Fr Ronald Rolheiser The Last Word
Every so often a book comes along that is truly important. I remember 10 years ago reading Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled and sensing that this was a book of major significance. I had that same sense again recently reading Robert L Moore’s Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity. This is no ordinary book, to be read, enjoyed, and put away. It is a book to be studied many times over.
Who is Robert L Moore? He is not a professional theologian and thus is not well-known within popular Church circles, though he has had a major impact there through his influence on many who minister. He is Professor of Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Spirituality at the Chicago Theological Seminary and founder of an institute for spirituality in Chicago. What he does in his research and teaching is bring together spirituality, anthropology, history and psychology so as to create a unique vision within which the human person can be understood, particularly in terms of the human struggle with sin and grace, inflation and depression, violence and greatness.
I first heard him speak in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago. A former student phoned me one day and announced that he was taking me to hear “an extraordinary thinker”. I went along and wasn’t disappointed. A lot of thinkers are brilliant, but what I heard from Robert Moore contained something else: decades of hard research tied together in a rare balance. There was no liberal or conservative ideology colouring things, no piety or iconoclasm that was shadow-boxing with its past or with the culture, and no subtle religious or anti-religious bias. I felt like I’d finally found a mentor.
I soon bought every book and lecturetape by Moore I could find and during the next half a dozen years spent literally hundreds of hours (usually driving) listening to his lectures on tape. I also began to integrate his thought and his structure into my own writings and lectures. Whenever I would introduce students to his thought they would eagerly inquire what books they could read to pursue his ideas further. Unfortunately at that time Moore’s books were not as fertile as his oral presentations. That changed with the release of Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity. Now, finally, we have a book that brings together his key insights and does justice to his thinking.
What are those insights? Moore asserts, as do our scriptures, that each of us is born with an incurable, innate grandiosity and, because of that, we have larger fantasies and wishes for ourselves than our real life experiences can support.
And that grandiose energy spawns appetites that are not easily held in check. When we look at the roots of the greed, ambition, addiction, bitterness, rage, violence and pathological restlessness, we see there can be no real understanding of these until we first understand that fiery grandiosity inside each of us. Simply put, when you have six billion people on a small planet and each of those people is secretly nursing a god or goddess inside, then it is no accident that we often have violence and war. All of us carry a dangerous and pathological pride.
For Moore, the failure to recognise this grandiosity as the root of our struggles constitutes perhaps the most dangerous naiveté of all. The modern fantasy, he writes, believes that we are better off without God and the churches, but that fantasy does not take into account “the rise of the culture of narcissism with its worsening epidemic of pathological grandiosity”.
What’s his solution? Humility. But can there be genuine humility, given our innate grandiosity? Yes, we can attain genuine humility and indeed it is our only hope. But, for him, genuine humility consists in two things: knowing your limits and getting the help you need. For Moore, it is never a question of: “Am I dangerously proud?” But only a question of: “How do I get the help that I need to deal with my grandiosity?” For him, that help ultimately lies in a relationship with God which lets us healthily accept and use our divine energies, even as it makes clear that we may never identify with those energies. We are not God, though we need to use divine energy. Our life-long struggle between depression and inflation is, in essence, a struggle to pray properly.
To ignore this struggle is, as he puts it, to “continue arranging unconsciously our own last rites”.