Not Selves, but Faces 

We Christians should face the truth of our situation in the world now. It is not merely that we differ from others in what we conclude to be good or evil. Our differences go to the root. We disagree about being. 

The Christian knows, or should know, that God, the great I AM, whose essence it is to exist, is the fount of being, conferring existence upon all creatures, which he has made “according to their kinds.” (Gen. 1:21) These kinds are objective facts, independent of observation or opinion.

But when it comes to human nature, many of our contemporaries deny it. There is no male, no female. We are supposed to be self-fashioners, self-presenters, in accord with an authentic core of self within us.

The very vagueness of that authentic entity demands from others a public recognition, lest it fall to nothing. Sane people before our time did not found their thoughts about themselves upon – thoughts about themselves. I am a man. That is a public, objective, and easily recognized fact. I am married. That is also a public and objective fact; it names something I have done. No appeal to my feelings or to my sense of self is required.

Scripture warns us against putting stock in a “self,” floating somewhere within us or in the air around us. “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart,” the Lord sees as he looks upon man, “was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) “In those days,” says the sacred author, after describing a notably vicious and bloody episode in their history, “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jg. 21:25) “God gave them up to a base mind,” says Saint Paul, referring to the consequences of the Fall, as men “became futile in their thinking.” (Rom. 1:28)

Jesus teaches us to see the problem as within us, even within apparently decent people. “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Mt. 6:3) That is a more radical rejection of the primacy of the self than we may recognize.

Those who give alms as a public presentation of themselves, to win the honor of men, already have their reward. They are “hypocrites,” says Jesus, and that is not always because they say one thing and do another.

In this case, they say we should give alms, and that is what they do. They are hypocrites in the common sense of the Greek word: they are actors on stage, sounding a trumpet before them to make sure the audience notices.

*

The pagans would surely have shaken their heads at Jesus’ words. Why would an Athenian fund a dramatic festival if not for public honor? Why would a Roman commander risk his life and the lives of his men if not for the laurels, the gratitude of the senate, and perhaps that parade called a triumph, complete with its own memorial arch?

We are right to say that Jesus wants us not to make a big show of our good deeds. But that does not go far enough. For we are not to have even ourselves as an audience. We are not to perform. We are not contestants for Jerusalem Idol. That is the hard lesson to learn. We are to forget ourselves entirely.

“When you have done all that is commanded you,” says Jesus to his disciples, “say, we are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Lk. 17:10) Saint Paul feels compelled to defend his ministry to the fractious Corinthians by enumerating the things he has suffered in preaching the gospel, but it irks him. “If I must boast,” he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Cor. 11:30)

We see from his other letters that he does not want to talk about himself, that he wants himself out of the way, as befits the man who once persecuted the Church. “I know that this man was caught up into Paradise,” he says, describing his own mystical experience, as Christians have always read it, but not identifying himself. (2 Cor. 12:3) He does not claim preeminence over other preachers in numbers and practical results, lest Christ should be divided: “I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name.” (1 Cor. 1:15)

And perhaps there is no self at all to be an audience, but only a figment of our imaginations. I do not mean to say that Tom does not exist. It is the “authentic Tom,” the “inner Tom” – that I doubt, if I am to take Tom’s word about it. How do we gain a self? “He who wishes to save his soul [psyche] must put it away,” says Jesus, (Mt. 16:25; rendering mine)

This psyche, let us grant, is the core of a man’s being, but how does he know it, or possess it?

Men are sinners, and the empty heart of sin is the lie, for Satan “is a liar and the father of lies.” (Jn. 8:44) We are most apt to lie when we are speaking about ourselves, making much of our feelings, sprinkling sugar upon our failures: if Tom has a self to describe, Tom is the last person we should trust to do it.

Hence we must reject more than what people say about their authentic selves. We must reject the thing itself. It’s in Christ that we become who we are meant by God to be, so that we can say, with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

We then have “faces,” as C.S. Lewis puts it. Otherwise, it is but one papier-mâché mask or another, with a bit of mugging and prancing, and glancing toward a mirror to assure ourselves that we exist.

 

*Image: The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria]

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.