Down the slippery slope
by David F. Wells
When we think of life in terms of the self, we enter a psychological world. When we think of life in terms of the biblical God, we are in a moral world. We in the West have moved from the latter to the former – from one worldview to another. It is this transition we now need to understand.
In The courage to be Protestant I have traced four steps in this shift, all of which took place during the twentieth century.
First, we began to think of values instead of virtues. Virtues are things such as truthfulness, justice and courage. They constitute what is enduringly right. Values, by contrast, are simply personal preferences. They are what are important to me. My values are right for me but they may not be right for anyone else. In other words, we began to treat values in a value-free way.
Character and personality
Second, personality became more important than character. Character is what results when virtues are internalised and become habitual. It is about who we have become as moral beings.
Personality (a true twentieth century invention) is simply the face we present to others. It is all about self-projection and self-image. We stage ourselves before others for our own benefit – by the way we speak, dress and sometimes posture. If character is about honesty, goodness and self-restraint, then personality is about being charming, winsome, and likeable.
Television is the perfect medium for this new emphasis. The key requirement for television ‘personalities’ is that they be likeable. Behind the scenes and off the set they can be downright scoundrels – but that will not invalidate their success on the air if they have the right personality ingredients.
Human nature and the self
Third, we replaced human nature by the self. Human nature – whether in its Christian form of the image of God or not – is what we all have in common. It defines us as human as distinct from all other animals.
The self, by contrast, is unique and no two selves are exactly alike. The self is that place within each person where their own biography, experience, disposition and gifts come together in a unique package.
The fact that all selves are different means that no two people should be expected to see the world in the same way – to get the same meaning out of a text, accept the same truth, or live by the same moral norms.
Guilt and shame
Finally, we replaced guilt by shame. Sometimes we do use these words interchangeably but today they have developed distinct meanings. Guilt belongs to a moral world. It lines up our actions vertically – it is what we know about God’s verdict on what we are and what we have done.
Shame, by contrast, lines up our actions only horizontally. It is the sense of embarrassment we feel before others if they know things about us we don’t want them to know. Psychiatrists consider this a crippling emotion, and many believe that true liberation means becoming entirely shameless.
Once our society took these four steps, it moved from a moral world into the psychological world which now dominates the way people think throughout the West. And it is this world and its associated worldview that undermine Christian faith.
Why is this so? First, it shrinks all reality into the self, God included. I will expand on this in the final article but, put briefly, this explains why the West has now turned amazingly spiritual. What has resulted is a self-spirituality, a new paganism.
Second, it eliminates sin. Sin is only possible in a moral world. The Bible defines sin as lawlessness, disobedience and defiance – but it is God who is defied and disobeyed. Take God out of the equation and there can be no sin in biblical terms.
Given this worldview shift, it is no surprise that in the USA only 17% define sin in relation to God. This is all the more remarkable because, at the same time, 45% are now claiming to be born again.
When sin is not defined in relation to God it becomes trivialised – because it is nothing more than a violation of some fallible church teaching or passing tradition.
Finally, this worldview shift makes self the centre of life – assuming its innocence, and demanding that it be esteemed. By contrast, Christian faith re-positions God at life’s centre – seeing the self as corrupt and demanding that its sovereignty be yielded. It remembers that Jesus said that no one can be his follower unless the self is denied, indeed crucified. I will take this up in the remaining article.
The author is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, MA.