Monthly Archives: January 2014

The “With Us” God: God and the Modern Self #10

When I was child the thing that troubled me most about God was that he always knew what I was thinking. As children we are not strong enough to get our way by force or knowledgeable enough to succeed through skill. But at least we can hide our thoughts from others, thereby securing a small victory over our enemies. A bully can make you cower on the outside, but in your imagination a different set of rules apply. You can enjoy humiliating your enemy without risking his wrath. You can relish knowing something she doesn’t know, which, if she knew, would make her angry.

But then there is God. It was explained to me that God knows everything and is present everywhere. Nothing can hide from God, not in heaven or on earth, and not in the secret places of the mind and heart. God cannot be deceived or mistaken.  God knows what we’ve done, what we think and what we feel. God knows the good, bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. And I felt uneasy.

Even as adults that uneasy feeling can return when we think about God’s complete knowledge of us. We don’t want just anyone to know our thoughts, and there are some secrets we do not want even our best friends to know. Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” The more people know about you the more power they have over you. But if someone knows your every secret they have complete power over you. We insist on our right to some privacy from prying eyes and attentive ears, and we identify the space inside our minds as ours alone. The constant presence of others robs us of a sense of selfhood and identity. So we can understand why some people resent the idea that God knows everything and is present to their inmost selves. They feel vulnerable and exposed and judged.

But there is another way to think about God’s knowledge and presence in our lives. Consider how much of our life’s energy is spend dealing with the problems of loneliness, inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity and worth. We desperately want to be loved by others, appreciated and valued. Unless someone else loves us we remain doubtful of our worth; yet how can others love us unless they know us? And how can they come to know us unless we let them into our minds and hearts? Here we face that other problem: how can we tell others who we are when we know so little about ourselves? Even worse, we remember that along with the good there is the bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. We are caught between loneliness that urges us to reveal ourselves and fear of rejection and injury that holds us back.

Now let’s return to the thought of God’s knowledge of us. We must keep in mind that God is not merely an anonymous all-knowing judge of good and bad, a cosmic lie detector, a heavenly mind reader. God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One whom we know by looking into the face of Jesus. And we see in Jesus’ face perfect, self-giving love. Just as in the previous essay (#9), we learned that God’s power is a loving power and his love is a powerful love, we can now say that God’s knowledge is loving knowledge and his love is a knowing love. They are one. In loving, God knows, and in knowing, God loves.

This thought places God’s complete knowledge of us in a wholly different light. God knows everything about us and, yet, still loves us. God knows every secret; yes, God knows the bad and the ugly, the sleazy, the slimy and the selfish. But he loves us anyway. The one thing we most desire, to be known perfectly and loved completely, we already have and have always had.

What about the problem of inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity? Does God’s perfect knowledge and love help us with this condition? Yes, it works a revolution in this area. God knows perfectly what and who we are. And since he loves us so graciously, so unexpectedly and so unselfishly, we are freed and, indeed, compelled to love him in return. We need not struggle to reveal ourselves to God. He already knows. We need not worry what he would do if he knew. He knows and loves us anyway. If I am loved by God who knows me perfectly, I need not be so troubled by my lack of perfect self-knowledge. Someone knows! In knowing God, I know the One who knows me better than I know myself. And since God knows (and loves) I can trust him to lead me even when I cannot see the path. In my conversation with God, who knows me, God can reveal to me things about myself I could not have learned from any other source.

What if you made God’s knowledge, presence and love the foundation of your relationship to others? Perhaps you would not experience the pain of loneliness so often. God knows and is always there. Perhaps you would find new courage to reveal yourself to others, since your worth no longer depends on acceptance by others. Since you know you are loved perfectly, you may find yourself spending less energy seeking to be loved and more in finding ways to love others. Since God knows perfectly who you are, you might spend less time looking for yourself and more time seeking God. For when you find God, you won’t need to ask about yourself any longer. You will find yourself as well, for we were created to seek, know and love God.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 10 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Awakening Presence”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Have you or people you know ever had an uneasy feeling about God’s all-knowing presence? Describe what you felt and thought in those moments.

2. Reflect on the dilemma of loneliness described in this essay. What does our need to be known by others say about our created nature?

3. Describe the relationship between clarity of self-knowledge and being known by others. Relate this issue to the dilemma of loneliness.

4. Why do we need to believe that we are loved by others in order to love ourselves or feel our self-worth confidently?

5. Discuss the ways believing that God knows everything about us and still loves us sheds new light on the problems discussed in the essay: loneliness, lack of self-knowledge, the need to be known and loved, and the need to reveal ourselves to others. Specifically, how have you experienced God’s healing knowledge in each of these areas?

6. Discuss the claim made in the last paragraph of the essay. Does believing God knows and loves us really enable us to become bolder in revealing ourselves to others or empower us to love others without needing acceptance in return or be less concerned with figuring out ourselves?

 For the next two weeks we will look to Jesus Christ for clues about the right way to be human in relation to the “for us” and “with us” God he has revealed.

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The Only and Always and Fully “For Us” Power: God and the Modern Self #9

One of the most frightening and misunderstood characteristics of God is omnipotence, almighty power. Our experience with power is ambiguous, to say the least. Power is neither good nor evil, but it can be used for good or evil. We wish more power for ourselves—economic power, physical strength, intelligence and political influence. And we want to ally ourselves with people and groups that possess such power.  But we also fear getting on the wrong side of power. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, asteroid impacts, exploding suns, nuclear bombs, evil tyrants, and schoolyard or workplace bullies strike terror into our hearts.

These powers, however, are finite and we may avoid them, escape them or find a way to cope with them. But to affirm that God is omnipotent is to say that God is infinitely powerful and totally unavoidable. There is no escape! Many people find this thought disturbing. As we observed in earlier installments of this series, some people, in response to their image of Almighty God, deny God’s existence. Others feel the urge to defy God in the name of human freedom and dignity or rush to submit to God to avoid divine anger, or they simply try not to think about God.

The modern self’s image of divine omnipotence applies to God the common understanding of power as the ability to reshape or destroy things, to control by intimidation or promise of reward, or to live lavishly and evoke envy in others. As I explained above, our experience with power is morally ambiguous. So, what if you thought of God as possessing not some but all of this morally ambiguous power without being completely confident that God is perfectly good, that he uses his infinite power only for good? Your attitude toward God could rise no higher than wary ambivalence. This is the situation of those who conceive of God’s nature as pure, arbitrary will. God is an almighty Will who may or may not act in our best interest.

Meditating on the message of Scripture, the greatest Christian thinkers came to realize that the concept of power does not apply to God in the same way it applies to worldly powers. God is the Creator of the world. Hence God does not merely use power but creates it. God is beyond the power we know only as the ability to shape or destroy things. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), among a long list of others, says we ought not to say that “God has power” but that “God is power itself.” That is to say, it is God’s very nature to be alive and life-giving. Power is not a means God uses but an aspect of God’s essential being. When God wants something to exist, it exists. No exertion or process of any kind is necessary.

One more step in our thinking is necessary before we escape the terrifying image of the Almighty as pure, omnipotent will.

Indeed, God is by nature power, and that power is unlimitedly creative. But as is clearly taught in the scriptures and demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ, God is also love, pure self-giving. When we think these two truths together something wonderful comes into view. Get this clear in your mind and let it sink into your heart: God is by nature pure, infinitely powerful, self-giving love. God is not pure, arbitrary will. He eternally wills to love, to create and to bestow what he is on creatures, on you and me. Remember those two words: “for us.” God is never against us. God, who is by nature power itself, is only and always and fully for us. No matter what God assigns us or what he asks us to endure or what we must suffer from worldly powers, in life and death, God is only and always and fully for us.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 9 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Irony of Divine Weakness”)

Questions for Discussion

1. In your experience how do you and others you know understand divine power? Do you sense any ambivalence in yourself and others about divine omnipotence?

2. Explain how thinking of God as possessing and using power (as opposed to being power by nature) reinforces the modern self’s understanding of God and the human self as pure, arbitrary will.

3. Discuss the difference it makes in our attitude toward divine power when we come to understand God to be both power and love by nature. Connect this thought to the “for us” nature of God’s relationship with us.

4. Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of the cross of Christ as “the power of God” (1:18). Given this essay on divine power, speculate about how the cross, which appears to embody weakness, is really an exercise of divine power.

Next week we will consider God’s complete knowledge of us and presence with us. Is divine inescapability a blessing or a curse?

The “for us” God: God and the Modern Self #8

We’ve thought for seven weeks about how the dominant sector of modern culture views God and the human self. We’ve seen that its view of human freedom and dignity and its formula for happiness guarantee that God will be viewed as a threat to the self. Now it is time to ask another set of questions: what is the Christian view of God and the human self? How does the gospel understand human freedom and dignity and the quest for happiness? Is there a way to conceive of God and the human self that enables us to affirm both God’s full deity and our full humanity? In the next three installments we will examine the Christian view of God and contrast this view with the distorted view of the modern self.

We can consider God as a threat to human freedom and dignity only if we forget that God is our Creator. Every good and beautiful thing that was, is and ever will be receives its existence from God. God gives us being, time and space, life and all our powers. Freedom and dignity, too, are divine gifts. Gifts! Pure gifts! God’s act of creating the world is completely free and gracious. God did not need anything and gains nothing for himself by creating. Existence is a pure gift, and God expects nothing in return. Nothing. Nothing at all. Ever.

Sometimes we have a hard time letting ourselves believing this. We do not give gifts in this way. Nor does anyone else we know. Hence we have a hard time feeling unmixed gratitude and allowing God’s gifts to reveal his love for us. Surely there must be a catch! But there is no catch. According to Christianity everything God gives us and expects from us is for our good, not his. It’s all for us. Nothing we can do can enhance God’s power, goodness, greatness or glory. Quite the opposite, God creates us to share in his power, goodness, greatness and glory! C.S. Lewis voices this truth in his own inimitable way: “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them” (The Four Loves, p. 127).

If we knew nothing else about God than that he freely created us so that we could enjoy what God has, this alone would prove that God poses no threat our freedom or dignity. But Christianity points us dramatically beyond the gift of creation.  In Jesus Christ, God gave himself to us. God gave himself not for good people, grateful people, people that honor God; God gave himself for his enemies, the thoughtless and ungrateful. Undoubtedly with his own experience in mind Paul states it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). These two words, “for us”, refute the modern self’s view of God. God does nothing for himself; it’s all for us.

I will leave you with a passage in which Bernard of Clairvaux strains language to express his amazement at God’s love for us:

“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?” (On Loving God).

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 8 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Self-Giving God of the Gospel”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the idea that God did not need the world and created it solely for the benefit of creatures. Do you agree? Does this idea make sense?

2. Contrast the Christian concept of the generous Creator with the image of God held by the modern self. Would the God of the modern self give anything freely, with no strings attached?

3. Consider the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the self-giving God of the gospel. Does it make sense to envy the God of the gospel or want to take his place?

4. Reflect again on the two contrasting images of God, that of the modern self and that seen in Jesus Christ. The modern self’s image of God evokes envy, but the Father of Jesus Christ evokes love. Explore the reasons for these different human reactions.

5. How would you evaluate the claim that in relation to us God does nothing for himself and everything for us.

 

Note: in the next installment we will examine the idea of divine omnipotence. Is God’s universally active power a threat to our freedom? Should we wish for God to have less power so that we can have more power?

Freedom Ain’t So Free After All: God and the Modern Self #7

In the previous post I brought into the open the implications of modern self’s claims about itself and its powers. It claims power to free itself from limits that stand in the way of full freedom and happiness. It thinks that if it’s bold enough, angry enough, clever enough or loud enough it can break through to freedom. It considers all limits to be external barriers and imagines freedom as the absence of those limits. It wants to create itself, free itself, judge itself and save itself.

In a sense refutation of such claims is superfluous, because once you hear them you know immediately they cannot be true. You may be somewhat skeptical about a person whose manner seems a bit too self-confident and whose stories sound a bit too improbable. But perhaps they really are extraordinary. However, if that person looks you in the eye and says, “Don’t tell anyone, but I am Superman on a secret mission”, you know immediately not to take anything else he says seriously. As long as the modern self remains implicit it may seem a plausible view of human nature. But as soon as it begins to claim God-like powers and prerogatives, you know it’s deluded. But just in case someone needs further help seeing the self-deception of the modern self, let’s examine two further points of refutation.

The modern self thinks of freedom primarily as a state in which it can to do whatever it wants. We know that no such condition is possible, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that there are no external limits on our actions. Would this kind of total freedom guarantee happiness? No, it would not. We’ve all done things we thought would bring happiness only to find unhappiness following in their wake. What is this? How can it be that I freely do something, believing it will contribute to my happiness, but having done it I am filled with remorse and disappointment?

 

The obvious conclusion is that external freedom is not enough. There are internal limits from which I need freeing. I need a clearer idea of who I am and what will actually make me happy. If can’t understand myself now, why think I will be able to free myself from my self-ignorance in the future? Can the dark illuminate its own darkness? Can confusion clarify itself?

 

As if confusion about myself were not enough, there is a second problem.  Even if somehow I get free to do whatever I wish and no other hidden power determines my choices, I am limited by yet “other” forces. Suppose I set my heart on a certain goal and nothing stops me from going for it; still, I cannot know that I can make it happen as I imagine. Human beings have great powers of reason, and we can use these powers to predict future consequences of present actions. But these powers are limited, very limited. I may freely decide to take a trip and drive away in my car. But I cannot control myriads of other factors, such as driving conditions, the mechanical components in my car, and the behavior of other drivers. Hence my trip may not turn out as I imagine.

We want freedom so that we can achieve happiness, and the modern self is confident that with freedom to do as it pleases it can make itself happy. However, this is a great self-deception.  Human beings simply do not have the power to make the future turn out as they wish or the wisdom to know how to make themselves happy. Such power and wisdom is beyond the human horizon. And every thoughtful person knows this. The modern self, then, is a fantasy, a wish, a dream of becoming like God.

I end with a very sobering thought from Søren Kierkegaard. In his deeply moving devotional book Christian Discourses, he reflects poignantly on how to prepare to take communion,

 

“I will call to mind that even if I had my soul concentrated in one single wish and even if I had it concentrated therein so desperately that I could willingly throw away my eternal salvation for the fulfillment of this wish—that still no one can with certainty tell me in advance whether my wish, if it is fulfilled, would still not seem empty and meaningless to me. And what is more miserable, that the wish would not be fulfilled and I would retain the sad and painful ideas of the—missed good fortune—or that the wish would be fulfilled and I would retain it, embittered by the certainty how empty it was!”

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 7 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Some Unwelcome Limits on Freedom and Dignity”)

Questions for Discussion

1. The essay argues that making the claims of the modern self explicit is a first step toward refutation of those claims. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

2. How does experience of regret or disappointment demonstrate that external freedom cannot secure the thing that makes freedom desirable, that is, happiness? Describe your experience of regret.

3. What are some internal limits on freedom highlighted by experiences of regret and disappointment? And what can free us from these internal limits?

4. What limits does experience of a freely chosen action’s failure highlight? Can the self free itself from this limit? How?

5. Evaluate this statement: we desire freedom because we desire happiness, and freedom seems like a necessary condition for gaining happiness. Hence we cannot be satisfied with any form of freedom that does not make happiness attainable.

6. What kind of freedom, if attained, would guarantee our happiness?

Note: The next post will begin the second half of the series on the theme of “The God-Centered Identity.” In this part of the series we will explore a different picture of God and humanity, one that no longer sees them as enemies and competitors.

 

 

 

Freedom Means Freedom, Period: God and the Modern Self (Part 6)

Freedom! Liberty! Independence! This is the incessant cry of the modern self. And no concept is more central to its self-definition.  As we saw in previous parts of this series, the modern self resents all external limits placed on its efforts to make itself happy, whether those limits arise from the laws of nature, the desires of other people, or God. It acts as if its essence were pure, arbitrary will structured and limited by no unchangeable forms, subject only to its momentary desires. This view of the self is implicit in what modern people demand, in the way they act and for what they strive.

Very few people actually think about the understanding of the self and freedom their rhetoric presupposes. But bringing these presuppositions out of the background and into the light is essential to understanding our contemporary situation and evaluating it from a position of Christian faith.  And that is our aim in this series.

The concept of freedom is so central to the modern self that you would think that everyone knows what they mean when they demand it. But most people have only the vaguest idea of freedom. Mortimer Adler and his coauthors in a massive two-volume analysis of the concept of freedom (The Idea of Freedom, 1958), distinguish three main and two subordinate concepts of freedom in the history of Western thought. The three main concepts are (1) the circumstantial freedom of self-realization, (2) the natural freedom of self-determination, and (3) the acquired freedom of self-perfection.

In each of these views of freedom there are four factors, a self that wishes to enjoy good things, an other that blocks the self from such enjoyment, a power that exempts the self from limits imposed by the other, and a state of being exempt from the other. As you can see, freedom is primarily a negative concept. A self is exempt from the limits of the other through a power that can remove the other. Different views of freedom can be specified by discovering how they define these four factors: self, other, power and exemption.

The first view of freedom (self-realization) is the most common. According to this view we are free when we are exempt from circumstances that keep us from fulfilling our desires. It focuses on external limits. You are free when you can do what you want. The second view (self-determination) understands freedom as exemption from all internal, hidden limits that prevent self from determining for itself what it does and becomes. It focuses not on the power to act exempt from limits but on the power to decide for itself, exempt from limits. The third view (self-perfection) thinks of freedom as the power to will only the good. The self that wills evil is not free from all limits, for it is blind to its true good. If it were not blind it would have greater freedom. In each of these historic concepts of freedom a self is exempt by a power that removes a limit imposed by the other.

At last, by examining the modern self’s understanding of the four factors of freedom, we can understand in greater depth its view of freedom. (1) The modern self views the other as anything that blocks the self from realizing its immediate desires—God, other people, the structures of nature. The other is the enemy of freedom and dignity, a spiteful force that robs the self of fulfillment and happiness. The modern self rejects the idea that the other is a condition of the self—an inherent natural limit or sin and guilt—so intimate to the self that it cannot see the difference between itself and the other or get itself free by itself.

(2) The power that exempts the self from serfdom to the other is the power of will inherent in the self. The self frees itself. This powerful self exempts itself through internal determination, rhetorical assertion, protest and demands, technology, political action, or bold or transgressive individual action. (3) The essential self is pure, arbitrary will. The self is its own power, willpower. This conclusion is inevitable since the other is defined as any structure not subject to the self and the power for freedom is identical to the self. (4) The state of exemption or realized freedom is a state in which the self can inwardly determine itself and express itself externally as it pleases without limit.

Briefly, let me say a word about dignity. The modern self defines dignity in terms of freedom. Human dignity is rooted in the human power of self-determination or autonomy. Hence any limit on the self’s freedom is an insult to the self’s dignity. The modern view of dignity asserts that because human beings possess the power to determine themselves as they wish, they also have the right to exercise this power as they wish. Limiting the exercise of this power violates the essence of the self and insults its worth.

Now we can see clearly why the modern self envies God and wishes to become God. It defines freedom and dignity in such a way that only by becoming God can it achieve freedom and enjoy dignity; that is to say, only by becoming like the being it imagines (mistakenly) God must be can it perfect itself and achieve happiness.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 6 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Secret Ambitions of the Modern Self”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the concept of the circumstantial freedom of self-realization. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

2. Explore the concept of the natural freedom of self-determination. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

3. Explore the concept of the acquired freedom of self-perfection. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

4. What core concept of freedom do these three views of freedom hold in common and are these three views compatible?

5. What are the four aspects of the concept of freedom, and do they support the idea that freedom is a basically negative concept?

6. Discuss the final conclusions about the modern self’s understanding of freedom embodied in its version of the four aspects of the concept of freedom. It is it an accurate picture of the tendency of the contemporary culture?

7. In light of this post and the previous five, revisit the idea that the modern self sees God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and happiness. What evidence do you see that this tension affects the way modern people live?

8. How knowing the modern self’s view of freedom help us understand the modern crisis of morality?

Note: next week we will assess the claims and aspirations of the modern self in view of an honest and realistic picture of the human condition.