By David Hegg
In a recent article at wng.org, university professor Thaddeus Williams chronicled the history of the West as moving from the Age of Faith, through the Age of Enlightenment, and on to the Age of Science. Then, he asked the question, “What label best describes our present age?”
Some have suggested the Age of the Screen given the amount of time we spend in front of our phones, tablets, computers and TV. Those who see everything though the legal lens suggest the Age of the Gavel, and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that we are now in the Age of Authenticity.
Taylor’s label focuses not on the influences, values, and history that exist outside the individual, but rather the enthronement of the psychologized self, the feeling-based conviction that finding my own self, my own authenticity, is the primary goal of human existence and the stuff of personal power.
Taylor hits the nail on the head. For proof, just look around at where the power is found in our world and you’ll find it in the way all society is now expected to bow and scrape and applaud whatever an individual determines their identity to be. But, that’s probably only the most obvious indication of the monumental turn in our society as we have come to believe meaning begins with what the individual feels, desires and demands. The truth is we have not only turned to the inner self as sovereign. In turning to self we have also turned away from the one entity in our universe that actually is sovereign. The enthronement of self has been the intentional dethronement of the supernatural, of the very concept of God.
But this turn inward has not come without serious consequences. It turns out, as Jonathan Leeman has written, that self-enthronement also demands self-justification. If we are on the throne of our own lives, able to determine our own identity, and choose our own path, then we are also responsible for our own feelings, decision, actions and outcomes. And, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares, “Therein lies the rub.”
As many have discovered, the rub is really the onslaught of anxiety. Charles Taylor’s discernment is spot on. We are living in the Age of Anxiety. In a very real way, while still in the middle of the battle for personal sovereignty, we are finding we’ve met the enemy and it is us.
Sadly, it began years ago with the Self-Esteem movement. You remember? While historically, recognition followed achievement, we decided that if we just told our children how great they were, they would then go on to achieve greatness. But look around. We live in a society where mistakes are plentiful but no one made them. Everyone is their own king. Consequently, old-school absolutes are passé. Hard work, paying your dues, struggling until you get it right, faith in God, and understanding the value of experience are no longer believed, much less practiced.
Why? Because the authentic self sits on the throne of public opinion and declares that up is down, wrong is right, gender is fluid, parents don’t know what’s best for the kids, and nothing that can be learned from natural law, history, or plain ol’ common sense carries any weight. All that matters is how the sovereign self feels about it.
And, as a great politician once asked, “Are we better off now?” No, we’re not. We’ve become our own gods, and when we fail, when we’re wrong, and our missteps bring adverse consequences down on our heads, we have no excuses and nowhere to run. We’re stuck with ourselves and compelled to find some way to justify ourselves, to stave off the disillusionment, the despair, and lives drowning in anger, anxiety and depression. We desperately begin searching for a way to feel good again about ourselves and the make-believe world we’ve created.
So where do we turn to fix things, to regain some semblance of happiness and success? We too often make use of the escapes society so gleefully provides. Some run to therapy, others to alcohol and meds, and still others to dangerous drugs, even crime. All this running is fueled by the horrible reality that wherever we go, there we are. The therapy appointment ends, the alcohol and meds wear off even as they wear us down. And the drugs and crime only increase the lie that we’re good, in charge, and able to achieve whatever we can dream.
In the past few weeks we watched as young people have died of fentanyl poisoning at an alarming rate. We have cried as sheriff’s deputies have died from gunshots. We have driven by unsheltered human beings whose lives have been decimated by addiction and mental illness. Yet, for the most part, we chalk it up to a lack of money spent, or the lack of good jobs and affordable housing.
Dear friends, all of the political and financial issues must be acknowledged. But there’s more to the human person than the purely physical. At our core, we all have a soul, that immaterial part of us that longs for what only faith can provide. That faith is only as strong as its object. Simply put, we’ve pushed faith in God to the margins, and almost off the page, and only now are we beginning to realize the truth that he is irreplaceable. Let’s stop looking inside for authenticity and truth, and instead, look to the one who is both.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.