by Lee Camp
[This article is edited from a speech to the student body of Lipscomb University in February 2017.]
Albert Speer was one of the finest architects of the twentieth century. In middle age he was designing fantastic, beautiful projects. He was highly accomplished and highly regarded. He was given vast budgets; he was allowed to do the design work of one of the greatest cities in Europe.
Not only was he a success as an architect, he was also apparently a success as a family man. He had five or six kids. By all accounts he loved his family, was faithful to his wife, showed up at home, cared for his kids and loved them. He was in all regards a moral, middle class man who was not only good at work but good at home.
But he wasn’t just anybody’s architect. He was Hitler’s architect. As Hitler’s architect and later minister of armaments he was responsible for expanding the length of the war by many months, thus responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. So after the war he found himself charged with war crimes.
One of the fascinating things about Speer’s story is that he becomes a fascinating test case for self-deception. That is, how is it possible for us to delude ourselves? I can lie to myself, but I’ll know I am lying. It doesn’t matter how long I say, “Camp, you’re a great basketball player.” I know I’m not, and it’s a lie. So how can we delude ourselves?
One of the things Speer refused to do was office politics; he wouldn’t talk about people. But more than that he wouldn’t even talk about politics in the world at large. Here he was in the middle of World War II serving under the Nazis and he wouldn’t talk about politics. He didn’t go to Dachau. He didn’t go to Nuremberg. One of his friends comes to him and he says, “Whatever you do, Speer, don’t go to Auschwitz.” Not only did Speer not go to Auschwitz, he did not even ask his friend, “Why are you telling me not to go to Auschwitz?”
In Speer we find a good definition of self-delusion: self-delusion requires a policy of refusal to give an account for a substantive part of one’s life. To be self-deluded I have to make a policy that says, “I’m not going to talk about that; I’m just going to do what I’m good at over here.” This is precisely what Speer did: “I’m not going to talk about social policy, I’m not going to even talk about office politics. I’m just going to do my work and do it really well.”
Here is a second fascinating thing about the Speer story. At the Nuremberg trial, he was found guilty and sent off to prison. And in prison he wrote an autobiography where he asked himself the question, “How is it that I, a good moral, middle-class guy who’s really good at his job, who loved his family, find myself in prison for war crimes?” He begins to realize his great moral failing. He said, “I wanted, above all, to be a good architect.” This is shocking. There is nothing wrong with being a good architect, but it suggests the a deeply troubling possibility that if we don’t ask the “Why?” of our lives then we can get ourselves in a horrific mess. In other words, it’s what the philosophers and the theologians call an “insufficient master narrative.” We all have various roles. I’m a teacher, I’m a dad, I’m a Sunday school teacher, I have my various hobbies. But what is the master narrative under which all of that stuff must be rightly ordered?
For Speer, the master narrative was “I want to be a good architect,” and it led him down an appalling path.
I want you to ask youself two questions: first, how honest are you being with yourself about the “Why?” of your own life; and second, “Am I living according to a big enough story?” When we ask ourselves this last question we will find a variety of competing narratives we will have to deal with.
Take for example the narrative of self-actualization. One of my dirty little secrets as a theologian is that I like reading business success books. Now, there is some garbage among this genre, but there is also some beauty. It reminds us that the human species is fascinating, amazing, and wondrous to behold, and it reminds us that small petty visions suck the marrow from life and leave us wasted and frustrated. Go live large; don’t live a small petty life. Our brains are goal-setting apparatuses, so set goals and learn how to accomplish them, and you may thereby be amazed at what your brain and body can accomplish if rightly fed, incentivized, and cultivated.
Learn to face your vices, and tell the truth about them—because we are as sick as our secrets. But do not just root out the ill; also cultivate intellectual virtue: be amazed at theoretical physics and the cosmological principles that are altogether too wondrous to get your head around; learn the basics of the rise and fall of civilizations, the political constructs which have been tried and tested, failed or succeeded; learn to read philosophy, do some calculus, and bake cookies.
Learn how to cultivate physical virtues: learn how to hike a mountain or fly an airplane; learn how, to the significant degree it is within your power, to make your body more healthy next year than it is this year. Cultivate social virtues: to eat and drink and celebrate well with friends who are trustworthy and kind, for it is a joy like none other; learn to listen to people you can’t stand to listen to; let us learn to put our phones in our pockets, and pay attention to the people and the place and the space around us; learn how people work and think and feel, and engage that with wonder and care.
Oh my, yes, do learn self-actualization, and if the narrow-minded preachers start putting down such things, I encourage you to chuckle, and move forward: we dare not take all God has given us and bury it in the ground in some naïve move of self-justification or defensiveness. But if this be our master narrative, woe be unto us: not because it is, on its own, a bad narrative, not because it’s untrue on its own, but because it’s too small on its own, and any partial truth taken as the whole truth becomes a lie, and a deadly one.
Aristotle insisted that justice had to be one of the four cardinal virtues: we could become virtuous men and women but if the focus was merely upon ourselves, then we could not rightly flourish, because we are, as he put it, social creatures. If the focus is merely upon our own self-flourishing to the neglect of the community then we will miserably fail. Moses, Amos, and Jesus all insist the same.
Community, social justice, politics, human history—they all matter. But the danger lies in giving inappropriate authority, Messiah-like hope to the communities in which we find ourselves, seeing God, seeing the right always and simply on our side of the wall, and not on the other; or maybe even worse, thinking might makes right, and concluding that God is on the side of the mighty.
This sort of rhetoric is a long-standing American tradition. Thomas Jefferson referred to the United States as the “the world’s best hope.” Abraham Lincoln called the United States “the last best hope of earth.” Similarly, my friends, pay attention: when we are called to give “total allegiance” to our nation, this is a move beyond love of neighbor; this is the move to idolatry. Lincoln and Jefferson and the nationalists of our day are not wrong to love their neighbor, to love justice and freedom; they are simply wrong to assume that our people are preferred over other peoples; wrong to assume that the American drama is synonymous with the drama of God’s redemption of human history; wrong to assume a godlike divinization of our country that has no right claiming total allegiance.
This is not a peculiar American sin. When Albert Speer was serving as Hitler’s architect, Nazi soldiers were claiming, “Gott mit uns,” “God with us,” on their belt buckles. The idolatrous exaltation of land and people and soil is an appalling corporate sin with a bloody long history.
Do not be deceived my friends: over-inflated patriotism and self-important nationalism have great power to stir the heart-strings; but that does not make them any less dangerous or any less idolatrous. When gone to seed, the nationalist narrative gives birth to an illegitimate hope, one that is deadly.
The nationalist narrative is too small, and untrue.
Of course, many will rush in with the religion card: “Need a good master narrative? Well, religion’s got it.” In spite of the fact that I make a living talking about religion, the religion card is a dangerous one, because in the same way that some make idols of themselves, and others make idols of the nation-state, others make idols of their interpretation of the divine. And a fast-talking idolater can make a convert twice the child of hell, to borrow Jesus’ words.
I am a recovering shame addict: the preaching in my childhood church employed shame and guilt and fear, fear of a legalistic, taboo-touting, ticked-off god. There comes a time when we must ask ourselves whether the religious doctrines on which we have been nursed are in service to freedom or in service to bondage; whether they exalt a beautiful and loving and just and merciful God, or a nit-picking shallow-minded capricious idol of a god.
There is undoubtedly as much bad religion as there is idolatrous love of country and idolatrous love of self. But none of this means that we are exempt from finding a big enough, true enough story in which to join our lives, to give our lives. Consider this possibility: the big, true story of a God who comes among us, enfleshed like us, does the hard work of learning how to live well, learning virtues like truth-telling and courage—can you imagine the courage required in standing before Pilate, the courage required on the path to Golgotha?
But he does not just focus upon self-actualization or self-development, because this bigger, truer story also seeks first God’s work in the world, and its justice; teaches us to practice mercy and welcome foreigners and love enemies; who speaks the truth to the superpower of his day and insists that God alone is to be given total allegiance.
And in this big, true story, this God-incarnate vents his most intense anger at the purveyors of bad religion that weighs good souls down with self-hatred; and proclaims instead a truth promised to set us free, a liberty and joy like none other.
My friends, I plead with you: don’t saddle yourself with too small a story; take the time, make the space, to be honest with yourself: go get a big and true and beautiful master narrative for your life, so you can go in peace and you can go in joy.
Lee Camp serves as professor of theology and ethics in the Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb University. He is the author of Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. And he is the creator and host of the “Tokens Show,” a variety show that integrates music, humor, theology, and scholarship [www.tokensshow.com].