Two directions. That’s all we have, spiritually speaking: moving inside toward the self or outside toward God and others. That’s it. Those directions can be categorized differently depending on the context, but they’re always at play. And at root, they go back to what theologians call the Creator-creature distinction, often portrayed by Cornelius Van Til with two circles connected by a line. The bigger circle represents God, and the smaller circle represents creation. The connecting line is God’s revelation.
Now here’s a question: what happens when people reject this distinction, when they claim independence, or (dare I utter the theological curse word?) autonomy? Well, lots of bad things, but also some bizarre things. If we attempt to cut ourselves off from the Creator (which is, strictly speaking, impossible), all we’re left with is ourselves. We become primarily responsible for everything—forming our identity, constructing meaning, and, as it turns out, even counseling ourselves. In Matthew Robert’s Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self, he argues that the self has become the god of our post-Christian world. Gone are the days of Artemis and Athena, of Enlightenment reason and the sanctity of science. These once golden gods and goddesses have grayed with time. In their stead stands the self. But, we might argue, the self was there all along, lurking behind the silhouettes of statues.
We’re entirely submerged in the cloudy ocean of self, where everything seems possible . . . because nothing is clear.
Now we find ourselves in a Western world completely enchanted with selfhood, with the idol of individualism. We’re entirely submerged in the cloudy ocean of self, where everything seems possible . . . because nothing is clear.
It’s in this context that I wasn’t all that surprised to hear about Rainn Wilson, star of NBC’s The Office and author of the recent book Soul Boom, mention in a podcast that he had been in a sort of self-counseling therapy. He described with candor how counselees in the program were required to carry around an object that symbolized their younger self. Why? So that they could give their younger self the counsel and love they never received in real life.
In order to heal a self, you have to counsel a self, with yourself. In a bizarre expression of psychological self-care, we now counsel our past self in order to heal our present self. In other words, we can have communities of selves. “Me, myself, and I” is no longer an idiom; it’s a therapeutic construct.
The WEIRDER World
Most of us might be content to laugh this off. “Ridiculous Hollywood drama . . . What will they think of next?” But that response isn’t helpful because it tells us nothing about why such things happen in our world and how we might respond to people caught up in them. As I listened to a podcast called “Post-Christianity?” with Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener, I was struck by their discussions of how deep the concept of the self goes.
Note, first of all, that we have a shallow view of what it means to be a self because we’re mostly ignorant of where we’ve come from. To use Wilson’s terminology in Remaking the World, we could say many of us are WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. Each letter of that acronym has a history behind it, which Wilson views through the lens of 1776. Each letter also has implications for how we behave as people (as selves). The post-Christian West, he argues, is built on Christian foundations, but a slew of secular philosophies and cultural ventures have blinded us to that. Glen Scrivener does something similar in The Air We Breathe. The common humanitarian values we uphold aren’t groundless; they stand on Christian assumptions about who we are and why we matter. Such values, again, have implications for how we understand ourselves.
Second, Wilson and Scrivener talk in the first episode of their podcast about how the notion of self has far deeper roots than most people think today—beyond Freud and Jung, beyond Kant and Locke and Rousseau, beyond Luther and Aquinas and Descartes, beyond Augustine, and even beyond the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself. The ancient Judeo-Christian teaching from Genesis—that people are made in the image of God—lights the candle for self-understanding that’s been carried through ancient civilizations and culture wars for thousands of years. It’s true that Jesus added amazing (divine) depth to the understanding of self in relation to God. And Paul, speaking by the Holy Spirit, talked of the inner war between the old self and the new self (Eph. 4:22–24). That already introduces some sense of plurality to our understanding of self.
No one needs self-counsel. We all desperately need God-counsel, from the Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6).
But the idea that Rainn Wilson talked about in his interview—that one self inside us (at present) can counsel another self inside us (in the past) wasn’t the biblical model proposed. In fact, Paul was talking about something very different: shedding the old sinful self as a skin in order to become the true, Christ-conformed self in communion with God. In that context, no one needs self-counsel. We all desperately need God-counsel, from the Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6). Apart from him, we’re lost.
Still, for theological reasons I hinted at above, Rainn Wilson’s story doesn’t surprise me. It all goes back to that Creator-creature distinction. If there’s no God to move towards, then we can only move towards ourselves. In fact, we’ll even try to multiply our selves, creating communities of selves to counsel and heal and motivate. That sounds ludicrous to Christians (at least, it should), but to people in the secular Western world today, it makes perfect sense. They’re living in what Charles Taylor called the immanent frame. They are, in Van Til’s terms, “one-circle people.” The self is all they have. All questions and quandaries go back to us. “Are you looking for identity? Create yourself. Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? Motivate yourself. Are you struggling from psychological trauma? Counsel yourself.” Without the God of created selves, we have no other option. Sure, we can entrust ourselves to others and rely on communities, but they’re bound to disappoint and fall short. The only one you have full control over is yourself.
We are anything but algorithmic. We are uncontrollable, not just by others but even by ourselves.
Except you don’t. The ever-increasing market of AI is showing us just how unlike machines humans actually are. And control is a key factor. Hearts are wild things, jumping from passion to passion, sabotaging the holy to get to hedonism, betraying greater loves with lesser loves, falling into contradiction and inner turmoil, sloughs of despond, and brushfires of guilt. We are anything but algorithmic. We are uncontrollable, not just by others but even by ourselves. We need help from the outside.
What To Expect in the WEIRDER World
I expect this rise in self-counsel and self-therapy to become more mainstream, just as the notion of “forgiving yourself” has become the default response to moral failure in popular media. I was disappointed (though not at all surprised) to see this yet again as the Netflix series Manifest came to a close. The main character needed forgiveness—not from others, not from those whom she wronged, but from herself. The fact that this was expected and likely unnoticed by most viewers suggests how prevalent the concept of self-forgiveness has become. But as Harry Reeder once said, “You can start forgiving yourself when you can atone for your own sin—which is never.”
The multiplication of selves also bears an uncanny resemblance to older forms of idolatry, where idols were manufactured to meet the needs of a worshiping culture. Not enough little Athenas? Make more. Short on hand-held figures of Artemis to fit above the hearth? Melt down the silver. Idols are always manufactured; they have no existence on their own. The multiplicity of selves, in this sense, is a psychological exercise in idol-making. You create a different self for whatever need arises. The more the merrier.
The multiplicity of selves is a psychological exercise in idol-making.
The trouble, in the end, is that there is really only one you. You can’t multiply yourself and create a self-community. That’s a fiction. But it’s a fiction powerful enough to draw in masses of people who truly believe this immanent frame is all we have. The result is that those same masses are moving in the old spiritual direction of self, rather than towards God and others. The latter requires divine grace, and we should pray for that. The former is a very dark and lonely place. There can be no peace for a company of selves.
Peace comes from beyond us, from the Trinity, who gives himself without measure. And unless we find ourselves in him, we’ll be eternally lonely. And all our striving for self-improvement will crumble over time, like a piece of clay dried and brittle. We’re only of use to God and others when we’re wet in the Potter’s hand. As Paul says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Praise the Potter who draws us out of our sinful selves and gives us a seat at his table, where we can be wet with grace and ready to work.
People don’t need self-therapy. And they don’t need to forgive themselves. They need the only one who can forgive sin and resurrect dead selves. They need Jesus. And he’s a far better counselor than we could ever be to ourselves.