The church has long wrestled to marry the idea of faith with the reality of the self. Most of us have heard Jesus’ injunction to his followers found in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke: anyone who would be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. We’ve been struggling to interpret that ever since he said it. I’m not sure we’ve been successful.
Churches often deal with the issue by terming the self as bad, encouraging the faithful to purge themselves of their selves. That quest has ranged through pseudo-Calvinist purity culture, Catholic monasticism, and everything in between. It’s a dangerous idea for a few reasons.
1. We can never really get rid of our selves. Otherwise, who is the person doing the “getting rid of”? When we try to “deny self” in that way, we replace it with whatever we’ve latched onto without admitting that new thing also involves the self. We call the new thing “universal”, but it’s really just the old self in different clothes. This is how people end up claiming that everybody else operates on “culture” or “misguided information” but THEY operate by “universal truth”. That universal truth is still spoken by a misguided, enculturated self. Denying that the self exists doesn’t actually deny the self, but give it free rein to do whatever it wants without being examined critically. It puts the self at the apex of the universe, in place of God. (Ironic, isn’t it?)
2. Churches like this definition of self-denial, because the church itself wants to be the new, universal, unquestioned truth the self latches onto. How many churches operate on exactly that principle? “Everything else in your life is relative and mistaken, but the thing we offer is universal and unshakable?”
3. This impulse leads to putting down everyone who doesn’t “deny the self” and subscribe to the “universal truth” the church offers. This includes people whose selves are already battered: victims of abuse, people of various orientations, the economically disadvantaged, women and non-binary folks, and more. The empowered people say, “If you won’t deny your ‘self’ and call it wrong, we will call it wrong for you.” This does incalculable damage to people outside and inside the church. Universal truth becomes conflated with abuse and denigration, as does God.
The idea that “denying yourself” means calling everything the self does wrong, then claiming the self is vanquished, is just plain wrong. It’s a position of the privileged and powerful, spending a little bit of their “self” collateral in order to exert control over less-privileged neighbors while retaining superior status.
Few people on earth would claim that their self is perfect. Not one of us is capable of ridding ourselves of our selves. Not everybody needs to hear that their self is terrible either. Some people have heard that way too much. We need an interpretation of the gospel that admits the reality of the self, and maybe even affirms the self, without denying Jesus’ injunction to follow him in exactly the way he said.
As it turns out, that is a possibility. We’re going to explore what that looks like in our next post.