Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The religious destruction of true selves

American Christendom and Despair of Self

Kierkegaard is highly prophetic when he talks about the role of religion in the destruction of the human self. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he would see glossy TV ministries, a mega-church and consumer spirituality that ravages the human person like a cosmic tsunami. He would probably weep Jeremiah's tears: We are living examples of what he talked about -- how good people can use religion to hold God at arms length and destroy the true, destined self.

In order to understand just how pervasive, how insidious such temptation is, we have to understand the great struggle of fallen human nature. The titanic human struggle is in becoming a true self before God, i.e. the true person intended before the world began.

This is what grace provides for us, and calls us to in Christ.
But this reality is too much for us
. We see ourselves in the divine mirror and despair: we cannot stand the picture, it is too high. So we flee from it.

Kierkegaard talks about despair on three levels.

  • Spiritlessness, the failure to realize one’s self, possibility;
  • Weakness, the move to escape from one’s self; and
  • Defiance, the attempt to affirm and master oneself by denying dependence upon God.

These are incisive, layered levels which must be discussed further, but the point is profound: despair hinders us, and then moves us from spirit destiny.

We flee into quiet despair. We cannot cope with what we are intended to be, and so despair. Yet we cannot cope with despair, so we desperately try to convince the self that we are not really in despair. This is the human paradox of despair.

For good people, the fatal temptation is to create religious justification for this condition. How does a person of faith deal with a denial of her true self? She learns to mimic popular and acclaimed “Christendom” to convince herself that all is well.

She [the person in despair] now acquires a little understanding of life, she learns to copy others, how they manage their lives -- and she now proceeds to live the same way. In Christendom she is also a Christian, goes to church every Sunday, listens to and understands the pastor, indeed they have a mutual understanding; she dies, the pastor ushers her into eternity for a few dollars -- but a self she was not, and a self she did not become.

This is Kierkegaard at his most prophetic.

The most deadly form of self-abdication is the religious form: The cultural, managed Christendom which always seems to result in self-comfort and acclaim, is yet that which robs the spirit of its true role before God: A cultural Christianity that offers mimicked success is the most deadly weapon against the destined self.

This religious claim assuages the conscience even while it attacks the spirit. Thus it is revealed as our enemy: The levels of despair reveal that fleeing from true self is really fleeing from God.

Our only hope is in the turn to God and destiny.

And here, the paradox is one of grace: Despair can be the very thing God uses to fulfill, to make us our self!

In despair, we can only “transparently rest in the Power that established us.” We learn to relate to our true self in relation to God: Before God, in grace, we will with all our power to be that which He shows us we are.

Regardless of the consequences, we choose hope. We helplessly live toward God.

With nothing but God, we choose our destined self before God.

And this is hope!



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