Monthly Archives: December 2013

A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.

 

 

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The Godless Self and The Selfless God: God and the Modern Self (Part 4)

In parts 2-3 of this series we examined two common attitudes the modern self takes toward God: defiance and subservience. Now we will consider the third, indifference. In my view indifference is the most common and most tempting of the three.

People are not indifferent to God because, having thought about it, they decide indifference toward God makes the most sense. Such a stance would not be indifference at all but a kind of hostility. If you decide to ignore someone it’s usually because you want to hurt them. True indifference is not a conscious attitude but a habit of thoughtlessness. You are indifferent to one thing because you are totally focused on something else. You don’t think about it at all. And that is what I mean by indifference to God. We become so immersed in the practical affairs of life, in the search for pleasure, success and attention that we never raise our heads to heaven and turn minds to God to ask how it stands between God and us.

Let’s consider three common forms of indifference to God. The first arises as a byproduct of the search for pleasure, the second derives from the single-minded quest for success, and the third results from the all-consuming desire for attention. We can label them the esthete, the conformist and the celebrity.

1. Esthetes seek only pleasure, excitement, and sensual stimulation. When they are not experiencing it they are planning their next adventure; or they are bored. In sensual pleasure we lose consciousness of ourselves and God and become absorbed in experiencing the object of pleasure. To get the most pleasure out of dark chocolate or great music you must shut down all thought and close off the other senses. You have to let the experience take over completely. Everyone wants to have such experiences. They can be reorienting and renewing. But the esthete wants nothing else.

Esthetes are bored with themselves and their thoughts. They have no consciousness of God and desire none. They depend on external objects to fill their consciousness through sensual stimulation. Only in this way do they feel alive. In pleasure, they achieve the momentary illusion of power, of eternity in a timeless moment, and of oneness with the All. Above all, however, they escape the boredom and emptiness of themselves, they forget about finiteness and death, and they rid themselves of their persistent anxiety about the future. And they forget God or even the question of God. It never enters their thoughts that God himself may be the good they seek. But the godless self will never find rest until it finds the selfless God.

2. Conformists seek only success—social status, material possessions and other external signs of wellbeing. Since success is relative to what other people consider success, conformists always seek to look like others. They want nothing merely because of its usefulness or its beauty. They want it because others have it or don’t have it. They spend their life’s energy working for bigger houses, fancier cars, higher degrees, and better paying jobs. They seek to impress others, excite their envy and earn their approval. Like esthetes, they are bored with their empty selves, and they have no consciousness of God. They are only what they have, and their sense of self-worth is determined by how they measure up to others’ expectations.

Conformists never enjoy peace and contentment; they are always wrenched between pride and shame, disdain and envy. In such a mind there is no room for consciousness of God or self examination in awareness of God. It never dawns on conformists that what God thinks of us is the unchanging ground of our worth. But the godless self will never feel its worth until it finds the selfless God.

3. The celebrity seeks only attention. Celebrities exist only in the minds of admiring fans and exist only as long as people are thinking about them. A celebrity works to create and maintain an exciting, glamorous, super human identity in the minds of others and to associate this imaginary identity with themselves. The financial advantages to celebrity status are obvious but not central to the celebrity view of existence. Fans love celebrities for the stimulation they give to their imaginations; the fan enjoys living vicariously in an imaginary identity projected on the celebrity.

And the celebrity also enjoys the fanatical admiration of their fans for a similar reason. The irrational adulation of others gives momentary plausibility to a feeling of superior worth. Celebrities project false images and fans treat celebrities as if these images were real. Because celebrities live by attention alone, they are tempted to forget themselves and God in their frantic and futile efforts to hold the interest of their fans.

The celebrity view of existence is very seductive. Everyone desires the approval of others, and to receive approval we need to get noticed. And, if we have no other basis to accept ourselves and feel our worth, we may spend all our waking moments concentrating on getting attention. We may work so hard to create a false image of ourselves in other people’s minds that we forget to ask who we really are. We forget that we are known by God. The godless self will never feel accepted until it finds the selfless God.

The three attitudes display two common features, one negative, the other positive. (1) None of the three possesses awareness that God alone is greatest good of human beings and that his love for us in the true measure of our worth. If God alone were the object of our seeking we would be free from the desperate search for pleasure, the futile quest for success and the vain search for attention. (2) All three attitudes assume that our immediate desires and wants are reliable guides to what is good and what will produce happiness. By nature, everyone seeks pleasure, approval and attention. But when these natural inclinations are institutionalized in a culture of consumption, social ranking and celebrity, they begin to sound like the voice of God. But reason guided by faith points us higher, to God alone. If only the godless self could find the selfless God of Jesus Christ!

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 4 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Indifference: A Study in Thoughtlessness”).

 

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the differences between indifference toward God and the previous attitudes of defiance and subservience. Are there any likenesses among the three?

2. How does the attitude of the esthete lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

3. How does the attitude of the conformist lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

4. How does the attitude of the celebrity lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

5. Consider all three forms of indifference together and reflect on the how modern culture tempts us to live in indifference toward God and thoughtlessness about our relationship to God.

6. Name and discuss some strategies to overcome the temptation to love in indifference to God.

Next time we will examine the (false) image of God toward which the attitudes of defiance, subservience and indifference are directed.

When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.

God and the Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 2: Is God the Enemy?)

As Part 1 made clear, the modern way of thinking about human identity places humanity and God in a tense relationship.  If being a real person means being independent, if happiness can be achieved only by following our desires, if authentic identity must be exclusively our own creation and if freedom equals doing what we want, how does God fit into such a life? Isn’t God GOD precisely because he doesn’t “fit in” to this agenda? As the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Creator and Ruler of the world, doesn’t God demand that we fit into God’s world and play by God’s rules?  God and humanity seem to be on a collision course.

Hence for many of our contemporaries, God looms on the horizon as a threat to human freedom, dignity and happiness. In Parts 2-4, we will consider three common ways we are tempted to deal with this threat: We either (1) defy God or (2) submit to God out of fear or desire for reward or (3) attempt to put God out of our minds. These reactions can be designated, defiance, subservience and indifference. Today let’s think about defiance.

Defiance makes sense only as refusal to do the bidding of a higher authority or a greater power. You can’t defy a weaker power or a lower authority. Defiance provokes our disapproval when the defiant person refuses a just demand by a higher authority. But it evokes our admiration when it defies an unjust power or a tyrannical authority. Perhaps the two archetypical examples of defiance are Prometheus, the mythical character from Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, and the Satan character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing divine fire and giving it to human beings. Zeus punished Prometheus by fastening him to a mountain and sending an eagle to eat out his liver every day. (It grew back at night!) Prometheus continues to defy Zeus because he is convinced that Zeus is unjust even though he is all-powerful. To those who urge him to submit to Zeus, Prometheus replies:

Go thou and worship; fold thy hands in prayer

And be the dog that licks the foot of power

Prometheus excites our admiration because, though weak, he has justice on his side and Zeus, though strong, is in the wrong. Even in defeat Prometheus refuses to be broken. Hence he has become a symbol of human freedom and dignity, which asserts its rights even in the face of overwhelming power.

In Paradise Lost, Milton allows Satan to express defiance of God even though Milton does not think Satan is in the right. Nevertheless, Satan’s heroic defiance possesses power to stir our admiration…as long as we also accept his view of God:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That Glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power.

As I observed above, defiance strikes us as admirable only if the power we defy is unjust. For both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan, God is an unjust, arbitrary power. Their concept of God—their theology—views God as pure will, the will to dominate. Only one can rule all. But the modern self rests its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness in its autonomy, its power of self-determination. If God is the infinite will to determine all and our happiness depends on exercising our will for self-determination, our options are limited. In our terror we may submit, or we may try to forget God and our slighted dignity by submerging ourselves in sensuality. But we may also find it difficult to suppress the urge to defy, which is rooted in our ineradicable sense of dignity.

Surely something has gone wrong! Is the modern secular culture’s understanding human freedom, dignity and hope of happiness the only (or best) way to view them? Is God really pure, arbitrary will and power? Is God the enemy of humanity? 

Questions for Discussion

 1. Expand on the concept of defiance by discussing some examples of admirable defiance and some cases of deplorable defiance.

2. Why does Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus stir our admiration? Give examples of situations that awaken your urge to defy. What are some popular cultural images of defiance?

3. How do you think the urge to defy is related to humanity’s sense of its own dignity?

4. The essay pointed out the relationships between admirable defiance and unjust authority and between deplorable defiance and just authority. Following the previous analogy, what is the relationship between admirable defiance and our true dignity and deplorable defiance and our false dignity (i.e., pride)?

5. According the essay, Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God’s essence as pure, arbitrary will. In what ways do you think their theologies are defective?

6. To anticipate an important theme of the book and this series, given how Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God, what relationship do you see between the way we view God and the way we view ourselves?

Note: This essay can also serve as a companion to Chapter 2 of my book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity.

Next week, we will examine the attitude of subservience or “the religion of idols, hypocrites and hirelings.”