Self in a Castle

Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher who weakened Marxism’s grip on Eastern Europe,
recently died. Few, I suspect, knew who he was. I consider myself fortunate to
have read some of Kolakowski, one book being his scintillating sketch of the
history of ideas by probing the central idea of twenty-three thinkers. That
book is called Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers
. My own reading of that book impressed me again with
the connection of philosophers with their world. From Socrates to Kierkegaard,
philosophers are products of their day.

are we.

Which raises the profound problem of blinders when it comes to
perceiving what is influencing us, and which raises the other profound problem
of needing to understand our cultural blinders in order to break through them
with the light of the gospel. Kolakowski’s chapters are short, and everything
short when it comes to the history of ideas risks simplicities that mask
nuance. I risk the same in what I am about to suggest: that the current generation emerges out of a toxic combination of
modernity and postmodernity

North Park University


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another context (Leadership Journal)
I called the toxicity of the current generation a “self in a castle.”
Modernity’s singular contribution to the history of ideas is individualism.
David Bentley Hart gets this exactly right in his new rant against the flimsy
ideas in new atheism when he writes: “We live in an age whose chief value has
been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of
personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe,
want, need, own, or serve” (Atheist
, 21-22). That is, “it is choice itself, and not what we choose,
that is the first good.” Personal freedom, which both Kolakowski and Hart
understand far more profoundly than most, has become getting to do whatever I
want, when I want, and how I want – and government’s job is to make sure it
happens now. That’s, of course, an exaggeration, but it’s the exaggeration that
is causing our problem in gospel work today. Perhaps the most important words

in Hart’s lines above are “by overwhelming consensus.” The consensus is so
overwhelming that the emerging generation – each of us – believes we can form
our own religion. A religion of our own making, however, never leads to transcendence
or worship of God or anything like the ancient Hebrews’ “fear of God.” Instead,
we tinker on the edge of holiness with the notion of experiencing The Beyond.


feeble of a god is that? When “The Beyond” evokes mystery or suggests to our
minds that we are on the edge of something important, then we need to look into
abyss of where we are headed.


modernity handed on to our culture a sense of individualism that has been
ratcheted up beyond what either Bible or philosophers would ever recognize, postmodernity
tells us that individual choice itself is relative. I don’t believe we should
dismiss postmodernity with the derisive, and far too often unthinking, “moral
relativism,” but there is within postmodernity’s deepest impulses the belief
that universal truth and all-encompassing metanarratives can’t be had. We are
too finite and when folks do think they’ve found the magical metanarrative for
all, they abuse power and turn violent. Well, yes, there’s some truth to that,
but that’s the whole problem with postmodernity. Genuine insights become,
paradoxically enough, all-encompassing metanarratives against all
metanarratives. This tendency is one of postmodernity’s addictions.


here we are. Staring at a unique cultural product: humans turned inward to
invest sanctity in the Self and who have constructed a postmodern castle wall
that informs that, because that Self is so sacred no one can violate your
choice – you determine what to believe and what is right and wrong. The Self is
protected the Wall of Individual Relative Choice.


tragedy of the “self in a castle” is that we are blind to it – blind to see it
in ourselves every time we choose to think we are the most progressive and wisest
of all generations, every time we fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved
levels of love that we call tolerance, which is a vapid imitation of what
genuine love is, and every time we think our moral struggles rival the profound
struggles of an Athanasius or an Augustine, a Luther or a Calvin, a Bonhoeffer
or a Martin Luther King, Jr.. 


Self is so large because our walls are so high, blinding us from seeing the
Morning Light. That Light is the Light of All Light.

First published on Out of Ur blog.


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  • Very interesting and insightful post, Scot. I guess a question that occurs is: if we have become so individualistic, how do we arrive at a community ethic that moves beyond our individual selves? In other words, even if what you are saying is true – that individualism is the great blinder of our time – how do we move beyond it? My concern is that moving backwards is not necessarily moving forward. In other words, resorting to a past with its own (different) blinders, is not the answer. So what is? And how do we get at it?
    Now for a positive point, related directly to the time we are born into as well. Isn’t the globalization we’re experiencing now also provoking something very positive: the need to see ourselves as one in the same; to see everyone on the face of the planet as our brother/sister. We may be individualistic, but perhaps we’re also seeing the glimmer of a dawn of a new, deeper, richer understanding of religion – whose bond is universal brotherhood. This too is an aspect very unique to our time – as compared to previous periods. And I think this aspect is essential to any evaluation of who and what we are as people embedded in time/space/culture.

  • Thanks, Scot.
    To think that both does not affect us all is surely a grave mistake.
    We do have to seek in Jesus and then try to walk together in- a new way.
    I like your point, Darren, about globalization. As we begin to see ourselves more and more as part of community, we’re closer to the truth. And that it is not about us and whatever we might choose, but about God in Christ by the Spirit. And we becoming conformed to the Eikon of Christ, no less.

  • RJS

    While I agree with most of this – the last line or so here loses me a bit here – maybe I don’t understand what you are getting at. (Or perhaps I am so blinded by “self in a castle” that I can’t.)
    You said “…and every time we think our moral struggles rival the profound struggles of an Athanasius or an Augustine, a Luther or a Calvin, a Bonhoeffer or a Martin Luther King, Jr..
    We are not the wisest of generations – and can learn much from the people listed – but do you really think that we should so revere them that we regard our moral struggles as nothing in comparison? Should we submit to their wisdom – or should we be moving forward in a new context? Is doing so succumbing to self in a castle thinking?

  • Diane

    Well said. A great synthesis of much that has been written on this blog over the past few years. We would benefit greatly if we would embrace history and church tradition to get beyond self and help solve the spiritual and economic problems of our times.
    Thank God we still have some restraints on personal liberty– police will come and try to prevent a potential suicide from jumping off a bridge … but what of all the places (and here I think primarily of some divorces I have witnessed) where bystanders have no mechanism but to stand by and watch people and their children crash and burn in pursuit of individual volition. If you saw somebody completely drunk ready to drive a carload of children, society would support intervening. But watch a woman wreck multiple lives in the drunken, mad pursuit of a “better” mate … she has a right!! Individuals suffer, society suffers. Why do we talk about health care reform in terms of what’s in it for me? What about what we as a society need, even if I pay “more?” How did *I” become the center of the universe? ? We need a mechanism for societal self correction. But to say we have sin, to be conscious that our thinking, my personal thinking, could be flawed!! Don’t tell me I have sin! You are imposing your ideas of God on me. The church is “sick” to propose that! Well, no, it’s not … I sometimes come close to despair … how to reach people whose beginning and end is “What I believe is true for me.”

  • Scot McKnight

    Darren, I don’t think we can back up but we can learn from the past. We do need, however, to be more aware of how individualistic we have become and how it impacts everything we do, impacting not only ourselves but the Church and gospel as well.
    RJS, my summary line is this one: “Staring at a unique cultural product: humans turned inward to invest sanctity in the Self and who have constructed a postmodern castle wall that informs that, because that Self is so sacred no one can violate your choice – you determine what to believe and what is right and wrong. The Self is protected the Wall of Individual Relative Choice.”
    The issue for me was an exploration by way of analysis of what I think is the gospel dilemma of our age, the context into which all gospel work speaks. I believe in the individual; I believe the problem is radical individualism that reshapes things.
    One issue of value to me is to check what I believe over against the Great Tradition and to surrender my beliefs humbly to the wisdom of the ages.

  • RJS

    I agree that we need to check our beliefs against the Great Tradition – but this isn’t a uniform monolith. And I certainly don’t think that either Calvin or Augustine got everything right. I listen and read – but I have no intention of submitting to their wisdom as a blanket ideal. They also were in a context and perhaps we can see more clearly than they where their conclusions were dictated by context rather than God (so to speak). We have a harder time seeing where ours are dictated by our context.

  • Believing that the gospel of the kingdom of God offers a more profoundly meaningful life than the current overwhelming consensus of the “self in the castle,” do we not expect some hostile resistance to this “good news”? The gospel of Jesus dethrones self and casts us out of our castles into a world of cracked Eikons with all the damage they cause as we pursue a redemptive mission many will misunderstand (as Jesus himself was misunderstood). My friend, Jeremy Bouma, offers his book THE UNOFFENSIVE GOSPEL OF JESUS into the conversation. Jeremy acknowledges that the radical claims of Jesus’ “good news” will be energetically opposed by those who like the self in the castle.

  • To pick up from comment #7, this is where we need the apologetic of a Spirit-empowered community (i.e., the church). The church SHOWS to the watching world what a group of dethroned, selfless-serving people look like in a world of royal individuals jealous for and protective of their castles. We will never argue people off their thrones. The kingdom of God is not mere words but also a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, a power that can demolish the “strongholds” of contemporary thought (2 Cor. 10:4-6).

  • Rodney

    All the more reason we need ears to hear the prophetic voice, one who cries in the wilderness.
    The prophet’s message is always dismissed as heretical.

  • To clarify, my question is: what version of the Great Tradition do we submit to to overcome our excessive individualism? As RJS pointed out, it is not a monolith. And the various streams all have their issues. So, very practically, how do we find consensus? Isn’t a major issue the fact that their is no current consensus around authority – as Phyllis Tickle points out? I think this is also what it means to be born into this time: we are between authorities – or at least perceived authorities. Curious for people’s thoughts here.

  • As someone who has lived a life in the maelstrom between those forces, I think I would only accept the idea of postmodern forces constructing the castle wall around the individual if the metaphor includes the often overlooked reality that those same forces are simultaneously sapping the walls they are constructing and the foundation of the castle itself. I have been at one point about as much of a relativist as most people will actually encounter. Not entirely sure what I am now. I have certainly believed or at least tried to believe a great many things over the course of my life, probably more than most people do.
    Darren (and others), there is no fool-proof recipe for checking beliefs. However, it’s never seemed as much of a mystery or insurmountable obstacle as it’s sometimes presented. Overall, there is more cohesion than not in the past two thousand years. First, if something is a belief that I can definitively trace to one person or a small group of people in a specific place and time in the last thousand years (and an awful lot of the many and varied modern protestant beliefs fall in this category), then I’m suspicious of it. If the origin of an idea is hard to trace, but seems confined to a relatively small group of people over against a broader and more widespread belief across time and space, then I’m suspicious of it. If I have a particular interpretation or idea that seems markedly different from the continuity of christian belief, I’m suspicious of it.
    I wasn’t particularly raised in Protestantism, at least not any more than a host of other things (Christian and not), so I’m not going to make any claims to have any particular insight in the tradition. But it does strike me that perhaps one problem in approaching the faith that way within Protestantism is that (depending on your branch), there’s an awful lot that fails to pass those simple tests.

  • Scott M,
    Something we’ve been exploring on this blog (led by RJS mostly) is the question of how to incorporate new scientific knowledge into ancient understandings (expressed in the Bible and Tradition). So, while the historic model you describe is helpful, it still doesn’t really address this second level of the issue. And its the emergence of these new kinds of information (on genetics, geology, and human sexuality, for instance) that are really throwing a wrench into the system and its normal checks and balances.

  • You make it sound as if we are victims of our culture. This is ironic if true since it would mean the focus on self is a product of our society, a bit like the high school phenomena of everyone wearing the same new thing in order to assert individuality. Maybe a way forward is not less individualism but more. We might be surprised, for example, in how much community we find in Judge Williams (one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms) discussion of what it means to absolutely choose oneself.

  • Darren, I’ve read the posts in question. I have a lot of scientists, including research scientists (or retired scientists) in my family. Some Christian. Some not. My father and his sister are both geneticists. That’s not a new world to me. I’ve never experienced the sort of disconnect since I came to Christianity that seems to trouble many today, mostly in one variation or another of the protestant tradition through which I entered Christianity and in which I remain. So I guess I don’t agree that modern science throws any particular novel wrench into the mix. Nor do I find that we need to invent some new theology to incorporate it.
    I suppose if I better understood why scientific discoveries seem to trouble some Christians, I might have more insight. But those aren’t the sorts of questions I ask. They’ve never troubled me. Nor do they appear to trouble the majority of Christians in the world. At least from what I can see.

  • Mike M

    Craig @13: Interesting approach. A bit like giving more drinks to an alcoholic? Or maybe your suggestion is like homeopathic medicine: the medicine mimics the disease.
    Scott @11: I think you’re on to something as a means test for Christian truth. The great Reformers used something similar against the teachings of the Catholic church (well, at the expense of sounding too simplistic). So wouldn’t the epitome of “radical individualism” in Christianity be having a belief system named after yourself, as in “Lutheranism” or “Calvinism?” How about “Morizotism?”

  • Scott,
    Okay, let me give you an example:
    What forms of expressed sexuality are sanctioned in the church?
    Traditionally, and biblically (for most anyway), homosexuality was never on that list. However, many Christians today question that – and this largely arises from a more developed view of human sexuality that has arisen over the last few decades.
    So what do we do when biblical writers, and the elders of our Traditions, were working on a construct that was less full, less developed than ours? Do we simply ignore recent developments? Or do we simply override the writings of those earlier Christians – claiming they didn’t have all the truth we have to base their beliefs on? How exactly does inspiration and authority work in these kinds of equations.
    And if we end up somewhere between those two- which is what I suspect will happen for many – then we’re back to our own individual picking and choosing. So the cycle continues.
    This is what I’m getting at.

  • Mike,
    That’s not quite what I had in mind. It would be more like asking an alcoholic to see that his or her desires are too small rather than too large since only very small desires would be satisfied by alcohol. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that as a treatment for alcoholism, but it does seem relevant to me that the so called emphasis on the self ends in very shallow individuals.

  • Cam R.

    You seem to be addressing two issues. That culture has changed from the rational, logic loving individualistic modern world to a relativistic individualistic postmodern/modern hybrid. And what does that mean for being a part of God’s mission?
    As well, I think you are asking the question “how are we different?” or if culture has adopted this “self determines truth” approach to truth have we done the same?
    In discussions about the essentials of Christian faith, people have asked me if we don’t have a relativistic approach then ultimately don’t we end up dividing into individual churches of Cam or Scott or Mike because we wouldn’t agree on very many things.
    I agree that we need to look at the Great Tradition but how do you do it? Is it simply an exercise of greatest common factor?

  • Mike M, God forbid that anyone ever find something so unique in anything I write or say from within Christianity that they attribute it to me! At most I sometimes hope to find a way to express ancient ideas in ways that are helpful today. Most of the time I doubt I even do that.
    I actually did have my own individualized syncretic (though decidedly not Christian) belief system that had grown and developed and morphed over years. I’m intimately aware of the failings of that approach. Among other things, you never actually end up with a picture of reality that is larger than yourself. However, that same syncretism seems to be the bread and butter of many modern Christians. I’m hardly immune to it, largely because it is truly difficult to submit my will in any context or setting, even the context of private study. But since that was a part of my formative lens from childhood into adulthood, and since Christianity did shake that up, I am at least aware of it. One of the many reasons that I am, as I mentioned, suspicious of any idea or perspective or interpretation on my part that seems novel.
    Cam, I think you perhaps misunderstand where relativism always ends up. If we incorporate tolerance (a poor substitute for love), you and I and Mike might still hang out together and perhaps even decide to share some sort of common label. But it would still very much be the church of Cam, the church of Scott, and the church of Mike. We’ll have merely agreed to stick some common label on our individual churches.
    For fifteen hundred years, the church largely avoided or healed schism. With two exceptions, where the schism wasn’t avoided or healed, the schismatic group died out over a (historically) relatively short period of time. It didn’t accomplish that so much through state power, as one of the common modern myths asserts. In fact, it often opposed the state and those who became too intertwined in the state tended to be among the threads that died out. The history is complex and can’t easily be summarized. But it was never relativism that held the church together.
    The forces that did hold the church mostly together vanished in the Reformation, though an argument could easily be made that the seeds were planted much earlier. Nevertheless, since the Reformation the Protestant tradition has been on an exponential spiral of division. It’s not too far from the church of Cam, Mike, and Scott now. In fact, it could be argued that it’s already there, even if some of us do group our church of one together under a common label.
    Darren, I don’t find that science particularly informs our discussion of sexuality. I’m not entirely sure I see that it makes any difference in how we were to treat people at any point in Christian history. Now I must confess that I am culturally shaped in such a way that homosexuality doesn’t bother me. Never has. In fact, in my early twenties, after my second divorce, I vastly preferred the gay or ambiguous clubs in town for the atmosphere, the music, and the opportunity to lose myself in the music over the meat markets that were the straight clubs. I will say it was immediately clear to me that I didn’t want any of my GLBT friends to step foot in the evangelical church where I finished my journey into the faith. So there is a real problem in parts of Christianity.
    I don’t really have the Christian sexual ethic figured out. But I’m unconvinced that we need to develop something new. Nor do I see any way that science can even propose an ethic. Science simply describes what is. It doesn’t have much to say on the metaphysics of it all. Or on ethics, for that matter. Scientists can have a lot to say about ethics, but that flows from who they are as human beings, not from “pure” science.
    I don’t believe that our problem is really an issue of rational, intellectual understanding of the science of sexuality. Our problem is a failure to love. And when we fail to love, we fail to move people toward more healthy behavior. I’ve had sexually promiscuous gay friends and sexually promiscuous straight friends. And I observed that both experienced the same sort of damage over time. And I’ve had gay and straight friends who were not sexually promiscuous and note that it seems much healthier for both.
    But we don’t need better science or better theology. We need better love.

  • Scott,
    Your write: “Now I must confess that I am culturally shaped in such a way that homosexuality doesn’t bother me.”
    And that’s my point. You’ve carved out your own little church of Scott based on your own cultural stew.
    As we all seem to do.
    So, my question still stands: how do arrive at consensus? How do we avoid that very smorgasbord-effect? Its one thing to say, as Scot rightly does, that excessive individualism is the blinder of our time. But how do we move past this? Especially when we all only pay passing homage to what were yesteryear’s unquestioned hubs of authority?
    Where does the authority lie now?
    And is the very lack of that sense of authority the bigger issue? To which excessive individualism is just a side-effect.

  • Cam R.

    I wonder if what we want is a silver bullet, a magical method to snuff out the “smorgasbord-effect”. But I don’t think there is one.
    I think my initial reaction was to get individualism right out of the equation but really that is impossible. It is excessive individualism that is the problem. The gospel impacts individually and communally so you can’t just eliminate the personal part.
    There still needs to be individual choices and decisions made on what we think is true and I think there is a personal call to discipleship and being in relationship/union with Jesus. What our culture wants to do is stop there–what the “self” has determined is true. But the church is a community and the same Spirit has guided the church and guides the church.
    For me (individually ), it comes down to individual decisions about truth while being submitted to and led by the Spirit, being informed by the bible and those who have gone before us, and working out those beliefs and decisions in community with others committed to Jesus.
    I think the last part can be a tough one because it means being open to correction and sharing beliefs that might not be popular. And we need to be in community at a level where we can speak into each others lives.

  • Nitika

    Thus the drift towards and interest in Monism. The sublime within… It’s all one, and I am IT.

  • Clint Parsons

    after all, surely you will not die…?

  • Clint,
    After all, surely you will not be vague and obtuse?