Tag Archives: Religion & Spirituality

A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.

 

 

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In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?”  “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”

Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.

The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.

Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.

Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.

The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.

Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.

A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…