Dr. Russell Moore is a Public Theologian and Director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. He formerly served as the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore is also a critically acclaimed author of Christian thought, publishing works such as The Courage to Stand and The Storm-Tossed Family.
Jackson Lee of Synesis had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Moore and discussing important issues of faith and reason. The transcript follows.
LEE: So, as you know, our theme for Synesis is “self-.” That choice was driven by two factors; first of all, the power and commonality of the ‘identity issues’, especially within American culture; and the general fact that, outside of those issues, the way we think about ourselves is fundamental to who we are, whether that’s in the abstract or specific – the problem is that it’s a very difficult subject, especially for college students. I know that’s a mouthful leading up to the first question, then, but what would you say defines our culture’s definition of ‘ourself’ or better, the ‘self’?
MOORE: I think that there is a great deal of contradiction and confusion when it comes to the ‘self,’ because there’s a mixture of several different influences that are coming together. So on the one hand, there’s what Charles Taylor calls “expressive individualism” – myself is my authentic core, and I have to be true to it. On the other hand, there is this merging of the self into various herds, so it’s almost as though there’s the amplification of individualism and collectivism at the same time, rather than the Christian vision, which is that of the one and the many, the individual and the body. So, I think it’s confused, and it manifests itself in different ways. So, you look at, for instance, pop Buddhism, which is very different than genuine Buddhism – and many genuine Buddhists are as horrified as what they call ‘McBuddhism’ in American life, as I would be of some forms of Christianity – there’s this sense of the self as illusion, so there is no continuity from past present and future, and yet this quest for self discovery – “who am I,” and those two things going together. So, I think there’s a great deal of confusion and contradictory impulses.
L: Then – and you alluded to this – what would a Christian conception of self be?
M: I think a more Christian conception of self would be rooted in the idea of humanity as wayfarer. So, Walker Percy, the novelist and essayist, wrote quite a bit about homesickness as fundamental to the human condition. So, in every human life, there is the realization that the self is more than just an organism in an environment. There are certain longings and questions that are being asked that are by definition uniquely human. And so, what happens as Percy puts it, is that we want to see ourselves as beasts or as gods, as either something less than human or more than human, but in reality this sort of conflicted nature – this sense of longing – all these things are what it means to be human. And I think that the Christian vision of that points outward, to say “what are those things indicating?” so that when C.S. Lewis talks about signposts along the way, that certain appetites imply a resolution, I think this sense of the human self as so elusive in every human life is pointing to something – which is to say that you’re a conflicted being, you’re created and fallen, you’re at home in the world, and yet not at home. All of those paradoxes are there and are present.
L: As Christians, how does that interplay of homesickness and the knowledge that we are ‘bound for the promised land’ help guide us?
M: Well, I think one of those things is to recognize the tension between knowing oneself and realizing that one can never truly know oneself. As the Apostle Paul talks about, when he is talking to those on the outside, he says “I consider it a small thing to be judged by you.” That’s an easy thing to understand in contemporary American culture, but then he goes on to say “I do not even judge myself” – why? Because he knows that a human being can never know his own motivations extensively. He is living his life before the judgement seat of Christ. So, there’s a tension there of necessary self knowledge – if I don’t know, to some degree, my gifts and my vulnerabilities then I am not going to contribute to the church or the world, or I am going to end up hurting myself and others – but that has a limit to it. And that’s something we ought not to miss.
L: I don’t know where the phrase came from – I did not originate it – but that reminds me of the so called “trap of self awareness,” where, whether we’re Christians or not, we either think too much about ourselves, or we are entirely oblivious to what we are doing. What are some ways to find balance there?
M: So, if you look at this concept of Flow – which, the name is escaping me right now – but the author of the book is a psychologist working in this area – where he says that the ideal work state for creativity is this lack of self awareness because someone is engaged in a particular calling. So, someone who is a writer… is not narrating to themself that they’re writing. Or an artist is painting, but it does not feel like they’re painting. If there’s not enough self awareness – and we all know people where we could say “this person is completely self unaware, or oblivious” that means that they don’t know what they’re doing; but then there are also times where you can be so self aware that what you’re doing is almost watching and judging yourself and narrating yourself, and that becomes paralyzing too.
I think instead of all that, there’s a sense of “I’m living my life before the face of God,” and “I have certain callings that God has given me, and I am going to fail at them, and so I am going to fall and get back up.” So, there is a certain amount of self awareness, but not existential stakes, which I think is the point of Colossians 3 – ‘your life is hidden with Christ’ and Christ is seated at the right hand of the father, so ‘do not set your minds on the things of earth, but set your minds where Christ is, and when Christ is revealed, then you will be revealed in glory.’ I think that’s something that has to happen constantly. We have to constantly be reminding ourselves of that, which highlights the value of the individual – the shepherd goes looking for the one sheep – and it preserves the value of the group. So, right after Paul says that, speaking to the one, he then goes to say “here there is neither Cythian, Jew, nor slave nor free, but Christ is in all and in you all” or as one translation put it “there is only Christ, He is everything.” So it’s both ‘you matter,’ because you’re united to Christ, and your image in Christ, and ‘you’re not ultimate’ Christ is all and in all, so you find yourself in others. I think that sometimes this part has to be emphasized – the individual – and sometimes this part has to be emphasized more – the body. But both are true, and they have to be held together all the time.
L: How does that idea of the tension between being an individual and in this collective body change how Chrsitians interact with those around them?
M: Well, I think, on the one hand, Christians are constantly aware of the need for community, for genuine community, that no one can stand or fall on his or her own, that there is a need to belong to one another, what Wendell Berry would call ‘membership,’ which is picking up on imagery from the New Testament, where Paul says that we are members of one another, using that metaphor of a body with many different parts. That’s part of it. And also, because Christians understand that one does not come before God nation by nation, or family by family, or political party by political party, but one by one, there is a sense of individual accountability which enables people to, when necessary, stand apart from the community, which is often needed. Elijah is someone who walks out from the community. Community in his case would have been Baalism – he walks out from that and walks out from it alone. And that temporary loneliness is leading towards future community. And that is often what has to happen in the lives of Christians – a temporary sense of loneliness for the sake of others one may not yet know. And that’s hard to do, because we want to think that we’re special and unique, but we also want to have the protection of the herd and of the tribe. And so, often, there’s a fear of exile, that then leads to people putting their blind trust in some way or the other, and that has to be overcome.
L: What would you say to somebody struggling with that fear of exile? We’re getting pretty far afield, but I think it’s a good question.
M: Well, I would say that in some sense or other exile is the normal human condition in the time between the times. There’s a reason why it feels so scary, as one psychologist I heard talking about this at one point said, if you’re in an ancient tribe, being sent out on one’s own, being sent out alone is not just a loss of connections, it’s a death sentence, because alone against a saber tooth tiger is quite a different thing than being with a village against a sabertooth tiger. So there’s reason why that feels so existential to someone, but Jesus talks about being called out of whatever the comfortable hive is, and says – and I think of John 12 for instance – there were many who cognitively believed in Him, but would not commit themselves to him, because they feared being kicked out of the synagogues. Everybody has that fear of being kicked out of whatever that particular synagogue – to use that metaphor – is in their lives, but that’s often necessary. And so, I would say recognizing that this is not unique to the person, this is an essential part of what it means to be shaped and formed in one’s character.
L: So, getting a little bit more back to the theme… Is it wrong to tell someone to believe in themself?
M: I think it’s wrong to tell someone to believe in themselves if that is said without qualifiers and in an ultimate sense. It’s not wrong to say that if what one means is ‘have confidence in your actual abilities and gifts,’ which is usually what people mean when they say that, which is saying that your problem is a lack of self-confidence and you have reason to have more confidence than you have. So, I don’t usually use the language of ‘believe in yourself,’ but I’ll say the equivalent of it, “you’ve got this; you’re more prepared than you think for this,” when I do. What I think is the false cultural message is sort of the Disneyfication of belief in oneself as being everyone’s super power, that there’s this hidden core inside of every person that is limitless, and that if one can just tap into this, and believe in oneself, then one can do anything. Ultimately, every human being realizes that that is not true, that there are limits, and those limits are actually a blessing in ways that we often cannot see. But it is not true that belief in one’s possibilities will then equal the ability to achieve those possibilities. That’s not true – what I think that leads to is not to an inflated grandiosity in oneself, although that is usually where it starts – it ends up with a kind of self loathing, because if I expect myself to be limitless, then when the limits hit, I feel as though I’m a complete failure. That’s why you see so many people’s lives falling apart. Maybe someone’s a star athlete, and pulls a tendon, and can’t play anymore, and rather than seeing this person’s life as moving from one phase to another, it seems as though everything is over. Or the person for whom “If I believe in myself as someone who can achieve wealth or fame and what have you, then I can achieve that,” and when that ultimately goes away as it always does in some way or the other, it doesn’t just feel like I’ve failed at something, it feels like I’m no longer someone, because that’s the expectation I’ve built into it. That’s what I think is dangerous.
L: My next question on paper was actually about self doubt. Some people have framed self doubt as a matter of pride itself, where we’re either too worried about whether or not we can do something, because we are too worried about ourselves, we’re thinking too much about ourselves, or we’re too terrified that we’re going to fail. So, what are some ways to avoid self doubt while avoiding the opposite, where we do have that grandiose kind of Disney style, “Oh, I can do whatever I put my mind to?”
M: I don’t think they’re opposite. I think they’re actually the same reality, which is to say that the idea of an achievable perfection is what can lead one person to assume that he or she has limitless possibilities – “I can do it” – or a person to have such paralysis and self doubt that he or she never does anything – it’s really the same place, because they are both looking at this image of perfection, this person is fooled into thinking that he or she can achieve it, this person is terrified that he or she can’t, but they’re both looking at the same illusion. They’re both starting with the same premises. That’s why Seth Goden will write about encountering: going to coffee shops in Los Angeles and encountering all of these screenwriters who are working on their screenplays and they never send them in to anyone, they never give them to anyone, the reason is, he says, that they have such an idealization of themselves as a brilliant screenwriter, that if they were to ship it (to use the language he uses) there would be the possibility of it being revealed that they were not, and so they would rather have the self image of the misunderstood genius, rather than to risk the possibility of bringing that creativity into the world and being told that it’s not good enough. That’s really the same primal impulse of pride that is the case with the person who is grandiose. And so they’re not opposite, they’re the same fundamental problem, just manifesting itself in different ways.
L: You’ve talked about how these are really the same phenomena – for our non-Christian readers, where can we find perfection?
M: Well, it depends on what one means by perfection. If one means creative perfection, there is no achieving that, and we should be glad, because if it were achieved there would be no ongoing creative work. If we’re talking about moral perfection, we can also see that that’s unachievable in human life, which can lead some people to a kind of cynicism about human nature and a self protection of themselves from self and others in ways that, in a Christian vision of life – that is to say, there is a perfect human life in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of the Father – and so, when I join my life to his, I’m realizing that I can’t achieve – not only can I not achieve perfection, but that if I really pay attention to myself, I am going to find all kinds of dark realities there, and I can either hide those dark realities and pretend that they’re not there. But if I am joined to the life of Christ, then His life is my life, and so I am able to realize that one of the reasons why so much is at stakes for people, in terms of relationships or jobs or careers is because they think that their life span is seventy, eighty, one hundred years, and so what has to be achieved has to happen then or it is never going to happen… A Buddhist vision of reality for instance would say that that is an illusion, because everything is impermanent and the self is simply dissolved into the universe itself – individuality is gone. A Christian vision of reality is different than that, and says that the self is not obliterated or dissolved, but the lifespan is eternal. So, there is a sense of a relativizing of my successes and achievements, whether moral or creative, but there’s also a permanence to those things, because I continue to live in a mode that we can’t really understand right now, but my life continues to go on which means that when we encounter failure, when we encounter suffering, when we find ourselves having disappointed ourselves in our moral character, we’re not wrecking our lives, or if we do wreck our lives, it’s because we’re taking those wrecked lives and joining them to an unwreckable life. And so, that ought to, if we really understand what’s going on, take some of the hyper-awareness off the table, because I don’t have to be the hero in my own narrative. That’s a false view of what the narrative is, and I think, actually when it comes to self that is the most important part. I think that the understanding of self is narrative – it’s the story that we are telling ourselves. I think that the Christian view of reality retells that story, and retells that story around the life of Christ, which I think enables us to more accurately see our own successes and failures.