Pride is the Seed of Every Sin
“The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” (CCC 100)
I recently learned a very simple but very effective self-defense tactic against being put into a headlock: shrug your shoulders. My martial arts instructor put it this way: “It’s like you’re saying, ‘I dunno.’” As a physics teacher, I see the “I dunno” shrug quite often. My short time learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is all about subduing your opponent, confirms that this defense works. Shrug your shoulders, and you can prevent a lot of headlocks.
I don’t imagine that the large majority of National Catholic Register readers find themselves in situations where they are having to avoid headlocks on a regular basis, but this simple defense is a good analogy for a problem we all have: pride. We are all prone to it. It is the seed of every sin. In particular, for myself as a student of philosophy and a convert to Catholicism, intellectual pride is a strong temptation. It is this type of pride that turns heretics into heretics. They think they know better than the Church on some doctrinal issue.
So, where is the analogy? Pride chokes out the spiritual life inside of us as we fight to compete with God. The antidote to pride is humility, and an important aspect of humility is the ability to see and embrace our own limitations. We are not God. Pride slides its arm around our neck every time we place ourselves above someone else in an attitude of judgement or condemnation, a violation of our rightful place, side-by-side with all our fellow men. We are equal with our fellow humans. The hold around our neck grows tighter and tighter every time an individual thinks that he is the sole possessor of high truth.
One way to avoid these pitfalls is to always keep in mind the mystery of reality, especially the realities of God and our fellow humans. When it comes to a full and complete understanding of these realities, we have to admit, “I dunno.” Josef Pieper puts it much more eloquently: “Man, in his philosophical inquiry, is faced again and again with the experience that reality is unfathomable, and Being is a mystery — an experience, it is true, which urges him not so much to communication as to silence. But it would not be the silence of resignation and still less of despair. It would be the silence of reverence.” As we shrug in humble ignorance at these mysteries, we fend off the headlock of pride. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you understand it, it is not God.”
It is in this posture, also, that one avoids the pride of atheism. I have never read an atheist who expresses an understanding of the philosophically rigorous idea of God found in Catholic theology. The god that all these atheists reject, I reject also. They are straw men built from pride. Only those who balance what they can know about God with the “I dunno” shrug toward those impenetrable mysteries of the Godhead can understand the true God. Those who think they know, don’t; those know who know they don’t, know. As Peter Kreeft has said, there are two kind of people in the world: the fools who think they are wise, and the wise who know they are fools. Shakespeare, too: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Now, this is not to say that we should not do theology. Catholics should be as well-informed about the faith as possible. There have been many saints who dove deep in the intellectual ocean of God. But it is absolutely necessary to know when we cannot go any further and admit that we don’t know. We can make true statements about God, but a full understanding of God is simply not possible for us.
This is the position of the Catholic. We have arrived at the conclusion that we are not the sole arbiters of dogma, but the Church is. The stance taken by we many converts is not one where we stick out our heads in pride and proclaim that we have it all figured out. Quite the opposite: we realize how desperate we are for guidance in matters pertaining to the revelation of God. We shrug our shoulders, thus avoiding the pride of those individuals who claim to have their own corner on truth, and we submit to the Church.
The “I dunno” shrug is an important physical self-defense tactic, and the “I dunno” shrug of humility is an important spiritual self-defense tactic. If we want to keep our true selves thriving and intact, pride in all its forms must be thwarted from the start.