Sin, Pride, & Self-Acceptance

  • Terry D. Cooper
  • Jan 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Cooper, Terry D. Sin, Pride, & Self-Acceptance: The Problem of Identity in Theology and Psychology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2003 180 pp.

Terry Cooper, a professor of psychology at St. Louis Community College, has produced a commendable analysis of a nagging problem for all who work at integrating theology and psychology: Is pride at the core of the human dilemma or is it a lack of self-esteem? Cooper works with material from Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr to illustrate the case for pride and from Pelagius and Carl Rogers to make the case for a lack of self-esteem. Linking a heretic with one side of the debate would seem unfair and akin to a "stacked deck," but Cooper is careful not to abuse Pelagian thought at this point in his book. Cooper selects these four thinkers as key representatives of the age-old debate because Augustine and Pelagius represent an important phase in the development of Christian thought and because Niebuhr and Rogers have exerted powerful influences on Twentieth Century theology and psychology.

Cooper supplements his argument with material from Gerald May illustrating Augustine's contention that pride and concupiscence are linked; May's theory of addiction is useful in this regard. The author also shows how feminist critiques have revealed some inadequacies in Niebuhr's viewpoint regarding how pride serves as a core sin. The expression of sin, the critics argue, is different for men and for women. Cooper finds the work of psychoanalyst Karen Horney particularly useful in arguing that the question at the heart of this book is not an either-or question but a both-and issue. Cooper is not merely striving to create an artificial compromise to the problem. He genuinely sees the core human issue as containing elements of both problems. "One may be dominant, but the other does not lie far behind. Thus, there is unexpected low self-esteem in pride and unexpected pride in low self-esteem" (p. 165). The final chapter is worth the price of the book. In it Cooper summarizes his arguments in a succinct and helpful manner.

Cooper makes a very interesting point regarding this matter of original sin, a matter "rooted in a historical-causal explanation" (p. 42). As more and more Christians move away from belief in the historicity of the Adam and Eve accounts toward some type of divinely directed evolutionary process, the biblical account of a pre-fallen Eden and of the Fall itself becomes more and more unlikely. How then will these Christians build a theology of original sin?

The problems of the book are few in number. Some readers will cringe at the way responsible authors are lumped together with irresponsible popularizers whom none in the field take very seriously (i. e. John Bradshaw). And there are some ways in which the book is dated. Niebuhr and Rogers are both important figures in our recent past. And no one would argue that we need to catch up with their work so that we understand it fully as it compares to Christian tradition and to the Word of God. But we are now in the Twenty-First Century, and we are facing even greater challenges from postmodern thinkers. Now the very concept of a core self is under attack as well as the idea that we can build theories that have boundaries. One hopes it doesn't take us another 50 years to figure out what are the many implications of these current and pressing contentions.

The author cites five critics of the self-esteem movement. Each of them contributes a cogent critique to the issue (Paul Vitz, David Myers, Christopher Lasch, Edwin Schur, and Martin Gross). It is important for readers, however, to keep the number of five in perspective. Does it compare to thousands of authors who use the concept of self-esteem responsibly? Or are there just five such persons? Five critics do not necessarily destroy the movement. Their ideas need to be compared to those of responsible advocates of healthy self-esteem who have been able to avoid the extremes characteristic of pop psychology.

As an interested reader of this book, I came away with several impressions. First, this issue is so vast in its implications that one can easily feel overwhelmed by all the factors that merit our attention. The matter is confusing as well. Second, I was struck with how these theological debates sometimes wander away from giving central consideration to the biblical texts involved. Is Augustine correct when he argued that pride motivated the first couple to sin? The text says they made their decision to eat of the forbidden fruit because they saw that it was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and a tree that could make one wise. Perhaps pride is here, perhaps it is not. And for the alleged result of the Fall, that humans put a prideful self at the center of their lives in place of God, do we see such an eventuality in the Genesis text? Do Adam and Eve comically attempting to hide from the presence of God by crouching behind the trunk of a tree look like prideful people who have made self their god? Can we envision them as towering in inflated self- esteem or cowering in deflated self-esteem? They look like disobedient people who are frightened of the consequences they know are soon to come. The text suggests the first sin involved disobedience, perhaps based in disbelief in God's statement that eating of the fruit of that tree would be bad. No one would argue that pride later entered the picture, but is it the starting point of the sinful process or an endpoint?

Perhaps we have taken the serpent's tempting line too seriously. He did taunt them with the possibility that they would be like God (Gen. 3:5). We are not told, however, if this tempting line was the motive Eve and Adam had for their disobedience. We see pride clearly in passages often thought reflective of the fall of Satan from heaven (John 8:44; Ezekiel 28; Isaiah 14), but we must be careful not to confuse Satan's Fall with the Fall of the human race.

I also wonder if it is helpful to pose the question of Augustine next to the question of modern psychotherapy (at least as represented by Carl Rogers). Perhaps the two are asking different questions which would explain why they give different answers. Theologians are interested in identifying what is at the heart of human separation from God. Psychotherapists seek to determine what is at the core of our clients' pathology. (One could substitute any politically-correct term here as desired: problems in living, angst, maladjustment, distress, abnormality, and so forth). The answer to the question of the theologians should be "sin. " And the answer to the psychotherapist's question should be related to some overall theory about the development of psychopathology. Low self-esteem is but one answer. Other answers include anxiety, alienation, faulty learning, erroneous thinking, poor and inadequate parenting, and on and on.

This book will stimulate your thinking and reflection. It is a must for those engaged in the integration enterprise.

James Beck
Professor of Counseling
Denver Seminary