Religion and the Self
Towards the end of Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis he made an important insight about religion and the self.
Leary’s analysis shows why the self is a problem for all major religions: The self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement, in three ways. First, the constant stream of trivial concerns and egocentric thoughts keeps people locked in the material and profane world, unable to perceive sacredness and divinity. This is why Eastern religions rely heavily on meditation, an effective means of quieting the chatter of the self. Second, spiritual transformation is essentially the transformation of the self, weakening it, pruning it back—in some sense, killing it—and often the self objects. Give up my possessions and the prestige they bring? No way! Love my enemies, after what they did to me? Forget about it. And third, following a spiritual path is invariably hard work, requiring years of meditation, prayer, self-control, and sometimes self-denial. The self does not like to be denied, and it is adept at finding reasons to bend the rules or cheat. Many religions teach that egoistic attachments to pleasure and reputation are constant temptations to leave the path of virtue. In a sense, the self is Satan, or, at least, Satan’s portal.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 207). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Our Culture and the Self
Our culture is doing some funny and contradictory things with respect to the self.
1. In California the interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age ideas continue to be popular. These religious ideas center around dealing with the self by saying it’s illusory, noting how its excesses are destructive, and offering practices to control, abandon or annihilate it. I note, however, that most who are fascinated with these ideas don’t seem to do much with them practically. They are often wonderful good and moral people but seem as committed to their self and the selves the love as anyone. We see little of the kinds of spiritual athletes abandoning their selves like we might see in the Far East.
2. The New Atheists are in some ways in alignment at least with the practices of skepticism about the self. According to Harris and other materialists the self is a creation of our brains, stories made up by our large minds in order to give us a sense of meaning. There is no meaning apart from what we experience and the stories themselves are, as in Buddhism illusory.
3. Politically Libertarians are hot. Libertarians are of course people whose political expression elevates the self. The self ought to be free to pursue its desires. This is their definition of “liberty”, their highest value. Selves should be as free as possible unless they harm others selves. (Again see Haidt’s thoughts on moral taste receptors.)
The Divine Conspiracy
I believe I first read Dallas Willards The Divine Conspiracy in 1999. I was deeply impacted by the book I recall. I decided to re-read it now some 15 years later and see how it sits again with me. This passage today struck me.
Unlike egotism, the drive to significance is a simple extension of the creative impulse of God that gave us being. It is not filtered through self-consciousness any more than is our lunge to catch a package falling from someone’s hand. It is outwardly directed to the good to be done. We were built to count, as water is made to run downhill . We are placed in a specific context to count in ways no one else does. That is our destiny.
Our hunger for significance is a signal of who we are and why we are here, and it also is the basis of humanity’s enduring response to Jesus. For he always takes individual human beings as seriously as their shredded dignity demands, and he has the resources to carry through with his high estimate of them.
Willard, Dallas (2009-02-06). The Divine Conspiracy (p. 15). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
A bit later he has this to say about the Imago Dei
But it is nevertheless true that we are made to “have dominion” within an appropriate domain of reality. This is the core of the likeness or image of God in us and is the basis of the destiny for which we were formed. We are, all of us, never-ceasing spiritual beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God’s great universe.
Our “kingdom” is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we genuinely have the say over is in our kingdom. And our having the say over something is precisely what places it within our kingdom. In creating human beings God made them to rule, to reign, to have dominion in a limited sphere. Only so can they be persons.
Willard, Dallas (2009-02-06). The Divine Conspiracy (p. 21). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
You can see the contours of his assertions about the self
- The self is one of God’s greatest gifts to us
- The self was made to rule over its proper domain
- Selves must be respected
- Meaning and the self go together
- Jesus radically changed the conversation asserting individual selves had value and meaning.
It reminds me of a comment by Luc Ferry in his History of Philosophy.
Finally, there are in Christian thought, above all in the realm of ethics, ideas which are of great significance even today, and even for non-believers; ideas which, once detached from their purely religious origins, acquired an autonomy that came to be assimilated into modern philosophy . For example, the idea that the moral worth of a person does not lie in his inherited gifts or natural talents, but in the free use he makes of them, is a notion which Christianity gave to the world, and which many modern ethical systems would adopt for their purposes. It would be obtuse to try and pass from the Greek experience to modern philosophy without any mention of Christian thought.
Ferry, Luc (2011-12-27). A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (p. 58). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Christian argument is at once very simple and very powerful. It says the following: there is indisputable proof that the talents bestowed by nature are not intrinsically virtuous, that they are in no sense inherently moral, because, without exception, they can be employed as much for ill as for good. Strength, beauty, intelligence – all natural gifts received at birth – are self-evidently qualities , but not on a moral plane. You can use your strength, your beauty or your intelligence to commit the most wicked crime, and you demonstrate by this alone that there is nothing inherently virtuous about natural gifts. Therefore, you can choose what use to make of them, whether good or bad, but it is the use that is moral or immoral, not the gifts themselves. ‘Free will’ becomes the determining factor of the morality of an action. With this idea, Christianity revolutionised the history of thought. For the first time in human history, liberty rather than nature had become the foundation of morality. At the same time , the idea of the equal dignity of all human beings makes its first appearance: and Christianity was to become the precursor of modern democracy .
Ferry, Luc (2011-12-27). A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (p. 74). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Self Isn’t Going Away
I think the self is here to stay.