In Search Of The Author
Today I’m musing over such existential conundrums as “what is reality?” and “what is self?” I owe these philosophical distractions to a lecture I heard about Luigi Pirandello's, Six Characters In Search Of An Author. I know what you're thinking: why am I filling my head with such swill when there’s a fantasy football draft to prep for?
I am a fallen man.
In any case, Pirandello has me thinking about how our current generation experiences some of life's most basic structures, like the self. Is each of us exactly the person we imagine ourselves to be, or are we more accurately defined by others' perceptions? Is the self constant or more like a series of masks? When we say that we have done something “out of character” is that accurate, or is there no actual “character” for us to be “out of”? How do we know who we are? More importantly, how do we know that we are? Is art, as one character asserts in Pirandello’s play, more static and therefore more real than the fickle reality of our turbulent lives?
Addressing these issues in Pirandello, a critic named Joseph Wood Krutch has asserted that three “isms” have assaulted our modern understanding of the self — Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism. All three of these philosophies do violence to the understanding of self shared by most pre-modern civilizations. Darwinism teaches us that we are cosmic accidents, haphazard and expendable. Marxism would have us understand ourselves not so much as self-possessed free agents, but as products of the social machinery around us. And Freudianism asserts that our decisions and ego are largely the product of subliminal forces we don’t understand. All three stand against the pre-modern yawp of William Ernest Henley who wrote, in 1875,
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
All this I learned from yesterday's lecture. But when the lecture ended, I started to ponder another question: What does Christianity say about the self? How would Jesus have us see our egos?
This, like so much Christian thought, invites us into deep mystery rather than delivering us cheap answers. Christianity certainly embraces the idea of a persistent self. We believe in a soul that is something more permanent than the particular collection of carbon-based cells which happens to make up our bodies. And we have free will; people are not only the products of their circumstances or their genes. Choice is present in Christianity’s earliest stories (think of Job and Eve). The gospel accounts are about a poor, itinerate preacher who overcame his disadvantages to make a sacrifice that changed the world, and who invites his followers to do the same.
But Christianity also acknowledges the limits of self-determination. As one oft-repeated Christian epigram asserts, “There is a God, and I’m not him.” In Christian thought, the temptation of humans to supplant the Almighty’s sovereignty has gotten us into all the trouble we’ve gotten into. Thus, Carrie Underwood sings, “Jesus, take the wheel” and William Ernest Henley comes off as positively Luciferian when he finishes the above-quoted poem with these lines:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
The God of the Bible endows his creation with free will and then limits it with election. He creates people in his eternal image and then entwines them with temporal bodies. He creates us as individuals and then constrains our identity with a need for community. The Christian understanding of ego is a deep one.
But whatever we may say about the permanence of ego or the nature of reality, Jesus insists that two additional things color our understanding of self: grace and redemption.
We are not fated or inconsequential. We don’t have to be eternally judged based on our worst decisions, our disadvantages, our brain chemicals, or our fallen self. We don’t have to be hounded by our past or limited by our prospects. For the criminal and the coward, the sick and the wealthy, the proud and the pitiful, there is grace, forgiveness, and a clean slate.
And we can change. No matter our circumstance, we aren’t destined to repeat our most broken patterns. Our egos are constant, but our depravity is not.
The embrace of these two things — grace and redemption — creates the Christian idea of self. It informs the stories that Christianity celebrates. The gospel declares that Jesus came to rescue and renew that which was lost and broken. Rather than measuring the permanence of art or reality, ours is to embrace the impermanence of all things except the elements of this message. And, it turns out, the rejection of grace and redemption — in the form of insistence that we don’t need it, or it doesn’t exist, or it isn’t strong enough — is the only thing that can rob this philosophy of its transforming power.
As Christians, we understand humankind as a beautifully complex creation with a mysterious balance of free will and limited sovereignty. A collection of eternal souls stranded on an impermanent stage. A global cast of characters for the most weighty Playwright to create stories of grace and redemption.