Religion and Self Love

Charlton Heston as Moses

Spiritual Sunday

Here’s a poem that challenges people of faith: to what extent is our spirituality compromised by our egotism? In the following poem, my father sees self-interest entering into the motivations of even the holiest of men—King David, Daniel, Jesus and Moses.

“Gospel Song,” he says, grew out of his reading of the 17th century French philosopher Francois de la Rochefoucauld, who sees “l’amour propre,” or self love, entering into all human affairs.  It’s important to note that my father doesn’t necessarily see this as bad, as he makes clear in another poem that I have posted a while back (“The Seven Charitable Chimpanzees”)  In fact, great deeds—the capture of Troy, for instance—can result when we seek higher ground for ourselves, even though each of us also has a side that “wants to carry Helen away.”

For my father, this is just a fact of human psychology.  I would add, however, that the urge towards self-aggrandizement threatens to sabotage and undermine noble efforts as well as spurring them on.  Jesus’s awareness of this danger is how I interpret his battle Satan in the wilderness.  Upon learning (following his baptism by John) that he is filled with God’s power, he comes to recognize that he shouldn’t use that power in the pursuit of worldly comfort, political power, or magic. (The road to the cross may have an element of self love, but if so it is a self love of an entire other order than what we normally mean by the phrase.)  As self will inevitably enter into our crusades, we must always be willing to scrutinize our own motivations and those of our spiritual leaders. We may not be able to banish self but we can work to alleviate its more corrosive aspects.

Gospel Song

by Scott Bates

Little David went
Into Eliab’s tent
And they talked on the mountain side
Take me for me
For me for me
For all I am!
he cried.

Brother Daniel saw
In the lion’s jaw
The feathery bed of the Lord
Eat me for me
For me for me
For all I am! he roared.

Gentle Jesus blew
His cool and threw
The money changers out
This temple’s for me
For me for me
For my God!
he did shout.

For Moses found
The higher ground
When he walked in the desert alone
And Moses built
His pillar of guilt
With hammer and chisel and stone;

And what does
The undertaker’s boy
Whistle at his play
They all enjoy
The walls of Troy
They all carry Helen away


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  1. Barbara
    Posted July 17, 2011 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    Wonderful poem, Robin! My thanks to you and your father. I’m thinking this is true of the “inner crusade”, too: seeking “God” or enlightenment through meditation, self-denial, etc. is akin to climbing the biggest internal mountain. Mother Catherine Thomas, a cloistered Carmelite writer, talks about the need to differentiate between “the consolations of God” (the “for me”) and “the God of Consolations” that contemplatives are supposed to be seeking.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    This is a very useful distinction, Barbara. I assume that Mother Catherine Thomas says that the difference is sometimes hard to detect. I suspect one sometimes needs to pray (or go into the desert for 40 days) for clarity. And even then one might not be entirely sure. (Thus the need for humility.)


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