Monthly Archives: November 2013

God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)

In this post I will address the theme developed in Chapter 1 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity, entitled “How the Me-Centered World Was Born.” I begin by quoting from the introductory comments to that chapter:

“As children we never questioned our identity or wondered about our place in life. Nor did we think of our “selves” as distinct from our relationships, activities and feelings. We just lived in the context we were born into and followed the natural course of our lives. But as we grew older we were encouraged to discover our own unique blend of preferences, talents and joys and to create an identity for ourselves through our choices and actions. In contrast to previous ages, modern culture denies that one can become an authentic person or experience fulfillment in life by conforming to natural or socially given relationships and roles. Instead, we are taught that our self-worth and happiness depend on reconstructing ourselves according to our desires. And the project of redesigning ourselves necessitates that we continually break free from the web of social relationships and expectations that would otherwise impose an alien identity on us. I am calling this understanding of the self “me-centered” not because it is especially selfish or narcissistic but because it attempts to create its identity by sheer will power and rejects identity-conferring relationships unless they are artifacts of its own free will. It should not surprise us, then, to find that the modern person feels a weight of oppression and a flood of resentment when confronted with the demands of traditional morality and religion. In the face of these demands the “me-centered” self feels its dignity slighted, its freedom threatened and its happiness diminished…

“How and when and by whom did it come about that nature, family, community, moral law and religion were changed in the western mind from identity-giving, happiness-producing networks of meaning into their opposites—self-alienating, misery-inducing webs of oppression? How was the “me-centered” world formed?” (pp. 17-18).

The modern “me-centered” identity, like the Christian God-centered identity, has a history. Ignorance of this history constitutes one of the greatest challenges to engaging with our contemporaries on moral and religious issues. If we don’t know this story we won’t understand how they think, and if they are ignorant of it they won’t understand themselves. Hence it is imperative that we answer the question in the italicized part of the above quote.

It is impossible to assign an absolute beginning to any era in history. Nevertheless, we won’t be distorting history too much if we say that the modern view of the self began around 1620 and reached maturity by 1800, at least among the educated elite. As articulated by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a new scientific way of thinking (the scientific revolution)  inspired a different view of humanity’s relationship to nature and a new optimism about human reason’s power to shape nature into whatever form it desired. René Descartes (1596-1650) brought this new attitude over into philosophy, placing human freedom and reason at the center of philosophy’s agenda. John Locke (1632-1704) applied the new human-centered thought to morality, politics and theology. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the Romantic poets and philosophers who followed him gave human feeling and desire a central place in human self-understanding. Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), expressed a view that people today utter as if it were self-evident and indisputable. “Each human being has his own measure, as it were an accord peculiar to him of all his feelings to each other.” In other words, each individual is so unique that there can be no moral and religious rules that apply to all individuals: “Find yourself.” “Do your own thing.” “Question authority.”

The history of the formation of the me-centered identity can be summarized by saying that every rule and law, every power and right, and every ideal of what is good, true and beautiful was moved from outside the human being—from nature, God, moral law—to inside human consciousness where it could be brought under the power of free will. Human dignity became identical with the power to decide for yourself what is good and right. And human happiness became attainable only by following the inclinations of your individual self. The modern self evaluates every moral and religious idea by this standard. These ideas are accepted or rejected according as they enhance or detract from the individual’s immediate sense of self-worth and well-being.

Unless we understand how the me-centered self was formed we will find ourselves at a loss to understand or communicate with people immersed in modern culture. And we will be unable to help them understand themselves enough to gain the distance necessary to criticize the modern human self-understanding. If we are not careful we too will be swept away by what Augustine called the “torrent of human custom” (Confessions, 1.16; trans, Chadwick).

 Questions for Discussion

 1. To what degree and in what areas does Chapter 1’s description of the me-centered self fit people of your acquaintance or resonate with your self-understanding?

2. In what ways do you think a review of the history of the formation of the me-centered identity reveal modern identity’s limits and flaws?

3. What light does this chapter shed on contemporary culture’s knee jerk criticism of Christian faith and morality as oppressive, intolerant and judgmental?

4. If this chapter’s description of the modern self is accurate, how can we begin to engage people who have this self-understanding in productive discussions?  What strategies should we employ and which should we avoid?

Next week we will look at the first of three common attitudes toward God taken by the modern self: Defiance.

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A New Series Begins: God and the Modern Self

With this week’s entry I begin a series of posts dealing with issues I addressed in my recent book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2013). I will not write the series as a book review but as a study guide. The complete series, at least 16 entries, can serve as a study guide to the book for individuals, Sunday school classes, sermon series, college or seminary teachers or students, campus ministers, and youth workers to use their respective settings. But I also intend the posts to make sense even apart from the book; so, you can be stimulated and edified even if you are not reading the book.

The series will follow the book’s outline. The first half will deal with “The Me-Centered Self” and the second half with “The God-Centered Self.” The first part contains seven chapters and the second nine. Each week I will deal with a different chapter.

Introduction: Life in Two Worlds

Christians live in two worlds, the world of Scripture and the world of contemporary culture. Scripture embodies divine wisdom and revelation and a history of the prophets and saints and apostles. It preserves the words and deeds, suffering and triumph of Jesus Christ. The church has preserved Scripture, reflected continuously on its meaning and attempted to embody its truth for nearly 2000 years. Christian identity is shaped by 3500 years of history and tradition. Unlike many of our contemporaries we have (or should have) long memories.

From the world of Scripture and tradition we learn to see ourselves as God’s creatures, dependent on God for all good things, as sinners in need of forgiveness and renewal, as God’s beloved children, chosen for greatness, as mortals eagerly anticipating the advent of eternal life. We learn to value such moral and religious attitudes as trust, obedience, self-control, humility, love, reverence and hope. We see our lives as directed to accomplishing the will of God, to bringing glory to him and sharing in that glory. This shared, long-term and God-centered memory gives us stability of identity and clarity of character as individuals and as a community; and it protects us from the ever-changing winds of fad and fashion.

But we also live in the world of contemporary culture. And, just as we need to practice remembering that long story to keep alive our Christian identity, we need to observe, analyze and evaluate contemporary culture as a part of our own faithful self-examination. We face the double danger of forgetting the past and becoming enchanted by surrounding culture. That double danger can be overcome only by forming habits of remembering and by thoughtful engagement with culture. Attempting to preserve memory without thoughtful examination of culture will render us unable to communicate the Christian message to our contemporaries and, paradoxically, it may make us even more vulnerable to adapting to secular culture in substance while maintaining orthodoxy in words. But attempting to stay in tune with contemporary culture without constantly remembering our story in Scripture and tradition will lead to loss of God-centered identity.

My book and this series address this double danger by analyzing and evaluating contemporary culture and bringing to remembrance the Christian message of divine and human identity as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The first installment, “God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)”, will be posted immediately.

 

 

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part 2)

 In Part 1, we reflected on our restless search for something that can make us supremely happy. We concluded that since our capacity for good things is virtually infinite only an infinite and eternal Good can satisfy our longing and bring unsurpassable happiness to us. Today I want to reflect with you on the concept of happiness and how happiness is related to the life of faith to which we are called by the gospel.

Let’s begin with another thought from Augustine: “For if I put the question to anyone whether he prefers to find joy in the truth or in falsehood, he does not hesitate to say that he prefers the truth, just as he does not hesitate to say that he wants to be happy. The happy life is joy based on truth” (10.23; trans. Chadwick, p. 199). In these densely packed sentences Augustine connects happiness with truth. Because it runs against the modern subjective understanding of happiness (E.g., “Ignorance is bliss!” “Happiness is just a state of mind.”), this connection alone could occupy our minds for weeks! I see four possible combinations here. One can find happiness in truth or in falsehood. Or one can find unhappiness in truth or in falsehood:

1. Happiness/Truth

2. Happiness/Falsehood

3. Unhappiness/Truth

4. Unhappiness/Falsehood.

No one wants to be unhappy, so the last two (3 and 4) are undesirable for that reason alone. Hence Augustine’s discussion focuses on the first two possibilities. But a happiness based on falsehood will sooner or later be revealed as a false happiness. For the light of truth will ultimately dispel falsehood and the happiness based on it. Only happiness based on truth will last. To grasp what Augustine says we need to think about two aspects of happiness, the one subjective and the other objective.

In ordinary usage happiness refers to a positive mental state. Happiness keeps company with such words as pleasant, comfortable, content, peaceful, joy, cheerful, blessedness, felicity and delight. We are inclined to think of happiness as a subjective state of mind in which the dominant feeling is a sense of well being. We don’t usually include in its definition the external conditions and goods that promote happiness; nevertheless it does not follow that the existence and quality happiness are unrelated to objective reality.

Ancient Stoic philosophers classified the passions of the soul into four categories: desire, fear, delight and distress. Desire relates to an object as a possible good whereas fear relates to an object as a possible source of harm. Delight experiences an object as good. But distress experiences an object as harmful. (The Stoics considered all four of these states as negative and strove to achieve a state of mind beyond passion, but we will ignore this fact.) As we can see, the Stoics understood the four basic emotional states as involving rational judgments about an object’s goodness or badness.

I believe the Stoics are correct that the passions exist in relation to an object, or more precisely, a mental representation of an object; a passion’s relation to its object is not completely irrational or totally mechanical. And because their existence and qualities rely on rational judgments, passions can be well founded or misguided. It is easy to see that we may judge something to be good when it is bad or bad when it is good. We may find something delightful in the moment but harmful in the end or distressful in the moment but helpful in the end. Happiness, considered as a subjective state, can be well founded or misguided, true or false.

Now let’s return to Augustine’s definition of happiness: “The happy life is joy based on truth.” Augustine wants us to seek true happiness, happiness of the highest quality and of the longest duration. This quality of happiness can be found only in union with God, the perfect and eternal source of all finite goods. In this life, we do not yet experience irrevocable and imperturbable union with God. While God possesses us in perfect knowledge and presence, we possess God only in faith and hope. In so far as it can be experienced in this life, true happiness is joy based on the apprehension of faith and the anticipation of hope.

But how does this work in the conditions of life? To be continued…

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part One)

In Augustine’s Confessions, book 10, the great theologian/bishop struggles to articulate his search for God in words understandable to his readers: “How then am I to seek for you? When I seek for you my God, my quest is for the happy life” (10.20; trans. Chadwick). Many people do not understand why we should seek God with all our heart, but everyone wants to be happy even if they have never been truly happy. Human beings feel their need for something they are missing, but they do not have a clear idea of what it is. Hence life is an endless quest for that thing.

Augustine describes the natural course of the quest in this way: first we seek the missing thing among the things around us. We explore the range of the five senses in hope that they will unite us with the good thing we seek. In effect, we ask natural objects, “Are you what I am seeking?” They reply, “No, we cannot give you the happy life you seek; for we too are finite and mortal.” The plants and animals, the rivers and mountains, the sun, moon, stars and planets say, “We are not your God. God made us. You must go further and higher.”

Augustine, then, turns inward to his mind, to his reasoning power, memory and imagination. There he finds a power much greater than nature displays. The mind can contain the universe with room to spare. It can conceive of infinite universes and imagine whole worlds that do not exist. It contains immaterial logical laws, numbers and principles, and it can judge all the data coming from the senses, naming each thing and judging its nature and qualities. It distinguishes between true and false, good and bad. The mind can think about itself, explore itself, remember itself and move itself. It can even think about itself thinking about itself! Augustine finds himself astounded: “Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. And this is mind, this is myself. What then am I my God? What is my nature?” (10.17; trans. Chadwick).

In his wonder at the extent and power of the mind, he comes face to face with his inability to grasp himself. The mind can grasp any finite thing and surpass it; but it cannot grasp itself. The mind cannot get beyond itself to see clearly its origin and limit; yet it knows that it did not create itself or endow itself with its powers. Nor can the mind see clearly in the external world or within itself the thing it has been seeking all of its life. It does not find there the good thing that brings the search to an end and produces unsurpassable happiness.

Everyone seeks happiness but not everyone seeks it in the right place or understands that no finite thing or unending series of finite things can bring the search to a successful end. For the human mind can surround and surpass any finite thing. Whatever its beauty and power to entice and please, we can imagine something more, something better. Emptiness and dissatisfaction always accompany that infinite restlessness that is human nature. Hardly have we attained and possessed the good thing we sought until we are looking beyond, over and around it. “I am not what you were seeking,” it says even as we embrace it in the first delightful moment.

Let me say it again, happiness cannot be attained by coming to possess any finite thing, and seeking happiness in an unending series of finite things will eventually produce exhaustion and boredom. The emptiness we feel and the dissatisfaction that drives us onward can be filled and ended only by a Good that contains every possible good simultaneously. It must be infinitely good so that nothing better or more can be imagined or conceived; otherwise we will again be looking over, around and beyond it for something better or something more.  It must be present all at once lest our dissatisfaction and emptiness plague us forever.

What is this infinite and concentrated Good? Who is greater than the mind? “God” is the only fitting word to name this infinite good. Apart from God, I see no hope that human nature can be fulfilled, that we will find that for which we have been seeking all our lives. If there is no such Good, if happiness is just an ever-receding illusion, if there is nothing at all that can fill up the human heart, then human nature has been lying to us and the universe is guilty of false advertising; and human beings are misfits and anomalies and human existence is an absurdity.

But I do not believe that human existence is an absurdity; nor is human nature a liar. Hence I will not give up my search for “the happy life” or the only Good capable of bringing my search to a happy end.

More to come…

On Being Worldly in a Secular Age (Part Two)

As a young person, when I heard older people sermonize against worldliness I got the impression that worldliness consisted in the practice of certain vices. I won’t compile a list of those forbidden acts because your list might differ from mine. And vice lists differ from generation to generation. This variability is an indication that such lists do not get at the essence of worldliness. What, then, does the New Testament mean by worldliness? Let’s think about the classic text on the subject, 1 John 2:15-17:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

First John speaks incessantly about love of God and others. Your true self is revealed and your life is ordered by what you love. God is the highest and best. God loved us first and best, and if we know this we will love God in return as our first and best. To love something is to value it and seek it above other things. Only if we love God best can we love other things rightly. The essence of worldliness is loving something else more than we love God. Let’s explore this thought.

John uses the standard Greek word for world. It means “the order”, the order we see with our eyes and perceive with our minds. But he puts a negative connotation on “the order”. He does not deny the beauty and goodness of creation; that’s not his point. By “the order” John means the distorted, fallen cosmic and social order that opposes God and God’s arriving kingdom. And how is the world ordered? By the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life! Lust is distorted love. It seeks gratification in physical stimulation without moderation or order. It refuses guidance from moral law, the law of love or leading of the Spirit.

What does John mean by the “lust of the eye”? Perhaps something like the following: The flesh can take in only so much. You can’t eat all the time or enjoy erotic pleasures continuously. There is a limit to how much you can stimulate your skin with finery or your nostrils with perfumes. But the eyes! The eyes can survey the whole universe and take in unlimited sights. They can look with envy, lust or morbid curiosity on an infinite number and variety of things. The lustful eye serves the insatiable imagination wherein the fleshly mind can enjoy what the fleshly body cannot embrace. Still, the lustful eye does not see what it ought to see. It cannot see the true order of things because it is blinded by the disordered mind that controls it.

And the pride of life? It is noteworthy that John uses a Greek term that means not so much life itself as the stuff that supports life. We want some things for their utility or for the pleasure they give. But we also enjoy having “stuff” (things and money) for what it says about us to other people. We can enjoy our bodies, natural talents and acquired skills for the good we can do with them; or we can credit them to ourselves as marks of worth and inflate our egos by imagining we are better than others. The pride of life is a kind of distorted love of ourselves in which we try to base our sense of dignity and worth on our qualities, powers and possessions.

To “love the world” is to be caught up in a disordered order that seeks from creation what only the Creator can provide. It is to treat the temporal as eternal, the corruptible as never dying and the creature as the Creator. Self-evidently, to love the world is to exclude “the love of the Father”; for the world is “the (disordered) order” precisely because it does not love the Father first and best.

It is unlikely that the worldly person John has in mind could be classified as “secular” in the modern sense, that is, someone who has “ceased to feel religious feelings and ask religious questions.” People can be worldly even though they are religious; they simply love the world more than they love God. They relate to God only when there is a worldly advantage in doing so. But one cannot be secular without being worldly. For someone who “feels no religious feelings and ask no religious questions,” the world with its lusts and pride is all there is. Since we are not God and do not possess within ourselves the means of life and happiness, we will seek, love and worship something outside of ourselves. Apart from its Creator, creation is just “the world”. Hence, when our love and worship are directed to “the world” apart from the Father, they degenerate into “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”