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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