It is not uncommon to hear contemporary theologians (and others) opine that the Christian ethic of selflessness is a long-standing cause of female oppression. Even anorexia, that increasingly wide-spread disorder, has been traced back to Christian understandings of love as selfless or self-denying. The notion of selfless love has consequently acquired an air of the psychologically dangerous and patriarchal, and an ethic of self-affirmation and self-assertion has been taking its place.
Linking Christianity to women’s frequent lack of self-confidence or self-worth, and to the social and political disempowerment seeming to result from this, has its reasons. Among these is the fact that Christianity does draw a particular connection between selfless love and femininity: its chief exemplar of holiness—Mary—is, after all, a woman. Although this is the stuff of legend, some of Christianity’s female saints have also prided themselves on living solely on the Eucharist, a claim or practice that has, again, been interpreted as an early form of anorexia.
Despite such compelling connections, the idea that the Christian ethic of selflessness undermines the individual’s self-worth and social standing is complicated, among other things, by the biographies of many of Christianity’s women saints. Whether it be Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein or Dorothy Day—all of these women espoused and pursued strong versions of the Christian ethic of selfless love or self-denial, and yet wielded far-reaching political, intellectual and social influence. Committed to strict routines of prayer and fasting, renouncing material pleasures, and caring for the needy, these women, in their individual ways, pursued the idea of loving others and ‘dying to self’.
Yet Teresa of Avila also reformed an entire religious order and founded large numbers of monasteries, Edith Stein left a lasting philosophical legacy and offered consolation to her fellow Jews during the Holocaust, and Dorothy Day became a successful advocate for workers’ rights. However difficult it may be for us to grasp, selflessness and individual empowerment have not always been perceived as mutually exclusive.
This should give us pause. All too quick a dismissal of selfless love may do more harm than good. For, when it comes to the self’s stature, scope and influence, less may be more: liberation from the more debilitating forms of concern with self can be a key precondition for those actions in the world which boost a person’s confidence and recognition. Similarly, genuine self-denial helps build moral strength or character, without which authentic power and authority are impossible. By contrast, wilful self-assertion can drain the individual, to the point where he/she is too exhausted to uphold his/her artificially claimed power and authority.
Such a perspective relies, perhaps, on a Christian acknowledgement of human sinfulness, or of the individual’s need to overcome his/her typical self-enclosure before being capable of genuine relationship. But acknowledging a link between ‘dying to self’ and ‘coming into one’s own’ also ties in with today’s philosophical conviction that it is through and with ‘the other’ that human beings are shaped as individuals—or that they become fully integrated, strong and healthy persons. And here one is only a step away from a new understanding of Christian selflessness, and of the life-giving potential it claims for itself.
Featured image credit: Dome, by Hernán Piñera, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.