Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Just Clark Kent

A very large amount of human suffering and frustration is caused by the fact that many men and women are not content to be the sort of beings that God has made them, but try to persuade themselves that they are really beings of some different kind.
— Eric Mascall, The Importance of Being Human

Born in 1965, I have been steeped from toddlerhood in the popular culture of "finding yourself", "knowing yourself" and "loving yourself" (remember that song: "Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all"? Sorry…). It is, for most of us, whether or not we like it, the bottom line of our age: how will this affect me?

It’s absolutely right for the church to denounce this obsession. Where the self and its shifting desires become king – in politics or art, in business or family or sexuality – we must say "No. Our final obligation is not to the Self. It is to the One who made us." However, after I’ve made this brave assertion (even if only in the face of some annoying pop-culture proclamation, perhaps the song quoted above) I still must go home at night and look in my mirror. Whose face do I see? Do I see a shadow, a ghostly figure that reminds me vaguely of my wedding pictures, with the Face of Jesus hovering behind it, a sort of fleshly Shroud of Turin? No. Bummer. I see just myself.

Frankly, I’m quite sick of myself. I used to be an interesting person, you know, when I was younger. I did interesting things; I had interesting friends; I saw interesting movies and read interesting books and could have an interesting conversation with you about them. But that’s all over now. A few years ago, about the time I turned thirty-five, I came to the end of myself.
Well, that’s not quite accurate. I actually have rather a habit of coming to the end of myself.

I have strong opinions about most things and enjoy articulating them, but as time goes by and one learns the multiplicity in the world of mere opinions, and how the strong articulation of them, while necessary, seldom actually changes anything, one becomes tired. In other words: how many people there are in the world! How much we talk, and talk, and talk, and so what? So periodically I would come to the end of myself in relation to a certain issue or relationship, realizing thusly: "God, I am weary of trying and trying to untie this knot. I can’t do it. I cast myself on your mercy! Untie this knot!" Adding, of course, or merely assuming, "Make me a better knot-untier!"

Casting myself on the Lord (I think of it more as throwing myself at God) is good. I do it a lot – I’ve become proficient at tossing up my hands and crying "Yo, God, your move!" It’s what I expect from this process that has tended, over many years, to become unrealistic: that God would transform me, on my schedule, into his Warrior, his Intercessor, his Charger, his Shining Example of Ideal Christian Living. Like Clark Kent slipping into a phone booth and Superman, blue-tighted, leaping out.

Because of course when I look in the mirror at night I don’t see the Shining Example. I see, ever and anon, ad nauseum, only myself. Maybe a little more patient? A little more faithful? A little less proud? I hope so. But so what? I mean, is this the deal? When, all around me, Christians are living the Victorious Life, conquering Sin and Satan, bringing Revival sweeping across the world, or so it appears, and here’s just my stupid bathroom mirror and…me.

That’s the unfortunate glitch in our plans: the person I become, as I live in relationship with Christ, is, for better or worse, me. The true me. The delightful key to the Christian understanding of the self we’re stuck with, however, is that we do not become this "true self" by building it, praying for it, digging obsessively for it in the past, seeking it in the present or planning meticulously for it in the future. I become my true self by turning the eyes of my heart away from myself and turning my heart’s gaze toward God. The watched pot, as they say, never boils; I must forget myself.

As with most Christian principles, there's a tension to be maintained here. I do not, must not, forget or forgo the fact of self. I am me, you are you, and at no point in this life or the next are we going to merge into some sort of collective consciousness or oversoul. God made us to be ourselves in eternity; individual personality is not a curse, but a mysterious and glorious blessing. It is what makes human relationships, human care and charity, social justice and peace, so much a part of our faith. People are inviolable selves created by God to be themselves. To recognize and protect the individuality of every human is therefore a Christian thing to do.

On the other hand, I must never forget or forgo the fact of the Fall. In the Garden, things went horribly awry. In the words of Hawkeye Pierce, the cheese slid off its cracker. Every human being has been inordinately proud of the "self" ever since. The fallen self wants, in the end, to be God over the rest of the selves. Listen to pop radio for half an hour to hear the litany of ways in which we wish to be God. The Lover in the pop song wants to be breath and life, meaning and magic and all-in-all to the Beloved, or somehow the relationship is less than sufficient.

After the Fall, the inviolable, God-created self, wishing to be God, took its gift and ran, like the Prodigal Son fleeing into the city with pockets full of his Dad’s credit cards. If the self is free, it must be admitted that it is free to both bow down and worship God and roll around in pig slop. The doctrine of original sin says that, when left to ourselves, we invariably choose the pig slop.

So we must hold in tension these two truths: the self, as a creation, is good, as all creation is good. The self is also, however, corrupt, as a result of the Fall. A failure to adequately take into account either of these truths lands us in very hot water.

Too much emphasis on the Fall and its corrupting effects, while not common in our day, can happen, with disastrous results. The flesh (the physical body and the thoughts and imaginings of the human mind) is dung, says this view. The self, the individual personality (and the body, as far as it is possible) must be eradicated in favour of some predetermined Ideal Christian. This is the little misstep that's led a lot of people, in days of old, into codependent relationships with their cats o’nine tails. The "humans are dung" school of thought, however, denies the wisdom of God the Creator’s original intention, the physical world he created and himself pronounced "good".

Too much emphasis on the glorious possibilities of the self, however, leads to the narcissism typified by the nineteen-seventies (and movie reviews containing vile phrases like "the triumph of the human spirit"). This emphasis assumes that, given enough time, money, therapy, prayer, education, tantric sex, night-school classes, Bible study, twelve-step meetings, whatever, the self can be taught or transformed into an ideal state. We are, somehow, perfectible. The implication being, of course, that we are, or can become, somehow free of the effects of original sin by our own elbow grease and/or genius.

This is kind of like expecting a cancerous tumour to make a fine incision from the inside and remove itself. Jeremiah chides the false prophets of Israel for this: "They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious." (Jeremiah 6:14, NIV) We end up applying Band-Aids – how-to books and aromatherapy, perhaps – where there ought to be amputation: contrition and repentance.

Every age, every manifestation of the church, has lived out its own distortion of this balance, from extremes of self-mutilation and degradation to opposite extremes of indulgence, hedonism and the deification of human reason and feeling.

At the moment it seems to me that much of the North American church labours under the error of self-perfection. We couch it in jargon, of course, calling it "inner healing", "spiritual victory" or "spiritual empowerment", all of which, in the proper context, are good things. In practice, however, this too often means programs designed to eradicate our falleness by our own efforts. If not our falleness, then at least our individuality.

We create a template: a Christian "lifestyle" that all must adopt or risk being considered "carnal" or a "backslider". In one church this lifestyle may include obligatory attendance at a steady stream of the "right" revival meetings, seminars or conferences; at another church it may require strict adherence to a dress code and abstention from alcohol, movies and card games. It matters little. The point is that our template, our ideal, is an artificial one that produces not godliness of character, but mere homogeneity.

Because of course there was once the Ideal Man, and not many of us are trying to emulate his outward lifestyle. It would involve selling all our possessions, becoming homeless beggars, itinerant preachers, political revolutionaries, religious rebels and eventual martyrs. Our true template is not made up of the outward, cultural details of Jesus’ life, but is his perfect obedience to God the Father. This I can strive and pray toward in all circumstances, regardless of my personality or culture – I can live to be obedient to the Father.

Indeed, God himself is the only one in whose hands I can (and must) safely put my individuality, because he promises neither to erase my personality nor transform me into a cookie-cutter churchgoer. He will cause me, through all my attempts to obey him, to become my true self -- the self I will be for all eternity.

In the end there is no Superman, or not in the mortal ranks, anyway. Our "Superman" lived on earth, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again, and sits on the right hand of God the Father. Only this Hero is required.

And we must, while we are pointing our hearts toward God and praying for him to transform us, keep up a small, secondary struggle to resist the subtle social conformity around us and remain relentlessly ourselves. It’s the "me in the mirror" that God made and with whom he wants to be have a relationship, not any church-sanctioned Super-me who is, in the end, a character as fictional as Superman.

I’m still, at the moment, rather sick of myself, but so what? It’s not my job to be an influential, successful, interesting, acceptable person. It’s my job to obey God. The rest is his business, and he promises that the one who loses his life shall save it. I find rest in this promise, and find there freedom to follow him, not as a Billy Graham or a Mother Theresa or even a Clark Kent (I’m claustrophobic about phone booths), but as plain old face-in-the-mirror, myself.

There are miracles, of course. Transformation and growth happen. But they come about, in our God’s wonderful topsy-turvy way, not by condemning the fallible face in the mirror and determining, with gritted teeth or with a sigh of resignation, to make it better. They arrive in the midst of quiet obedience, of patient service and guileless vulnerability, and they arrive not because of this obedience, patience, or vulnerability, but because the One who promised is faithful, and He will do it.