Me-centered reactions to God

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 this series, click on a number: 1, 3, 45678910111213.

Adam and Eve by Titian (ca. 1550)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
As noted last time, human freedom and dignity are found not in a me-centered identity grounded in the false values of modernity, but in a God-centered identity grounded in the person of Jesus. But there is a problem---moderns tend to view God not as a source of freedom and dignity, but as an obstacle. That being so, they tend to react to God in one of three ways: defiance, subservience, or indifference. As we'll see, all three lead to bondage, not freedom.


Because moderns tend to view God as their "ultimate enemy," they respond to God by seeking to "guard their freedom and dignity against encroachment with flinty defiance" (p.40). From this vantage-point, God and humanity are seen as competitors, with God filling the role of "almighty tyrant" (p. 43). Highfield traces the development of this worldview from its roots in Greek philosophy and mythology, through the Enlightenment, and on through various permutations to our modern (now post-modern) world. Here is his summary of the net result:
Some modern people self-consciously and explicitly define God as the chief competitor of human dignity and freedom... The words of Charles Taylor well summarize this new situation: "The dignity of free, rational control came to seem genuine only free of submission to God...." (p. 46)
This defiant individualism and self-determinism is well-represented in the poem Invictus penned by William Ernest Henley in 1857. It concludes with this stanza (bold-face added):
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

Subservience ("default religion")

The second alternative reaction of modernity to God is subservience, typically lived out through what Highfield calls "default religion" where one gives God his due to avoid his wrath and secure his favor. If it seems odd that religion would be a negative reaction to God, we do well to remember the innate proclivity for humans to be religious. Sadly, that proclivity often takes people in a direction that badly misrepresents the nature of the God is seeks to worship:
Default religion does not understand God as the good we need; rather is sees God as enjoying these goods in an unlimited way and only grudgingly sharing them with us. We have to beg. (p. 50)
At first blush, it seems incongruous that a religious reaction to God would lead moderns to envy him rather than love him. However, "default religion" is not about loving God so much as it is about having a system to "beg" God for the goods he possesses. Though this system is cloaked in religious garments, and therefore looks good on the surface, underneath it is rotten to the core in the way it misrepresents God.

One is reminded of what the serpent said about God to Eve: "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'" As a result of the serpent's subtle lie, Eve began to resent and envy God (see Genesis 3:1-6). The serpent thus succeeded in making God out to be the competitor of humanity and humankind out to be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes freedom. Fast forward and you have the situation we see today.

Commenting on this situation as he saw it in his day, Augustine noted that the root of all sin is the willing embrace of the fantasy that only our lack of courage stands between us and unlimited freedom (p. 54). Default religion then becomes a means by which we seek to manipulate God who we see as standing in the way of our freedom. Religion of that sort is about "management of the divine" (p. 56).

This subservient approach to God never brings the true freedom it seeks. Why? Because it substitutes religion for God, and in that way is idolatrous. Jesus was highly critical of that sort of religion (read the Sermon on the Mount!), as was the apostle Paul (read 1 Corinthians chapter 13 where he shows that religion without love is utterly vain).

The truth of the gospel is that true religion---defined as loving God and loving people---is not about religious subservience, which has to do with self-effort, but about the freedom that comes through true religion, which is a gift of God made available to us through Jesus Christ and made actual in our lives through the indwelling Spirit. Highfield comments:
In Paul's teaching, Christ and the Spirit liberate, enlighten and empower us to live a new life. In this way God's righteous acts become ours. (p. 58)
According to [Karl] Barth, true religion exists only in response to God's word as empowered by the Holy Spirit. It never exists as a psychological or sociological fact that can be grasped in human terms. It takes shape as genuine faith, love and praise toward the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In contrast, the religion that arises from humanity, despite its show of piety toward its image of God, places faith in only itself, loves only itself and praises only itself. (p. 61)
Of course, there are many different forms in which this subservient reaction to God manifests. Though some are closer to true religion than others, they all fall short of true passion for God and a personal identity that is truly liberating because it is truly God-centered.


One does not have to be an atheist to have a reaction of indifference to God---one only need do what most people in our culture do: "Immerse themselves in the practical affairs of life, in pleasure seeking or in maintaining an illusory identity... The thoughts they have of God make no practical difference" (p. 64).

There are, of course, multiple ways for this indifference to manifest itself. Highfield mentions four. The first is the esthetic, where the person immerses themselves in "esthetic experience"---in "feeling without the interruption of thought" (p. 65) where the goal in life is sensual stimulation, leaving little room for thoughts about God. 

The second form of indifference is the conformist, where the goal of life is success as defined by the dominant culture (p. 67). The third form is the celebrity where the goal is public admiration, grounded in "a longing to be known and to exist in the thoughts of others" (p. 71). Neither of these leave room for thought about God. 

The fourth form of indifference is the agnostic, which is a theoretical way of justifying a life of indifference toward God. It often is combined with one or more of the other three. But whatever the combination, the person's attention and passion are focused on the world and its values, not on God. If God is recognized at all, he is seen as inactive: "Not acting, commanding, loving and guiding." Hence, for the indifferent (agnostic), "God is also indifferent" (p. 75).


Whether the reaction of the modern person to God is one of defiance, subservience or indifference, in seeking freedom and dignity for themselves they reject a God-centered identity to embrace one that is me-centered. Highfield comments:
One defies or obeys or ignores God for the sake of one's own will, which one identifies with one's very self. (p. 76) 
The challenge (calling) for the church in our time is to join Jesus in helping people come to know God so they can see and embrace their identity in union with God through Jesus, by the Spirit. There (and there alone) they will find the human freedom and dignity they desire.

Lord Jesus, empower and send us, for the harvest truly is great.