When we see a braggart, we almost go directly to the assumption that all this bragging is rooted in poor self-esteem. I think it’s not quite right to see this as one-sided problem. I think it oversimplifies to say that usually these people aren’t, at the same time, suffering from too much self esteem. Often times, there is one side of the person that believes too much in their own abilities at the same time there is another side of them that believes too little in themselves.
I’ve had reason to ponder an analogous thing, lately. That thing is our current preoccupation with the self, individuality, personality. My last couple blog posts have attempted an explanation for why the idea of a personal relationship with Christ can simultaneously be central to our faith but also historically new. My answer to this question is that our current sociological circumstances place an emphasis on the self, individual, personality. In order to get to the same understanding of Jesus that past generations have had, we need a new doctrine that helps us figure out the place of our individuality, our little quirks in the grand scheme of things.
I have stayed neutrally, so far, on the question of whether this change in society is a good thing. I wanted to explore it a little bit here.
But before I assess it, it seemed like something more needed to be said about how we see the individual in the year 2011.
On the one hand, this is the time in history that most focuses on and applauds the individual, recognizing each person as the natural unit of pretty much everything. But on the other hand, this is also the age of dehumanization. We are identified by numbers. The human race now number in the billions. Despite possessing technologies that bare the potential to bring us closer together than ever before, we are isolated, and alone. Perhaps more isolated and alone than ever.
It is like the example of a person who presents the world with their own arrogance. To a certain extent, they actually are what they appear. Deeper inside, they are exactly the opposite. Similarly, we live in this age that almost worships the individual and yet at the same time, as individual, we are struggling as never before, like fish on the sand, trying to breathe the air and hoping somebody will kick us back into the water.
One part of this problem is perhaps that knowing the importance of a thing actually high lights what happens when we don’t get it. Because we have this knowledge of lead paint, we see everybody telling us to watch out for it, keep your kids away. It’s not the fact that there is more lead paint than there was a century ago. The fact of the matter is that there is less. It’s just that we’re more aware of the dangers now.
In the same way, being a society which has reflected deeply on the needs of the individual, it is natural that we would be more likely to notice– and speak up– when those needs aren’t met. But I don’t think this accounts for all of the disconnect between whether this age is a dehumanizing or humanizing one.
I think a more significant problem is the fact that focuses at the level of individual denies a certain need: the need for community. When we take a close-up of a single human being, we are losing what goes on outside the frame. We’re like a biologist who has become an expert in cells but can’t say much about organs, organ systems, organisms, populations, or ecosystems.
Even if our sociology was as emphasized as our psychology, we wouldn’t suddenly be happy, healthy, and content, though. Through out history, society has tried to send the message “All you need is X.” For example, in the midevil era, people were told “All you need to do is follow the rules.” In the Renaissance and Enlightenmnent people were told “All you need is knowledge.” Most recently, we’ve been told “All you need is to be yourself.”
We are so easily decieved when the thing that we’re told we need isn’t a bad thing. Most of us can ignore a person who says “All you need is cocaine.” Because most of us can see how cocaine is not good for us. But to an extent, following the rules are a good thing. To an extent, knowledge is a good thing. To an extent, being yourself is a good thing.
But none of them are all we need. Not do we need all three of things. We need many other things. But most of all, of course, we need God.
It seems to me that each generation, our faith itself enters into the world by speaking the native language, by speaking to the native concerns. It begins by saying “People like us need X in order to get close to God.” We engage in an act of arrogance when we feel like our particular formulation is universal. At some point, we begin to say “All peeople need X in order to get closer to Goc.” Then we engage in an act of idolatry, our faith becomes of the world when it forgets the whole point. At this point, we begin to say “All people need X” and don’t worry about what it is that we need x for.
C.S. Lewis, (I think) wrote that as he spiritually matured, it wasn’t that he thought less of himself, it was just that he thought of himself less. I think this is a good piece of guidance. Our uniqunesses are important. But maybe not as important as we want them to be.