Saturday, December 23, 2006

Narcissists and Religion

Narcissists, in accordance with their Machiavellian mindframe, will often appear religious, especially if they are leaders. But they may also ascribe to a religion in an effort to understand their special status, which they believe they enjoy. As Samuel Vaknin writes of the narcissist: "he is a captive of the false conviction that his uniqueness destines him to fulfill a mission of cosmic significance."

The narcissist despises authority and is totally incapable of collaboration. That is why he inevitably seeks a position of authority, even in a religious context. Should he be Catholic, he will most certainly come into conflict with the teaching authority of the Church, for he has a need to defy authority, and he refuses to be measured by anything larger than himself, even God. Vaknin describes what the narcissistic cycle of extreme valuation and devaluation looks like in a religious context. Those who are sources of narcissistic supply are highly valued by the narcissist, not for their own sake, but for what they provide him. Should that production come to a stand still, should a person ever come to discover the true nature of the narcissist hidden underneath all his colorful layers, he is quickly and thoroughly devalued and demonized. As was said above, the narcissist is initially religious in an effort to understand his own uniqueness. He is a disciple -- chosen -- by virtue of a special quality in him, and not really by virtue of the mercy and gratuitous love of God. He is incapable of genuine humility and worship of what is larger than himself, and so God is eventually devalued, for He does not remain a source of narcissistic supply for long. The true disciple delights in the law of God: "The law of your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces" (Ps 119, 72). But despite appearances, the religious narcissist personally finds that law a maddening nuisance that unnecessarily limits his sources of narcissistic supply, namely the entire secular world. Religious narcissists, thus, tend to be compromising liberals, watering down the difficult truth so as to be more inviting and inclusive. But all they ever really invite and include are sources of narcissistic supply, nothing more (this, of course, is not to suggest that all liberals are narcissists).

But religion has afforded the narcissist with a position of authority, which in turn is a reliable source of narcissistic supply. Hence, the reason some of them do not leave the Church--much to the dismay of some of the faithful. They are inconsistent in their leadership; for they are disloyal to the teaching magisterium, but they demand unquestioning loyalty and absolute deference to their own authority. Should this demand for obedience become too obvious, they can very cleverly appear to employ a democratic style of leadership and receive input from everyone. With a large enough number of people at hand, the clever narcissist can find fragments of his own vision in some of their ideas. If one watches carefully, one notices how he collects those very pieces and assembles them into a vision which everyone thinks was democratically determined. But the final product in no way will have differed significantly from what he had decided originally, before consulting anyone. The democratic process, which was under his control from the beginning, only lends the appearance of collaboration and democracy.

The pseudo-religious narcissist will especially identify with certain biblical imagery, such as the Good Shepherd, which depicts a human person amidst irrational animals of an inferior nature. The Parable of the Talents lends itself very well to the narcissist's twisted mind. In this parable, some servants are given five talents, another two, to a third only one, each in proportion to his ability. The narcissist of course sees himself as a ten and everyone else as a two or a one. Only those whom he needs and who supply him with fuel qualify as a ten, but these may quickly find themselves reduced to a two or a one should their status as supplier suddenly change. Such a parable can become a useful tool of manipulation and flattery. In short, the narcissist's use of scripture is as twisted as Satan's in the temptation in the wilderness.

There have been a number of false norms that have been made popular over the years that have only made it easier for the depraved and pathological narcissist to continue undetected. The popular exhortation to be tolerant, positive, non-judgmental and inclusive are prime examples. If a person sees the glass half full, he is positive and optimistic, but negative and pessimistic if he sees it half empty. The problem here, though, is that evil is parasitic. As was said above, there is simply no such thing as pure evil, because evil is a lack of due being. The optimist who refuses to see the lack lest he begin to feel negative is blinding himself to evil and contributing to the creation of the kind of environment that the depraved require in order to flourish. Good is the very subject of evil. And so there will always be something good to behold in the morally depraved egotist. The half full/half empty platitude is simply useless, except for the ridiculously cynical that no one takes seriously anyway.

The biblical precept not to judge (Cf. Mt 7ff) is not and has never been an unqualified and absolute norm, as if making judgments were intrinsically evil. Rather, the biblical norm is qualified by the context in which we find it: "Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the great log in your own?...Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother's eye" (Mt 7, 4-5). Scripture does not assert that all of us have logs in our eyes that we are forever unable to remove, thus barring us from ever having to judge that someone might have a splinter in his. The norm bears upon the hypocrisy of the morally blind passing judgment on someone much better off morally and spiritually. It is not a precept against making judgments; for as St. Paul says: "The spiritual man judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one (1 Co 2, 15). Scripture is filled with examples of negative judgments (Cf. Acts 5, 1-5; 8, 21-22; Rm 1, 1ff; Eph 4, 5). The narcissist is ever scheming to create a safe environment primarily for himself, and so what could better serve him than to be surrounded by people who are committed to an unqualified refusal to make judgments?

Narcissists will forever seek positions of power. But such positions must be forever denied them. They must never be given authority. But so few are denied positions of authority because they are so adept at disguise. They are convincing, articulate, and charismatic. But the narcissist is all about power. His entire leadership is a game played ultimately for the sake of himself. Everyone under his authority is being abused in one form or another, and the damage he can do is far reaching. The facade he uses to hide his depravity and fool the world may very well contain genuinely good things, such as religious, political, judicial, or educational principles. But most of his victims will forever associate his deception with these good things and will be unable to distinguish between what is genuinely good from the narcissist's abuse of it. In rejecting the one, they inevitably reject the other. How many good things are irretrievably lost to others as a result of such abuse?

Doug McManaman