Several years ago I wrote a post on ambition asking if ambition should be considered a virtue or a vice. Reflections on my series on the book of Job lead me to revisit the topic – and probably not for the last time.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary online defines ambition as (a) an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (b) desire to achieve a particular end. This is viewed as a virtue in much of our culture – certainly in academia.
I’m skeptical however of ambition as a virtue. It seems to me that ambition is playing with fire. The first definition plays a larger role than most of us would like to admit. Of course ambition according to the second definition is not inherently negative, in fact it is good to have goals and to work for those goals with perseverance. To be ambitious for the kingdom of God is a good thing – as long as it really is for the kingdom of God. And that gets to the focus of this post. How do we know that our aims are, in fact, for God’s kingdom?
We are, I believe, fully embodied souls. Here’s the deal. Ambition according to the first definition (and we can never entirely get away from this definition) is intimately coupled with envy, pride, and perhaps greed. Sin is a product of mind and will, but it is the product of a fully embodied mind. I have begun a series of posts on Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods and other books that explore the relationship between modern psychology and neuroscience and the Christian understanding of persons. I will return to this topic often over the next many months. The embodied nature of sin is a critical idea.
We are fully embodied creatures and ambition (first definition) feeds on our chemistry and biology and it shapes our natural responses. Ambition, and the success it brings is addictive. The impulses we feed turn around and change brain chemistry in a way that impacts future response and shapes the kind of people we are and we become. Success can go to our heads in rather concrete ways for good and for ill. When measures of success are the world’s measures ambition is not really a virtue – it can use people, destroy relationships, and destroy community.
Scientific developments have impact on our understanding of human behavior and human response. A few years ago I posted on an article, Seven Deadly Sins, in the September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine that posed the question “Why does being bad feel so good?” and describes research being done these days to explore the science of sin. Scientists are using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and PET (positron-emission tomography) to map the active areas of the brain as a subject responds to certain stimuli. Here I highlight just a few of the main points.
Lust is a big one – Research into brain response connected with lust indicates that (in males at least) the response is all-encompassing. “All said, the most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.“ The signals are unique, distinctive, unmistakable and uncontrollable. This isn’t surprising. We know that lust is a problem, we know that behavior can shape response, that there is a biological and chemical aspect that shapes not only the present, but the future. The biochemical response can be addicting and destructive. The lure of pornography is an excellent case in point. We could go on here, but this isn’t really the point of today’s post.
Envy is interesting – in a study of envy a number of volunteers were observed using fMRI while they read one of three scenarios – the key one described a student similar to the volunteer, but better in every respect. The conflict detecting regions of the brain fired and the response was similar to that for pain. This leads to the suggestion that envy is a kind of social pain. Later, when reading about this student’s downfall, the reward and pleasure regions of the volunteer’s brain fired. Not only this but the greater the pain in reading about the student’s success, the greater the reward in reading of the student’s downfall. The reward response is along the same line as that experienced from food – or sex. It feels good.
And now the queen of vices – Pride. Gregory the Great in commenting on Job noted (p. 489-490): “For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders is immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. … For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin.“
Does pride show response in brain scans? The science here is rather interesting.
For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities. … volunteers who imagined themselves winning a prize or trouncing an opponent showed less activation in brain regions associated with introspection and self-conscious thought than people induced to feel negative emotions such as embarrassment. We accept positive feelings about ourselves readily, Takahashi says: “Compared with guilt and embarrassment, pride might be processed more automatically”. (p. 51)
In another experiment a part of the brain could be stimulated to turn off the protective influence of pride. When this happened “they saw themselves as they really were, without glossing over negative characteristics.” (p. 51)
Even more interesting, the experiments suggest that righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise. The brain activation is the same. “Both are forms of one-upsmanship. ‘They are in the same location and seem to serve the same purpose: putting oneself ahead in society.‘” (p. 51)
What does this mean? Self confidence, ambition, pride, envy – this is a slippery slope. It is insidious – affecting our very make-up inside out. We are wrong when we cast it “simply” as a battle of wills. And our capacity for denial, blame-shifting, and self-deception is also rooted in our make-up. It is interesting though, because studies also show that we can train our brains and influence response – especially true of sins of envy, wrath, and pride. Feeding ambition, with its corollaries of envy and pride, is like feeding lust. It changes our very being, our function, our chemistry, our brain paths. On the other hand intentional pursuit of virtue is also self reinforcing.
So why is ambition playing with fire? … an example and an application. The feedback for ambition requires measures of success. These measures generally arise from such things as fame, adulation, deference, wealth, prestige, honor. It is incredibly tempting to focus on these measures (after all they must mean we are doing something right mustn’t they?). There is an incredible adrenaline rush that comes with success, especially success as measured by the meter sticks common in our 21st century western world. Bigger, better, faster, stronger, smarter – these all measure success, right?
I’ve been writing on Scot’s blog regularly now for over five years, more than 500 posts. Over the last couple of years I’ve had access to detailed statistics on my posts. The following graph shows the cumulative unique page views on my posts.
By now I have a pretty good feel for posts that strike a nerve and those that receive, let us say, a more restrained response. The availability of these statistics are both a blessing and a curse. Frankly there is an urge for success that leads me to focus on the “successful” posts. There is an intoxicating aspect to knowing that “more” people read what I write and appreciate it. It is physical and chemical – not “just” emotional. As a result there is a natural embodied response to try to maximize that feeling of influence and importance.
The long hiatus in the series on Job arose from a few different factors. For one, the middle of the book is a bit boring and repetitive, yet to do justice to the series I had to slough through it before tackling the end. It didn’t seem worth posting on. But there is another reason as well. I know that posts focused on the Bible tend to get lower numbers … unless they dredge up a controversy. This reduced the motivation to persevere in the series. And this is a problem.
I could design posts and choose topics to build a large following. I could discard the subjects that fall toward the bottom and concentrate on the techniques and topics that yield the largest response. I could justify it as working for God’s kingdom. It certainly happens all the time in the creation-evolution discussion. But unless I have the right measure of success I would have only a deluded view that I was working for God’s kingdom. Personally I think the posts that got higher numbers were good posts, but I also think that the series on Job was of value, and that the insights that come from the end of the book, the speeches of God and the restoration of Job are ultimately more significant than many of the “hot” posts. But series of posts on the Bible, looking in depth, will never get big numbers … never.
This reflection leads me though, to an idea that I would like to pose for consideration. Within the American culture we view ambition as a virtue. We condone ambition, we reward ambition, we cultivate ambition, we admire ambition, we feed ambition.
Is this consistent with the kingdom of God?
How should the church be different?
As for me, I expect the distribution of views on my posts will continue on as it has for the last few years. Many of my best posts fall below the median. A focus on the kingdom of God (in community, with advice and mentors) is the only accurate measure of success. This may match up with expectations of the culture around us. More often it won’t. The measures of success in the kingdom of God are not, and never will be, the same as the expectations in our broader culture.
And if you’re wondering about the picture at the top of the post – The Big Chill at the Big House and the highest ever (yet) attendance at a hockey game – over 100,000. A measure of success?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.