Archive for July, 2012

Chafed Over Chick-fil-A

The firestorm is burning white hot.  And it didn’t take much to spark it either.  All it took was a passing statement from Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy in an interview with the Baptist Press:

We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.[1]

Cathy’s qualification of “family” as “the biblical definition of the family unit” upset and offended many of those who support same-sex marriage, which, by all traditional Christian accounts, falls outside the pale of “the biblical definition of the family unit.”[2]  But Cathy wasn’t backing down.  In an appearance on “The Ken Coleman Show,” Cathy solidified his stance:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, “We know better than You as to what constitutes a marriage,” and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.[3]

The reactions to these two statements have predictably ranged from the genuinely offended to the bombastically outrageous.  Equality Illinois, an LGBT advocacy group, plans a “kiss-in,” akin to the “sit-ins” of the 1960’s civil rights movement, in front of selected Chick-fil-A’s to protest Cathy’s statements.  The group has also launched a “Flick the Hate” campaign, saying, “Rather than spend money at hateful businesses like Chick-fil-A, support businesses that support LGBT rights.”[4]  Rosanne Barr tweeted, “Anyone who eats *Expletive* Fil-A deserves to get the cancer that is sure to come from eating antibiotic filled tortured chickens 4Christ.”[5]  She later apologized for her incendiary statement.  Then there was Juliet Jeske, a comedian, who posed the perennial hermeneutical quandary: “I don’t quite understand how Christians who cite these six scant verses in the Bible that condemn homosexuality conveniently ignore some of the more extreme laws. How is one verse the ‘WORD OF GOD’ and another discarded as being out-of-date?”[6]  She cites a slew of peculiar-sounding passages from Leviticus and opines on why Christians no longer follow the Good Book’s restrictions concerning menstruating women and clothing made of more than one fabric while insisting on following the Bible’s moral verdict on homosexuality.  If she is interested in the answer to her conundrum, I would suggest she read Tim Keller’s insightful article, “Making Sense of Scripture’s ‘Inconsistency.’”  Considering how many times this question concerning the so-called “inconsistent” application of the Bible has been raised, however, and how many times it has been answered – quite well, I would add – I have begun to wonder if this article, and others like it, is not more of a cheap shot at Christian biblical interpretation rather than a genuine question about Christian biblical interpretation.

What disturbs me most about the Chick-fil-A controversy is not Cathy’s statements, for the immorality of all sex outside the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman is a longstanding Christian tenant.  Nor do the objections of many in the LGBT community to Cathy’s statement disturb me, for such objections are to be expected.  What disturbs me most about this controversy is the eventual response of Chick-fil-A as a corporation to the stir.  The company issued a statement that read in part, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”[7]  Though people may debate whether or not it is prudent for COO’s of large corporations to express their theological convictions to news outlets that often make a habit out of subjecting theological convictions to the acerbic accusations of public opinion, I would submit that Chick-fil-A made precisely the wrong move when it so willingly relinquished this debate to the arena of government and politics.

At its heart, the debate over homosexuality and gay marriage is not a political debate, but a moral one.  To relegate this debate to the realm of politics and wrangling legislators is to cheapen it and, ultimately, to give it less consideration and credence than it deserves.  Moral debate should not be settled by majority vote, but by robust and respectful conversation grounded in something steadier and more transcultural than November’s ballot box – something like Holy Scripture for Christians, or, in broader society, natural, moral law.[8]  Morality by democracy can lead only to disaster, for it encourages people to breezily act according to what is right in their own eyes (cf. Judges 17:6).

The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, had it at least partially right when he said, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.”[9]  Though, as a Christian, I heartily disagree with Rahm Emanuel’s values as they pertain to same-sex marriage, on this much we find common ground:  this is about values and morals, not politics and opinion polls.  Let’s not turn it into anything less.

[1] K. Allan Blume, “‘Guilty as charged,’ Cathy says of Chick-fil-A’s stand on biblical & family values,” Baptist Press (7.16.12).

[2] Read Concordia’s stance on same-sex marriage in “A Pastoral Statement on President Obama’s Endorsement of Same-Sex Marriage.”

[3] As cited in “Dan Cathy, Chick-Fil-A President, On Anti-Gay Stance: ‘Guilty As Charged,’The Huffington Post (7.17.12).


[5] Cited in Paul Bond, “Roseanne Barr Responds to Critics After Controversial Chick-fil-A Tweet,” The Hollywood Reporter (7.26.12).

[6] Juliet Jeske, “Chick-Fil-A, Do You Really Want to Run Your Company on Biblical Values?The Huffington Post (7.26.12).

[7] Cited in Shan Li, “Chick-fil-A steps out of public debate on gay marriage,” The Los Angeles Times (7.19.12).

[8] An examination of same-sex marriage in light of natural, moral law can be found in “A Pastoral Statement on President Obama’s Endorsement of Same-Sex Marriage.”

[9] Cited in Bill Barrow, “Chick-fil-A sandwiches become a political symbol,” The Associated Press (7.27.12).

July 30, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Hope in the Midst of a Colorado Tragedy

The Century 16 Theatre at which James Holmes opened fire during the movie, “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.”

When 24 year-old neuroscience Ph.D. candidate dropout James Holmes burst into an Aurora, Colorado theatre at a midnight premier of “Batman:  The Dark Knight Rises” in full tactical gear with a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol, packing as many as 6,000 rounds, the carnage was nearly instant.  Twelve are dead.  Over fifty are wounded.

Almost immediately, investigators sprung into action, trying to answer the same question they always try to answer after an act of senseless violence like this:  “Why?”  So far, Holmes hasn’t left us much to go on.

One of the things that strikes me about this mass shooting is how utterly elusive Holmes’ motive seems to be.  He has no Facebook page to scour for clues.  He has no Twitter account to review.  He didn’t host a blog.  He wasn’t connected to anyone on LinkedIn.  In an era of ubiquitous social media, investigators have not been able to turn to any of these standard-fare communal clearinghouses for insight into this man’s mind.  His police record has left investigators just as mystified.  One traffic violation in 2011.  That’s it.  No arrests.  No prior investigations.  Nothing that would lead officers to believe this man could or would explode in a rampage of mass murder.

The L.A. Times has been hard at work trying to understand Holmes’ motive, interviewing several people who knew him, albeit not very well.  Here is how they describe him:

  • “A generally pleasant guy…James was certainly not someone I would have ever imagined shooting somebody.” – James Goodwin, high school classmate
  • “He was very quiet…He was a nice guy when you did occasionally talk to him.  But he was definitely more introverted.” – Tori Burton, fellow with the National Institutes of Health
  • “A super-nice kid…kinda quiet…really smart…He didn’t seem like a troublemaker at all.  He just seemed like he wanted to get in and out, and go to college.” – Dan Kim, UC San Diego student[1]

The portrait of Holmes, even if not particularly profound, is incredibly consistent.  He was nice.  He was smart.  He was studious.  He was introverted.  And he did what?  He massacred how many?

Jesus says to the religious leaders of His day, “On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28).  Jesus knew the goodness a person presents on the outside often conflicts with the darkness he harbors on the inside.  And as it was with the religious leaders, so it is with James Holmes.  On the outside, Holmes looked like a bright, promising Ph.D. student.  But on the inside, as we are now learning, he was full of dark aspiration.

The Bible has a word for this conflict between a person’s externally righteous appearance and his internally depraved heart:  hypocrisy.  This is why Jesus begins His diatribe against the religious leaders by saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13)!  In the ancient world, a “hypocrite” was an actor – someone who put on a mask to perform in a play.   Though the actor presented himself as one person on stage, he was, in reality, another person in his day-to-day life.

What is so sad about James Holmes is that, as he burst into that theatre filled with moviegoers, he was not necessarily being hypocritical, at least in a theological sense.  Instead, he was – as the doctrine of human depravity makes all too horrifyingly clear – just being himself.  He was carrying out in a shower of gunfire the sin that, exacerbated by what seems to be an apparent mental illness, had been smoldering in his heart for a long time.  And lest we pontificate on Holmes’ wickedness from a position of self-righteous arrogance, we must remember that the same depraved root of sinfulness that lives in Holmes’ heart lives in every human heart – even in our hearts.  As the prophet Jeremiah soberly says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?

In a situation as devastating as this one, Christians are in a unique position both to minister to the hurting on the one hand and to speak honestly about the depth of human wickedness on the other.  To the hurting – especially to those who have lost loved ones – we can offer a shoulder to cry on and a message of hope:  “Christ conquers death!”  To those who ask “Why?” we can respond with one, simple word:  “sin.”  Sin led to this act.  Sin leads to all wicked acts.  Sin leads to our wicked acts.  But, like with death, Christ conquers sin.

As this story continues to unfold, we are sure to learn more about the gunman – his background, his possible motive, and, perhaps, his personal demons.  But no matter how much we may learn about his past, we cannot change the past.  Loved ones will still be lost.  Survivors will still bear physical and emotional scars from that dreadful night.  And the hearts of so many will still be broken.  The past will stand as it is right now:  tragic.  Only Christ can take this terrible moment from our past and redeem it in the future – when He calls those who trust in Him to rise from death to eternal life, unscarred and unmarred even by a gunman’s bullets.  And so in our distress, we hope and trust in Him.  What else can we do?

[1]Complex portrait emerges of suspected Colorado gunman James Holmes,” Los Angeles Times (7.20.12).

July 23, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Epicurus to Gilbert

“I know that God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy!”  I have heard these words time and time again over the course of my ministry, usually from people who wanted to make decisions that, according to the Bible, were sinful.  Yet, these people could not fathom a God who would ever want them to choose a difficult or painful path – a path that would make them unhappy – even if it formed in them obedient righteousness.

The search for human happiness was perhaps most famously forged by the fourth century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Epicurus asserted that a truly happy life was characterized primarily by two features:  a sense of peace and the absence of pain.  If a person had these two things, he would be happy.  How did Epicurus accomplish such a peace-filled and pain-free life?  First, he sought self-sufficiency and second, he lived with a large group of friends.  Epicurus, it seems, was the original college student – venturing out from his parents’ place with lots of his buddies by his side.  And though Epicurus himself was actually quite restrained in his morality and actions, his philosophy eventually gave rise to hedonism, a way of life which recklessly trades that which is peace-filled and pain-free for parties and pleasure.

For our purposes, it is important to understand how Epicurus related his search for happiness to his faith in God.  For the relationship Epicurus establishes between happiness and God serves as an almost precise blueprint for those today who cannot fathom a God whose ultimate goal would be anything other than their personal happiness.  Epicurus says of a person’s belief in God:

Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with incorruptibility or with happiness; and think that a deity is invested with everything which is able to preserve this happiness.[1]

For Epicurus, God does not define what it means to be happy.  Instead, happiness defines what it means to have God.  If you are not happy, then, the problem is not with you, it’s with God!  God is merely a means to the end of your personal happiness.  He is not your sovereign ruler and creator, but your divine therapist whose fundamental function is to make you feel better.  He is a “happy pill” of sorts – a pick-me-up to help you avoid the painful realities of life.  Thus, if happiness eludes you, the solution is as simple as shifting your theological sensibilities: “Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with…happiness.”

Epicurus’ philosophy has been replayed over and over again throughout the ages.  It has been most recently and famously espoused by Elizabeth Gilbert in her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia.  Gilbert, by her own admission, was a woman who had it all.  She was married to a devoted husband and lived in a giant house in the New York suburbs.  The plan was, shortly after she turned thirty, the couple would have children – they would start a family.  As her story opens, she is thirty-one.  But on a cold November night, locked in her bathroom, she discovers what she has always intuitively known:  she does not want to have kids.  She doesn’t even want to be married.  Gilbert explains it like this:

My husband and I – who had been together for eight years, married for six – had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of thirty, I would want to settle down and have children.  By then, we mutually anticipated, I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop…But I didn’t – as I was appalled to be finding out – want any of these things.  Instead, as my twenties had come to a close, that deadline of THIRTY had loomed over me like a death sentence, and I discovered that I did not want to be pregnant.[2]

So how does Gilbert solve her crisis of marriage and motherhood?  Existentially, of course!  She divorces her husband and takes off globetrotting – to Italy, India, and Indonesia.  And it is during her international adventures that she comes to a conclusion about God that, even though it is altogether unsurprising in its substance, is jarring in its frankness:

I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God.  I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted…You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.[3]

Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with…happiness.”  Gilbert falls lock step into a crassly Epicurean vision of God.  She is right at home with a “do-it-yourself” theology.  If one version of God doesn’t work for her – if He doesn’t bring her the happiness, joy, peace, and fulfillment she desires as she defines these things – she is perfectly comfortable redefining her theology as much as necessary to suit her longings.  God exists solely to make her feel good about herself.  God exists to make Elizabeth Gilbert happy.

No matter how attractive Elizabeth Gilbert’s custom made system of doing theology may first appear, it is fundamentally dishonest.  It was the atheist stalwart Friedrich Nietzsche who knew that theological cherry picking was a futile and academically vacuous pursuit: “Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea…one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces.”[4]  You can take it all or leave it all when it comes to theology, Nietzsche says, but you can’t take only certain parts.  Nietzsche left it all.  At least he was intellectually – and spiritually, for that matter – consistent.

There is a bitter irony for the person who believes in a therapeutic God who would never want him to be unhappy.  In a limited and carefully qualified sense, he’s right!  God does not desire the unmitigated misery of His people.  Jesus opens His famed Sermon on Mount with a series of blessings, widely known as the Beatitudes.  He declares:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-4, 10)

The word “blessed” is rendered in many translations as “happy.”  Though I prefer the translation “blessed,” “happy” is not altogether inappropriate, as long as the substance of Jesus’ happiness is properly understood.  But in order to properly understand Jesus’ happiness, we must first notice the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ statements.  Those who are poor in spirit…can be happy!  Those who mourn…can be happy!  Even those who are persecuted…can be happy!  People in seemingly very unhappy situations can nevertheless be happy!  But how?  True happiness, Jesus teaches, has nothing to do with a person’s external circumstances, or even with his desires, dreams, and feelings, but with his eschatological and eternal hope.  Those who brandish about the statement “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy” as a license to do what they want, regardless of whether or not what they want is sinful, don’t really care about God’s happiness for them because they really don’t care about how God’s happiness comes to them – for sometimes, God’s happiness comes only through personal suffering and prodigious sacrifice.

How are you happy?  Are you happy only if you get your own way?  Or, are you happy when Christ works His way through you?  The first happiness is nothing but narcissism.  The second happiness is comfortingly indelible, even in a broken and sinful world that relentlessly seeks to bring us sorrow.  This is why I find my happiness – no, my joy – in Christ.  As the prophet exhorts, “Find your joy in the LORD” (Isaiah 58:14).

[1] Diogenes Laertius, 10.123

[2] Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (New York: Viking, 2006), Chapter 2.

[3] Gilbert, Chapter 70.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche in R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche:  The Man and His Philosophy (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001), 99.

July 16, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Darwin to Dawkins

Growing up, one of my favorite books was P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?  If you have kids, or if you grew up with my generation, or even the generation before, you no doubt remember this jewel of a children’s story.  It features a baby bird who hatches while his mother is out worm-hunting.  When he discovers he is alone in the nest, he ventures out looking for his mother.  But he does not know who she is or what she looks like.  So he goes to a kitten and asks her if she is his mother.  The cat remains silent.  So he goes to a hen.  No dice.  She’s the wrong kind of bird.  He journeys on to find a dog.  But the dog insists she is not the bird’s mother.  Desperate, the little bird presses on to even inanimate objects, asking if they are his mother – a car, a tugboat, a plane, and finally an enormous power shovel.   “Are you my mother?” the bird asks the shovel.  The shovel, much to the little bird’s fright, snorts smoke out of its exhaust stack and picks up the bird and lifts him high, high into the sky.  But then, in a twist of fate, the shovel drops him right back into his nest just in time for his real mother to return.  And when the bird sees her, he sings with delight, “I know who you are.  You are not a kitten.  You are not a hen.  You are not a dog.  You are not a cow.  You are not a boat, or a plane, or a Snort!” – the little bird’s name for the power shovel – “You are a bird, and you are my mother.”[1]

Perhaps the reason this story has resonated with the hearts of so many children for so many years is because it touches on a need all of us have – to belong.  The little bird wanted to know to whom he belonged.  And so do we.  As kids, we want to feel as though we belong to our parents.  As we grow, we want to belong to a group of our peers.  As we get yet older, we often will give ourselves to one another in marriage and thus belong to a spouse.

This desire to belong is not surprising.  After all, the Bible says we are created in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and, as such, are ultimately designed to belong to Him.  As the apostle Paul reminds us, “You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT).  We all want to belong.  And, by faith in Christ, we can belong, above everything and everyone else, to God.

Though we all feel a need to belong, a narcissism disguised and gilded in the sterile white lab coats of those who believe that science as a discipline demands a naturalistic worldview in toto is seeking to slowly undermine and supplant this natural desire.  This narcissism is promoted by people who, with a paradoxical twist of religious fervency, ground themselves in a system of Darwinian evolution hitched to a strident atheism which espouses not a human desire to belong, but a human fight for survival.

It is well known that the mechanism by which Darwinian evolution works is Natural Selection, or, to use the phrase originally coined by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, “the survival of the fittest.”  Charles Darwin explains the principle:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.[2]

Evolution, Darwin claims, lurches forward because those with less desirable traits die off while those with more desirable traits survive, passing on their superior attributes to subsequent generations.  These subsequent generations, in turn, grow stronger and more environmentally adept.  In short, they “evolve.”  Survival, then, becomes a mark of success in a Darwinian system where propagation of oneself is the name of the game.  Can there be a goal more blatantly narcissistic than this?

The difficulty with Darwin’s theory, of course, is that, even while it has succeeded at elevating biological narcissism to a cause célèbre, it has nevertheless failed to explain why humans sometimes act so un-narcissistically – even downright charitably!  Indeed, Darwin decried this human tendency toward charity and warned of its ill effects:

We civilized men…do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.[3]

“If only,” Darwin opines, “we would not labor so compassionately to ‘check the process of elimination.’ If only we weren’t so charitable to each other!”  According to Darwin, a narcissistic fight for one’s own survival and propagation that results in other, less fit creatures dying off and dying out is in line nature’s ultimate goal and good.

But this still does not solve the problem of human charity.  If we are indeed the products of an inexorable evolutionary march propelled by Natural Selection, what causes us to trade the narcissism innate to this system for an unnatural, and even counterproductive, altruism?

Committed atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sought to address this difficulty in his 1976 classic, The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins explains that, even when people act in seemingly altruistic ways, their genes are still driving them to act in a manner which ultimately protects their survival and insures their propagation.   So if a mother runs into a burning car to save her children, for instance, she is doing so not out of authentic altruism, but so that her genes can live on in her children, even if she dies.  Likewise, if someone helps someone else to whom is he not genetically related, Dawkins claims he is doing so out of “reciprocal altruism,”[4] a term Dawkins borrows from the sociobiologist Robert Trivers, which is essentially the genetic equivalent of the old saw, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”  In other words, when a person does something “nice” for someone else, that person expects some sort of genomic favor in return.  Yet, not all cases of altruism can be accounted for so coldly.  For instance, when a fireman risks his own life, storming a burning building to save another, how can one account for this biologically?  He is usually not related to the person trapped inside.  Thus, he cannot be said to be working out of an evolutionary mandate to propagate his progeny.  And his chance of receiving a favor in return, though possible, is certainly not probable enough to drive the risk he takes.  Even Dawkins must admit that there is such a thing as “pure, disinterested altruism” that “has no place in nature.”  Indeed, it has “never existed before in the whole history of the world.”[5]  Evolutionary biology simply cannot account for all the mysteries of human philanthropy.

If nothing else, the evolutionary attack on human charity in favor of a calculated, genomic narcissism shows that, no matter how prevalent narcissism may be in our world, it is not altogether systemic.  There are still times and places in which people look outside of themselves.  Belonging to each other through love and kindness still count.  And lest one cynically protests that belonging is merely an underhanded means to propagation and survival, we must remember that sometimes, belonging means risking one’s livelihood and even life.  Belonging to an army means risking one’s existence for the sake of a cause.  Belonging to a philanthropic organization means risking one’s health and wellbeing for the sake of fighting the AIDS pandemic in Africa.  And belonging to Christ means losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel.  That’s not narcissistic.  That’s selfless.  And that’s still good…no matter what Natural Selection may claim.

[1] P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? (Random House Books, 1960), 62.

[2] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: Cassell & Company, Ltd., 1909), 64.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (, 1874), 116-117.

[4] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1976), 202.

[5] Dawkins, 201.

July 9, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Descartes to Kant

René Descartes and Immanuel Kant

It began in the Garden.  When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they became history’s first narcissists.  Narcissism is defined as “a consuming self-absorption or self-love; a type of egotism. Narcissists constantly assess their appearance and desires.”[1]  Adam and Eve assessed their desires and decided that their desires trumped God’s command.  Theologically, then, narcissism is as old as history itself.  Philosophically, however, narcissism’s origin – or at least its willing sanction – is slightly more modern.

Narcissism finds its philosophical roots in the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes.  In 1637, he published his seminal work, Discourse on Method, in which he undertook to find something concrete on which to rest his life – a point of certainty in an illusory and shifting universe.  How would he discover such a point of certainty?  By doubting everything he possibly could.  He writes, “I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that which was wholly indubitable.”[2]  Descartes trumpets methodological doubt as his mechanism to discover certainty.  For doubt and certainty are inimical to each other.  This means that if Descartes can find something which he cannot doubt, then this thing must, by antonymic reasoning, be certain.

So what does Descartes doubt?  Pretty much everything.  He doubts human intelligence and insight.  After all, Descartes says, there are a great “number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men.”[3]  Thus, how is one to know who holds the correct opinion?  We are left only with uncertainty.  And where there is doubt, we must throw it out.  Societal norms and traditions must also be doubted.  For different societies have different and conflicting opinions and customs:  “A person brought up in France or Germany exhibits [a very different character] from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he always lived among the Chinese or the savages.”[4]  Not even one’s own senses can be totally trusted, for “our senses sometimes deceive us.”[5]

So are we left with anything which cannot be doubted?  Descartes says there is one indubitable thing:

Whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it.[6]

Here we have perhaps the most famous words spoken by any philosopher in any age:  “I think, therefore I am.”  This is what Descartes can know for certain:  He exists.  How does he know this?  He thinks.  Consciousness, in Descartes’ scheme, becomes the cause of one’s existence, for the very certainty of a person’s very existence is based on nothing else than that person’s very thinking!  Everything a person can know, experience, or be certain of is found in nothing other than the person who is knowing, experiencing, and being certain.  A person, then, is a completely self-contained and self-absorbed entity.  And this, by definition, is narcissism.

It is important to note that, no matter how egocentric Descartes’ dictum may be, the philosopher styled himself as a committed Catholic and finally, at the end of Discourse on Method, seeks to make an argument for the existence of God.  But consider how he fashions his argument: “I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself; and I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some nature which in reality was more perfect.”[7]  Descartes argues that because he can think of a being more perfect than himself, there must indeed be such a being!  In other words, Descartes thinks of God, so there is God.  He thinks, therefore God is.

Though Descartes ultimately exercises a certain amount of restraint in Discourse on Method, trying to steer clear of the unabated egoism that his philosophical system inevitably brings, Descartes’ “I” was quickly marshaled by other less scrupulous philosophers to plunge into a pool of silly solipsism and self-regarding subjectivism.  The next century saw the rise of Immanuel Kant who championed the distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon.  The noumenon is what Kant referred to in German as the ding an sich, “the thing in itself.”  That is, the noumenon is that which is outside of us.  The phenomenon, conversely, is our personal experience, roughly analogous to the Cartesian “I.”  Kant argued that a person has no access to the noumenon apart from the phenomenon.  In other words, it is impossible for us to get outside of our phenomenal selves to directly observe the noumenal world.  Kant asserts, “We cannot know these objects as things in themselves” (ding an sich).  Thus, we are stuck in our hopelessly subjective phenomenal perspectives.  Lest one believe that subjectivity is all there is, however, Kant quickly qualifies:  “Though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.”[8]  Notice how closely Kant’s apology for the existence of the noumenon mirrors Descartes’ apology for the existence of God:  “I can think it, so it must exist!”

With such a rosy view of the human intellect, it is no wonder that subsequent generations have quickly left behind Kant’s noumenon – since it was ultimately inaccessible anyway – in favor of the egoistic phenomenon.  That is, what is “out there” noumenally no longer matters to many people.  Some have even gone so far as to deny the existence of the noumenon altogether.  It is only what is “in us” phenomenally that counts.  This, in turn, has led to obsessive and unyielding introspection – a tell tale sign of narcissism.

Christianity, of course, tells a different story.  We should not bow to what is “in us” as the ultimate grounds for our existence.  Indeed, what is “in us” is suspect at best and, more realistically, downright evil.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?  Our ability to understand even our own selves (not to mention the rest of the world) by ourselves is fatally flawed.  Understanding must start from outside of us;  not from inside of us.  This is why, according to Scripture, wisdom and insight are finally gifts from an external God and not functions of an internal human intellect (e.g., 1 Kings 4:29).

Perhaps Descartes’ dictum would be better reversed:  “I am, therefore I think.”  Or, even better, “I am created, therefore I think.”  In this dictum, creation – the mechanism by which we exist – precedes deliberation.  We can only think because we have been endowed with an intellect by a loving Creator.  He is the center and superlative of our being, for He is the source of our existence.  Our narcissistic “I” must yield to His perfect glory.

[1] “Narcissism,” The American Heritage Dictionary,

[2] Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Forgotten Books, 2008), 28.

[3] Discourse on Method, 7.

[4] Discourse on Method, 14.

[5] Discourse on Method, 28.

[6] Discourse on Method, 28-29.

[7] Discourse on Method, 30.

[8] Vincent G. Potter, Readings in Epistemology: From Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant (Fordham University Press, 1993), 198-199.

July 2, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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