Category Archives: God and the Modern Self

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”?

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Our Abba In Heaven: God and the Modern Self #12

As I read the Four Gospels I am struck by the way Jesus trusted, obeyed and honored God as his Father and his God. He embodied the Father’s character in life and in death and submitted to God in all things. But Jesus’ relationship was not a distant and dutiful submission to an aloof Creator, Lord and Judge. He loved his Father and treasured an intimate relationship to him, a relationship revealed by his use of the Aramaic word Abba to refer to God. This word speaks of childlike boldness and unquestioning trust in the love of a father. In this area, too, Jesus teaches us about the true nature of human beings.

What does it mean to be authentic human beings, fully alive, free and aware of our true dignity? According to Jesus, it means to be children of God who relate to God as our Abba.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus speaks repeatedly to his disciples about “your father in heaven” (5:16 and many more). Jesus wants us to experience a similar intimate relationship to God and attain the life we were created to live. The Gospel of John asserts that Jesus came to give people “the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12-13). And in 1 John 3:2 and Romans 8:16-19, we are told of the glorious destiny of God’s children: resurrection, eternal life and sharing in the divine nature.

In part, we know what something is by observing what it does. Jesus explains to us what children of God are by telling us what they do and how they think. In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus illustrates in six examples what he means when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). Children of God act like their Father because they think like their Father, they see the world and others like their Father sees them: (1) Not only do God’s children refrain from murder, they don’t even get angry. Anger arises from offense and offense from pride; and pride finds room only in a heart that has forgotten God. God’s children remember God. (2) Not only do God’s children not commit adultery, they don’t even lust. The lustful heart cannot truly love the neighbor and the one who does not love the neighbor cannot love God. God’s children love God.

(3) Not only do God’s children follow the laws concerning divorce, they don’t seek a divorce at all. God’s children keep their promises no matter what. (4) Not only do God’s children tell the truth under oath, they don’t swear at all. They don’t need to swear to add weight to their word. They know God hears every word we utter. God’s children speak truth. (5) Not only do God’s children not seek revenge beyond reason, they do not desire revenge at all. God’s children return good for evil. (6) Not only do God’s children not hate their enemies, they love them and feel more compassion for the plight of the enemy than offense at being wronged. God’s children understand that it is an infinitely greater evil to do wrong than suffer wrong.

What sort of human being can love God and the neighbor in these radical ways? If Jesus is our model, what is the identity of true human self— the self that receives its being from the Father in gratitude, uses itself in service to the Father, shares itself unselfishly with its neighbors and returns itself ungrudgingly to the Father? Children of God! That is what we are. The true human self is not a pure, arbitrary will that lives to expand its control so that it can do as it pleases.  No. The true self is God’s created image, God’s child. And God’s children relish the love lavished on them as God’s beloved children. They exist by participating in the divine life and they live to image the perfect life of God in the world. Empowered by this sense of identity and by living this way, they experience their authentic humanity; they feel themselves as fully alive, free and aware of their true dignity.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 12 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Divine Adoption”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Jesus seems to feel no tension in his relationship with his Father between submission and intimate familiarity. How would you reconcile these two?

2. What special status is being given to human beings when they are designated as “children of God”?

3. Discuss the six challenging ethical commands Jesus gave in Matthew 5:17-48. What sort of revolution in character would enable a personal to live by these rules?

4. Discuss the contrast between the “modern self” and the self Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the self who lives by these six rules.

Next Week we will paint a picture of the new self that Jesus calls his followers to “put on”, the “other” that stands in our way and the power by which we can overcome the other.

A Strange Way of Being Human: God and the Modern Self #11

In the past three installments we’ve allowed Jesus to teach us who God is. This view of God differs radically from the modern self’s image. The God revealed in Jesus is a “for us” and “with us” God. The Father of Jesus Christ is the gracious giver of life and the Savior who gave himself for us. In no way is this God a threat to the genuine good of human beings.

Now we allow Jesus to model for us what a human being is supposed to be. In the next two installments we will unfold a view of humanity that makes clear from the human side that defiance or subservience or indifference toward God is not necessary for the full flowering of our humanity. Ultimately, I want to show that only by affirming God’s full deity can we affirm our full humanity.

The contemporary and culturally dominant view understands the human self as a center of arbitrary will that, in its search for happiness, can exercise its freedom and dignity only by doing what it pleases without external restraint. Christianity teaches, in contrast, that human beings are created by God, in the image of God. Only by actually imaging God in our actions and character can we exercise our true freedom, experience our dignity and attain happiness. Human beings are by nature “aimed” at God and open to God. We are born with the potential to be conformed to the image of God and united to God through Christ. And that potential cannot be fulfilled in any other way.

In the gospels, Jesus refers to himself most often as “the son of man.” But Mark begins his gospel by designating Jesus as “the Son of God.” When “supernatural” characters speak about Jesus, they often call him “the Son of God.” Most importantly, the divine voice heard at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration, said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The concept of “Son of God” as it is developed in the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament is rich and full. It includes affirmation of Jesus’ divine nature and his eternal existence with the Father; and it gives character to Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was both divine and human. Hence when Jesus related to his Father, he related as God and human at the same time. Or let me put it another way. Jesus related to God as human in time the way he relates to the Father eternally: in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love. We see this dual relationship dramatically illustrated in the temptations Jesus endured at the beginning of his ministry and in his prayerful struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion.

After his baptism and the heavenly voice’s declaration of Jesus’ sonship, Jesus immediately went into the desert, as Matthew describes it, “to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). The devil placed three temptations before Jesus: to turn stones to bread to satisfy his hunger, to leap off the Temple to test God’s promises, and to worship the devil to receive power over the world. In two out of the three temptations the devil prefaced his suggestions with the words “if you are the Son of God.”  In these words the devil attempts to cast doubt on Jesus’ sonship and implies a false view of what it means to be the Son of God. Clearly, the devil thinks being the Son of God means possessing powers and privileges to be used according to one’s own selfish will. Jesus responded to each temptation by rejecting the devil’s view of divine sonship. For Jesus, divine sonship means gratitude, trust and obedience to the Father.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed to be spared from the humiliation and suffering to which he had been assigned. He begged the Father three times for relief, but after each request he said, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Again, we see the Son of God relating to God as a human being in time the way he relates eternally: with gratitude, obedience and self-giving love. Of course, this is not the end of the story. Divine sonship also means the victory and glory of the resurrection. But it must not be forgotten that even for the Son of God victory and glory come from the Father through suffering and death. And in the face suffering and death, being the Son of God means trusting and obeying God.

Perhaps this installment raises more questions than it answers: how does this view of the human relationship to God do justice to human freedom and dignity? How can we conceive of trust, obedience and self-giving as acts of freedom and dignity that lead to happiness? We don’t have answers these questions at this point, but we have established something important: if we believe that Jesus Christ models how a human being should relate to God, we have to consider the possibility that trusting, obeying and submitting our wills to God, as unlikely as it seems, really do fulfill the concepts of freedom and dignity. What a strange way of being human!

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 11 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“A New Way of Being Human”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the proposal that Jesus models the ideal human relationship to God. What reasons does the New Testament give for this belief?

2. Do you agree that Jesus models in his humanity in time his eternal relationship to the Father? If true, what is the significance of this likeness between the divine Son of God’s eternal relationship to God and his human relationship?

3. Discuss the temptations of Christ. How are they related to temptations that face us, and how do Jesus’ answers to the devil make sense?

4. Discuss the argument made in the last paragraph of the essay. It goes this way:

a. Jesus models the true human relationship to the God of Jesus Christ.

b. Jesus related to God his Father in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love in all circumstances.

c. To relate to the God of Jesus Christ in a truly human way, we must relate in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love in all circumstances.

The next installment will explore the implications of Jesus’ teaching that we can be God’s children too.

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.

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.