As we approach the final days of Great Lent, I would like to turn my attention to a theme that surfaces often in my teaching and preaching in addition to my reflection and reading—the contemporary preoccupation and obsession with the “self.” From therapists to talk-show hosts and even “spiritual teachers,” we are enjoined to “discover,” to “get in touch with,” or to “enhance” our “self.” We now hear of popular personalities actually “re-inventing” themselves as they “move on” to a new phase of life and experience. And perhaps the most indulgent of all of this self-expression is the phenomenon of the “selfie!” In all of this, there seems to be an implicit understanding of just what this mysterious “self” actually is, because we refer to it so often and so readily.
But is there common ground as to what we mean by this term? If we were to depend on more-or-less contemporary psychology, or the behavioral sciences, we might ask the following questions: Does the self mean our “personal identity”—what constitutes each one of us as an unique human being? We distinguish each other by referring to “myself,” “yourself,” “himself/herself,” and so on, thus concentrating on our individuality. Perhaps it refers to our consciousness and ability to reflect upon our existence—as in “I know that I am alive and that one day I will die, therefore I have the capacity for ‘self-awareness.’” Is the self simply synonomous with the “I” or “ego?” Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects the very idea of the “self,” calling it an illusion that is created by our constant desiring. Perhaps, then, Buddhists are less self-absorbed than we are! Yet, since we do not agree with Buddhism on this crucial issue and accept the “self” as integral to being human, then as Christians we would ultimately claim that there is something meaningful indicated by the term, the “self.” That is what we should be trying to discover.
However, as noted above, our contemporary preoccupation with the self borders on the obsessive and idolatrous. Life is presented as a long and exciting journey of “self-discovery.” But is this in reality the ultimate “ego trip,” leading to “self-delusion?” Frankly, a great deal of today’s talk about the self sounds terribly superficial. It is a far cry from the Delphic oracle’s ancient maxim, taken up by Socrates and later philosophers: “Know thyself!” These are simply a few comments by way of preface to an insightful paragraph I came across while reading the book of a solid New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington III. This author has uncovered a trend within certain writers today who transform theology (reality as God-centered) into anthropology (reality as human-centered). In other words, in writing about God or Christ, they end up turning the whole quest into one more attempt at “self-discovery.” This is why such scholars are critical of the New Testament and attempt to bring some of the non-canonical Gospels into prominence. These heretical and gnostic “Gospels” are essentially about discovering the “god within.” “Spirituality” is then really about “self-realization” if not “self-deification!” In criticizing some of these modern spiritual quests that seem only remotely related to the Gospel centered in Christ, Witherington concluded with the following paragraph—simple, direct and to the point: “The problem with the advice ‘be yourself’ or ‘be your own person’ is that none of us are ourselves. We all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and we need the redemption Christ offers us, not another self-help program. We have fallen, and we can’t get up on our own. Self-help programs don’t turn us into new creatures even if they can help us curb our addictions or become kinder, gentler folks. Do we want to be ourselves as we are, or do we want to be something even better—to be like Christ and let Christ’s life shine forth to others in such a way that they too will long to be like him?”
We are not ourselves because we are fallen and sinful. This is biblical. A recognition of that fact may just serve as a good beginning to discover our “true self.” And this is why Evagrios of Pontus, a desert ascetic, could write, “The beginning of salvation is self-condemnation.” (You will not find a book in the “Self-Help” section on your local bookstore with this title!) This has nothing to do with an unhealthy “self-hatred.” It means to recognize our sins and need for repentance freed from the useless refuge of “self-justification.” Whatever the self may be in relation to some of the suggestions I offered above as plausible possibilities, the real question becomes: what is the foundation or ground of the self? What guarantees its stability and continuity? What prevents the self from being one more fleeting and ephemeral reality, so much “dust in the wind” that goes the way of our bodies? If anything, it has to be God. Either the self is grounded and stabilized in God, or it is grounded in “nothing.” We are either “God-sourced” or “nothing-sourced.” If the latter, then the self is unstable and ever on the brink of disappearing into the void. Perhaps all of the clamorous cries of “self-affirmation” that we hear today are an instinctive reaction or even rebellion against this inherent nihilism. A godless quest of self-discovery leads to a dead-end encounter with our own nothingness! Do atheistic therapists and secular counselors remind their clients of that cold fact?
That last statement needs to be qualified, so as to avoid any misunderstanding as to my intended meaning. Undoubtedly, there exist many wonderful “self-help” groups and therapies that have been very effective in helping people overcome a wide range of abberant behavioral problems, especially those plagued by addictions. The most well-known has to be Alcoholics Anonymous, a therapy grounded in the Gospel that has rescued a countless number of men and women from alcoholism. To this day, many people have recourse to such helpful societies in combatting their destructive behavior, and thus saving themselves from seemingly hopeless situations. At the same time, a healthy “self-reliance” is cultivated and restored in persons who need such a change. Many of these self-help groups acknowledge the existence of God and thus apply their respective therapies within a theistic context. This adds a dimension of humility to the whole process. However, it is not quite this phenomenon that I am dealing with here, but rather the empty promises, and even pseudo-theologies, that lead to any unhealthy preoccupation with the “self.”
Something has to give between the contemporary obsession with the self that has generated an endless market for books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, seminars, programs, therapies, “self-help” gurus and the like; and the ever-demanding teaching of Our Lord: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself….” [Mark 8:34]. This is not a Buddhist-like call to “self-transcendence” in search of enlightenment. It is Christ’s way of teaching us that to defensively, fearfully, or even idolatrously hold onto the “self” as some sort of autonomous entity will only culminate in the loss of our “life.” To deny such a self-centered way of existence for the sake of the Gospel is to actually “save” our life. “Life” and “self” are very closely equated in this crucial passage. Further, the word “life” is actually the word for “soul.” So biblically, we discover that the word “self” is basically synonomous with the word “soul/life.” Each and every one us is a “living soul,” formed by the creative power of God and having received the “breath of life” that sustains us and lifts us up beyond the merely biological level of existence.
Employing our theological language further, we should also equate “self” with the person. (The theological term is hypostasis). Every living soul is a person—unique, unrepeatable and beloved of God. As the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity are never self-isolated, self-absorbed or self-centered, so we realize that that would be a false way of existing. A genuine person is always turned toward another person in a movement of love and communion, as are the three Persons of the Trinity. This gives us great insight into the teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Mark 12:31]. “To be” is to be in communion, as one of our contemporary Orthodox theologians has explained. If we could pour our energy into discovering the “wholly Other”—God, and the multiple others—the neighbor; then we would uncover our “true self” in the process. Our Tradition tell us to find our “self” in the other—God and neighbor. Being a living soul and/or a person, then, describes a mode of being, a way of life, that is as far removed from the thinly veiled narcissism that passes today as “self-realization,” as the “East is from the West!”
Orthodox Christianity affirms the self, but as dependent for its very existence upon the creative power of God and the redemptive grace of Christ. Each and every one of us is created, sustained, and guided by God toward a destiny so glorious that it is essentially indescribable. It is this humble acknowledgment of dependence on God that becomes the foundation of that long process that will lead us from being “self-centered” to being “God-centered.” Perhaps we can go so far as to say: we seek to be saved from our “self” in order to truly be ourselves in the embrace of God. Today’s world seems oblivious of this promise.