The Cult of Self and the Devolution of Evangelicalism

The modern evangelical church is not in a good condition. There are many areas of concern that could be raised here: theological decline, a major identity crisis, spiritual anaemia, etc. But let me dwell on one particular aspect: there is a kind of pervasive self-centredness which now characterises much of its theology, with a quite unhealthy emphasis – indeed, overemphasis – on self in general.

The cult of self is of course endemic in Western culture. But sadly it has well and truly soaked into our churches as well. Many perceptive Christians have noted this overemphasis on self in contemporary evangelicalism. They have rightly observed that the church has in many ways traded self-denial for self-fulfilment.

For example, Os Guinness has a challenging essay on this “triumph of the therapeutic” which plagues much of Western Christendom. Says Guinness, “The overall story of pastoral care in the United States has been summed up as the shift from salvation to self-realization, made up of smaller shifts from self-denial to self-love to self-mastery, and finally to self-realization. The victory of the therapeutic over theology is therefore nothing less than the secularization and replacement of salvation.”

Craig Gay has written an incisive book entitled The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As if God Doesn’t Exist. In it he echoes the thoughts of Guinness: “In effect, the modern therapeutic disposition mortgages eternal destiny for the sake of comfort. It reverses Jesus’ question about the prudence of gaining the world at the cost of one’s soul (Matt. 16:26) and asks instead: What good will it be for someone to gain his ‘soul’ and lose this world?”

James Davison Hunter noted in 1983 that American evangelicalism had gone through a major shift in the latter half of the twentieth century. It has tended to downplay self-denial, sacrifice and suffering while fulfillment, happiness and emphasis on self were stressed. “Subjectivism, which has culminated in narcissism and hedonism, has displaced the traditional asceticism as the dominant attitude in theologically conservative Protestant culture.”

David Wells has written a number of books on these and related themes. In a newer volume he devotes most of his discourse to this theme of the triumph of the self in modern culture. Says Wells, “Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self. This is a form of corruption far more profound than the lists of infractions that typically pop into our minds when we hear the word sin.

“We are trying to hold at bay the gnats of small sins while swallowing the camel of self. . . . The contemporary Church is whoring after this god as assiduously as the Israelites in their darker days. It is baptizing as faith the pride that leads us to think much about ourselves and much of ourselves.”

Charles Colson put it this way: “Outwardly, we are a religious people, but inwardly our religious beliefs make no difference in how we live. We are obsessed with self.” And elsewhere he adds that “much of the church is caught up in the success mania of American society. . . . Suffering, sacrifice, and service have been preempted by success and self-fulfillment.”

In the book Need: The New Religion, Tony Walter speaks of the emergence of the “self-actualized person” in these terms: “One mark of the almost total success of this new morality is that the Christian Church, traditionally keen on mortifying the desires of the flesh, on crucifying the needs of the self in pursuit of the religious life, has eagerly adopted the language of needs for itself.

“To the long queues of doctors, salesmen, advertisers and pop-song lovers peddling their wares with the slogan that they will meet our needs, we now hear that ‘Jesus will meet your every need’, as though he were some kind of divine psychiatrist or divine detergent, as though God were there simply to service us. Enthusiastic young Christians hopefully implore God to meet their various wants and needs, whereas the medieval ascetic would have prayed for strength to deny his needs.”

The remarks of Christian sociologist David Lyon could also be mentioned. In a penetrating analysis of the intersection of postmodernism and religion entitled Jesus in Disneyland, he speaks of the “sacralization of self”. He too is aware of the transformation of religion where the “idea of making up your personal bricolage of beliefs, choosing what fits and what does not, appears to be a popular mode of religiosity or spirituality today, especially in North America.” While some may think he is referring to the New Age movement here, he especially has in mind the evangelical church.

Interestingly it was the earlier secular analyses by social observers like Rieff and Lasch that paved the way for later evangelical critiques. Back in 1966 Philip Rieff released his The Triumph of the Therapeutic. There he states that faith after Freud has made a remarkable journey: “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.”

A little over a decade later Christopher Lasch spoke of this “therapeutic sensibility” with prophetic insight: “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden era, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”

Other secular assessments could be noted. Back in 1985 Robert Bellah and his colleagues observed in their influential Habits of the Heart the “tendency visible in many evangelical circles to thin the biblical language of sin and redemption to an idea of Jesus as the friend who helps us find happiness and self-fulfillment.”

In 1991 Kenneth Gergen spoke of “The Saturated Self”. And in 1987 Allan Bloom could write, “The self is the modern substitute for the soul” (1987, 173). In fact, way back in 1958 this trend was noted. Two sociologists did a study of popular inspirational literature from 1875 to 1955. They concluded their survey this way:

“The [evangelical] literature presents a man-centered rather than a God-centered religion. It is preoccupied with power, success, life-mastery, and peace of mind and soul and not with salvation in the other sense of the term.”

Thus both secular and Christian critiques of modern culture have noted this drift to self, and how the church has so readily followed suit. If modern evangelicalism is guilty of unwarranted appeal to self, it is simply reflecting the wider Western milieu of which it is a part.

As Wells reminds us, “This fascination with self is not a uniquely Christian or uniquely American phenomenon; it is the calling card modernity leaves behind wherever it goes.” But regrettably, instead of standing against the world and the spirit of the age, the evangelical church has jumped into bed with it.

Observing and reflecting upon the problem is one thing – finding a cure is another. And for that we need to go back to basics. A church obsessed with self has only one option: to repent, and begin again. The renunciation of self is what Christ calls us to do.

We are not called to nurture self, feed self, caress self, indulge self, or pamper self. We are called to put it to death. That has always been the demand laid upon the church by her Lord. Will we return to our first love, renounce self, and be set free from bondage to self, or will we continue to drift into mediocrity, irrelevance, futility and bondage?

The choice is ours.

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