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Self-Love: A Neo-Pagan Practice in the Absence of Christ

Self-Centeredness:

The craze over self-love has flooded our society as well as our social media platforms, and not without good intention. The rise of mental health and the need to stabilize the self amid a polarization in culture wars is anarchic to say the least. In a post-Christian nation, no longer can the individual be anchored upon truths found within theism. The neopagan thrust of individualism which surfaced amid the wake of a cultural shift has found a wave of acceptance with evangelicalism unable to shake its influence. As the church historian Carl R. Trueman traces in his new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, “Self-creation is a routine part of our modern social imaginary.”[1] Meaning, self-love is truly emphasizing upon its core tenant, the self.


Godward Gaze:


The church historic, however, has thought long and hard about the premise of mankind. Divine revelation has led the way in capturing the true essence of the self in light of God’s redemptive work in the economy of creation. The Psalmist engages in self-evaluation with the Creator God as his basis while the North African theologian Augustine cuts against his cultural milieu in his seminal work Confessions. The famous Reformer from Geneva John Calvin, in grasping at God and the self, enunciates masterfully by saying, “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.”[2] The church historically has been well postured to analyze the self with sufficient and a well authentic metric, the Scriptures.


Thus, the premise of this article will look to provide a theological response to the cultural ploy toward self-love and assess the definitions that seek to anchor its movement. The task, then, will look at three central points: (1) the image of God, (2) man’s dependency, and (3) the necessity for the self to look outside themselves.


Made in the Image and Likeness of God. Being created in His image has significant implications in understanding the purpose and intent of the self. Humanity is not fundamentally autonomous, striving toward an ambiguous self-actualization built upon the whims of cultural relativity. Rather as creatures, we are created with design and purpose pointing toward the Creator and Designer Himself. As Matthew S. Harmon rightly articulates, “God’s purpose for humanity is to reflect His glorious beauty by filling the earth and ruling over creation as His vice regents.”[3] The metaphors of image (Heb. tselem) and likeness (Heb. demuth) presuppose, then, an archetype which the bible would articulate as being God. That is; the definitional component in identifying humanity’s telos cannot be found in and of themselves. This prerogative is anchored, secured, and reserved for the Creator God Himself.[4]


Therefore, humanity functions like a mirror whose purpose is to reflect forth the beauty and majesty of the One to whom they image. To pursue “self-love” at the expense of the triune God is not only harmful to the self—for the self cannot bear the weight of that responsibility—but it produces an idolatrous aim which is worthy of just, divine condemnation. Worldly self-love, then, perpetuates anxiety by placing the onus upon a mechanism that was not designed to carry the full force of meaning and purpose. It is like the fool who builds his house upon the sand; it initially displays an outer beauty but, in time, will exhibit a lack of substance, assurance, and foundation (Matt. 7:24-27; Lk. 6:47-49).


Our Purpose is Derivative. Prosperity within the created order, then, must be subjugated to the divine law of God.[5] God governs His creation through His law and, thus, to submit to the law of creation (ex. procreation, marriage, the good of neighbor, etc.; Rom. 1:20-21) is, ultimately, to submit to the Creator/Designer. Human flourishing, whether internal or external, cannot be appropriated outside God’s law; that is, a right understanding and, hence, a fitting expression of the self is intrinsically tied to a right and proper relationship with the Creator. John M. Frame is helpful when he says, “To know God (in the ‘fullest’ sense) is to know God obediently, to know Him as He wants to be known.”[6] Knowing, then, has an ethical charge; meaning, it produces moral obligation to the One to whom they know (cf. Rom. 1:21). Frame goes on to say, “Epistemology deals with the norms that govern thought. By seeing epistemology as a branch of ethics, we remind ourselves in the most vivid way that knowing is not autonomous; it is subject to God’s authority, as is all human life.”[7] The key part, for our purposes, is to stress that human life is not defined by the self. Rather, we know the purposes of life by aligning to God’s law for the world. Or said differently, our very existence and, hence, our very knowing derives from God Himself. We are fundamentally contingent beings. James K. A. Smith forcefully demonstrates this by saying,

In a strange and terrifying sense, the vocation of being human requires utter dependence on God; the task of being a creature requires being ordered to the Creator. Gathering as an answer to the call to worship is a displacement of any human self-confidence or presumption. Implicit in the very act of gathering is an understanding that human flourishing requires a dynamic relationship with the Creator of humanity; in short, worship is at the heart of being human.[8]

Therefore, self-love void of God’s law, or rather God Himself, is an abuse toward the self and a wicked act of treason against the Creator. “If you do not start with God,” writes Owen Strachan, “you will never comprehend man. If you do not begin with divine design, you can have no sure foundation for human dignity and human uniqueness at all.”[9] To love the self, then, is to look to the One whom the self was created for.


Looking Outside Ourselves. Though God has created humanity in His image and, thus, as a being with self-consciousness, the person is not built to look internally for the determination of life and existence. Rather, the person is to look outside Himself toward a greater being who in Himself obtains the capacity to govern those basic philosophical and theological questions and needs. Since, as was stated earlier, we are contingent being, we live dependently upon the Creator to speak and give meaning to His created order. Augustine famously said, “our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Him.”[10]


Therefore, the self is actualized not by looking at herself with deeper amazement and admiration. The self, however, finds contentment and wholeness by looking outside herself and onto the One who is the arbiter of life and truth (Jn. 14:6). Love, then, is not self-generated nor self-defined, but rather intrinsically and effectually God-seeking. Jesus Christ “came that [the self] may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10b; cf. Jn. 1:4; 11:25-26; 12:25-26; 15:5). True self love is a genuine, authentic, and salvific gaze at the author and perfecter of the faith (Heb. 12:2). Calvin helpfully writes on this notion by saying,

And so, when the Evangelist has put forward a general consideration of the grace of Christ, to persuade men to give it closer attention, He shows what was given to them in particular—that is, that they were not created in the likeness of the beasts but, endowed with reason, they held a higher rank. Furthermore, since God effectually illuminates their minds with His light, it follows that they were created to the end they might know that He is the author of such a unique blessing. And since this light streamed forth to us from the Word its source, it should be as a mirror in which we may see clearly the divine power of the Word.[11]

Christocentric Aim:


The uniqueness of self is like snowflakes upon wintery nights. Thousands upon thousands may fall and yet no one snowflake is the same as the other. The intrinsic patterns and off-shooting impressions truly represent the peculiarities of every single one. The magnificence, however, should not terminate upon the snowflakes themselves. Rather, the wander and majesty that surround the simplicity and complexity of each snowflake are designed to point toward something higher, something greater. Their design and layout speak to the creativeness, intelligence, and ingenuity of the Creator. To miss this point, then, is to truly miss the grandeur of the snowflake themselves. It is like marveling at the structure of a house without acknowledging the sophistication of the architect; or like gazing upon the beauty of a painting without acknowledging the skill and expertise of the painter. To truly appreciate creation one must recognize the profundity of the Creator. To truly love the self, one must be pointed toward the One to whom the self reflects.


In Christ creation has the One who unites the supernatural with the material universe and reconciles such conundrums. As Steven J. Duby writes,

Insofar as God remains incorporeal and invisible, this knowing or seeing is not a corporeal vision. It is an intellectual vision wrought by a 'light of glory,' a divine gift elevating our intellect and enabling us to know God intuitively. The intellectual vision or intuitive knowledge of God requires an assimilation or union of the human intellect with God's essence, but our natural intellect does not have the capacity to apprehend God without created media. For this reason, God grants a new power of understanding above our natural powers to strengthen and perfect the intellect, enabling us to see God in His essence.[12]

Simply put, it is in Christ where the bridge from creation to Creator is fortified and knowledge of true self is accessed. As Duby goes on to convey, "From the well of His own knowledge of God Christ gives us knowledge of God."[13] Thus, to genuinely and authentically love oneself, one must be in covenantal union to the Creator and Designer of the universe through Christ Jesus our Lord. It is from this well where we will drink, be filled, and be sustained with true knowledge of God and, therefore, true knowledge of self. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***

[1] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 42.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1.1.2.

[3] Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exile: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration, ESBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 9. Italics mine.

[4] See Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 35-39.

[5] I am using the term law here in regard to God’s created purposes for the world. Similar to the creation mandate, God has woven into all of creation purpose, design, and intent. To function obediently in accord to His will, then, is to submit ourselves to His divine intention for creation.

[6] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987), 63.

[7] Ibid. italics mine.

[8] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 165-166.

[9] Owen Strachan, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind (Great Britain: Mentor Imprint, 2019), 38-39.

[10] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1.

[11] John Calvin, “The Gospel According to St. John, part one 1-10,” Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 11.


[12] Steven J. Duby, God In Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, SCDS (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 38.


[13] Ibid., 39.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (9), and DeYoung (6). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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