Tag Archives: Francis Bacon

God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)

In this post I will address the theme developed in Chapter 1 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity, entitled “How the Me-Centered World Was Born.” I begin by quoting from the introductory comments to that chapter:

“As children we never questioned our identity or wondered about our place in life. Nor did we think of our “selves” as distinct from our relationships, activities and feelings. We just lived in the context we were born into and followed the natural course of our lives. But as we grew older we were encouraged to discover our own unique blend of preferences, talents and joys and to create an identity for ourselves through our choices and actions. In contrast to previous ages, modern culture denies that one can become an authentic person or experience fulfillment in life by conforming to natural or socially given relationships and roles. Instead, we are taught that our self-worth and happiness depend on reconstructing ourselves according to our desires. And the project of redesigning ourselves necessitates that we continually break free from the web of social relationships and expectations that would otherwise impose an alien identity on us. I am calling this understanding of the self “me-centered” not because it is especially selfish or narcissistic but because it attempts to create its identity by sheer will power and rejects identity-conferring relationships unless they are artifacts of its own free will. It should not surprise us, then, to find that the modern person feels a weight of oppression and a flood of resentment when confronted with the demands of traditional morality and religion. In the face of these demands the “me-centered” self feels its dignity slighted, its freedom threatened and its happiness diminished…

“How and when and by whom did it come about that nature, family, community, moral law and religion were changed in the western mind from identity-giving, happiness-producing networks of meaning into their opposites—self-alienating, misery-inducing webs of oppression? How was the “me-centered” world formed?” (pp. 17-18).

The modern “me-centered” identity, like the Christian God-centered identity, has a history. Ignorance of this history constitutes one of the greatest challenges to engaging with our contemporaries on moral and religious issues. If we don’t know this story we won’t understand how they think, and if they are ignorant of it they won’t understand themselves. Hence it is imperative that we answer the question in the italicized part of the above quote.

It is impossible to assign an absolute beginning to any era in history. Nevertheless, we won’t be distorting history too much if we say that the modern view of the self began around 1620 and reached maturity by 1800, at least among the educated elite. As articulated by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a new scientific way of thinking (the scientific revolution)  inspired a different view of humanity’s relationship to nature and a new optimism about human reason’s power to shape nature into whatever form it desired. René Descartes (1596-1650) brought this new attitude over into philosophy, placing human freedom and reason at the center of philosophy’s agenda. John Locke (1632-1704) applied the new human-centered thought to morality, politics and theology. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the Romantic poets and philosophers who followed him gave human feeling and desire a central place in human self-understanding. Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), expressed a view that people today utter as if it were self-evident and indisputable. “Each human being has his own measure, as it were an accord peculiar to him of all his feelings to each other.” In other words, each individual is so unique that there can be no moral and religious rules that apply to all individuals: “Find yourself.” “Do your own thing.” “Question authority.”

The history of the formation of the me-centered identity can be summarized by saying that every rule and law, every power and right, and every ideal of what is good, true and beautiful was moved from outside the human being—from nature, God, moral law—to inside human consciousness where it could be brought under the power of free will. Human dignity became identical with the power to decide for yourself what is good and right. And human happiness became attainable only by following the inclinations of your individual self. The modern self evaluates every moral and religious idea by this standard. These ideas are accepted or rejected according as they enhance or detract from the individual’s immediate sense of self-worth and well-being.

Unless we understand how the me-centered self was formed we will find ourselves at a loss to understand or communicate with people immersed in modern culture. And we will be unable to help them understand themselves enough to gain the distance necessary to criticize the modern human self-understanding. If we are not careful we too will be swept away by what Augustine called the “torrent of human custom” (Confessions, 1.16; trans, Chadwick).

 Questions for Discussion

 1. To what degree and in what areas does Chapter 1’s description of the me-centered self fit people of your acquaintance or resonate with your self-understanding?

2. In what ways do you think a review of the history of the formation of the me-centered identity reveal modern identity’s limits and flaws?

3. What light does this chapter shed on contemporary culture’s knee jerk criticism of Christian faith and morality as oppressive, intolerant and judgmental?

4. If this chapter’s description of the modern self is accurate, how can we begin to engage people who have this self-understanding in productive discussions?  What strategies should we employ and which should we avoid?

Next week we will look at the first of three common attitudes toward God taken by the modern self: Defiance.

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Questions and Answers on Fear and Freedom, God and Providence, Faith and Scholarship: A Written Interview

For this week’s entry I’ve reprinted a written interview just posted on Pepperdine University’s “Research News” page. You can see the original interview by following the link pasted below:

http://www.pepperdine.edu/research/news/2013/ron_highfield.htm

In your book, you address big themes and fears that have haunted the human psyche for quite some time.  What inspired or motivated you to write this book?  Has it been something you have been thinking about or planning for a long time?

Ron Highfield: This book [God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (IVP, 2013)] finds its origin in my two teaching/research interests, (1) the intersection between Christianity and secular culture, and (2) theological reflection on issues facing the church today. As I wrote my previous book, Great is the Lord (Eerdmans, 2008; 467 pages), which falls into category (2), I kept thinking about the problem of the relationship between God and human freedom and dignity. This issue has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for 2,500 years. I began to see that this problem makes itself felt in popular culture as unspoken fear that the existence and activity of God may pose a threat to our freedom and dignity. I wrote this book to show the ways in which this fear shapes how secular culture views God and to show how the Christian view of God overcomes these fears. I argue that instead of being a threat to human freedom and dignity God is their securest foundation and the greatest hope of their glorious fulfillment.

How does this book differ from your past scholarship?

RH: In many ways God, Freedom & Human Dignity continues my theological research program of the last fifteen years. It addresses a significant theological problem at a high level in dialogue with the best theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern. It differs in at least three ways: (1) I address the problem of the way secular culture (rather than the church) thinks of God and humanity, (2) the target audience is those influenced by this secular vision and the theological students and practicing ministers who minister to them, and (3) these limitations influence the smaller size of the book (227 pages) and the less ponderous and less argumentative style of the book.

Modernity and its psychological influences are central to your argument about the internal struggle humans face in confronting and accepting God today. The crux of this struggle lies in the human need for (and even exaltation of) autonomy when it is juxtaposed with or seemingly undermined by a belief in God.  Could you discuss your concept of a “me-centered culture” and how you see people grappling with religion in a different way now than in past decades?

RH: By designating our culture is “me-centered” I don’t mean that it is especially selfishness or narcissistic; rather, I mean that it teaches us that we should look exclusively within the human self for our dignity, for guidance in our pursuit of happiness and for how to treat others. It views self-expression and authenticity as sacred rights. The “me-centered” culture instinctively recoils at the idea that we need guidance in these areas from external authority. It views calls for adherence to moral law and obedience to God as threats to autonomy, dignity and freedom. It reacts to restrictions on our search for happiness as the worst sort of hatred and cruelty. Clearly, presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries confronts us with challenges not faced by Christian thinkers even fifty years ago. In part, I wrote this book to explore ways of communicating the meaning of Christianity in this new context.

What kind of research are you currently working on?

RH: I am currently working on a book on the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. This book will continue the trajectory began in Great is the Lord. Having treated the Christian doctrine of God, I am now thinking about what it means to call God “the Creator” of the world and “Lord and Governor” of history. In dealing with the idea of creation I want to take the focus off the “science and the Bible” debate and replace it with thorough reflection on what I call the “God-creature” relation: what does it mean to say that God gives being and form to the world? What does it mean to say that creatures depend on God for their existence, form and life? These profound questions have not received the attention in recent theology and popular religion that they deserve. In this book I want to show the intimate connection between the ideas of creation and providence. The concept that ties the two together is the “God-creature” relation. Providence is a kind of continuing creation that aims at bringing the world to its appointed end. In one sense the divine act of creation includes all time and not merely a timeless beginning of time. In the course of this book I will deal with the relationship between divine providence and human freedom and with the problem of evil.

What is the proper end of an academic vocation? Or how do you understand your research?

RH: Contemporary higher education (“the academy”) seems to be very confused about why it exists and what end it should pursue. The standard rhetoric (usually directed at threats from outside the academy) argues that the academy should pursue “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” This ideal sees the scholar as an objective and disinterested servant of truth who should receive complete academic freedom in the sacred name of truth. On the other hand, as a matter of practice, scholars adopt many other ends: political agendas, battles for cultural dominance, career advancement, reputation, money and other private goals. In my opinion the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” view is at best a methodological guide to keep us honest and fair in our research. Understood in this sense I honor it. But scholars are human beings and all human beings serve ends beyond mere exercises in method. “Knowledge is power,” said Francis Bacon truly. And good people should direct power toward good ends. No human activity deserves to be exempt from ethical scrutiny. Hence scholars are obligated to direct their research toward good ends. Every scholar, whatever his or her religious stance, should direct scholarship toward the good of humanity. As a Christian scholar I have a particular understanding of human good, and all my theological research is directed toward that good: that human beings should come to love God and their neighbors. For me, keeping this end in mind unifies my role as a teacher of the young with my role as a researcher in search of truth. End of interview.

How would it affect the way we approach theology and church life if, instead of thinking exclusively about pressing issues and short-term goals, we extended our horizon a hundred years to 2113? Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Are we pursuing practical goals and working on theological issues now in ways that will contribute to the preservation of faith for our great, great grand children? Or will the trajectories we are following in the present make it less likely that 2113 will greet future generations with the word of faith? Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth in 2113?

Until next week…