Thursday, April 3, 2008

Know Thyself

I love it when the latest hot culture-fad turns up already tried on and laid aside by some previous generation. I see this phenomenon happening to some degree with trendy elements in the Emergent movement. (We'll discuss it another time perhaps). And I found a passage in Calvin's Institutes that seems to me to chasten our general ignorance regarding the Oprah discussion we had last week.

John Calvin (1509-1564), misunderstood and maligned as he is, was actually a brilliant student of the human condition as well as of theology. Today,these insights would fall sowewhere between sociology and psychology, but in his day, they were all relevant to the task of writing a practical handbook of Christian faith for Protestant converts. The Institutes is famous for connecting the knowledge of God with self-knowledge -- a major theme in several of the writers and teachers Oprah has been promoting (see previous posts). In the passage I found (in a modern-language version), Calvin commends secular philosophers for embracing the Socratean dictum, Know Thyself; however, in typical French humanist rhetorical fashion, he sets the principle of self-knowledge up in order to show how inadequate it really is.

And the whole section is so insightful and applicable to our previous discussion of New Age gurus, in which I tried to assert that the Self is not a good starting place from which a search for truth should begin, that I want to share a couple of paragraphs with you. Keep in mind that this was written in the sixteenth century. I'll give you the key line first, then quote the section at-length:
If we listen to teachers who get us to dwell on our good qualities, then far from making progress in self-knowledge, we will be sunk in the most disastrous ignorance.

Got your attention? Here's the larger piece, which begins by asserting that true self-knowledge destroys our self-confidence and puts us in the position of realizing our need for a Redeemer:

I am aware that a much more acceptable view encourages us to think about our good qualities, rather than dwell on our overwhelming shame and misery. The human mind loves nothing better than flattery, and so when told that its gifts are considerable, it is inclined to believe it wholeheartedly! So it is not strange that the majority of men have sinned so blatantly in this matter. Because of the innate self-love which blinds us all, we willingly convince ourselves that we do not possess a single undesirable quality.

So, without any external approval, there is a general belief in the mistaken idea that man has everthing he needs for a good and happy life. If some people think more modestly and give God a little credit, so that they do not appear to claim everything for themselves, the division always leaves the chief ground of confidence and boasting in themselves. Nothing is more gratifying than a speech which flatters man's innate pride.

So in every age, the one who is quickest to lift high the excellence of human nature is received with the loudest applause. Teaching man to rely on himself can be no more than sweet seduction, because everyone who is deluded by it will be ruined (Calvin, Institutes, II.1.2, eds. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, emphasis mine).

Unbelievable. When I peruse Marianne Williamson's stuff on A Course in Miracles, or scroll through Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, I see exacty the kind of self-love and gratifying speeches that Calvin is calling out nearly 500 years ago. The trouble with searching for God "within" (the Self, Hinduism's atman) is that truth, peace, Love and salvation lay outside ourselves. The first principle of a biblical worldview is that there is a distinction between the Creator and the creatures. Secondly, that though we are created in God's image (Genesis 1:27), we are fallen, broken, alienated from God and each other and corrupt in our self-estimations (Romans 1:18-21).

Calvin teases out the idea of the inadequacy of self-knowledge (and unaided knowledge of God) to lead his readers to the conclusion that we need a mediator, and that the grace of God and the cross of Christ answer our need:
So, although the preaching of the cross does not square with human wisdom, we must accept it humbly if we want to return to God our Maker (from whom we are estranged) so that he may become our Father again.

This wisdom from above truly saves us and sets us right with God and ourselves. And it is inclusive, as Calvin reminds:

Christ does not speak only of his own age, but embraces all ages whe he says, 'This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3)... (Institutes, IV.6.1).


Anonymous said...

Hey there! Great post. History always has a way of repeating itself. I listen to you guys every weekday morning and love the show! Keep up the great work, oh, you might want to help Dave out with his custom header. :-P


Craig.Worley said...

Calvin is so timely! Thanks for the post Bill! It's also amazing how many of our churches have taken up the banner of promoting self as well. Dying-to-self is a foreign concept that Christianity at large seems to be very ignorant of. It seems to me that the only two that can be on the throne of our lives are God and ourselves. When we serve self, we have a master who lets us feel good about ourselves but is powerless to lead or change us. That's not the kind of master I want to serve.