This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
The church does not teach that self-realization is the goal of our existence (at least, not the way we usually think of it).
If you drive down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, heading toward the ocean, the terrain gradually changes from the crass ugliness of commercial construction to the studied spectacle of mansions inhabited by the very rich, and then to smaller homes tucked into verdant gardens. Eventually, you enter winding canyons with wild terrain, and then you pass a large and beautiful garden with a lake that reflects the golden dome of a shining white temple and arch. It is the headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and I always thought it was appropriate that it should be in Southern California, in Los Angeles, a city so dedicated to the individual human being and its image that one of the first signs I read on the day that I moved there identified the office of “Dr. X, psychiatrist and media consultant.”
Self-realization is an alluring prospect, isn’t it? At its core, the idea (as it’s used commonly, not specifically by the gurus in Los Angeles) implies that we are at our core deeply good, infinitely to be valued, and that if each one of us can let go of the various things that inhibit us and simply express the fullness of who we are, we will be happy and the world will be a better place.
And there is a lot in that idea that coincides with the beliefs of the Christian faith. We do believe that each person — every single human being — is made in the image of God, which means that, in our core, we are deeply good. We believe that our life experiences (the way were raised, the ways other people have treated us, images we’ve been fed by the media, or various ideas we’ve been taught) can get in the way of our ability to be those wonderful, loving people we were created to be, and that we need to do spiritual work in order to be freed to live in holy and life-giving ways.
But here’s where the teachings of Jesus exceed mere self-realization: the goal is not to become ourselves so that we can live for ourselves, but to become ourselves so that we can live for others. Christianity teaches us (and, if we are honest, our own experience shows most of us) that in addition to that wonderful self we were created to be, most of us have a hard seed of self-centeredness wedged like a flint in our hearts. And the aim of our prayers, the aim of our spiritual disciplines, is to open ourselves to the touch of God, who yearns to pour his grace into our hearts and heal us so that we can be free, not to live autonomous lives, but to welcome the life-giving interdependence of love for one another and for God. Only in such mutuality can we be fulfilled, for we were made in the image of a God whose fundamental nature is to be in relationship. That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity shows us: that God’s very existence takes the form of mutual self-offering and love.
We are surrounded each day by so many people who stridently insist on their rights. Sometimes, they insist on them because they are losing what they need to live a decent life; other times, because they want more for themselves even if it means that other people have less. We do not live among a chorus of people crying out with insistent voices that other people matter; that it’s OK to ask us to trim our down our desires so that others can have enough to live. We live in a world of vociferous takers, and few are the people who generously offer one another the best of what they have and are.
And yet, that world, the world of loving self-offering, is called the Kingdom of God. When we see hints of it around us, they move us greatly. When the volunteers poured in to the site of 9/11 to feed and water the rescue workers, we were cheered. When tornados ripped through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and my small god-daughter came to her mother with the one stuffed animal she possessed that had belonged to her deceased older brother, Jacob, and told her mother to give it to a child who’d lost her home, so that Jacob could watch over her, too, I wept. When the members of a community step back from their own wishes and look at what is good for all of its members, so that all can flourish together, it creates a sense of safety and of plenty and of flourishing.
Martin Buber wrote, “I was a Thou before I was an I.” He meant that, from our earliest moments on this earth, we received our sense of who we were from the gaze of our parents. And from that time to this, we have been given our selves by others, over and over again.
What do your words and your actions say to others about who they are? Do they say, “Move over; get out of my way?” Or do they say, “You are precious to me, so beautiful that I am willing to offer my time, my care, and my self, so that you may flourish, too?”
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
Ubuntu: I am, because we are. Martin Buber and Desmond Tutu drew water from the same deep well. Gordon Avery
Great post! Totally appreciate the contrast between self-actualization for the purpose of self and the service of others. Thanks for sharing this!