denial is necessary because this Self does not give up easily; my ego grows at the expense of my self. My ego leads me into believing that I am more important than I am, into believing that I am not only a member of the body, but that I am a body all by my Self. And I could be even more if it were not for those others who stand in my way. They are not my brothers and sisters; they are enemies or threats. It is I or we against them. I as ego define myself over against others rather than in harmony with others. As ego, my Self-importance has become a false importance.

Some traditional spiritualities have diminished my self-respect because they identified me with my false Self. But there is more to me than that false Self alone. Some contemporary psychologies exaggerate the need for Self-fulfillment because they do not recognize that there is more to me than the one Self. But again a psychology that is open to spirit, faith, and grace and a spirituality open to the human and natural need not be at odds. It is a question of self-actualization through the power of the Spirit, and Self-denial for the sake of self-growth. Thus we have a self-affirming humility, what humility was intended to be and what true self-love has to be -- aware of sin and grace.

  1. For the important psychological insight that apparent virtue can mask self-rejection, consider Karl Menninger, Man Against Himself (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1938).
  2. A brief, excellent article which makes us pause and think about our preoccupation with self is that by John Garvey, "Theology on the Knees," Commonweal, 24 April 1981, pp. 229-230. Also significant and worthwhile is Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977). Although Vitz makes a valid point well, he nevertheless overstates his case. At times his perspective reflects a Protestant depreciation of nature rather than the Catholic perspective of grace building on and restoring nature. Also, I would not dismiss the positive value in (or completely associate the cultic selfishness of the "self' movements with) the psychologies of Fromm, Rogers, Maslow, and May. But Vitz does alert us to an important point. Significant discussions of the self which are worthwhile are: Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1977); Quentin Anderson, The Imperial Self, An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (New York: Knopf, 1971). Not only can psychology become a religion, but the opposite is also true; see Donald Meyer, Positive Thinkers -- Religion as Pop Psychology from Mary Baker Eddy to Oral Roberts (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965/1980).
  3. Robert McAfee Brown, Creative Dislocation -- The Movement of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 80.
  4. From a biblical and theological point of view, some of these points are best made by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Becoming Human Together (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1977). He readily uses the word subhuman to describe the Pauline perspective of the one in sin.
  5. Donald Goergen, The Power of Love (Chicago: The Thomas More Press, 1979). Pages 42-72 discuss self-esteem and self-love. Pages 69-72 in particular point to the needed complementarity between self-esteem and self-denial in order to have a valid Christian perspective. Pages 268-80 discuss the thinking in terms of complementarity, in terms of both/and rather than either/or.
  6. Christ himself is the example of true humility in the Epistle to the Philippians, 2:1-11.