Thursday, May 15, 2014

On the self and desire

Christianity is full of apparently paradoxical statements. The appearance is, I believe, a product of our own incapacity for the truth--an incapacity somewhat derivative of our finitude (we don't possess a nature fully capable) and moreso derivative of our pervasive and total corruption (what nature we have has been destroyed in its capacities). It doesn't make sense that "he who seeks to save his life shall lose it, while he who seeks to give up his life shall find it" because we have been imprisoned by our own aberrant desires, rendering whatever capacity for understanding that could be used subject to that aberration.

Consider the apparent paradox of determinate freedom. Some have argued that true freedom requires the will to be free from all constraints, free from the determining influence of anything that is not the autonomous, individual will or desire. Freedom means choosing as my desire is directed by my desire alone. May other factors offer themselves up for influencing that choice? Surely, but they cannot be said to in any way move the will toward one or another option in the choosing. The will remains self-determining. And in being entirely free of all external determination, the individual who wills is self-defining by virtue of the free choices made. A claim to aseity seems a necessary implication of this view.

Christianity, however, asserts the entire givenness of created being, and, in the fullness of time, the sons of God shall be revealed only as they see (and I think "see" is a metaphor for know, here) Christ face-to-face, that is, unveiled because the corruption that blinds will be completely removed. For the Christian, the self, like being, is entirely given. It comes from God the Father, is imaged in Christ Jesus the Son, and is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian self is entirely determined by an Other that is not the self, not the individual chosen by the autonomous choices of the will. The Christian identity is received rather than taken, discovered rather than invented--it is the result of surprise rather than contrivance. The oddity of the givenness, and the paradox that arises out of our finitude rather than our sinfulness, is that amidst all of the givenness of the self, the individual is fully participating in the revelation of his identity. There are analogies that help to illustrate this idea, but I have yet to find a definition or description that satisfies rational criteria for explanation (not that there isn't one, or that it hasn't already been found--I can speak only for the places where I have looked!).

Practically, for the Christian, the paradoxical aspect of entire givenness and full participation comes in relinquishing our corrupted desire to be self-determinate and self-defining. Our natural desires are inherently self-oriented. We put our own desires as a priority, we consider ourselves before others, we think in terms of what will benefit ourselves more easily and more willingly than we think in terms of what will benefit others. This is enslavement given the nature of reality. Since our selves are entirely given, we cannot find ourselves by seeking our own desires. It is a vicious circle, and one that cannot avoid importing (whether consciously or unconsciously) things from others that we observe. The lie that I can make myself, even through imitation, fails to recognize that I may be given something other than what I would choose. Let me illustrate.

For most of my childhood I fashioned myself as a professional athlete. My parents largely indulged my efforts by continually driving me to practices and games, waiting long hours after practice was over while I worked extra to improve my skills, and by supporting my decisions for pursuing the sport beyond high school. In college I retained the desire and, although I had to reconcile myself to the possibility of some alternative because I was not given a scholarship to play, I walked-on and redshirted my first year, all the while continuing to work and cultivate my efforts toward the image of "professional athlete." When it became increasingly clear during my time on the team that I would never become a professional athlete bitterness and resentment became the consistent pattern of response to my circumstances. Far from being "free" in my own choices, I was driven by emotions that I did not enjoy, but had not the will to put away so long as that will was fixated upon the false image of the self I had chosen. However, when God broke my will of its clinging to this false image, I was liberated to both enjoy the sport in the capacity that God had graciously granted to me to participate in it, and I was free to receive a new and as yet undiscovered self of what God had in store that I had been blind to. Although I did not receive this discovery with the surprise of an excited child eager to imagine and receive limitless joy offered by the Father, that too was available to me. It was not until my desire died that the self God was fashioning for me could be resurrected unto my understanding.

The Christian life is full of many such deaths because of our idol-making tendencies--crafting selves for ourselves rather than receiving our true selves from the knowledge of God in Christ. The self-seeking that derives from the unpurified will is enslaved to the passions that arise from unfulfilled (or unsatisfying) desires. The self-receiving that derives from the purified will--the will that anticipates God's moving and shaping of the self in ways unexpected and better than expectation--anticipates and receives the surprises of God's Providence with thankfulness and joy at the chance of discovering anew what it is that God is giving to us--our true selves; the selves that look just like Him.