Catholicism, atheism, and self-esteem

Being able to say that "I am lovable" or "I am worthwhile" is, ultimately, a free gift that we receive from God

I often encounter, among both Catholics and non-Catholics, a struggle to read or hear something and to then critically think about it on a natural level, and as a good that might be integrated, to one degree or another, in the light of faith. As Catholics, even when we read essays or books that we disagree with, we ought to be looking for a possible bridge, something that might be honed in on that is true—even if most of the rest of the piece is false, or even garbage. As Fr. James Schall has continually reiterated, this is nothing other than the “Catholic mind” at work.

Recently, I was e-mailing with a good friend about parenting and the difficult subject of “self-esteem.” The word “self-esteem”—analogous in some ways to the socio-political term “right”—while not wrong in itself, nonetheless carries with it connotations that are ambiguous and, at times, contrary to good reason (and since it can be contrary to good reason, it would therefore be contrary to Catholic faith as well). My friend sent me an excerpt from a book he was reading, and wanted to know what my thoughts were. The passage highlights that self-respect is upon the following two main convictions:

I am lovable.” (“I matter and have value because I exist.”)

I am worthwhile.” (“I can handle myself and my environment with competence. I know I have something to offer others.”)

This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit as of late, especially in light of the fact that psychology is a side hobby of mine. It seems that the two points mentioned above provide ample room for the light and wisdom of our faith, especially since these are likely to be the two most misunderstood in psychology or even spiritual theology. Taken in themselves, the two propositions are not wrong, but it is necessary to see that removed from an authentic philosophical and revelational anthropology, they open the door to a gross distortion of human nature.

“Self-esteem,” like the modern phrase “open-mindedness,” can never be an end in itself. My point is this: to be able to proclaim that “I am lovable” or “I am worthwhile” is, ultimately, a free gift that we receive from God. It is in light of our faith that we discover the tremendous goodness not only of creation, of everything that is, but of our own unique personal existence. God did not need us, as Aristotle erroneously thought, and so the fact of our existence stems from the reality of His freely choosing to create us. That we do exist, and yet need not, should surely stir awe within us, and it points to the immutable gift-character of creation, something which would be difficult, if not impossible, to fully understand apart from the grace of faith.

The Catholic novelist-physician-philosopher Walker Percy once wrote that “we are born into trouble.” Percy himself had known this personally from experience, having lost both his father and grandfather to the tragedies of suicide. Percy’s observation, that we are in fact “in trouble,” is not cause for despair; his point was that there is something fundamentally “off” with us, some primordial disorientation that illustrates our need for some kind of help which we alone are incapable of providing. Percy calls human beings “wayfarers,” that is, “travelers” or “journeymen”. We are journeying towards a destination that is not of this world, and hence is the reason why we so often feel “homesick at home.” Our ultimate home lies elsewhere. And yet, God became incarnate to tell us, in a way that transcends our limited understanding, that we are in fact “lovable” and “worthwhile.” Being lovable and worthwhile are truths which, at root, must be gifts that we receive from God’s very offering of Himself to us.

That being said, parents must see the tremendous responsibility of their singularly unique vocation, since we are really the ones who are meant to be the first bearers of Christ to our children. Catholic psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz recently published a new edition of his book, Faith of the Fatherless (Ignatius Press, 2013). His overall theme is that the great underlining thread found among believers and atheists, something which links these seemingly unrelated groups of people, is the person of the father. Vitz investigated the lives of some of the most well-known Christians and atheists of the past several decades, and discovered that they could relate to God as Father well or poorly based on the relationship they had with their own father. Vitz always found that those who disdained God did so because they could not intimately relate to their own fathers, who abused or abandoned them (or both). Moreover, most of these atheists studied by Vitz also wrote extensively about the absurdity of existence, stating it was not, in the end, something inculcating awe and wonder at the reality of its gift and intrinsic goodness. As much as they wanted to experience being lovable or worthwhile, they couldn’t affirm themselves.

The late British atheist, Christopher Hitchens, wrote a piece that was published in The Guardian the week of his death. The essay was ultimately an attack on G.K. Chesterton, the famous Catholic convert and literary genius. Basically, Hitchens’ critique of Chesterton came down to this: why in the hell is Chesterton so happy? Chesterton’s response would have simply been “I am a sinner, and yet I am lovable.”

I have always been deeply moved by Chesterton’s point about the intimate relationship between Santa Claus and Christianity. Chesterton wondered about the paradoxical fact that the condition for receiving Christmas gifts was his being good, and yet, as he reflects about himself, he had actually been particularly bad. And yet Santa brought him gifts he was unworthy to receive. This is not only the essential message of Christmas, but is really the heart of Catholicism. We are lovable, not because of what we are or do, but because God has first loved us. In the wisdom of Catholicism, I can be assured that “I matter” and “have value” because I am ultimately linked to the very source of being and goodness Himself, and this is nothing but delightful.

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About Brian Jones 33 Articles
Brian Jones is ia Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.