Is there a Christian self?

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Pia Stern, A Simple Human Existence, 2011

In our last post we raked Ayn Rand over the coals for glorifying the ego, which, as Thomas Merton pointed out, is no more than a private fantasy of what we’d like to be. It’s an illusion and has nothing to do with reality. And I think most Christians would agree: We are not our egos.

But where does this leave us? Or, as Alert Reader Michael Lomuscio asks,

As Christians we don’t talk much about what a healthy concept of “the self” looks like. What do you think our attitude toward “the self” should be? There are some religions where ultimate enlightenment and the complete annihilation of the self are one in the same. That is not, however, the message of Christ. So what is the theology of “the self’”?

Is there a Christian self?

Yes. It’s called by many writers, the true self. But it’s not easy to get a fix on it. In this way it’s completely unlike Rand’s ego (the false self), which strains continuously for outward, objective verification: I’m clever, so I must get a clever job and do clever things and speak in clever ways and live in a neighborhood that reflects my clever self. The ego needs these props to solidify itself, to convince itself of its own reality.

Not so the true self. Created in the divine image and grounded in God, it wants for nothing. It seeks no validation. Why should it?

The true self rests in its own reality.

But what exactly is the true self? We can start by looking at scripture, where it makes at least one center-stage appearance.

In Matthew 22 Jesus is being quizzed by his favorite interlocutors, the Pharisees. They ask him to name the greatest commandment. This is a terribly easy assignment for any knowledgeable Jew, and Jesus’ response is straight out of the Torah: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Our interest is with the second commandment, which most contemporary readers take to mean something like, You should love your neighbor as you love yourself. But that’s not what it says. And it can’t mean that. The idea of “loving yourself” may not have started with Leo Buscaglia, but it surely wasn’t current in first century Palestine.

We at psnt.net think it means something like, You are to love your neighbor as being yourself. Or, to put it bluntly, your neighbor is yourself. Maybe Jesus and the Torah are trying to say that you have no self at all except the one that emerges when you turn away from yourself and toward your neighbor in love.

You want an identity? Feed my sheep. You want a life? Give it away. You have no identity whatsoever except in communion with others. This makes sense in light of our being made in the image of a God who is trinitarian — communal — in essence.

If this is right, if the self is made concrete only in the loving of others, at least two consequences follow.

First, we don’t get to see our true selves in the objective, external world. Therefore the odd sensation that, when it comes to ourselves, no one’s home. As Walker Percy put it, I appear to myself a black hole among a thousand stars.

Second, when we love, our true, grounded-in-God selves shine though clearly for others to enjoy and to love. We become stars for them, stars we ourselves cannot see.

The trick, of course, is letting that be good enough, because it is.

P.S. From what I understand about Eastern traditions, the annihilation of the self is not the annihilation of what I am here calling the true self, but of the ego, or false self.

Ayn Rand’s perfect illusion or: Why my son will probably survive Anthem

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Arnold Newman, Ayn Rand, 1964. According to biographer Anne C. Heller, Rand believed “the dollar sign was a better symbol than the cross, because it didn’t require the sacrifice of anybody.”

So my ninth-grade son Henry has been assigned Anthem by Ayn Rand. He spent a large portion of his Labor Day weekend on this travesty. Is this necessary? For a young reader to spend any fraction of his formative intellectual years with Rand’s stilted prose and ghastly philosophy? So many great and beautiful books, and they pick Anthem?

Anthem is about a future devoid of both rationality and individuality, a dark age in which science and technology are all but gone, a world subsumed by groupthink. Use of the pronoun “I” is punishable by torturous death. The hero of the book, Equality 7-2521, slowly finds his way out of the system and into the dread Uncharted Forest, where he and his partner in scandal, Liberty 5-3000, discover the first person singular, change their names to Prometheus and Gaea, and, in a final flourish, engrave the word EGO in stone above their front door.

I don’t know much about high school reading lists these days but if it’s collectivist dystopia they want, why not assign something interesting and relevant? Why not Brave New World? 

It’s hard to decide which is worse: Rand’s writing or her philosophy. But maybe that’s a false choice; David Bentley Hart claims that when it comes to Rand, “aesthetic and ideological revulsion are not really separable.”

He may be right. Anthem‘s cure for what ails us is as simple as it is wrong: the worship of ego, of the first person singular. This is of course a bleak prospect, a gesture of death, but its presentation in Anthem is so cartoonish that it simply cannot be taken seriously. Perhaps this is necessary — is there a stylist alive who could possibly beautify Rand’s ideas? We think not.

Life is too short and wondrous for such an awful book, yet there Anthem rests on Henry’s desk, dog-eared, spine broken.

On second thought, though, maybe I needn’t worry. Henry’s no fool and Rand’s perfect inversion of Christianity has undeniable pedagogical value. It’s always instructive to see solutions that are exactly wrong. The message of Anthem is precisely what we must not believe, writ large and without ambiguity. The ego — what we think we are — is, after all, the one thing Christ calls us to kill: you must lose your life to save it; the last shall be first, blessed are they who mourn.

Thomas Merton is eloquent on this point. In New Seeds of Contemplation he equates the ego with what he (and others before and after him) calls the false self. Our ego, says Merton, is no more than our private fantasy of ourselves, a false self God does not know.

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love — outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions — the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is called a life of sin.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become invisible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

But the secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.

This is reality, and Rand refuses it. The ego is the one thing that is patently and absolutely illusory. It is, in fact, the only truly anti-real thing in the universe. By worshiping ego she perfectly inverts the very structure of life. By rejecting God she abandons us to mere reason and turns us into our own worst problem.

Of course this is not accidental. Rand hated Christianity and she gets credit for recognizing and targeting the heart of the Gospel: that true life is found in the death of the ego, of self-obsession, selfishness, vanity, and pride. Life in God is precisely the death of the horror she engraves in stone in Anthem‘s dismal climax.

So Henry will survive Anthem and maybe one day he’ll remember it only as the book that ruined his holiday weekend. But my hope is that, years from now, he’ll remember and admire it for its absolutely perfect wrongness.

Coming soon to theaters: 90 minutes of total wrongness

Beware: as Phil Plait says, this trailer is “all head asplodey”

Here’s a mind-boggler to start your week.

Back in 2011 we at psnt.net reported on a Catholic splinter group that supports geocentrism. Headed by one Robert Sungenis, these guys sell the idea that the Earth stands still while the Sun (and the rest of the universe, literally) goes around it. You know, the whole medieval setup that collapsed in the 17th century.

Apparently they’ve been hard at it the last few years and now they have their own movie. Yes. That’s right. An entire feature-length film on how, if science would only let God in, it would demonstrate how special human beings are, and it would do this by nailing the planet to the center of all things.

I’ll pretty much let the trailer do the talking here. But I will mention three things. First, several prominent scientists who are featured in the film have no idea how they came to be in it. I’ll also mention that one fourth of adult Americans agree with geocentrism — fewer than this get plate tectonics wrong (!)

Finally, I’ll point out that the model Sungenis seems to be promoting — an Earth-centered one, the one that Copernicus et al. overthrew — is not biblical. The medieval Earth-centered cosmos was more a product of Greek science and philosophy than of scripture. So this brings up the question: Is there enough room between Sungenis and the wall on the right for biblical cosmology advocates?

I kind of doubt it, but who could have predicted a full-length documentary on the pleasures of geocentrism? With head-asplodey production value?