A Joel Osteen Sermon
Broadcast this past weekend was a sermon Joel Osteen gave to his mega-congregation in Lakeland, Texas. The sermon was rhetorical, vague, and sentimental. It was also more than a little self-flattering in that Osteen told his congregation that his not finishing college, although it was against his parents’ advice, had not kept him from success. The sermon, however, was also deeply religious. Osteen said that people had to learn and teach their children to be both grateful and self-confident. They should not allow themselves to take things for granted and yet at the same time not be manipulated into guilt if they choose to go their own way. It was a very Protestant sermon. People can make and remake themselves if they are aware of themselves as among the saved and so having the free will to determine their own lives. There are forces at work in the world, though, to dissuade you from exercising your free will, from finding and keeping your calling, and you arm your children by teaching them not to bend their wills too much (See what I mean about vague? How much is too much?)
The sermon nicely sets off the religious point of view (or at least one major religious point of view) on gratitude and confidence from the way a secular sociologist (me) would look at the matter. Gratitude and confidence, according to the secular view, are not to be treated as matters of exhortation, something put into a soul by the power of words to convey the emotions and the direction associated with those two concepts. Rather, gratitude and confidence are “found art”; they are attributes of the human condition that are time and again noticed for what they are by people who take note of those attributes as situations that are experienced as particular emotions, as when people feel joyous, usually, when in a group of joyous people, such as those attending a wedding or something else worth celebrating. The emotions are also the typical feelings and stances people adopt as appropriate for one or another occasion, and so people look somber at funerals whether they feel that way or not. And it is certainly the case that situations are certainly not primarily articulated or modeled on what happens in family life except through the complexities of Freudian causation. I
Gratitude and confidence are, in general, ways of adjusting to the vicissitudes of living in a time mediated social universe. They are therefore like hope, which is a sense that one can dream a future into existence, and like fate, which is a sense that time is not very malleable. Gratitude and confidence are each, on the other hand, the result of failures to adjust to the realities of time. Nostalgia is one of these failures because it is a reverie about moments faintly remembered and yet savored as still real, as happens when one talks of the good old days of 1942 or of the Cold War. Revenge is also a failure to adjust to time. It is a failure to acknowledge that the murder or other wrong one seeks to right are past, gone forever, not capable of being righted, only relived so that one can again savor the moment of loss, a haunting pleasure one does not wish to give up because one does not yet want to let go of what has been lost. It is an old debate whether hope is a Christian virtue or a pagan curse, and so hope should perhaps also be included on the perverse side of the ledger.
Gratitude, according to my definition, is awareness of help that was provided in the past that is no longer needed. You are grateful that your parents changed your diaper or paid your way through college or that a friend introduced you to your spouse or helped you out at work. You feel grateful rather than dependant because the immediate service is over and you are on your way again even if the service has to be performed again, and in that case gratitude can turn to resentment, while gratitude towards past favors or gifts is more likely to turn toward neglect or disinterest now that the dependence is over, though it can also turn to resentment if one cannot get past the fact that one was dependant. Most children, however, do not resent having had their diapers changed, though they may not show proper respect towards parents in their dotage when those people are now dependant upon them.
Osteen makes his point about gratitude a moral one, which means that it concerns what people should do in life rather than what they observe is the case with life. Gratitude makes children modest because they come to understand they didn’t do it all by themselves. It is part of all decent child rearing, whatever one’s religion, because ungrateful children turn out to be brats or worse. Gratitude is also a religious feeling because it shows our dependence on God as well as other people. People who are grateful walk humbly with their God, and so the feeling is a tribute and the substance of Protestant piety.
Self confidence has a definition which simply alters the same set of terms. It is an awareness of the lack of need of future help. You can go it alone, or only with practical assistance, in the pursuit of a job or a loved one, not dependant on your parent’s view of who you should marry or what kind of career to make for yourself. You have the resources both to make choices and to carry them out successfully, though that does not mean, of course, that things will always work out, even if naïve preachers like Osteen have a way of neglecting the fact that your plan may not be God’s plan, for how could it not be God’s plan if you have the God given confidence to formulate it and work toward it? Don’t worry; somehow or other, any failures, according to a naïve Protestant theology, will turn out to be your own fault.
Self-confidence is also a universal value that no religion or moral code worthy of respect would foreswear (and, so it follows, why shouldn’t we teach religious values in the public schools?). Children who are not endowed with self-confidence will become failures because they will not assert themselves to carve out a place for themselves in the world, and to the Protestant imagination, that is a sign of lack of grace. Schools have to teach self-confidence, though that is to beg many a question, such as how to instill confidence about math in children who have great difficulty with it. The naïve Protestant, however, needs only the words to make him or her free. Osteen goes out of his way to say that charity can be too much of a good thing if it does not force people to be self-reliant. (Am I correctly surmising this to be a Conservative political message about welfare?)
To put briefly the overall point, this going beyond these two virtues (“rechristened” as parts of the existential social situation): what Weber and Simmel and the other great sociologists of the end of the Nineteenth Century accomplished was to make religion an unnecessary hypothesis not only for the physical world but also for the social world. The sociologists could explain anything. Weber explained why Protestants exerted the will to accumulate fortunes so as to show off, in a way, one’s status as one of the elect. Simmel showed the ways in which religion functioned as the subordination of a person to an individual, such as Jesus, or to an organization, such as a Protestant sect, or to an idea, such as the Catholic notion of authority. Gratitude and self-confidence are not born from religion, however much religion was always very sensitive to the byplay of deep emotions and can be given credit for first publicizing them before they came under secular (which just means “objective”) scrutiny.