In my previous post I wrote about the word of the year, “post-truth,” and how the triumph of the subjective makes assertions of Christianity as true, or anything as true for that matter (outside of scientific claims), problematic for many of our neighbors. The cultural obsession with the self, reflected in various ism’s (relativism, scientism, skepticism, postmodernism), has lead to people believing that the self is the ultimate authority on everything it surveys. In such a cultural milieu it won’t surprise us that our latest adult generation in the West, those called millennials, are considered the most narcissistic generation ever.
The ancient myth of Narcissus is about a youth who spurned suitors, and then became so taken with the beauty of his image reflected in water that he dies (or kills himself) because he realizes he can never obtain the object of his desire, himself. Though ancient Greek and Roman pagans had no revealed knowledge (i.e., the Bible) of the fallen nature of man, it was clear to many of them that the obsession with the self was endemic to human nature and ultimately self-destructive.
It may be, and probably is true, that this current youngest generation of adults is overly narcissistic, but they have something in common with all fallen sinful human beings; we are all navel gazers by nature.
Augustine and Luther used a wonderful Latin phrase that explains this inclination in every one of us, Incurvatus in se—we are curved in on ourselves. It takes a mighty spiritual work of God to turn our gaze first up, then out in love for those other than ourselves. But the curve is never far from us. Yet culture matters, and secular Western culture reinforces this curve big time. Through media, entertainment, and education it’s difficult to escape what Rod Dreher calls the “sovereign Self.” In a piece in Christianity Today titled “Coming to Terms with a Post-Christian World” he explains well the Incurvatus in se that is our secular culture:
Political and legal revolutions always follow cultural revolutions. The gay rights revolution is just the latest example of the West’s long process of emancipating the individual from all authority outside the sovereign Self.
The process has been long because from the Renaissance, through the Reformation, and into the Enlightenment, the focus over hundreds of years moved from finding meaning outside of the person, to finding meaning within it. For example, the Enlightenment project began in the 17th Century firmly committed to the idea that there was such a thing as absolute truth, and that reason was capable of finding it. But at some point, most notoriously in the French Revolution, Western intellectuals began to reject a transcendent rationale for truth, i.e., God, and replaced him with reason. Unfortunately for these intellectuals, reason wasn’t up to the task (without revelation). Through fits and starts we’ve finally gotten to the point where people have given up the idea of a knowable, objective reality outside of human perception, and fully embraced an inward, subjective, feeling orientation as the final authority on meaning.
C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful little book on this slowly devolving tendency in Western culture in 1947 called, The Abolition of Man. A revealing title, that. We are at a point in the 2017 West where the subjective sovereign Self is the undisputed authority in most people’s minds. Which is why in such a self-saturated culture, if we want to keep our kids Christians (and resistant to the temptations of narcissism), we will tirelessly affirm that objective reality exists apart from us, and that meaning is to be found in it, and not in ourselves.