Sunday, August 02, 2015

Expressive Individualism or Frozen II

(My parish magazine item for September)

Last month in these pages I said something about the Disney film, Frozen. This month I want to try to have at some similar ideas in a more general or abstract way – analytically or philosophically, we might say, if we were feeling pretentious! Sorry if it feels as if I’ve swallowed a dictionary. Please do feel free to go and do something else instead!

As with last time, I owe some of these ideas to a short talk given in the UK by New York pastor and author, The Revd Dr Timothy Keller, and he no doubt got them from someone else.

The stories that we tell, Frozen included, represent a kind of worldview, that is, a way of describing and understanding reality and seeking to make sense of life. Indeed, the best stories suggest a way to live.

One dominant worldview today is called Postmodernism. That worldview is a distrust of worldviews, a questioning of the confident scientific pronouncements of Modernism, for example. Or to put it differently, it is a turn away from metanarratives or big stories. There is not The Truth perhaps handed down from heaven or from the University, but many truths, your truth and mine. We have to find our own truths, Man.

Allied to this is the Frozen worldview which could be labelled “Expressive Individualism”. This is one of the main stories that we tell ourselves in the 21st Century West. The quest here is to find out who you really are and to be yourself, express yourself. You will only be happy, you will only be “good” and fulfilled, we are told, if you live authentically. Look within. We might sometimes say to the kids, “You can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you really want to do.” Is that true?

This raises all sorts of questions about the self. Do we decide who to be or do we discover who we are? Can we change? Should we want to be someone else?

We tend to trumpet freedom and even personal autonomy, but to what extent do these things really exist? How much are we determined by our genes, our upbringing, our society, our breakfast? What is freedom anyway? To some extent our relationships make us. I am who I am as a person in community.

One of the basic clashes between theistic world views such as Christianity and atheism is around “given-ness”. Everyone accepts, or ought to, that there are some givens. We are embodied, temporal “creatures” whether we like it or not. Sparing rapid advances in technology, we are all going to die. But what status do we give to these givens? Does “is” lead to “ought”? As the atheist might say, do we just make the best of it, as best we can, in this meaningless universe, or is the given reality (at least to some extent) good? Should we try to live according to the grain of the universe or be damned to it and do what we like?

 When we reflect further on this question of given-ness it has profound implications. For example, is my life mine to do with as I please, or do I belong to God? For the Christian, that one question shows that suicide is never right. Or take the issues around sexuality. To what extent is our sexual life given or self-determined? And however I might have been born, what status might those desires have? Should I seek to fulfil all the desires I have, or can some desires be disordered? Are there any God-given standards to which I ought to conform?

Big questions. It won’t surprise you to hear that the Rector thinks the Christian faith has convincing answers to them. Not that mystery and struggle don’t remain, but that we can really know something of who we are and why we are here and where we are going in Jesus Christ, the True Human Being who entered our story and redeemed it. He is The Way, The Truth and The Life. We find our true and proper self in him and we seek to express his inestimable praise. That is real human flourishing. That is the true story.

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