The God of Self

We have met our deity, and he is us.

The Religion of Secularism (2)

There is a way that seems right to a man … Proverbs 14.12

The age of narcissism
In 1979 Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, a concerned critique of what had come to be referred to as the “me generation.”

Lasch’s point was that Americans were rapidly losing sight of all things transcendent, and were settling instead for a vision of life no larger than their own narrow circles of self-interest. He intended his book as a diagnosis of a growing sickness, to be recognized and checked if society was not to destroy itself by self-consumption.

At about the same time, Robert Ringer, a popular motivational speaker, published a series of books intended to capitalize on the growing narcissism of the day. In books with titles like Looking Out for Number 1, Winning by Intimidation, and Getting What You Want, Ringer welcomed the self-interest turn, identified its operating principles, and urged others to make the most of it for their own best interests.

Lasch and Ringer were not the first voices to herald this trend. In the early ‘70s, George Harrison provided a budding generation of narcissists with a rallying-cry, in a tune on The Beatles’ Let It Be albumcalled, “I, Me, Mine.” There the Fab Four sang about the rising tendency to self-seeking:

All through the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All through the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.

Now they’re frightened of leaving it
Everyone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time,
All through the day I me mine.

Whether Harrison meant his song as an endorsement or a warning is not clear, but that his lyrics captured a growing sentiment among secular young people is undoubted.

The new normal
Narcissistic personality disorder – which Lasch warned was becoming the new normal in our society – has long been recognized as a condition of unstable mental health. Someone who can only think about himself, and who invariably thinks about himself in the best possible light, while expecting that everyone else should as well, and should let him know how wonderful he is – such a person has a difficult time empathizing with others, feeling compassion, or showing sincere love. It is comforting to know that psychiatrists can diagnose and treat this condition and, hopefully, enable narcissists to be a little more like the rest of us.

But perhaps being more like the rest of us is what they’re already doing. What Lasch, Ringer, and the Beatles’ heralded a generation ago has now become a defining motif of our secular age. In 2013, the editors of the fifth edition of the mental health handbook, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, seriously considered dropping narcissistic personality disorder from the list of treatable conditions. With so many narcissists around, one can hardly regard the condition as abnormal.

In fact, narcissism has come to be accepted as the new normal of our secular generation. We even have a magazine designed to tout all things pertinent to the Self. Yet the narcissistic spirit of our secular age, with its materialistic and hedonistic proclivities, all its puff and posturing, is only the outward manifestation of the inward operation of one of secular religion’s principal deities.

We have met our god in this narcissistic and secular age, and he is – us!

The worship of self
The religion of secularism is devoted to two primary deities. The first is the self, or as David Bentley Hart (Atheist Delusions) identifies it, the individual will. So widespread is the idea that everyone should be able to do or have or say or be whatever they want, that even the United States Supreme Court has recognized the sovereignty of self. In Casey v Planned Parenthood, the Court declared that each individual American is free to determine his or her own worldview and way of life. There is a way that will seem right to each one of us, and it is each person’s right, privilege, and duty to choose and pursue that way.

The primary god of our secular age has a familiar face – the one we see in the mirror each morning. Here is a god to be adored, showered with gifts, protected and celebrated, and given whatever pleasures he considers his due. Nothing matters more in life than the freedom to exercise my will on behalf of my self. Naturally, I must be careful and adept at how I do this, lest in overstepping someone else’s will and self I frustrate or damage my own. But my willingness to allow you to indulge your self according to your will is only another way of acknowledging my absolute right to do the same.

The primary god of our secular age is the god of self: Looking out for I, me, mine.

Each day our secular friends take up the devotions of pleasing their god by advancing its interests, indulging its pleasures, and improving its status and condition. It is indeed difficult to define narcissism as a disorder when so many of our contemporaries order their lives around the gratification of self.

The folly of worshiping so finite and feeble a deity should be self-evident. The Gospel of self-denying love will sound like strange truth to those who continually refresh the candles at the altar of self-love. But when seen as embodied in the sacrifice and love of Jesus Christ, the Gospel can expose the folly of self-worship and open the way to a Kingdom where love for God and neighbor gives a whole new meaning to loving oneself.

For reflection
1.  What evidence can you cite to support the idea that the worship of self is the primary religion of our secular age?

2.  The self matters, and is very important. Each individual self is an image-bearer of God, and thus should be taken seriously. But the worship of self distorts this Biblical teaching, and turns it into a deadly corrosive (Augustine). Why is it not a good idea to embrace the worship of self?

3.  How does the Gospel put self-love in a proper light?

Next steps – Transformation: The worship of self is so widespread that even Christians can be affected by it. How might you be able to tell when mere self-interest is operating in your life? What should you do to check it? Talk with some Christian friends about these questions.

T. M. Moore

For a more complete study of the book of Ecclesiastes, download our Scriptorium series on Ecclesiastes by clicking here. Ecclesiastes is an excellent book to share with an unbelieving friend, as it confronts all the idols and vain hopes of unbelief, exposing their folly and holding out the hope of life in God alone. We’ve prepared a verse translation of Ecclesiastes which is suitable for sharing with believers and unbelievers alike. Order your copy of Comparatio, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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