This article is based on a talk given at the CCL evening, “How to find your best self”.
Who am I to Jesus Christ?
I’d like to begin with an observation made by the cultural historian Christopher Lasch:
The proliferation of visual auditory images in a “society of the spectacle” as it has been described, encourage[s] a … kind of preoccupation with the self. People now respond … to others as if their actions [are] being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. The[se] prevailing conditions thus [bring] out narcissistic personality traits that were present in everyone.1
It’s not hard to image what Lasch is writing about. Surely he’s another grumpy old man, complaining about social media in general and probably Facebook in particular. He will engage in lots of literary eye-rolling about the estimated 1.8 billion self-portraits that appear on Instagram, Snapchat or WhatsApp each day. Like the parents of any teenager, he’ll no doubt bemoan the fact that young adults spent up to a third of their waking lives staring at their smartphones, where all these images are kept. Finally, he’ll move onto the more general “It wasn’t like that in my day” bellyaching about unicorn aspirations, staggering lack of empathy and a breathtaking sense of entitlement. That is, after all, what the selfie generation is about, isn’t it?
You might expect all this from a middle-aged white male—until, that is, you find out that Lasch’s observations were published in 1979, 24 years before Facebook went public, 28 years before the first iPhone and at least three years before the vast majority of those who might otherwise be described as “millennial” were even born.
Our cultural obsession with the self
Lasch’s observations are about our cultural obsession with the self, and they predate social media because, for the last 200 years, the western way of conceiving truth, beauty and goodness has been grounded in the activities of the individual. Our social media is merely a megaphone for our modern anthem, “I did it my way…”
This all started around the middle of the 1600s, when the French philosopher René Descartes came to prominence in the salons of Paris through his attempts to reason his way to absolute truth. As a rational sceptic, Descartes conducted a thought experiment in which he tried doubting everything—every possible source of truth—until he came to the realisation that the only thing he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he was doubting or thinking. So he concluded “cogito ergo sum”—“I doubt/think, therefore I am”.
Now that may not sound like the most groundbreaking discovery of the ages. But for Europeans living in the shadow of the Thirty Years’ War—one of the continent’s bloodiest periods of religious violence—people were heartily sick of absolute claims backed by religious authority or divine mandate. A new way needed to be found whereby the truth of the world could be available to anyone, and it appeared that Descartes had come to the rescue. From now on, any rational person could determine truth beauty and goodness for themselves simply by using the powers of reason. The thinking self displaced God in the western mind as the means by which all the problems of human society could be solved.
The thinking self had the power to comprehend the laws of nature, the music of the spheres and the good life. From here, the Enlightenment tapers were lit with an explosion of advances in mathematics, astronomy, natural sciences and the arts. A whole new way of encountering the world was on offer for the reasonable, thinking individual.
While Descartes’ philosophy was widely influential throughout Europe at the time, not everyone was happy with all of the consequences. For instance, Descartes’ rational approach to the universe had a distinctly mechanistic or machine-like feel to it that impinged upon, or at least undermined, the newly found sense of freedom that people had over the world.
In 1687, Isaac Newton’s Principia was first published, and in a single stroke, humankind achieved the ability to show that things that occurred in the heavens operated on the same laws as things that happened on the earth. Newton’s theories added to this picture of an entirely predictable, if not mechanical, view of the universe that gave the thinking self the ability to control nature.
Enter the Romantics during an era of political revolution with slogans of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, along with their general aversion to mechanistic views of life and, later, naturalistic determinism. Romantics drew great inspiration from the rugged individualists of history and, ultimately, the geniuses that appear in every age—whether they be Homer, Aristotle or Leonardo da Vinci. Learning and education were worthy, but the genius inspired them, because he was truly original—in line with their desire for new beginnings. The genius had imagination unbounded, but also the ability to mediate to us through his art something of the divine spark that dwelled within.
More generally in Germany, and thanks to a heritage of Pietism mixed with the Protestant work ethic, the cultivated man or woman worked on developing their Bildung—that innate drive towards perfection—their self-image. This was somehow akin to evolution for the person, yet it was still governed by the will of the meditative soul.
The Romantic self is the choosing self. One of the most enduringly influential proponents of the choosing self was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard focussed on the importance of individuals exercising their will over and against the homogenising nature of modern culture. From his pen flowed eventually the existentialist movements of the 20th century, with their catchcries of personal authenticity and the relentless necessity for individual freedom.
Of course, the struggle for personal liberty in such an environment made self-expression and self-determination not at all a forgone conclusion. So the Romantics wandered in the forests or trekked through mountains, seeking new experiences and authentic expression of old ones. Even failing in all this gained a certain Romantic integrity, with tragedy and melancholy sitting highest atop their list of virtues.
Bonhoeffer and the self
It is from within the context of modern Romantic German culture that we find the star of tonight’s show: theologian, conspirator and martyr—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Born February 4, 1906 as the fourth and youngest son to a rising young Professor of Psychiatry and a highly artistic mother with aristocratic pedigree, Bonhoeffer’s formative years were aesthetic, intellectual and urbane.
Schooled by the best that Kaiser Wilhelm’s state had to offer, and on the cusp of manhood, the young Bonhoeffer followed the great Romantic pilgrimage trail to Rome. Despite not wandering through darkened forests, nor trekking through rugged Alps, the young would-be theologian ascended the stairs of St Peter’s to behold all the marvellous pomp of a Vatican Palm Sunday celebration. Amid the vast throng of peoples tribes and nations gathered there, Bonhoeffer recalls a moment of revelation as he glimpsed for the first time a truly universal church and his own particular place in it.
The concept of the self and its place in the church was a consistent theme throughout all of Bonhoeffer’s major writings: his doctoral dissertation entitled “The Communion of the Saints”, his habilitation entitled Act and Being and his unfinished Ethics all interacted, one way, or another with modernity’s quest for the authentic or best self. In an age where maintaining our personal brand via the hyperreality of social media can be a full-time occupation, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Christ, the church and the self are a welcome reality check.
For Bonhoeffer, to know God is to know ultimate reality. What is real cannot be abstractly separated from God, but “the real has its reality only in God”.2 One knows the reality of the world when it is understood in relation to God. Furthermore, “the reality of God is not just another idea”,3 for the reality of God has revealed and testified to itself in the centre of the real world: “In Jesus Christ the reality of God has been received in the reality of this world”.4 What may seem like a circularity is explained by his contention that it is not possible to speak of either the reality of God or the reality of the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. Here’s a quote from the Ethics:
In Christ the offers meets us, to receive a share in the reality of God and the reality of the world, together, not one without the other. The reality of God opens itself in the same way that it puts me completely in the reality of the world. However I find the reality of the world always, already borne, adopted and reconciled in the reality of God.5
It is in the person of Christ that the reality of God and the reality of the world are met at the same time. The key thing to note here is the concept of “being met in Christ.” If we want to understand the reality of ourselves in the world, then the first question to ask is “Who?”, but not so much “Who am I?”
In his early work Act and Being, Bonhoeffer was especially concerned to establish how we ought to speak about knowledge within the context of a western philosophy dominated by self-consciousness—whether it was the thinking self or the choosing self that we are talking about. In Bonhoeffer’s assessment, regardless of whether one starts with the thinking self or the choosing self, human rationality is unable to conceive appropriately the truth about the world and its meaning.
If we try to understand truth from the perspective of the “thinking self”, writes Bonhoeffer, “Epistemology is the attempt of the I to understand itself. I reflect on myself; I and myself move apart and come together again”.6 We understand ourselves from within the limits of our own reason. Yet approached this way, says Bonhoeffer, the self is “constantly directed in reference to itself, without ever being able to get to itself”.7 It is like a snake trying to swallow itself. Our attempts to understand ourselves purely from the perspective of ourselves must collapse because individually we are not self-subsistent, but always “in reference to” some other. The autonomous thinking self ends up being locked inside its own reason, completely cut off from anything objective: we can’t get outside ourselves to judge ourselves by any standard since there is no other standard than ourselves.
If we try to understand the truth of our existence from the perspective of the “choosing self”, the reality of the world comes before the existence of the self—or at least thinking about the self. The challenge, then, is how the choosing self will grasp or comprehend that reality. In short and in sympathy with the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, Bonhoeffer writes that the choosing self “stumbles across itself … in a world. It is ever already in a world …”8 But this means that there is really nothing to choose: the world always and already exists, and while the choosing self might choose not to be in the world, it has no power over its appearance in the world. Another way of looking at it is to say that our absolute freedom over the world is severely limited by our lack of ability to choose when and how we come into the world—to be born.
In the final analysis, Bonhoeffer concludes that both the thinking self and the choosing self have the same outcome: “The I understands itself from itself, in a closed system”.9 The modern self is, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, “cor curvum in se”—the heart turned in on itself. The self cannot get out of itself to reach the truth. Instead, it must be met by Christ and placed into the truth. Not only is the self separated from God and the world, it has no way of reversing the situation alone. In this station, the self is constantly tempted by the question, “How can I be placed in the truth about God and the world?” But a better question, according to Bonhoeffer, is “Who?” Who will place the self into the truth about God and the world?
Christ the Gegenlogos
In his 1932 lectures on Christology, Bonhoeffer continues to attack the modern concept of the thinking self establishing truth about the world for itself. He does this by describing Christ as the Gegenlogos—the counter reason that confronts human rationality as its conqueror and judge: “I am the Truth, I am the death of human rationality, I am the life of God’s reason, I am the first and the last,” writes Bonhoeffer of Christ.10
Christ as Gegenlogos overwhelms the confines of human rationality such that the only appropriate response from the aspiring self is that of Paul on the road to Damascus: “Who are you?” Christ the Gegenlogos refuses to be classified and hence encapsulated by human reason—even though human reason continues to seek for the conditions of possibility. Hence the risen, living Christ turns the question back on his examiner: “Who are you, then, that you so ask? Are you in the truth that you so ask? Who are you, you who can only ask about me, because through me, you are the justified, the divinely gifted?” The autonomous self is confronted out of the truth by the one who is ultimately the Truth.
Christ becomes a boundary over which human rationality cannot cross. The autonomous individual is displaced from the position of ordering reality in her own way, because she meets Christ: “For me, in my place, where I should stand”.11 As he stands in the individual’s place, Christ becomes the limit of her existence:
He stands at the boundary of my existence and still in my place. That is an expression for the fact that I am separated from the I that I should be by an inexceedable boundary. The boundary lies between my old and new I, thus in the centre between me and me. As the boundary Christ is at the same time my recovered centre.12
In Bonhoeffer’s schema, Christ meets the individual as the person in the right place with God and exposes the individual’s closedness towards God—that is, that they have displaced God as the centre of meaning and truth in the world.
To our culturally sensitive ears, Bonhoeffer’s portrait of Christ the counter reason confronting the self seems aggressive to the point of violence. Where are the trigger warnings, I hear you say? What about some safe space for the self from Christ? But Christ does not confront me in order to cut me off from the truth—from God. Instead, Christ confronts me pro me, as Bonhoeffer describes it—“for me”. He is the one who mediates the possibility of a new creation to a present experience in fallenness.
Not only that, he mediates God to the individual and the individual to God. Christ is more than I as an individual can be for myself before God and, at the same time, all that I need to be with God. As pro me, Christ brings the knowledge of ultimate reality to us and for us as gift.
In the end, Christ confronts the modern self and drags it out into the open light of God’s grace. “What happens here?” when the individual meets Christ. Bonhoeffer writes,
An ultimate thing, a touching of no human being, doing or suffering. The dark human life, barred from inside and outside, always deep in an abyss and hopelessness, losing itself in the pit, is torn open with power, the word of God breaks in; the human recognises God and the neighbour for the first time in redeeming light.13
The cor curvum in se invaded by Christ is “torn out of the imprisonment in one’s own I, liberated in Jesus Christ”.14 The individual is given the gift of faith in the offer “to receive a share in the reality of God and the reality of the world together, not one without the other”.15
Bonhoeffer’s description has a strongly apocalyptic feel, as autonomous reason is confronted with its inadequacy not by looking at itself, but by recognising God as the redeemer of its closedness in Christ. In a manner highly reminiscent of Luther’s “theology of the Cross”, Bonhoeffer describes “human glory coming to its ultimate end [letzten Ende] in the image of the battered, bleeding, spat-upon crucified one”.16 Here on the cross, God shows me what my aspirations for a best self actually achieve: the death of his Son.
The autonomous self is confronted with its closedness—its sin—in the form of the crucified Christ. His broken and bloodied form is the limit of our aspirations—all that we could be for ourselves. Whether it is the thinking self or the choosing self, they are both locked into a downward spiral of closedness to God that is revealed in all its horror by God in the crucified Christ.
Our best self
In the final analysis, Bonhoeffer’s encouragement to us of the Selfie generation is that our best self is a gift of God in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. The resurrected Christ is the ultimate in human existence—the absolute pinnacle of all that we might dare to be. And God keeps him for us as the promise—the risen Christ is kept in trust for us until the day of his return. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christian life means being human in the power of Christ’s becoming human”17—being judged and pardoned in the power of the cross, living a new life in the power of the resurrection.
The end of my quest for truth as either the thinking self or the choosing self is put before me in Jesus Christ. In the midst of my aspirations, from before my strivings began and long after I have the energy to continue, God presents the offer to me of a self re-opened, reconditioned and reinstalled in the world with God and with my neighbour. The offer comes when I am met by Jesus the Christ as the centre of my existence. I see now who I am to Jesus Christ.
1 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, Norton, New York, 1979, p. 239.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethik, p. 35. All quotations from Bonhoeffer are my own translations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (DBW), unless otherwise indicated.
3 Ibid., p. 39.
5 Ibid., p. 40.
6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Akt und Seen, p. 27.
7 Ibid., p. 31.
8 Ibid., p. 64.
9 Ibid., p. 71.
10 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christologie”, p. 282.
11 Ibid., p. 306.
13 Ethik, p. 137.
14 Ibid., p. 138.
15 Ibid., p. 40.
16 Ibid., p. 150.
17 DBWE 6:159.