This article is part of my blog series inspired by Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice by James Alison.*
James begins the last unit of the Forgiving Victim course with a recap of how he began, with his understanding of desire. His way of thinking about desire permeates the Gospels and animates Jesus’ teachings, so it’s essential to our effort to interpreting Scripture. But boy oh boy, it’s a tough concept to grasp! It totally flies in the face of our everyday understanding of ourselves, our desires, and our relationship to the world.
The nascent race for the U.S. Presidency is a great case study in desire. Voters are looking for “authenticity” in the candidates, or so the pundits say. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are scoring big right now because they seem to be genuine, passionate and unscripted. Everyone is tired of the highly scripted, tightly controlled candidate who doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been vetted, polled and tested with focus groups. The public face of such politicians is clearly false and constructed by others. What we long for is to glimpse the real self behind the façade, and we praise anyone who allows us a peek behind the mask. The inner self, we believe, is the true self that resists all that meddling by others.
This false view of the self is what James calls the “blob and arrow” model. The blob represents me, what is thought to be my true self. The arrows are my desires which originate with me and are directed towards things in the world that I want, such as a job, a mate, or a political office. James explains:
Part of the self-understanding of the “blob” is that is has a defensive role, protecting and hiding the “real me” and my “real desire” which is always under a certain amount of threat from the fundamentally “flaky” public world, the world of commerce, of business, of politics and of war, in which no forms of discourse are really truth-bearing. So, what I say in public, how I act in public, and what I say I want in public, are always a certain form of dissimulation, since it is only the private ‘self’ which is real. (400-401)
Authentically Dependent on Others
This way of thinking about ourselves can be very flattering. It identifies us as the good guys pitted against the flaky world out there. But unfortunately for our egos, it just isn’t true! Our desires are not stable, unchangeable things that originate deep inside of us. Our desires are given to us by the world around us through our highly developed capacity for imitation. In other words, each and every one of us is the product of a script that predates our existence. We are formed, shaped, brought into being by the cultural script into which we were born. There is no “true inner self” that exists somehow separate from and unmoved by our “public self”. Our inner self is the result of being in an extraordinarily powerful and fluid feedback loop with the world around us. Unless we can understand that the ground of being in which we live, move and desire is the culture around us, what James calls the “social other”, we will forever misunderstand that our “authentic self” is the product of our social interactions.
The truth is that our “authentic” selves are much less stable than we normally understand. We are constantly courting the attention and approval of others, without which our “sense of self” erodes. We feel insecure, ashamed, and we lose confidence in ourselves without that approval. Politicians and celebrities, people who rely on the approval of others, are no different than we are. They are just more public about it! Their dependence on our votes or our wallets is no secret at all.
And like these public figures, we should not be ashamed of our need for approval. Jesus knows that being human means that our selves are constructed in and through relationships. The question is, which relationships are forming us? Some relationships have our best interests at heart; others are abusive and manipulative. James explains that Jesus is inviting us to become aware of just how dependent we are on the “social other”, which is not always good for us. He wants us to enter a kind of detox program so that we can free ourselves from its grip.A Detox Program
That detox program is prayer. When we read Matthew 6:5-6 with this understanding of the self and desire, what do we find?
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
When we pray in public and put our piety (or authenticity!) on display, our “reward” is the approval of others. Jesus warns us to beware of that reward. Instead he urges us to withdraw from the social other, to shut ourselves away from their glances so that we can begin to receive ourselves from a different source. James writes:
[Jesus] is saying, “You are addicted to being who you are in the eyes of your adoring public, or your execrating public, it doesn’t matter which, since crowd love and crowd hate give identity in just the same dangerous way. So, go into a place where you are forcibly in detox from the regard of those who give you identity so that your Father, who alone is not part of that give and take, can have a chance to call your identity into being.” (412)
The truth is that an authentic self can be called into being by relationships that mirror God’s unconditional love. But crowd love or hate cannot call forth an authentic self! It will only shape a “self” in its image. As James explains, we too easily become a puppet of the crowd, forever doing its bidding in order to keep the feedback coming. When we praise politicians’ for being “authentic”, we need to realize that our praise is coming toward them from the crowd of which we are willing members. Perhaps such politicians are not dependent on us for their identity, but perhaps they are too dependent on us without realizing it.
As we analyze the presidential candidates with this in mind, we might ask ourselves the same question: Are we bolstering our own sense of self by aligning with a particular candidate? Group belonging is a sure way to feel good about ourselves over against those “baddies” in the other camp. Perhaps our longing for authenticity in our candidates reflects our desire for a more stable, authentic identity for ourselves. Maybe we all need a little time in detox.
*Years ago, just when I was about to give up on Christianity as irrelevant to my life, I stumbled across the work of James Alison. He helped me encounter a God of mercy who loved me more than I could imagine – what a gift! So when he asked for help to produce his course of introduction to Christianity, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, I jumped at the chance. All proceeds from sales of the course go to support the website, translations, promotion, and James’ living and travel expenses. James is an independent scholar and itinerant preacher and is very grateful for your support. James and I both pray that this blog series and the course itself will be a meaningful part of your journey toward a deeper faith and fuller life in Christ. You can learn more about the course and purchase it at our store.
For other parts of this series see:
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