Monthly Archives: March 2014

Heaven and Earth Reconciled: God and the Modern Self #16

This installment completes this series. So, perhaps now would be a good time to let you in on a theological assumption I have made throughout this series: We can arrive at a Christian understanding of God only by viewing everything in the Bible and everything reason may tell us about God through the prism of Jesus Christ. For Christianity, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, everlasting self-giving love. There is no other God. Every divine attribute and action, every biblical narrative and assertion, before it can be legitimately incorporated into the Christian doctrine of God, must be harmonized with the vision of God that has come to light in Jesus Christ. The event of Jesus Christ is not merely a revelation of God; it is the revelation of God. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul tells us that it was always God’s secret plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” And this text also sets the agenda for theology. All ideas about God must be brought to unity under Christ.

Operating on this theological assumption, I examined the ideas of divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in view of the vision of God that was brought into view by event of Jesus Christ. What seemed so menacing when contemplated in isolation appears as such good news when seen light of Jesus. God’s power can no longer be understood as the arbitrary will for domination. Now we know that it is the life-giving Life that appeared in Christ. The true character of God’s omnipresence is revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God. God can be with us, in us and united to us without displacing us. We no longer fear God’s absolute knowledge of us because now we understand this knowledge as the wisdom of his love. God knows how to love us, care for us and save us.

I also applied this theological assumption in our quest to understand who we are in relation to God. We cannot see ourselves as God sees us by studying history or reflecting on our feelings, thoughts and experiences. Nor can we understand ourselves by collecting biblical texts about human nature, sinfulness or destiny, unless those texts are brought to unity “under Christ.” For Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the revelation human nature and destiny. The event of Jesus Christ is the event of God uniting humanity to himself and bring it to its definitive perfection and its final destiny. In Christ we find no conflict between God and the full flowering of human perfection and happiness. Jesus Christ is God and humanity united in perfect harmony. To do the will of God and to seek our greatest good are one and the same endeavor. For God to work his sovereign will and to love the world in Christ through the Spirit are one and the same project. Just as we learn from Christ that God is self-giving love, we also learn that the perfection of human nature is self-giving love. And “self-giving love cannot compete with self-giving love” (p. 213).

To close this series I will quote the last paragraph of the book God, Freedom & Human Dignity:

“At the beginning of this book I expressed concern that we may hold back part of ourselves from God because we fear that God is in some way our competitor, that we might lose something if we give ourselves to God and that God may not be wholly for us. I hope by now we can see that there is not the slightest ground for such fears. The very opposite is true. God is so much for us and we are made so much for God that only by returning ourselves to God utterly may we become truly ourselves and live life to the full. In loving God for God’s sake alone we will find genuine freedom and in allowing ourselves to be loved by God we will discover our true dignity” (p. 217).

Next week I will begin a series that deals with the creeping moral crisis that is engulfing modern western culture and the challenge the culture’s moral nihilism poses to the Christian vision of human life. In my experience, contemporary discussions of morality consist of incoherent assertions of prejudice and outbursts of emotional anguish, mixed with rude protests and not so veiled threats of violence. Hence my approach will be to search for what went wrong and to clarify the alternatives that reveal themselves in that search. I think we will discover that the loss of robust Christian doctrines God, creation, sin and salvation preceded and facilitated the loss of a coherent moral vision. And only by regaining a deep understanding and belief in these Christian teachings can we successfully weather the storm about to break on the gates of the church.

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Am I Really Worth It? God and the Modern Self #15

How much are human beings worth and why? In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant answered that basis of human dignity (or worth) resides in the mysterious core of our being where we create ourselves by ourselves. Other answers have been given: our dignity lies in our rational nature, which excels all other creatures. Or, our worth must result from achieving moral excellence, military glory, or some other accomplishment that marks us for distinction. Recently, the answer has become that I deserve respect from others simply because I want it, assert it and demand it. But even as I assert my dignity, I could still ask in my heart, “Am I really worth it?”

There is something unsatisfying about these answers. I may wish for the mysterious power of self-determination and self-creation that Kant postulates but I can’t conceive it clearly or feel it intensely. But my inherited characteristics, my limits and my unworthy qualities press in on me from a much closer range. If I attempt to feel my worth by contrasting my intelligence with unreasoning creatures or counting my accomplishments, I could achieve only a relative worth. Others possess greater intelligence and have achieved greater glory. And even if I managed to convince myself that I am greater than all other creatures, I would know in my heart that my worth is still limited. I could imagine being greater and better than I am. In that knowledge, I could still feel unworthy and unhappy. And I can’t help but notice that asserting my worth and demanding respect, though it expresses my desire for worth and respect, does not make them real. Shouting at the world does not change it. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”

When asked about the basis of human dignity Christians usually refer to our creation “in the image of God.” And that is a good answer. At least, it’s a good first answer. The problem, however, is that it is unclear exactly what that means. Does the “image” refer to our rational nature? Does it point to our assignment to rule over creation? Or is it a moral quality that can be lost and regained? Each of these answers has found brilliant defenders throughout Christian history. Hence merely asserting that we are created “in the image of God” still leaves us with questions. And each of the proposed explanations of the “image” refers to a quality or a role that never escapes the realm of the comparative and the limited. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”

There is another theme in the Bible that touches on human worth. And its meaning is much clearer than the image of God theme. Perhaps you have noticed that I have been using the words “dignity” and “worth” interchangeably in this essay. This is because the word dignity is derived from the Latin word for worth. The word dignity does not resonate with the English language as well as the word “worth.” Dignity is vague but worth is clear. We know that something is worth something if it is worth something to someone. The word dignity sounds mysterious and even vacuous.

Hence the question “How much is a human being worth and why?” can be answered only by specifying who values human beings and how much. Does this mean, then, that if no other human being values me I am worth nothing? Does my dignity rise and fall with others’ attitudes toward me? No, it does not.  And here is why.

That other theme in the Bible and Christian history is that we are worth something because we are worth something to God. God loves us! God does not love us because we possess certain excellent qualities or that we have achieved something admirable. Everything excellent and admirable in us is caused by God’s love. God’s love for us has no cause outside God. God’s love is the beginning, the explanation and the cause of everything worth loving in us. So, “Am I really worth it?” Yes, you really are because God’s love is the cause of everything real. God’s love for you is real and eternal. It cannot change.

But how much does God love me? Perhaps God loves me more than human beings love me, but is there a limit to God’s love? If God’s love is finite, is my worth is finite as well? And if my worth is finite won’t I still dream of greater dignity and hence experience unhappiness? No, God’s love for you is infinite!

In the New Testament, the proof of God’s love for us is that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 5:1-2; Galatians 2:20; 1 John 4:9-11, and so many more). How much does the Father love Jesus his eternal Son? The Father loves his Son as much as he loves himself! How much does the Father love us? Since he gave his Son for us–and he loves his Son as much as he loves himself–we know the Father loves us as much as he loves himself!

“Am I really worth it?” According the New Testament, God thinks you are! Don’t look at yourself for evidence that you are loved, that you are worth it. Look to God and know that the giving love of the Father and the self-giving love of the Son demonstrate how much God thinks you are worth.

As a post script, listen to the words of the 12th Century theologian and spiritual writer Bernard of Clairvaux:

“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 installment can be read as a companion to chapter 15 of God, Freedom and Human Dignity (“God’s Love as the Ground and Measure of Human Dignity”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the Kantian and modern-self views of human dignity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

2. What is your view of the biblical theme of “the image of God”? Do you agree that its meaning is rather vague?

3. What are the implications of thinking of the word “dignity” as “worth”? What is gained and what is lost by this interpretation?

4. Discuss the shift to grounding human dignity in God’s love and away from grounding it in qualities we possess.

5. Discuss the idea that God’s loves us as much as God loves himself?

6. Reflect on how we may appropriate the secure foundation and magnitude of our worth advocated in this essay? How would internalizing this view of our worth affect our joy and confidence in life? And how would it affect the way we treat other people?

 

Next week: The conclusion to the series!

“Jesus Means Freedom”*: God and the Modern Self #14

We are getting close to the end of our series! Today I want to explain why the freedom Jesus promises is so much better than that promised by the modern self. In a culture where most people view freedom as the power to do as you please and become whatever you want, the claim that trusting and obeying God leads to freedom will certainly meet with skepticism. Even many believers think we have to give up some freedom in order to do the right thing always and take on the image of Christ. I want to show that this is not true. The way of Christ is freedom and leads to ever greater freedom. Jesus means freedom!

First, let’s recall that in installment #7 of this series we discovered that the modern self offers a purely external freedom and ignores the inner limits on freedom. In response, we emphasized the decisive importance of those inner limits. We do not know ourselves or the possible consequences of our actions well enough to insure that simply doing what we want or making choices autonomously will lead to happiness. But securing our happiness is the very reason we want freedom! We think we know how to make ourselves happy better than anyone else does, and on the whole that may be true. Experience shows, however, that we don’t know either.

Second, recall that every view of freedom must take into account four factors: self, other, power and exemption. The modern self’s view of freedom leaves out of consideration the most serious “other” that limits our freedom and takes no notice of the only power that remove that “other.” In the teaching of Jesus and the rest of New Testament, the thing we most need is liberation from that inner “other” that consists of sin, blindness, ignorance, guilt, corruption, fear and falsehood. This inner “other” keeps us from embracing fully our true identity as images of God, as children of God. We don’t have power to do the right thing always and become “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Even if we had unlimited power and opportunity to do as we please we could not attain what would lead to our ultimate happiness, unless we also possessed power over the inner “other”.

Jesus promised power to overcome the inner “other”. Only the Creator knows the creature better than it knows itself. Indeed, God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves. He made us! He knows what is wrong with us and how to correct it. God knows what we are, why we are here and what will make us supremely happy. God’s creative power unleashed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit enters our inmost selves and imparts healing, renewing, transforming and empowering power. The alienating “other” is replaced by the Holy Spirit. Supported and liberated by God’s power we gain strength to become what we were created to become: living images of God united to God in love through Christ in the Holy Spirit, sharing in his life, light and joy. And this state, when achieved, is supreme happiness.

As long as we are in this world we cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions, but we know that God does foresee! And God loves us and works all things for our good (Romans 8:28). We need not fear that we will miss our joy because of our inability to foresee the future.

Does this state qualify as freedom? According to Mortimer Adler, the following general definition of freedom covers all specific types: freedom is the ability or power whereby we can make what we do our own action and what we achieve our own property (The Idea of Freedom, vol 1, p. 614). What about the condition I described above in which we live as images of God united to God in love through Christ in the Holy Spirit, sharing in his life, light and joy? Is this state genuine freedom, according to Adler’s definition? Yes, it is. In this state, as God’s child and image, we do only what we truly want to do and we become only what we truly are. We can do what we please because we are pleased by imaging Jesus. And we can become whatever we want because we want to become what God wants for us. And because we were created for God, to love God and become like him, we do and become what leads to our ultimate happiness and joy.

So, do we have to give up some freedom to do the right thing always and to take on the image of Christ? The answer is an unequivocal and joyous “No.” Jesus means freedom! The freedom Jesus brings imparts the thing we most want from freedom: happiness. No regrets. No disappointments. And no limits!

*The title of a book by Ernst Käsemann.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 14 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Freedom of the Children of God”).

Questions for Discussion

 1. What are examples of ways in which believers as well as unbelievers think living a good life involves giving up some freedom?

2. Consider the four factors of freedom: self, other, power and exemption. How does a Christian theory of freedom define each factor? Contrast this understanding with how the modern self defines them.

3. Discuss the claim that we desire freedom because we desire happiness. Compare and contrast the Christian and the modern self’s views of how freedom leads to happiness.

4. Discuss the seemingly paradoxical idea that trusting and obeying God leads to freedom, whereas simply doing as one pleases does not.

Next week: We will finally answer the question of why the Christian view of the human self and of the way we are supposed to relate to God in love and obedience does justice to the idea of human dignity.

Two Views of the Self: God and the Modern Self #13

In the last two installments of this series we looked to Jesus for insight into our true identity. As we can see in the Gospel narratives, Jesus understood his identity in relation to his Father.  And Jesus teaches us to seek our true identity also in our relationship to our Father in Heaven.  Jesus is the Son of God and we too are God’s children. According to the New Testament, if we wish to know who we are and how to live in keeping with our true selves, we must look to the way Jesus lived. When we look at Jesus we see one who trusted and obeyed God no matter where that led him. Does this view of the self do justice to human freedom and dignity? This question will set the agenda for the rest of this series.

Grasping the dominant cultural views of human dignity, freedom and happiness requires inquiry into its understanding of the self. This central concept gives us the subtitle for our series, “the modern self.” The “self” is the modern way of speaking about what used to be called the soul or human nature. The transition to the idea of the self signals the modern shift away from viewing identity as determined by one’s place in society or nature or by God’s creative will. Now the self is an identity we choose and enact for ourselves.

(Example: A popular quote for email signatures or Facebook “likes” articulates the modern self this way: “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.” These words are taken from Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin [1973], p. 46).

Whereas body and soul are not conscious of all the processes and activities going on within them, the self is self-consciousness. The self is me insofar as I am aware of myself and control myself. To speak of the human being exclusively as a self ignores the unconscious, automatic and determined aspects of our existence.

Even though the self is a modern concept and is much narrower than the Christian understanding of the human being, I will risk speaking of a Christian understanding of the self so we can compare it with the modern views. In an earlier installment (#6) I summarize three views of freedom held by western thinkers over the last 2500 years. We noted that each view contained four factors: self, other, power and exemption. Every view of freedom envisions a self that is exempted from an other by a power. Views of freedom are differentiated by the different ways they define these four terms. For example, the circumstantial view of freedom thinks of the self as transparently manifested in a set of immediate desires, and it views the other as external circumstances. It considers the power by which it is exempted from the other as its own individual or collective physical force. And it sees exemption as an open field where it can do as it pleases. Note that in this most common view of freedom, the self is the ego of ordinary awareness. It is the “I” in sentences like, “I want lemon pie for dessert.” It’s not hidden or corrupt or blind.

The New Testament teaching about freedom defines these four terms very differently. (1) As our study of Jesus’ life and teaching demonstrated, Christianity understands the true self as having the nature and identity of a “child of God” and an “image of God”, whose natural activity is obeying, loving and imaging God. In the Christian assessment, the self is not identical to the ego of ordinary awareness. For our immediate or even considered desires are corrupted and distorted by the other, so that Paul, in speaking about the tension between the flesh and the Spirit, can say, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit…They are in conflict with each other, so that you cannot do what you want” (Galatians 5:16. (2) The other is the sin and blindness that block our obedience, divert our love and tarnish our image. This other is not outside of us but within, so close to us that we mistake it for our very self. Paul speaks to this distinction between the true self and the other in many places:

“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Rom 6:5-7).

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds” (Eph 4:21-23).

(3) The power that exempts us from thralldom to the other is the grace of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The other is not external circumstances but a weakened condition of the soul, guilt, blindness and misdirected desire. Hence we cannot get loose by our own or any human power. We need a new creation. Only God can do this.

(4) The field of exemption is the uninhibited exercise of love and obedience to God. It is the wide open range where we can actually image God in all our acts. For Christianity, then, freedom is the graced condition, untroubled by sin, wherein a child and image of God possesses power to conform to the character of God in every aspect of life and to experience perfect unity of will with the Father.

A greater contrast with the modern self could hardly be imagined. The true self is not a pure will that arbitrarily makes laws for itself, asserting its independence from every force and framework by following its own capricious desires. It does not create itself. The true self is the image of God that experiences its identity in relationship to its creator and savior as it grows ever more like Jesus in its affections and actions.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 13 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Emergence of a God-Centered Identity”)

Questions for Discussion

 1. Describe and discuss the significance of the distinction between the modern self and the traditional soul.

2. What are the four aspects of freedom, and why is each aspect necessary to any definition of freedom?

3. How does the “circumstantial” view of freedom define the four aspects of freedom listed in this essay?

4. Contrast the way each of the four aspects of freedom is defined in the New Testament with the way they are defined in the usual secular understanding of freedom.

Next Week: We may still wonder, however, whether this condition is really freedom in a sense that could be recognized by anyone who has not already begun to experience it. Does it really fit a reasonable definition of freedom? Is it desirable above other “freedoms”?