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Spiritual retreat as a form of sour grapes Tuesday, October 31, 2017
 
I usually think of spiritual retreat as healthy--a virtue. Here's the flip side of that thought:

[It is] a very grand form of sour grapes. If you cannot obtain from the world that which you really desire, you must teach yourself not to want it. If you cannot get what you want, you must teach yourself to want what you can get. This is a very frequent form of spiritual retreat in depth, into a kind of inner citadel, in which you try to lock yourself up against all the fearful ills of the world. The king of my province - the prince - confiscates my land: I do not want to own land. The prince does not wish to give me rank: rank is trivial, unimportant. The king has robbed me of my possessions: possessions are nothing. My children have died of malnutrition and disease: earthly attachments, even love of children, are as nothing before love of God. And so forth. You gradually hedge yourself round with a kind of tight wall by which you seek to reduce your vulnerable surface - you want to be as little wounded as possible. Every kind of wound has been heaped upon you, and therefore you wish to contract yourself into the smallest possible area, so that as little of you as possible is exposed to further wounds.

----Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism


I pose Berlin's quote as a general observation, but to put it in perspective I should backtrack a bit. Berlin was actually posing a more specific question related to Christian piety: is the devout Christian's lack of worldly concern truly a feature of their faith and their occupation with God, or is it not more likely a psychologically defensive position they've adopted that results from their worldly defeats, their failure at worldly pursuits? In posing this question he was building a case for why Romanticism, as a reaction to the Enlightenment's rationalistic thinking, arose in pietistic Germany, along with an account of the worldly defeats that made pietism the predominate mood in Germany of that time. I posted his quote without this context because the defensive posture he describes is not restricted to Christians. You may find it as well among secular or any other folk who similarly attempt to make a virtue of their lack of worldly success by disdaining the rich or the powerful as universally venal and beneath contempt.

Berlin's account of "spiritual retreat" is not either/or. Everyone enters adulthood as a fully enculturated expert at fooling themselves, to their eventual advantage or defeat. So whether you're a devout Christian or a confirmed atheist, no honest person should neglect posing questions such as Berlins to themselves as a matter of day-to-day mental discipline. Such practice by itself doesn't necessarily lead to an acceptance or a rejection of religion; it just keeps you honest with yourself.


 
 
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