“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Humility is the first door we must pass through on this excursion. We can think of many examples from other traditions where this principle applies. Yoga practice, martial arts, or Buddhist meditation; basically any training developing mental and spiritual skills requires humility toward teachers and tradition. This is no different for learning practical skills like painting, luthiery or even computer programming. Why should we think Christian discipline would be different? We may find that mere humility is a minimum requirement of poverty of spirit, the Master may have something more cathartic in mind.
Prov 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Here is a scriptural antecedent for our meditation. Fear implies reverence; one of those words like ‘awesome’ and ‘terrible’ that once spoke of a transcendent state upon recognition of the smallness of self against the vastness of God. Of course in an age where such awareness is derided or trivialized, we have few invitations for ecstatic surrender. Under the spell of Humanism, and Modernity generally, we tend to get defensive at challenges to our personal sovereignty. These are hidden costs to religious practice that Liberalism incurred. Church discipline usurped by a spirit of ‘liberation of the oppressed’ wills the authority of the individual; Jesus becoming a protohumanist saving us from the tyranny of religious authoritarianism. This outlook tends toward materialism, and since it must always maintain the Self as a good, it keeps us stuck in a shallow state of contemplation. Here we manage only to be afraid of the Lord, and have only transitory spiritual experiences we might later label ‘totally awesome’.
It would be wrong to suppose that the ancients would have an easy time with the Master’s requirement of poverty of spirit. Pride, and self-defense are normal in all ages, the reading of the ancients, Christian and other wise makes this clear. We can even say that these personal defenses are at times even functional dispositions. Exaggerated they can become dysfunctional; delusional. But even in their normal ‘healthy’ form they stand as a barrier to profound spiritual growth. The growth the Master invites us into is special. We are blessed for travelling along this way. We Moderns, even in the Church, (perhaps especially) have an added ideological challenge. We have joined in the contemporary social reform movements that are centred on the sanctification of individual human desire. Spiritually this keeps us on the surface protecting rights rather than realizing our fundamental vulnerability, weakness and poverty.
“Admission of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”
In the context of seeking philosophical wisdom Socrates notes an analogous disposition to poverty of spirit leading to the reward of wisdom. Quite obviously haughtiness, self-satisfaction, and arrogance do not open the door for learning or transformation. Too often Christians look for miraculous intervention.. Without recourse to special revelation though, poverty of spirit is the beginning of a spiritual course, the end of which, for Christians, is the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is why we should resist seeing these as isolated blessings or slogans. That the first blessing , the Kingdom of Heaven, is the same as the last blessing, confirms this. In other words, we can see Jesus is giving us the start and the finish of the process in the first beatitude. The ones between fill the developmental discipline.
As the commencing beatific disposition, we should probably spend a bit more time on what being poor in spirit might imply. We quickly jumped to the conclusion that it is synonymous with humility. And though this is true to some extent, Jesus could have simply said, “blessed are the humble”, as he did, functionally, in Mat 23:12; “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Poverty of spirit is a much more challenging phrasing. Even while writing this I find the idea somewhat distasteful; a bit intimidating. Too exposing and too self-sacrificial. Jesus starts with a high standard for discipleship. He does not begin with something louring. But it isn’t just a spiritual feat of strength, it is the only logical doorway into discipleship.
Now being poor of spirit cannot exactly mean being broken. I have known plenty of spiritually broken Christians who are not on any clear ‘way of salvation’. They exist in a hell of their own fragmentation. Of course we find in conversation with these folk that though ‘poor’ and ‘broken’, they still hold tenaciously to themselves. They are deeply self-centred . This is clearly not the disposition Jesus, or Socrates for that matter, is intending. But this does show the precarious nature of spiritual growth. There is a good deal of subtlety and a good deal of time in thought, prayer and meditation are required to work through the confusion of our spirit.
This prompts a concern in Christian discipleship. It relates back to what we mentioned earlier about the Christian category error of comparing contingent things with eternal things and so discounting the need to consider contingents weightily. This may be the residue of the Neo Platonic Idealists in the early Church. We must also acknowledge that our faith will generally tempt us away from the mundane toward heavenly perfection; from the practical to the ideal. The humbling effect of realizing our smallness compared to God or the universe, can be a good. If it prompts a healthy response of correcting vicious arrogance say, it is a certainly a good thing. But to stay forever in this space is functional nihilism of daily life.
In time I will have to consider Bret Stevens’ approach to Nihilism fully. For now I will use the word in its fairly common meaning as paralyzing meaninglessness. Nietzsche seems to use the word in both ways; positive means and negative ends. Positively, disciplined use of Nihilism can divest us from cultural and personal assumptions so that we can be free to create or discover new values. In this first part there is congruence with the poverty of spirit we have been discussing. As we progress in the discipline of the Beatitudes, the goal of emptying is neither to leave us free to set our own values ex nihilo. nor is it to train us into moral automatons. Rather it is to develop the character of a socially useful, free agent. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Negatively Nihilism is the destruction of the will into a melancholy of meaninglessness. There is a kind of soteriology in evangelical protestant sects that feeds on this nihilism. The following quote is taken from gotQuestions.org:
To be poor in spirit is to recognize your utter spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is understanding that you have absolutely nothing of worth to offer God. Being poor in spirit is admitting that, because of your sin, you are completely destitute spiritually and can do nothing to deliver yourself from your dire situation. Jesus is saying that, no matter your status in life, you must recognize your spiritual poverty before you can come to God in faith to receive the salvation He offers.
Wow that is a lot to read into the first beatitude! At least these Reformed teachers have not cucked Calvin with modernity and softened their conviction to core teaching on Total Depravity. I don’t want to make this an attack on Calvinism. I am neither interested or equipped to do so. The doctrine of Total Depravity is a kind of Nihilism of human nature though. It’s not that the doctrine is totally off base, but it is out of balance from a more traditional vantage. And this often leads to spiritual paralysis, as too often Christians who live in the “I am nothing before God” state of mind end up living lives that never really get anywhere. Of course this only confirms that they are a miserable sinner in need of grace, and so they are trapped in self-loathing without growth. The soteriology of personal negation; God is absolutely perfect, we are absolutely defiled, don’t expect much till heaven. Reading the rest of the beatitudes we get no impression that Jesus wants us to understand that “you are completely destitute spiritually and can do nothing to deliver yourself from your dire situation.” To the contrary he is inviting us to take on dispositions and to grow and be different in our lives. This is not a matter of saving ourselves, but it is clearly a matter of participating in our salvation; of ‘working out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ Philipians 2:12. Little good comes from poverty in spirit as absolute worthlessness, even less as a constant state of spiritual being. It is self-hatred as transcendence. It feels real, fells like we are keeping ourselves in our place. In truth it is often just a means of self pity, and, ironically, keeps us from overcoming our own true weaknesses and developing our strengths. I have some personal experience growing up under a version of this meme.
An analogous secular example is an internet poster, a picture of our galaxy with an arrow pointing to where our solar system might be. The caption reads, “When you get too hung up about politics, work, and religion remember. . . you are here”. This smarmy nihilism appeals to secularist for some reason. It gives them perspective and peace. Question is, why not see the great responsibility and blessing in likely being the only place in that mass of stars and planets where we can worry about politics, work, and religion. That engenders a profound awe at the privilege of our being. Only people removed from traditions of true transcendence could be so ‘meh’ about the uniqueness of our existence.
So when it comes to being poor in spirit we need discernment. We don’t want to mitigate the, at times, profound sense of smallness and incapability that out evangelical friends above have described so well (if too well). Such realization, is not an end in itself, but rather a lens through which we see our lives and our selfishness and our sin, this is the natural beginning of discipleship. This rather frightening realization of the poverty of our spirit will bring us into great sorrow for our state and our actions. Yet, we “will be comforted”. And we will be stronger for it. But this brings us to the next Beatitude.
Image: Job, Leon Bonnat