Chapter: 6: The Self and Revelation
It has often been observed that each of us has a powerful and insatiable longing to be regarded as significant in the eyes of another.(For example. Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973)1; and Sebastian Moore, The Inner Loneliness (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1982).) This passion for significance is the deeply interior desire that governs our lives, fills our days and shapes our dreams. We could probably understand our actions, thoughts and feelings much better if we would honestly ask ourselves: “Whom am I trying to please and why am I doing so?” An answer to this question would go some distance toward giving us a sense of our own identities.
But of course we do not often ask this question, and as a result we sometimes live out our lives in unawareness of the kind of performance we are putting on for unacknowledged others in order that we might prove to be of value in their (imagined) regard. And in the course of our lives the sense of who we really are in the depths of our selfhood may virtually elude us.
It would be a “devastating release of truth,” Ernest Becker maintains, to admit our need to be heroic before another or others, and thus to become conscious of what we are doing to earn our self-esteem. It would involve our clarifying for ourselves what powers we are living by and to what degree we are possibly subservient to these powers. Most of us, Becker insinuates, never get very far in this self-analysis. Very few of us break away from the powers that we are secretly trying to please in order to feel significant. And so we sometimes live narrow, restricted lives because the powers we try to please are usually so narrow and restricted themselves.(Becker, passim.)
Why do we engage in these “heroics? “Becker’s answer is an ancient one: we are simply trying to escape the threat of death. In a more general sense we may say that we are trying to cope with our vulnerability which manifests itself not only in our mortality but also in our bodily existence as such. From very early in life we sense the annihilating implications of our bodily existence, and we are understandably terrorized and overwhelmed by this awareness. So we strive to hide our fragile existence in persons, things or institutions that seem to promise us protection from having to face our naked dependency and eventual death. We strive unconsciously to find beings that can give us the significance for which we long and that can compensate for our underlying sense of the precariousness of our existence. From the time of infancy we immortalize our parents in a special way, placing around them an aura of invincibility that can apparently conquer the threat of death and the sense of our own powerlessness. And when we “outgrow” our parents we simply “transfer” the aura of invincibility onto others, such as a spouse, a lover, a nation, a job, a boss, an institution or our career. We attempt desperately at times to please these “powers” that shield us from our weakness and mortality. We perform our “heroics” for them so that we might gain their approval and a sense of our own significance in the face of death and finitude. And in ways of which we are not usually aware, we shape our “characters” in accordance with their demands.
I think we should be quite tolerant and sympathetic toward such heroics. The terror of death and finitude is normal, and it is no wonder that we seek some sort of security in the face of the void’s constant threat to our existence. The need to feel significant is built into us, and it would be silly to deny it. That is not the problem. The problem — and this is everybody’s life problem — is deciding before whom or what we shall perform our heroics and carry out our longing for significance. Before whom or what?
The social world in which we are each embedded and in which our personalities are shaped provides us with all sorts of opportunities to perform our heroics in order to feel significant before others. Indeed society is in part a “system of heroics”(The expression “system of heroics” is employed by Becker as a central concept in The Denial Of Death.) constantly holding out to us criteria of self-worth. Parental, familial, political, academic, athletic, artistic, ecclesiastical and many other dimensions of our social environment give us all the opportunities we need to convince others of our importance. By abiding in these different circles, and performing before others within them, our need for significance may be temporarily satisfied. We achieve the recognition that we understandably desire, and we find it sufficient to live off of this recognition for long periods of time, sometimes indefinitely.
We need not condemn ourselves or others for engaging in this quest for acceptance. The longing to be accepted is part of our human nature. And yet it may and often does happen that the kind of significance provided by our immediate environments with their various systems of heroics and criteria of worth is not enough to stave off our anxiety in a satisfying way. The old question, “Am I truly significant to someone?”, rises up again and again from what has been called our “inner loneliness.” And the quest for some relief from this loneliness goes on and on. It has gone on since the beginning of our human history, but it began to intensify in modern times. Today it is an all-consuming quest, and it takes very little awareness of contemporary cultures and life-styles to notice that the problem of loneliness is the most pressing problem each individual has to cope with.(I am indebted especially to Sebastian Moore’s book, cited above, for this discussion of loneliness.) How does one find significance in the face of our vulnerability to death? And how do we relieve the loneliness we usually have to fall back on when we realize that the “powers” in front of which we put on our heroic performances may offer no final protection against our annihilation?
We may find that our striving to win esteem in any particular context has another side to it that I have not yet mentioned. I am referring to the fact that the fervent effort to please the powers we rely on for our sense of self-esteem may cause us to deny those aspects of our existence that seem to conflict with the conditions of worth held out to us by family, school, fraternity, sorority, church, government, place of employment, etc. This denial of some sides of ourselves is not surprising. Most social scientists are aware that each of us has an aspect of our personality that does not easily fit into the social settings in which we find ourselves. There is always an “identity fragment,” an “unsocialized component of the self,” a core of “subjectivity,” a hidden and impenetrable “individuality” that will not or cannot correspond to the criteria of worth implied in our heroic systems. Depth psychologists have testified in varying ways to the presence of what I shall call for the sake of simplicity our “hidden selfhood.” We need not detail their observations here. Suffice it to say that they are all aware of how we sometimes “repress” or push out of consciousness that side of our self that cannot live up to the demands of social heroics. Through this repression an inner division is established within us, and much of our energy is consumed in keeping our hidden selfhood separate from our socialized selfhood. So sorely do we long for approval, though, that we are capable of maintaining this internal division for long periods of time, and we may learn to grow somewhat comfortable with the self-deception implied in it. Beneath the surface, however, there lurks a loneliness that may grow more and more burdensome even as we win the esteem of others. How can one find significance in the depths of this loneliness?
The quest for revelation, as interpreted from the perspective of individual selfhood, may be understood as the quest for this significance. It is the longing for a “word” that might convince us that our quest for significance is not in vain. It is the search for a word that does not condemn us for undertaking the apparently self-centered search for acceptance but which reminds us of the false promises offered by some of our normal means of relieving our loneliness. Christians have believed, ever since the time of the first disciples, that such a word is incredibly offered to us in the life, person, and teachings of Jesus who is called the Christ. It is a word given not only to the universe, society and history, which we have already looked at, but also to the hidden, private freedom and selfhood of each one of us. Throughout the Christian centuries interpreters of this word have emphasized that such a revelation can take root in our universe and in society and its history only if it takes root first of all in the life of the individual. It is indeed a word of promise addressed to all, but it has to be received first by individuals who then feel called to share it with others.
Sebastian Moore points out that our individual loneliness
. . . yearns for a mysterious communion that would relieve it. In search of this mysterious other, I do not look away from, or outside, the world, but beyond it. And this really means that in me the world looks beyond itself. I represent and experience the loneliness of all being. In me the galaxies hunger for God. In me all the world craves his companionship.(Moore, p. 104.)
The quest for revelation is the quest for this companionship, a quest that has its origins in the cosmos itself and that now in our unique individualities reaches out for a climactic friendship that delivers not only each person but the entire universe from its loneliness. The Christian faith has always maintained that in Christ the promise of divine companionship is offered in a clear and momentous way to the universe by way of each person.
It is quite possible to see why the early followers of Jesus found in his life, words, actions and death a definitive and unsurpassable disclosure of a divine friendship that signifies the real importance of each individual. Jesus’ mission was to tear through the obscuring veil of social and religious systems of heroics in order to bring to light the notion of a love that places no criteria of worth on us. His gestures, parables and words all relativized the reigning systems of heroics. He wanted people to realize that they cannot earn their sense of significance, no matter how hard they try, since they are already accepted as important. Our quest for “identity” by proving ourselves worthy through strict obedience to contrived religious and ethical legalisms is futile. Our identity as eternally significant, as persons intimately cared for by an unsurpassable mystery of love is already established. And this identity is sufficient for us. No familial, ethnic, religious, political or economic ladder-climbing will make us one iota more intrinsically significant than we already are.
Almost any of Jesus’ actions and parables make this point. Recent biblical scholarship instructs us that Jesus’ reference to God as “Abba,” which is a trust-filled term of address to one’s “father,” a name of intimacy and deep affection, already contains the nucleus of the Christian revelation. The term “Abba” already signifies that each person is cared for in a way that should evoke a child-like sense of trust, as well as an awareness of the futility of our attempts to secure our existence by way of heroics. Jesus’ parables all unfold this central idea.
As just one example we might look briefly at the parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard.”
. . . the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into this vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.” And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Mt 20:1-15)
One clear implication of this story is that the criteria of worth enjoined by the economic assumptions of the laborers are relativized by the generosity of the owner of the vineyard. Jesus’ startling (and obviously unsettling) teaching is that the Kingdom of God consists of relationships like those disclosed in the parable. Our individual efforts cannot win God’s love for us. God’s love does not depend upon our fulfilling certain conditions of worth in order to prove ourselves worthy of it. The incredible fact is that an unconditional love has already been offered to us. All we have to do is accept it. Of course accepting it fully may be more difficult for us than trying to earn it. For such a trust requires an admission on our part that we cannot earn our justification by our own efforts. Perhaps we can now see once again why the revelation of God enters our history especially through the sensitivities of the poor, the sinners, the desperate who are in the “impossible” situation of no longer being able to prove themselves worthy of anything. Such individuals can only open themselves to the promise of acceptance in spite of their powerlessness.
The otherness, the contradiction and the undreamed of implications of revelation are nowhere more obvious than in the shocking disclosure by Jesus of a love whose bestowal does not depend upon moral, spiritual or any other type of achievement on our part. This idea clashes so sharply with the “normal” world of social heroics that it is hardly possible for it to have bubbled up “naturally” or accidentally from the latter alone. Its inconceivable and “impossible” nature has led believers to see it therefore as a revelatory “interruption” of the fabric of normality. It would be very difficult to account for this idea simply in terms of sociological or rational analysis alone. In fact it clearly goes against the grain of how we know society to work, and it is hardly an idea that a philosopher interested in “reality” could arrive at by cogitation alone. If we ponder it, the belief that our value does not depend on our achievements can completely upset our usual way of looking at the world and at ourselves. And it can have troubling, even revolutionary implications for society’s self-understanding. Its truly startling nature makes it an acceptable candidate for claiming the status of “revelation.”
Jesus must have known this. Perhaps that is why he insisted that one must become like a little child to accept the idea. A child simply opens himself or herself to receive gifts and does not look around immediately to ask if the gifts have been deserved. Typically the child simply accepts a gift with joy and gratitude and shows little concern with the question of meriting it. Such, according to Jesus’ teaching, should be our own response to the good news of our abiding and intrinsic significance.
Sebastian Moore rightly suggests that we need not repress in ourselves the apparently selfish and even narcissistic passion to be recognized, cherished and deeply desired by another. This child-like layer of our desiring is a permanent and essential part of our make-up, and to root it out would be an act of violence toward ourselves. The “puritanical” or stoical exhortation to withdraw our desire for significance in the eyes of another and learn in the spirit of tragic “realism” to accept the indifference of the universe has long been a strongly appealing “philosophy of life.” It seems to have a touch of “sobriety” and a taste for courage that satisfies the affinity for tragedy that we may all harbor in our souls. As I pointed out earlier, the tragic vision of existence has an allure that remains a constant temptation for us. And many endearing figures in our human past and present have been able to “adjust” to the world by “giving up” or “working through” their childhood longing for significance in the eyes of another. In our own times psychoanalysis and many derivative psychologies have encouraged people toward this stoic resignation.
I cannot deny that this exhortation to undergo a thorough “ascesis of desire” has brought a sort of contentment to many. And yet I cannot help but wonder also if such resignation, courageous as it seems to be, is not sometimes accompanied by a premature despair about the promise of what our full possibilities are. Is this despair perhaps a shield against a deeper possibility of becoming human before another? At least it seems to be so when placed in an encounter with the promissory word that there is an ultimate companionship capable of dissolving out loneliness and of reminding us of an inherent significance that we had not been remotely capable of imagining on our own. This word presses us to hope for the unimaginable and to trust in things that by simple human calculation are impossible. And if anything appears impossible to us from our vantage point within any system of heroics, it is that our significance does not come from the system itself, but from a source beyond it. A “word” that convinces us of this transcending value would awaken (or reawaken) in us the primordial urge to feel fully significant. Instead of urging us to control such a desire, as tragic thinking does, it would release it. Such a liberating word could understandably be called “revelatory.”
In presenting these elemental Christian teachings in class I have often found that students are quick to ask the following question: if one took seriously Jesus’ message that we do not have to earn our sense of feeling good about ourselves, would this not allow for an unrestrained, licentious life, believing that we are loved regardless of our behavior? I think the answer to this question is relatively simple. Jesus has no fear at all that those who sincerely accept his “wild” vision of a companion-God who regards us as unimaginably significant will be inclined toward “immoral” conduct. If indeed we could in trust accept his idea of God and of our identity as “friend” in the mind of this God, our response would be one of such gratitude that it would actually lead us toward enhancing others’ sense of their own intrinsic significance and of their own being similarly befriended. It would arouse in us a new sense of liberty, and it would lead us toward a life of sharing our freedom with others (as St. Paul’s life illustrates). In other words it would lead us toward, rather than away from, a truly ethical life. It would be a difficult life. It would bring us into constant conflict, as it did Jesus, with those systems of heroics that enslave and intimidate people at the same time they bestow on them an illusory and fragmentary significance. And it would bring us into confrontation with the injustice that has its roots in the deceptions of social heroics. It would hardly be the occasion for unethical existence. But it would allow us to put the ethical side of life into a new and liberating perspective. In any case, our ethical aspirations require as a condition for their vitality a basic trust in our own self-worth. So instead of opening the way to moral laxity, a feeling of one’s significance would more likely lead us to the living of a better and more caring life for others. Faith in revelation can thus free us from self-preoccupation by giving us the sense that we are already cared for. Only such a conviction can fully allow a life-for-others Jesus’ own life of loving concern for others was made possible by such absolute trust in his being completely cared for by God.
The revelation of an ultimate friendship, however, is not without its own kind of injunction or demand But the demand is simply that we surrender any attempt to solve the big problems of life all by ourselves. And of course perhaps the biggest problem for us as individuals is that of finding a way to alleviate our “inner loneliness” and to feel significant. Learning to feel that our joys and burdens are being shared by a transcendent “other” may be a difficult process itself, one that for some reason or other we tend to resist, perhaps because it seems “unrealistic.” There is no allowance for “cheap grace” in this teaching. It will inevitably prove to be a more demanding challenge than any tragic vision proposes for us.
Looked at from within our fifth circle, that of the privacy of our own personality, “revelation” is the disclosure to us that our native longing for significance has an undreamed of fulfillment in a divine friendship which has already given an eternal validity to our lives. The revelatory word addressed to the hidden subjectivity of each of us is that our longing for significance is not destined to be forever frustrated Revelation is the disclosure of a being-cared for that our own efforts are simply unable to bring forth. The reason it may be called “revelation,” rather than the simple unfolding of human longings, is that it addresses us with a “word” that we could hardly have dreamed up starting from within the context of our superficial social and personal existence.
It is finally through the individual’s trust in the truth of being — cared-for eternally that revelation enters into our history and society. Without such an individual response to promise we could not speak of “revelation in history.” As I attempted to show in Chapter 2, revelation has a cosmic context that we cannot ignore. Here I would emphasize that God’s revelation to the cosmos, a revelation mediated by history, finds its way into the heart of the universe and society especially through the free trust placed by individuals in the promise that there is a fulfillment to their own longing for an inviolable significance.