January 9, 2016

The insatiable modern self

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. To read other posts in the series, click on a number: 1, 2, 45678910111213.

Last time we identified three reactions to God common in our day: defiance, subservience and indifference. All three see God as "unworthy of our complete trust and love" (p. 77). This negative assessment results largely from conceiving of God as "superhuman"---possessing qualities like our own, but in far greater measure. This modern/post-modern conception of God is not unlike that found in ancient mythologies (see picture). As we'll see, its net effect is rejection of a God-centered personal identity in favor of one that is decidedly me-centered---one that gives expression to what Highfield refers to as "the insatiable modern self."

Minerva and the Triumph of Jupiter by René-Antoine Houasse (1706)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

God as superhuman

The perspective on God that forms the foundation of a me-centered identity goes back at least as far as the mythologies of ancient Babylon and Greece where God was conceived of as possessing human qualities, both positive and negative. Though Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus criticized the idea of the gods having human flaws, they still grounded their concept of the divine in human nature---a concept that conflicts with what is revealed in Scripture:
The Bible...introduces a new understanding of the divine derived not from observing nature or from humanity's experience of itself. It finds its origin in God's self-revelation in Israel's history and in Jesus Christ." (p. 79)
Unfortunately, some very influential Christian thinkers (including Augustine and Anselm, and some of the Protestant reformers after them) departed at least to some extent from the biblical view of God by embracing the Greek philosophical perspective in which God's attributes (such as his omnipotence and omniscience) are understood as human qualities freed from any limitation. Taken to its logical conclusion, God is conceived of as pure will, pure activity, and especially, pure power. As a result, humanity and God become competitors, even enemies. Understandably, moderns react to this conception of God with defiance, subservience or indifference. In our day, a common form of indifference is atheism, which claims that the very idea of God is nothing more than a human invention/projection that must be rejected.

Modern me-centered identity

It's no wonder that with moderns conceiving of God almost exclusively from within themselves they would embrace a me-centered identity instead of a God-centered identity. "Why on earth," they ask, "would we want to ground our identity in a God who, if he exists at all, is a divine tyrant who seeks to control us and in so doing stand as an obstacle to our personal freedom and dignity?" Why indeed!

As Highfield notes, moderns tend to think of personal freedom as the ability to do and to be whatever one wants. From that perspective, submission to God looks like forfeiting one's freedom---losing control of one's life, with a resultant loss of personal dignity (p. 84).

The modern self

Key to understanding the issue of personal identity in modernity, is understanding the modern conception of self. Moderns tend to think of the human self as having no essential attributes. If I think of the my "self" as having essential attributes (characteristics), then, necessarily, my freedom to choose an identity for myself will be limited. But in modernity, the self is conceptualized as being free of any such essential attributes and thus possessing unlimited will. Highfield comments:
If [the self] is empty in every other respect, it is full of desire to bring all other things into itself. It is easy to see that this definition of the self guarantees competition and conflict among selves---among human beings and between human beings and God. If the essential goal of a self is to expand itself to infinity, only one's self can achieve its essential fullness. Others must defy, submit or hide. By definition, God is a barrier, a limit, a competitor or at best a means to our ends. (p. 89)

The desire for freedom

The ambitions of the unlimited self (unlimited will) for freedom are, of course, insatiable. Highfield (referencing Mortimer Adler) notes that modernity has three conceptions of this personal freedom:
  1. Self-realization. This is the freedom to realize our desires. Of course, circumstances get in the way, so complete freedom to realize our desires would necessitate the removal of all external obstacles. God often is conceived as one such obstacle.
  2. Self-determination. This is the freedom that comes with having personal power to decide what we do and become. It is freedom to be masters of ourselves.
  3. Self-perfection. This is the ability to will the good perfectly---to live free from all compulsion that is contrary to self-defined good.
Adler combined these three into one concept of freedom with this statement:
A man is free who has in himself the ability or power whereby he can make what he does his own action and what he achieves his own property. (p. 94)
This view of freedom, which is widely held in our modern world, sets us up for competition, including competition with God. Highfield comments:
If I insist on being the absolute cause of my existence, desires and actions, how can I acknowledge that I am God's creature, preserved by his power, obligated by his law and in need of his grace? Would not such ambitions imply a limit to my natural freedom, if not its complete annihilation? (pp. 95-6) 

The desire for dignity

Closely related to the modern idea of freedom is its conception of human dignity. "A being's dignity increases or declines with their level of independence" (p. 96). Independence (autonomy) is thus key here, serving as it does as the ground of the modern sense of human dignity.

According to this view, any idea of a "transcendent ground" of human dignity is anathema. Therefore human dignity must be decoupled (actually or functionally) from any idea of God, to that primacy can be given to human autonomy and self-determination. The modern view thus comes down to equating dignity with control---particularly control over the external world, asserting for ourselves, a "godlike independence" (p. 100). But as Highfield notes, this approach ultimately backfires:
In viewing ourselves as potentially infinite [without external limits] we doom ourselves to perpetual restlessness and insatiable ambition. However high we climb, infinite heights will tower above us. Our true worth will always be in doubt, and in our wounded pride we will proclaim our lofty status even more assertively to avoid despair. Humanity so defined cannot love God; it can only envy and resent God. (p. 100)

Conclusion

This is the unfortunate, unhappy state in which many (most?) moderns find themselves---defining the self apart from its relationships both with other humans and with God who created us for relationship. In seeking a self-determined (me-centered) independent identity, moderns are left adrift without an anchored identity, trying to fill the resultant void by consuming all sorts of things---a strategy doomed to futility, for no finite thing is able to satisfy infinite (insatiable) desire (p. 100).

Paul's prayer for the Christians in Rome seems highly relevant on this point, and so we conclude with his words:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

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