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 , 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”?