Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Self-Identity in a Protean Age

"The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way: 'Since, then, faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does such faith originate? The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments' (Question 65). On one side, we are faced with the naturalist or Pelagian, who sees religion as little more than morality. A Christian is simply someone who has made a decision to submit to the life-style Jesus models. On the other side, we face the enthusiast, who sees religion in terms of private experience that requires no mediation through the preached Word, the truth of the Gospel proclaimed in clear doctrinal and historical terms. However these two types may seem contradictory, they both represent the 'Nicodemus syndrome,' the desire to attain salvation by the flesh rather than to be given salvation by the Spirit. The liberal Protestant cannot see the kingdom of God because it is heavenly and things heavenly are regarded as simply out of bounds for real knowledge, while the enthusiast cannot see the kingdom of God because he or she insists on climbing up into heaven instead of receiving the Word who has come down to earth and is made known in earthy forms of ink and paper, human speech, water, bread and wine.

After leading off his famous Institutes with the quote cited in the beginning of this article, Calvin observes that it is impossible to contemplate self-identity apart from God. First, God is our Creator in whom 'we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28). And yet, we can begin also with ourselves and before long we realize that we are not only created with amazing dignity, but sinking in 'miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us.' 'Thus,' writes Calvin, 'from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and--what is more--depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.' This leads us once more to contemplate God:

we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves . . . Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy--this pride is innate in all of us--unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity.

Theology, not psychology; the external Word, not internal self-identity, must give us our definition. We are created, not self-creating; sinners, not innocent spirits; redeemed in Christ, not striving after our own selfhood.

So what does this have to do with the Protean self, the tendency we have described above? Actually, it has a great deal of relevance. First, the answer to the perpetual, anxious, and feverish process of constantly re-inventing our 'self' is met with the realization that our self-identity is not something we achieve, but something we are given."

Dr. Michael S. Horton, Who Am I...Really? (The "New Self" in an Age of Self-Transformation), Modern Reformation Nov/Dec 1996 (italics original).

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