The Christian Self

There is much in common between the Christian and the Aristotelian notions of the self with respect to the reality of its existence. The Christian position is that the human self is real, not illusory; it is “a willing and knowing self,” which can be orientated in a particular direction when it chooses to be “led by the divine spirit” (Bultmann, 1952, p. 207). For Aristotle, the human self is “capable of forming intentions to honour objective moral properties, and to do so, over time, by developing stable, self-shaping, virtuous dispositions” (Kristjansson, 2010, p. 128). However, whether this takes form in a person’s life, according to Aristotle, depends on early intervention through education, the influence of virtuous friends, and having one’s attention focused on excellent models on which one can base one’s thinking and behavior. For the Christian, however, the self is not defined by reference to a limited moral dimension. As I have suggested previously, “self,” as the Christian understands the term, implies an ontological dimension that follows from the intimacy of the commitment of God’s self to his creation and the capacity of humankind to seek to bear fruit as it comes to love God and grows to understand its calling to be in the image of God. For the Christian, the excellent model for moral guidance is Christ. But this is not because he is simply a good moral guide; there are others, such as Socrates. Christ is only a good moral guide because he is “of one being with the Father,” the only Son of the Father who embodies the character of the Living God. The Christian “self” is real in the sense that he or she exists through God’s grace; he or she expresses himself or herself in the created world of common experience in psychological terms and moral behavior.

Actually, the term “self” is rarely used in theological discussion; when it is, it normally refers loosely to personal identity, by which is meant more than mere physicality but does not exclude the body. The more usual theological term is “soul,” but that is frequently misunderstood, associated as it is in the public mind with some supposed additional feature possessed by the human being. “Has a human being a soul?” is a misleading question, for as we have seen, when God gives the spirit to humankind, it is not something added to or poured into the body; it is what makes humankind human: the event affirms that what it means to be human assumes a relationship with God. In Christian theology, the soul is who one really is in relation to God. The self is an embodied soul, not an illusion.

However, it is also true that I may not know myself for who I really am and may be deceived by my weakness of will into behaving in ways that, in the event, I would wish that I had not. I may in fact be subject to the Aristotelian condition of self-deception and take my idea of myself at a given moment to be all there is to who I am. That would be false and indeed destructive. The “calling” of God, hints of his presence, and a sense of the worthwhileness of seeking to understand and respond to him can potentially open or reopen dimensions of one’s experience and of one’s self. The self, looked at from the point of view of Christian Faith, is indeed capable of development and is free to change with the possibility of a growing maturity in relationship with God. The self will grow through knowledge of the world as creation, cooperation with others, and above all, seeking God.

Moreover, in whatever particular experience one is involved, the Christian self/soul is multifaceted in its capacity to learn: it is open to learning through the emotions, the intellect, moral awareness, aesthetic appreciation, and religious experience. There is no valid Christian position that is reductionist—repositioning oneself so as to take into account further dimensions is always possible. To leave out any of the ways in which experience is open to us is to live an incomplete life; their neglect cuts off not just experience of the world as it really is but a part of the self. One might almost say that such a self is handicapped, incapable of full expression, because it lacks openness to the range of experience that feeds the soul and nourishes a potential relationship with God. It is vital to keep this in mind when planning a school curriculum or the education of a professional: there is always more to it than one imagines.

In fact, it is much more complex than even this. For each of the facets of what it means to be a self, a soul, interacts with all the others. Thus, for example, Kristjansson affirms with regard to Aristotle, “Aristotle could not have implicated emotions in moral virtues if he had not presupposed that emotions have a cognitive component amenable to rational and moral evaluation—and, if necessary (if it turns out to be irrationally formed, morally unjustified or both), liable to criticism and change” (Kristjansson, 2010, p. 14). The converse is also true. Many a conclusion of rational inquiry causes unease because while it may not be false, there is more to be said if one is to grasp the whole picture. The civil engineer who, indifferent to local needs, builds a road through the middle of a community is simply a bad engineer. Good engineers want to see the situation in the round. Furthermore, aesthetic appreciation can transform what one is engaged with and open one’s eyes to a moral depth of which one previously had been ignorant or to a wholeness that one’s focused attention had missed.

The religious framework will bring together cognitive inquiry, moral sensitivity, and aesthetic appreciation and thus stimulate an awareness of the wholeness of things and their interrelatedness. But none of them individually or together reveals things as they are in themselves: their aseity keeps them free from our possession with lives of their own, forever presenting new opportunities of knowledge. Merleau-Ponty, in his analysis of perception, is fully aware of this: we can never “possess” what we perceive, for by so doing, we would destroy it. “If the thing itself were grasped,” he says, “it would from that moment be arrayed before us and stripped of its mystery. It would cease to exist as a thing at the very moment when we thought to possess it. What makes the ‘reality’ of the thing is therefore what precisely snatches it from our grasp. The aseity of the thing, its unchallengeable presence and the perpetual absence into which it withdraws, are two inseparable aspects of transcendence” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 233).

I suggested previously that the Christian understanding of the human self, as described in theological language as the “soul,” is currently countercultural. Iain McGilchrist offers an explanation as to why this should be so in terms of the physiology of the brain (McGilchrist, 2009). Every activity of the brain involves both left and right hemispheres, yet evolution has preserved a difference between them in how they work, which one can assume therefore has a value. They are complementary, but one of the hemispheres may come to dominate through habitual use. This is the case, McGilchrist believes, with the left hemisphere, which is focused on the formation of theories and their application to develop practical solutions to problems. The reduction of the influence of the right hemisphere of the brain, which is open to new experiences and the world of the imagination, has reduced our awareness to what our manageable “theories” allow us to consider.

McGilchrist believes the consequence is that we have become socially and emotionally insensitive, with an impaired understanding, for example, of beauty, art, and religion. This has even distorted our appreciation of scientific inquiry and encouraged the thought that we can possess and control things that are inevitably beyond our control. The fact is, he argues, that the right hemisphere is unconsciously alive to all dimensions of experience and provides information that the left hemisphere can include in its experimenting. However, we are now handicapped because we have so conditioned ourselves to live within the world as presented by the left hemisphere that we are inclined to neglect the stimulating world of the imagination and any sense of being aware of the “wholeness” that is open to us. Yet the self who is learning is me, or you, or us; the knowledge that we gain is personal knowledge. A Christian understanding of the self implies that its maturity depends on the full functioning of both hemispheres of the brain.

The idea is fleshed out further by Michael Polanyi, whose brilliant insights are often neglected (Polanyi, 1958; 1966). He argued a point with which Wittgenstein would have agreed: we humans can know more than we can tell. The activities of both the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere are essential if we are to take up the ever-present opportunity to be ourselves in community. Polanyi practiced as a medical doctor and later as a physical chemist. He thus had the experience of dealing with the personal world of patients and the inanimate world of scientific inquiry. Of course, he did not argue that one opposed the other; the one was incomplete without the other. In both, he believed he was involved as a person and aware of the knowledge that his intellectual passion gave him through sympathy, interest, and emotional focus on what he was attending to. He called it “personal knowledge” and claimed that it was an essential ingredient of successful science and all other forms of human inquiry. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from his phenomenological perspective, shares something of the same point of view when he refers to the body as expression and as speech. What the body is, he said, is what it says (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, pp. 174-99).

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