Self above all
by David F. Wells
Those who live in the West think about themselves in ways that are quite distinctive. They think of themselves as being autonomous. They believe they must be free from the past, free from all outside authority, and free from the moral expectations of others. Only then (they say) can they find themselves, express themselves, and become real – and that, surely, is what life is all about.
These attitudes are almost unknown in Islamic societies, in traditional societies (as in Africa today) and in the former Marxist countries of Eastern Europe. They are characteristically Western.
Fleeing the West
I have been pondering this turn in Western culture for some time and have recently returned to it in a book due out next year entitled The courage to be Protestant. The title reflects my belief that Western culture, because of this self-centred focus, is presenting Christians with a very difficult context in which to sustain their belief. Indeed, statistically speaking, Christianity is fleeing the West.
It is stagnating in Western countries but growing at an extraordinary rate outside the West – in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. And this inward focus in the West could well be an important reason for Christianity’s departure.
In this first of three articles, I will explore this ‘turn to the self’. In the second article, I will consider how this new worldview emerged. In the third, I will re-state the biblical truth about Christ and relate it to our cultural context.
This change in worldview – in how we think about ourselves – has deep roots. Certainly, during the long reign of the Enlightenment, Westerners came to look askance at all religious authority – rejecting any limitation on how we think or act, whether imposed by the church, the Bible, or even God himself!
However, the process accelerated during the 1960s. By the 1980s, in the United States for example, two-thirds said that they had begun to think a lot about the self, and 82% said they had turned away from all traditional authority. This was the soil in which the ‘self-movement’ took root.
Out of it came concepts that now litter our daily language – self-esteem, self-realisation, self-image. By the time that Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel wrote their One nation under therapy in 2005, the conquest was complete. The whole nation was on the therapist’s couch, but with an important difference – we were now not just patients but our own therapists as well. All the time.
Inferior no longer
The basic premise is that the self carries within it the same healing mechanisms as does the physical body. When the body is injured, it immediately begins to repair itself. So it is with the self, they claim.
In life’s stresses and pains, we need to find ways of tapping into these healing streams within ourselves. That is the secret of survival when faced with the ferocious pace, competition, anonymity, and loneliness which characterise Western society today.
The benefits of turning inwards at first seemed quite promising. The days when people suffered from crippling inferiority complexes seemed to be over.
In a study of over a million senior school children in the USA, for example, only 2% rated themselves ‘below average’ in leadership ability and none so rated themselves in their ability to get along with others.
In fact, 60% also rated themselves in the top 10% in this category. And this year, 82% of drivers in America rated themselves among the 30% who were the safest!
Orphans in a cold universe
So it was that many of our preachers began to speak the language of this ‘self-world’, serving up inspirational sermons drawn from the wells of self. They did not seem to understand that the humanists who started it all – Carl Rogers, Rollo May and Abraham Maslow – rejected the idea of sin and believed in the self’s essential innocence.
This, like all illusions, had a pleasant taste to begin with but then it turned to ashes. If there are no moral absolutes outside of the self, how do we adjudicate our conflicts? And if there is no such thing as truth, then everyone’s perceptions – no matter how evil or bizarre – have equal significance and weight.
But, most crucially, if there is no reality outside of ourselves, we are alone. We are never addressed by God. We are orphans in a cold, indifferent and overwhelming universe.
To some, the costs of living alone, anonymously, in this kind of world are preferable to the alternative. They think it better to watch everything dissolve and pass into oblivion, than to believe that we are nailed to eternity – standing everyday before God as those who are accountable to him.
Clearly, we have a choice. It is this choice that I want to explore more fully in the remaining articles.
The author is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts, USA.