How can you become the best possible version of yourself?
In the first episode ever of the Centre for Christian Living podcast and in the lead-up to our first open night for the year, Tony Payne interviews Moore College lecturer David Höhne about the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the self—who we really are and who we long to be. They show that the seemingly elusive and impossible quest to become our best selves is indeed impossible, but at the same time, it’s also very possible—if we know where to look.
Runtime: 27:55 min.
To find out more about what Bonhoeffer says about the self, come along to our next open night where both Tony Payne and David Höhne will be speaking further on this topic:
When: Wednesday 8 March 7:30-9:30pm.
Where: The new Marcus Loane Hall at Moore Theological College, 1 King St, Newtown NSW 2042.
Tony Payne: Well, I have to admit to being a bit nervous about this podcast, and in fact, a bit unsure how to introduce this first episode. I want this to be a really sharp introduction that makes a very good first impression, and of course I want you to keep listening and I want the whole podcast to be interesting and engaging and have good production values. And one reason I want all of these things and am a bit anxious and unsure about whether I can achieve them, well, is because I want it to reflect well on me. This thing that I’m producing and putting out there in the world: I want it to enhance my reputation, I guess. I have aspirations, in other words, that through this podcast, I will not only be pleased with myself and what I’ve done, but I’ll have persuaded other people to think better of me as well.
And this is in fact the subject of this first episode of our podcast. It’s about our aspirations to be the best we can be—to find and become a better version of ourselves and to project that self to others around us. And it’s about how that seemingly elusive and impossible quest is indeed impossible, but also very possible if we know where to look.
TP: Yes, this is the first episode of a new podcast from the Centre for Christian Living at Moore College with me, Tony Payne. And the subject of this first episode is finding your best self, which also happens to be the topic of our first Centre for Christian Living event next month on March 8. But more details about that later.
Now, it seems to me that all of us, whether we’re Christian or not, have this question—even whether we think about it very often or not. It’s the question of who we really are and what it would mean for me to become the best version of myself. This may be in terms of how we look or what we achieve or how we want others to see us—our persona. Our career. Our family. And what all of these things say about us.
To find out if there is indeed a way to find our best selves, we’re going to go back to someone who thought and wrote very distinctively and brilliantly on this topic—one of the most famous Christians of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now, Bonhoeffer is one of those theologians that nearly everyone likes and everyone wants to have on their side. If you’re a more liberal-minded Christian, you can find things in Bonhoeffer’s writings that you will like—especially some of his talk about “religion-less Christianity”. Or if you’re a more conservative evangelical Christian, there’s also plenty to appreciate in Bonhoeffer—especially his writings on grace and cheap grace, on discipleship, and on the nature of life together as a Christian community. Bonhoeffer was a profound thinker. He wrote complex works of philosophical theology alongside more accessible works on discipleship and Christian community. And of course, he is well known for being caught up in the drama of Hitler and the Second World War—for being imprisoned by the Nazis and finally executed by them in the final days of the war.
To explore Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful thinking on this question—the question of the self, I sat down with a colleague of mine here at Moore College.
David Höhne: I’m David Höhne, I’m one of the theology lecturers at Moore College, and I studied Bonhoeffer’s writings in my doctoral work in Cambridge.
TP: Now, according to David, the first thing you have to understand about what Bonhoeffer says about discovering your best self is that the question of the self—of figuring out who we really are as human beings—had been burbling around in western thought for a couple of hundred years before Bonhoeffer came along. And in that period, there were two main approaches to this question.
DH: I think the short version of that 200-year story is that in the early part of the Enlightenment, through philosophers like René Descartes, who’s famous for “I think, therefore I am”—
TP: Not “I drink, therefore I am”?
DH: That came later—
DH: —Thanks to Monty Python. Gave an idea of the self, really, as a thinking entity—that is, my thought create the world. My thinking is how I know that I exist, and so really it’s my mind that drives my identity, my place in the world—in fact, even the make-up of the world.
TP: David went on to point out that as time went along, other thinkers came up with a rather obvious response—that it wasn’t just the mind that determined everything about ourselves; there was a real world out there, and how we experienced that world also has a great deal to do with who we really are and how we understand who we really are.
DH: So in the twentieth century, in particular, philosophers who were—broadly speaking, would be lumped together as existentialists or otherwise postmodern philosophers, started to shift their attention towards really how we exercise our will—how we make decisions, how we choose—choosing is actually what makes for authentic existence in a real world, not just thinking. So we have this incredible shift from the thinking self that develops the world—a concept of the world—through my own thinking and mind and that sort of thing, to a much more focused and yet, at the same time, literally, felt like a more holistic thing: how I feel and choose about the world is actually how I live authentically in the world. And so philosophers like Heidegger, but, of course, more famously, Nietzsche, focused on—really, it’s the assertion of my will that gives me authentic existence in the world and how I get about in the world. The challenge to my will is conformity, where I give over and do what other people want and just go with the flow. What I need to do is exercise my will, make my own choices and therefore be authentic.
TP: You’re probably thinking at this point, “It’s not too hard to see that the feeling/choosing approach to working out who I am is really the dominant one in our culture today”. And not least because of the rise of free market capitalism and consumerism. Through the individual wealth and economic power that many of us now have, we just have so many opportunities to choose things, to buy things, to acquire things, to surround ourselves with a whole bunch of things that communicate to people who we will are—that really determine for ourselves who we think we really are.
DH: More things to choose meant more … more of a context in which making personal choices really does define who you are and how you get about in the world. Your choices of employment, your choices of where you live, your … the things you buy when you go shopping … Over the course of the twentieth century, that’s become one of the key things of defining who I am such that a company like Apple can promote “iLife”—iPod, iPad, iTunes—it’s all about me and what I choose, and I can ensure that everything is completely tailored toward the kind of lifestyle I would like to have, but of course, as a flow-on effect, it’s the kind of identity I see myself having. So the choosing self actually becomes economically empowered as the consuming self.
TP: And technologically empowered: the development of the internet and social media has provided an even bigger and more fruitful way for us to display the choices we make and to attach ourselves to those choices and say, “This is who I am. I’m the kind of person who likes these things—”
TP: “—and links these things, and my political views and my”—everything that’s about myself that I’ve chosen, here it is.
DH: That’s right.
TP: You can see it.
DH: Yep. It becomes a package. And so, you know, the pundits of social media talk about creating your own brand. And what they’re actually talking about is the self—the self-image that I project towards the world for others to interact with.
TP: As interesting and attractive as it might have been to keep talking about Facebook and all that’s wrong with it, I thought we should get back to Bonhoeffer and his very powerful of critique of both of these kinds of ways of thinking about the self: the thinking approach to the self and the choosing approach to the self. What was Bonhoeffer’s critique?
DH: Basically from the perspective of the way that God reveals himself in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, Bonhoeffer pointed out, at a time when a number of people were, in liberal Protestant Europe, drawing attention towards this, that God makes himself known to us in the gospel of the Lord Jesus, in the Scriptures and particularly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We can’t think our way towards that. As Paul says, we’re dead in our transgressions, and that includes our thinking as well: we can’t work out the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by looking around us in the world, by even looking at the traditions of the church, or all those sorts of things. The gift of God’s identity is a gift of grace that God alones gives, and, in fact, as part of the Reformed Protestant tradition has always said, the gift of faith is actually God’s to give. So even trusting in the promises that God makes to us through Jesus, that’s a work of God itself.
Bonhoeffer wanted to bring that against the thinking self version. But at the same time, he was also sensitive towards the choosing self view of the world. And what he wanted to do was show that, really, part of God making himself known to us is drawing us out of ourselves and enabling us to make the right choices. He was very fond of Luther’s phrase “cor curvum in se”, which means “The heart turned in on itself”, and he latched onto that in Luther’s writings to bring out in his own time—this is the early twentieth century—that it takes God breaking into our inwardness to draw us out of ourselves to enable us to make the kind of choices that actually matter—that is, faith in the promises of God and Jesus Christ.
TP: Because, in a sense, the whole problem of understanding ourselves from our own point of view—whether it’s as a thinking self or as a feeling/choosing self—the problem is, we’re just stuck with ourselves, isn’t it?
TP: I mean, who is the me who is thinking about me? And how, if I want to choose my best self and become my best self, how would I ever know what my best self is, since the only person who can make that judgement is myself?
TP: And what if the person—what if the self that is making that judgement actually isn’t a very good self? I mean, it seems to kind of—Luther’s phrase—it seems to turn around and in on itself, and we’re sort of trapped in this—
DH: Yeah, that’s right. We’re not only trapped in terms of our own resources to picture a self. What Luther pointed out as well is that, really, what the doctrine of sin teaches us is that even if we could come up with an ideal self, we wouldn’t choose it ourselves! I can’t even be the self I want to be.
TP: Even if we could conceive what that self was.
DH: Right. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s in—where, in one respect, both the thinking self and the choosing self are brought to grief.
TP: So now we really come to the key point: what was Bonhoeffer’s solution to the problem of the self?
DH: Bonhoeffer speaks about, in his Christology lectures, which were delivered towards the end of the 20s and the early 30s. He speaks about Christ being, really, the counter reason—that is, the reason of God against my thinking self. In short, what the gospel shows us is that Christ is the best person that I could be. He’s the one that God wants me to be. Which is my—that’s my ideal self from God’s perspective. Christ breaks his way in to my inward-looking self and says, “Here is God for you”. That draws us out of ourselves, but of course, the other thing about the gospel of the Lord Jesus—particularly from the perspective that Luther had put together in his “theology of the Cross” is that Christ is not only God for us, when we looked to Christ, we see ourselves condemned, because Christ is perfect. He is what we—more than what we couldn’t hope to have for ourselves—and in relation to Christ, we really just see our own sin. As Luther had said, we see the glory of God and the depravity of humanity in the crucified Christ—that all our idolatrous attempts to create a god in our own image are there on the cross of the battered and bloodied man. That’s actually all we can achieve.
So we have this accepting and condemning nature of God’s actions towards us to draw us out of ourselves. We see ourselves in relation to Christ, we see our sin—so we’re—that’s what brings us towards repentance. And yet, at the very moment, which would otherwise be utter despair, where I see that I can never aspire to or reach this perfect self in Jesus Christ, the words of the gospel are that Christ stands for me. “Pro me”, was the Latin term that Bonhoeffer used a lot. Christ is God for me. When I can’t be my ideal self, Christ is that self for me.
TP: And it’s—he also said, and I really—this struck me very forcibly when I first read Bonhoeffer—that when you come with the question, “How can I find the answer? How can I be a better me? How can I understand myself?”, Bonhoeffer says, “Wrong question. There is no way for you to—there is no ‘how’. There is only a ‘who’.”
TP: What did he mean by that?
DH: Well, Bonhoeffer was playing with the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, where the persecuting Pharisee is confronted by the Lord Jesus himself, and Jesus says to Paul—sorry, Paul says to this vision that he sees, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” What Bonhoeffer saw in that event was our confrontation with Jesus in the moment we might otherwise refer to as conversion, but instead of us asking the question, “Who are you, Lord?”, what Bonhoeffer inferred from this is really the question comes from Jesus himself to us: “Who are you? Who are you who is trying to be godlike? Who is true, who is trying to impress God? Who are you who is trying to construct this ideal self—this perfect way of being? Who do you think you are? You need to pay attention to me. I am God for you.” So the right question Bonhoeffer challenges us to consider—the right question to ask of God is Paul’s: “Who are you, Lord?”
TP: The “Who” question really does lead on to another question, and that is the “Where” question: where do we find or where do we confront this Jesus who tells us who we really are?
DH: And so, Christ asks the “Who” question in a particular place, and for Bonhoeffer, as with the New Testament, that place is the church. It’s in the church that I first hear the words of the gospel. It’s in the church that people pray for me—that I share the sacrament and hear the words, “You are forgiven”, and people pray with me and I with them, and I’m drawn out of myself, but not left in a vacuum or, kind of, floating around individualistically; I’m drawn out of myself and into the church where Christ confronts me in his people.
TP: This raises the question for me, though, what does David mean by the church and being confronted by Christ in the church? I mean, what about the Ethiopian eunuch, or Lydia beside the river, or even Paul himself on the Damascus road? They weren’t confronted by Christ in church, were they? They were confronted somewhere else.
DH: It’s a continuum, in one respect, that part of one of the things that Bonhoeffer was later to say about church is that Christ uses us Christians such that we might be Christ to another. In fact, part of discipleship—part of maturing in our trust in God’s promises—is to be Christ towards others. And so, whether it’s just the two of us here, or really that as a subset of a larger gathering of church, Christ is mediated as his people, the church, listen to his promises, read his word, say their prayers—Christ is present amongst the community. The individual events of evangelism are an extension of that.
TP: So what does this really mean for our lives? What does it mean for us, for example, if we haven’t really confronted who we are and what the Lord Jesus Christ says about who we are? What does it mean for us in that circumstance?
DH: In the first instance, the confrontation that the Lord Jesus brings to us when we’re considering our identity, who we are, is “You’re setting your bar too low.” That “You could have Christ—God towards us, forgiven in sin, gathered into his people—but you’re choosing less”. You’re choosing a figment of your own imagination in the first instance, getting back to the idea of the thinking self, trying to come up with an idea of what you think is your best self. But you’re doing that by yourself. Or borrowing it from others somehow, and therefore living with the second thing in terms of the choosing self—the struggle to choose the bits of an alternative identity that you could somehow work your way towards, but also living with the fact that even if you do decide on this, you’ll fail yourself. The confrontation in a positive sense that Christ brings to us, is “You’re choosing too little”. If you’re choosing that instead of the self that God offers you in Christ—the self that is in the right relationship with the Creator of the universe, which is—has the potential to be in a right relationship with another group of people, who all see themselves at your level and gather you into them so that you can be part of a body—a community, which is another buzz word of our modern era.
But the complement of that, of course, is that Christ sees through our attempts and in relationship to him, instead of comparing ourselves to the Ten Commandments, or even to the Golden Rule—whatever version of it we’re particularly prompted to live with—Christ is God presenting his best self to us. And we fall a long way short of that. People talk about Jesus being a great teacher or a, you know, a wise and holy man. Even those who say that kind of thing realise that you can’t actually keep up with Jesus. You can’t live his way before God with others, even if you wanted to by yourself. So we see—we gain the necessary insight into our own closedness. Not only have we been choosing the less than we could, we’re angrily fearfully caught in that forever—unless we confront God in Christ.
TP: For those who are—who have confronted God in Christ and have had their world changed and their selves drawn out of themselves, how do you think the down drag—the tendency to go back to that self-centred way of thinking manifests itself for Christian people—for people who have met Christ and who are in his community, and yet, at the same time, still struggle with their old self?
DH: In a number of different ways, I suppose. Firstly, we forget that we belong to Christ and we just live like pagans anyway. In a Christian way, we develop a personality—a particular Christian Facebook profile, if you like, with, you know, the little additions for the month—you know, “I’m in favour of martyrs”, or “I’m”—whatever the Jesus thing is this month for Christians on Facebook—
TP: To change their little profile picture to look like? Yeah.
DH: Yeah, that sort of thing. But at a deeper level, we—and Bonhoeffer and Luther in particular kind of press this on this—we turn to Jesus and then we want to help Jesus make us the best person that we can be. So we do good Christian things in order to present our best self—the self that goes to prayer meetings, and you’re the only person there with the senior pastor, because he has to go, you know. Or the—even the self who evangelises and who goes to church and sits down the front and looks active: I project that self as my best self.
But both of those things are actually slipping away from what God is presenting us in Christ. When we fail, as I mentioned before, and we will fail, we only succeed because Christ succeeds for us. That’s the promise of the gospel—that even in our wretched state, in our half-hearted attempts to be Christlike, it’s Christ succeeding for us first and last that enables us to live with God and with others. So even when I fail to pray, when I fail to know—do what I know is the godly thing to do, my hope, my assurance, my salvation remains in Christ, who is for me—God for me. What the gospel of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ presents us in terms of an identity is “It’s not what you do. It’s who you’re related to” and how that one person relates to you. My identity in the Lord Jesus is the result of how God relates to me in him. He stands for me, so that—he presents his righteousness to God where I fail. And he allows me to be considered righteous like he is before God. So I’m actually free.
This is one of the things that Luther spoke about in The Freedom of the Christian and Bonhoeffer tried to incorporate that into his Life Together was that being confronted by the Lord Jesus as the true self for us, means that we’re freed from all these attempts—all these constantly failing attempts—even our best ones are actually freed from self construction—freed to be relating rightly to God our Father, but also, of course, in this place—the where of who we are, in church—a healthy church is the kind of place where people serve freely. They offer what God has given them to each other as a gift of grace because they are Christ towards each other, and you’re free to be the kind of person that church provides you the context to be. It’s who you’re related to that is your identity in Christ.
TP: David Höhne will be speaking at our first Centre for Christian Living event for 2017 on March 8 at Moore College: “On find your best self: What the twentieth century’s most famous martyr has to teach us about personal aspiration”. I hope you can join us. It should be a wonderful event. Just go to our website: that’s ccl.moore.edu.au for all the information and to register and buy tickets.
A special thanks to Karen Beilharz, my assistant here at CCL; to Luke Payne and Slow Nomad for the music; and to you, for listening to this, our first podcast. Look forward to talking to you next time. Bye for now!