An extraordinary talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability.
I’ve recently had a spate of conversations with people about why I would describe myself as religious – they themselves find religion unnecessary at best, and know that there many things about religion that I object to. And here is seemingly a good example of religion being unnecessary: Brene Brown manages to go through one Christian teaching after another, preaching vulnerability, courage, compassion, honesty, and connection, but in a sociological and psychological context devoid of any doctrine or dogma or mythology.
The argument for religion, in brief, is this: what Brown articulates here is coherent as a worldview, but there are other coherent worldviews. Her vision is utterly contrary, say, to Ayn Rand’s. Ultimately we are operating with some kind of governing image by which and toward which we shape our lives. Whether we are enrolled in a religious organization or not, we have some kind of governing image, and the realm of these images – somewhat arbitrary (in the Kierkegaard sense: an established criterion can dictate later means, but you have no criterion for choosing a criterion), and operating on us like all images in a way that is both subrational and transrational – has traditionally been called religion. And the images have up until very recently in religion been of far greater significance than the books and doctrines, which have been inaccessible to the majority of believers. Given such a religious ideal, religions are incredible treasuries of technique and reflection and how these ideals can be lived and understood.
Seen from this perspective, what Brene Brown is advocating is a sociological definition, and elaborated version, of what Jung called the central image of the Western psyche, a man suffering for the sake of love on a cross. She advocates an abdication from power and control – “my kingdom is not of this world,” a division between Caesar and God – into a life of vulnerability, for the sake of love. This is also recognizably the Christian theology of free will, the teaching that vulnerability is the price that is paid for love.
I often hear that “every religion preaches this.” I don’t believe that’s true at all. Islam, for example, does not preach against power or control – indeed these are godlike qualities – and partially for this reason it does not accept that Christ died on a cross. Islam does not traditionally believe in free will either, all things being predestined. But most important would be the simple fact that this kind of vulnerability is not by any Islamic image associated with God, i.e. with the highest value. In Christianity is found the highly unusual religious idea that God is vulnerable and God suffered. Buddhism of course is by all accounts closer to Christianity, though the predominant image has been detachment – the seated serene one – rather than the tortured love worshipped in the cross. (And if you’re going to say, “Christianity preaches power too – ‘Christ the King’ – and serenity also,” yes, of course, that’s true. The question is where the accent is placed.)
I will note of course that the Christian ideal can be criticized. Nietzsche did this very effectively. ”Vulnerability” can be a codeword for worshipping failure, neglecting oneself, and masochism. Christian ethics has sired a billion martyr complexes, created victim culture, and been so contrary to basic human instincts that its most obvious worldly result has been hypocrisy. Similar criticisms can be laid at Brown’s feet here, I think: “You preach vulnerability because you have no idea what it’s like to really be vulnerable. You’re a rich white fancy-educated attractive blonde who’s never been vulnerable for one minute her whole life.” I will not call this criticism false. Some level of security is required first before any of this talk of vulnerability makes any sense at all.
One further thing that can be said is that this image may live on in the future without any help from Christianity. In fact the institutional religion – which of course is utterly opposed to any kind of vulnerability as an institution and often boasts of itself as “militant,” i.e. vulnerable as an armed soldier – may be hindering the spread of the basic religious image it articulated and purportedly serves. In this respect people like me who identify with both the image and the institutional vehicle it arrived in may be anachronisms. But there’s no doubt that this image was born and developed, like a great part of Western culture, in a highly religious matrix, and the attempt to disentangle the two is a new one and its long-term effects unknown. And if you think, as I do, of the best of these images as divine in origin, and some as more appropriate than others, you understand why I stay religious and stay in one particular religion.