Some folks seem to delight in freedom, in choice, in thinking for themselves and sometimes find themselves in a world made for themselves, a kind of narcissism. Others delight in order, hierarchy, in faith, and in a kind of theology that seems to lock in the creative potential of humans and who at the same time believe all things are determined (by a sovereign God, and rarely do they add a sovereign and “good” God) and predestined. These have become two poles of thinking — the narcissism and determinism, one in which humans are narcissists and the other in which God seems (to many of us to be) the narcissist.
What do you think of Highfield’s sketch of the “modern self”? How does this help the church?
Both of these approaches are exaggerated expressions of truth, what Francis Schaeffer somewhere called “true truths.” The two truths are freedom and God’s sovereignty and ordering of reality. In the midst of this is what Pepperdine professor Ron Highfield, one of my favorite theologians today, calls “The Me-Centered Self” in his new and important book, God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. This is not a book for pessimists, but neither is this a cheery-eyed sketch of just how indulgently wonderful we are. This is a book for straight-thinking Christian theologians and pastors who want to probe how our faith puts the Self into place. Here one finds a balanced, philosophical approach to the historical development of the modern self. A few highlights from a good book to reading during Lent:
The self was shaped through the development of inwardness (Descartes, Locke), the affirmation of the ordinary life (Locke), the inner and expressive voice of nature … leading to a kind of emotivist self. The modern self is noted by defiance, subservience in the natural or default religion of humans, as well as in indifference, and here Highfield sketches four ways of being indifferent: esthetic, conformist, celebrity, and agnostic.
Remember this: the God of traditional thought is considered by the modern self to be a threat to freedom and dignity. Right there is the cutting edge of the gospel and the cutting edge of the Christian faith: the human quest is to rule, it’s as old as Genesis 3, but is challenged by the divine right to rule by God. Highfield’s contribution here is to sketch that the God rejected or feared by the modern self is but a “superhuman” God and not the God of the Christian faith. What most think of God, and what most reject of God, is a projection of the human onto God.
And Highfield, before he sketches a God-Centered Self, cuts into the ice three self-perceptions in the modern quest for freedom:
Highfield knows this theory of freedom means competition of selves and envy of selves. Dignity is the recognition of these three (or one or more of these three) selves for each person. “The more self-sufficient and self-defining we are, the more dignity we have” (96). Wow.