The American historian, and social critic Christopher Lasch observes, “The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic, radiates a profound despair and resignation. It is the faith of those without faith.”
The modern mind’s idea of “self,” and identity is of primary importance in any discussion of a Christian ethic. Where contemplations of self were once more reserved for philosophers and speculative psychological theorists, now the cultural, commercial, and broader philosophical marketplace is completely saturated with the idea of “individualized self” and its self-defined and self-directed identity. Countless industries are dedicated to meeting the individualized self and its desires. The watchwords of this new secularized spirituality are “self image,” “self ideal,” the “authentic” or “true” self, the “inner” self, and “self actualization.” Yet, what is the locality of selfhood? Whom defines the self?
The “self” as the modern mind understands it, is stable with latent capabilities and means of creativity, capable of self fulfillment, and finding the inner and “authentic me.” To the self is attributed a great and unlimited human potential. Wells has the following observation about this optimistic faith of the autonomous human agent:
“Deep within it are the spring from whence flow its own healing waters. This understanding of the self implies an unwavering faith in its capacities, as well as in our ability to tap into its capacities. This sets us apart from many others cultures, in which it would be inconceivable for people to imagine that they could look inside themselves for the answers to life. Even more remarkable is the thought that buried within are the balms for our wounds and moral failures. There is a touching innocence to this trust. It is almost as if no one has toldus that we now live east of Eden, that these internal streams are also polluted waters.”
Most conservative cultural critics, including Wells summarily identify three reference points of the human ethos. The church has traditionally understood selfhood as relationally defined by God’s revelation - His spoken living Word in Christ. The reference point of identity and one’s place in the cosmos was therefore God’s address. Beginning in the late 17th century, renaissance humanism and scientific discovery brought about a new optimism of the human agent to discern the inner workings of universe. The Enlightenment experiment ushered a new set of assumptions about the use of reason and absurdity of the supernatural, the workability and perfectibility of man, and the operations of the universe as a natural and reasonable system of cause and effect. Utopian schemes were dreampt up which envisioned a society ruled by utility, reason, and a new logic of social machinery. The understanding of humanity was divorced from God’s revelation in creation and had to be defined by an ethic of utilitarianism, which in turn brought about the greatest genocidal acts of world history. The compounding of Darwinism and Marxism with the enlightenment experiment reduced the “self” and all of humanity into descendents of bottom feeders, tape worms, and monkeys whose identity is marked as an agent of production and capital.
The third and present stage of philosophical fashion of “self hood” and therefore of an ethic is much harder to summarize, because it is neither directed by God’s Word, nor by the enlightenment quest for a universal and apprehensible human reason. The church is now called to witness to the Gospel in a world which does not believe in absolute truth, objectivity, and God’s revelation – a world where the very existence of matter itself is called into question. The point of reference in the universe is neither God nor a consensus of reason, but rather the individualized self. The self, with its intuitions, feelings, preferences, and desires is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.
Man’s understanding of himself has been cast inward, into the inner recesses to look for the buried remnant and spark of divinity. He is looking for his “authentic self” and is inwardly oriented to the dark clouds of his confused human heart. He goes where the wind blows, dedicated to self-creation and self-justifying thinking. The post-modern mind is therefore not so much concerned for encountering truth but rather the ethic of self-actualization, which has simply become the predominate faith in both secular and Christian communities. Wells observes, “At the center stands the belief that others are the threat to our own reality.” Furthermore, this ethic of self realization “assigns ultimate moral priority to the self, over and against society” so that “any action governed by social convention rather than individual preference…is tantamount to self violation.”
Market forces of the emerging church, mainline Protestantism, self help gurus, and the psychiatric and pharmaceutical juggernauts have voraciously capitalized on this religio-philosophical culture. The human agent is now enslaved to market forces which appeal to this internalized reference point, making promises of psychological wholeness, transcendence, and various forms of secular salvation. The psychotherapeutic industry works with religious motifs , utilizing the language of “progress,” “10 step programs,” “breakthroughs,” “moving toward the light” and so forth.
This sort of liberation psychology taps into the inner distress of the modern mind and makes a profitable business of it - keeping the victim enslaved to the chaos of a sinful and rebellious human heart, and the psychotrophic drugs that accompany the diagnosis of the unfulfilled and less than enjoyable human experience. The dialog of the ever questing doctor/patient relationship assumes that the inner self can make sense of the world and achieve a comprehensive unity of soul and healing, thereby reconciling the experienced contradiction common to every human life. It is the quest to know good and evil and apprehend a “god consciousness” that is divorced from what is graciously given. It is a desire to forsake one’s creatureliness” by ascending to God to be something other than mere creature. The undergirding idea is that the patient or creature may deliver himself if he just has the right mind set or technique. This is the first temptation of satan, and the central axiom behind all pagan religions. The temptation is this: you are divine, you are your own god, the creator of your own universe, the creator of your own reality and self-devised ethic. Self deliverance is the origin of idolatry, which seeks to thrown the human will into God’s face and say, “look what I have done.” It overthrows the lovely speaking of creator to creature, and the handing over of love to fellow creatures, speaking back to God what he speaks to us.
We ought not think of the identity of creature – of addressee, as a denial of authentic self. For it is the true self. The authentic individual is established in this address, as one adopted and recast in the sonship of Jesus. Wells writes extensively about the recovery of morality in the public sphere and discernment of good and evil and so forth, but cannot definitively point to the means by which the world is redeemed. The address of God in his continuous work of creation and through the preaching of the gospel is the first and last word concerning “identity” and “self,” which thereby guides how we understand a Christian ethic and morality. For the Christian, an ethical system cannot be artificially devised by a complex web of moral precepts and demands. Christians should consider the ethical life, not as an ethic of striving with a tenacious will to do the “right thing.” Rather, Christian ethics must be guided by the spokenness of creation, in which Christ grants all good gifts. God’s word of justification frees creation, granting that the eyes, ears, and human heart are opened up in faith toward God and therefore all of creation which God declares “good,” in fact desiring to suffer and die for (Gen 1:25). Only in holy absolution and God’s declarative act of mercy can an authentic ethic be realized.