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On Weakness: A Homily

Standard

I did something wrong a few weeks ago. It was, perhaps, a sin. That does not bother me so much, but the experience opened a lot of questions.

I was walking home one afternoon, and I had plenty of time on my hands. I strolled by the gas station on the corner of Seventh East and Eighth North, where I saw a man in a wheelchair. He was pushing himself north, up the hill and breathing heavily. His face was red, and it was one of the last hot days of September. I felt immediately uncomfortable seeing his situation. Maybe it was guilt, maybe empathy, but I saw him and it set me ill at ease.

I struggled to know what to do. I identified several options: 1) I can offer to push him up the hill, 2) I can go on my way, or 3) I can try to make small-talk with him at the corner while I wait for a clear crosswalk, thereby at least being a friendly person (and thereby more patronizing). Deep inside, I knew that “option one” was correct, but my mind found a variety of reasons against it, reasons that – upon retrospect – terrify me with how reasonable they can sound: “He will be offended by your offer, since it implies he is weak.” “Our society is built on competition. How will he survive if he can’t even get up a hill alone? You would coddle him into dependency.” “You will appear arrogant, flaunting your magnanimity and your mobility.” Writing these down exposes their idiocy, but they seemed very convincing in the moment, and I think I know why. Our (Mormon) late-capitalist  culture, which we inherited from the West, demeans weakness. We, with Korihor, long to say that “every man prosper[s] according to his genius, and that every man conquer[s] according to his strength” (Alma 30:17). While so many of us reject Darwin’s ideas about our origins, we embrace their implications for our destinies (via social Darwinism).

Perhaps I cannot prove that mortal weakness is a moral good [cue sharp intake of capitalist breath], but I hope that I can lend it to the reader’s consideration in a way that makes the argument as acceptable as possible. I will first review some relevant ethical thought on weakness. I will then offer a response founded on the Standard Works and other Mormon thought. The first philosophical discussion will serve to characterize the current culture that prompted my ludicrous reasoning, while the second will propose an alternative that few have embraced (excluding, apparently, me).

Perhaps the most notable index of the philosophy against weakness is Friedrich Nietzsche’s. He proposed the idea of the “will to power” in opposition to other wills (think “central motivations”) popular in other systems of thought (wills to pleasure, truth, goodness, life, being, and so on). He felt that these other alleged wills, most explicitly that to truth, are actually manifestations of the will to power and nothing more; therefore, he begins Beyond Good and Evil by demeaning the Platonic tradition and the ridiculous moral posturing of philosophers, scientists, and theologians, all of whom claim to be servants of truth but who, in reality, seek to subvert all others to their will. Those who embrace Nietzsche’s claim, along with its moral implications (i.e. there is no good and evil, only power and weakness), tend to view human life as the pursuit of self-overcoming and the overcoming of others. (Some, though, merely accept the overcoming of the self’s weaknesses, preferring the more friendly of his philosophy’s implications.)

This obviously builds a straw-man out of Nietzsche; his discussions about this are rather insightful and offer very good evidence. It’s not all Nazi-justifying amoralism, and he helps us take a step back and analyze what we assume are our righteous intents. My straw-man, though, appeals greatly to many in the culture that underpins his discussion: the West. Others have taken up his philosophy and elaborated on it, sometimes with horrifying results. (Ayn Rand springs immediately to mind.)

An alternative to Nietzsche is Søren Kierkegaard. He emphasizes faith as a resolution to (or expression of[?]) our angst. While he does not engage Nietzsche, being his predecessor, Kierkegaard does speak about weakness in a very different way: “There was one who was great by reason of his power, and one who was great by reason of his wisdom, and one who was great by reason of his hope, and one who was great by reason of his love; but Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself” (from Fear and Trembling). What a stark contrast to my Nietzschean straw-man,  and to the values of Western culture!

I imagine Kierkegaard’s accolade seems rather unconvincing to most Westerners, but I ask Mormons to consider a statement by the Lord, Jesus Christ: “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27, emphasis mine). If what Kierkegaard says in characterizing Abraham is true (and who could be weaker, more foolish, crazier, or more self-denying than the one who offered the life of his son, simply because God asked?), then the meaning of the italicized portion of that verse may change for us.

Click the image for a much better discussion of the divine irony of Christ’s Passion.

Perhaps we thought God would make an Übermensch out of us. Our Book of Mormon iconography on  sale at Deseret Book would seem to imply so: righteous men are muscular, powerful men who act brashly and give no quarter for the wicked Lamanites. It should not take more than a quick perusal of that book, or most particularly the New Testament, to realize that the gospel message centers conversely around an act so pathetic, so weak, and so perfectly, madly selfless that it took the ultimate vessel of courage to perform it! Christ’s strength was His ability to descend below all things, to become the servant-God. If someone finds that an irreverent title, consider who He said would be “greatest of all.”

What do we do with our weaknesses? We can use them to be humble. That is their gift, their true power. They are powerful because, if we use them as Christ instructs in the verse above, then we can be conduits of His power, but we will not feel “powerful.” There will be no “splendid blond beast” (Nietzsche’s image in The Genealogy of Morality) rising out of humanity’s inner strength; no child of God will ever satisfy him or herself with the feeling of finally overcoming his or her dependence on Jesus Christ. That will never happen, for those bonds are exactly as eternal as they needed to be.

It would, then, be foolish to pray that God will take away our weaknesses. To be sure, the addict can recover, the unkind man can become kind, and the paralyzed will someday walk, and they all should do those things, but all of these should do so in Abraham’s way, by the virtue of the very weaknesses they long to overcome. Why would God simply remove the very thing that enables humility, without which we cannot even have faith?

This is not an invitation to go limp, but to rely both on God and on others. Our weaknesses will become strengths, for in that new, faithful context they will bind us to our Savior.

Returning to my story, this is what I did that afternoon: I asked, “Where are you headed?”

“The Wilk.”

“Gosh!” I shook my head at his situation, hoping to look sympathetic or something similarly useless.

“Yeah, I guess it’s part of the whole disability-is-a-challenge thing.”

“Yeah,” I offered, then pathetically crossed the street on my legs which work so well. Perhaps, had I more humility, I would have made the right choice. Hopefully, if he truly wanted my help, he would have had the humility to accept it. Then, in a way that God’s culture applauds, we would have been quite strong.

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