June 26, 2017


Words by Jason S. Sexton
Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

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For our series on The Seven Deadly Sins, Jason S. Sexton writes about pride.—The Editor

“Forget about the other six, says Pride.
They’re only using you.”

—Dana Gioia, “The Seven Deadly Sins”

It set the course of early Californians, fortune seekers and land stealers, leading them to find their way here for centuries to enjoy fruit of an existence marked as extraordinary, exceptional, free.

This is how the story goes, and we love to tell it, market it. Packaged as “the dream,” where people can truly be themselves. It only exists out here, and it sells because they keep coming. Josiah Royce once described it as “a novel degree of carelessness and overhastiness, an extravagant trust in luck, a previously unknown blindness to our social duties, and an indifference to the rights of foreigners.” This was pride, blinding to all else. It was about power, the dark side.

Pride is the mother of all sin — the other deadly ones, and more — craving what Augustine called the self’s “undue exaltation, when the soul abandons him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself.” Wolfhart Pannenberg related pride’s excessive self-affirmation to concupiscence, making “the self the principle of all things and thus sets itself in the place of God.”

It’s not easy being Californian, with a slouch and a swag befitting this place. I grew up in some of the worst of it. Inside the suburban myth’s last gasp before being crushed by gentrification’s fashionable pull. A flood zone, drug zone, things-one-wished-didn’t-exist zone. But they did. Inland California with a view. But it’s still California — where the wild things are … until we kill them, incarcerate them or remove them in another way, not that we care how.

I love traveling abroad, nonchalantly telling people where I’m from. Never “America,” or “the U.S.” Always: “California.” It sets people at ease and invites them, too.

I also love flying back into the United States — usually SFO or LAX — over the Atlantic and the remaining flyover states constituting the landmass, and over the Sierras. Writing in my place of birth on the customs form — “Santa Clara” — a great source of pride, although that place no longer exists, giving way long ago to one of the Silicon waves. Yet I never really lived there. I rarely admit this, because today’s flashy Silicon city, inventor of Apple and Google gods, sounds so much better. The fact is, most Californians, in spite of the opportunistic repackaging spin of the myth-lie, come from insignificant places. Most of us are inconsequential despite how our state and federal congressional boosters market our grandeur back to us over against the world-class narcissist in the nation’s capital with whom we contend.

The truer California — the we-don’t-really-care-where-you’re-from people — should just sit this one out. Forget the flash, bling and fear of losing. While we fight, we often lose. Our idols call us back to make ourselves great. But we must leave them alone. Despite our desire to self-swoon, self-congratulate about California values or fan the booster flame, this stuff is deadly, generating more trouble than we need or can handle.

If our fragile infrastructure, water situation and the delicate nature of our ecologically diverse societal salad bowl don’t highlight our vulnerability and limitation, certainly the San Andreas Fault will soon enough. This place and its culture is predicated on contingency and reality far greater than any of us. Seen aright, we’re far more ordinary than our pride allows us to believe. Where pride has leveled as many as anywhere, California remains where pride-as-failure is acceptable far more than we pretend, which ironically makes it the most exceptional place to walk humbly.

Jason S. Sexton is editor of Boom California and visiting fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Religion. He is co-editor of “Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture” and author of “The Trinitarian Theology of Stanley J. Grenz.”

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