An Interview with Ray Anderson
An essential part of the recovery process is learning to think and feel about ourselves in new and more appropriate ways. For most of us this is not easy. Most of us have learned to think about ourselves in very strange ways. We may think of ourselves as objects, as bad, as self-sufficient, as invulnerable. Finding new and healthier ways to think and feel about ourselves is a process that takes time and hard work. And it is a process that is complicated by the presence of a variety of extremist views about the self. For some—even some Christians—the self is the problem. Some people believe that any positive thoughts about yourself are inappropriate. And then there is the other extreme: there are some people who think that you shouldn't entertain any negative thoughts about the self at all. We asked Ray Anderson, a professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary to clarify some of this confusion.
STEPS: So, Ray, what's with all the extremist views out there about the self?
Ray: Well, I think it's worth emphasizing that this is not a new problem. The extremes are versions of two tendencies that go back a long way. For some Christians the self is the problem and the solution is the annihilation of the self in order that a new "Christ-self" might take form. Others start with the assumption that the self is intrinsically good and just needs to be enhanced or developed in some way.
STEPS: Some of us were raised in traditions that emphasized hating one's own life and things like that. Any positive reference to the self was highly suspect.
Ray: There is a tradition in America sometimes called the "deeper life" movement that is associated with the Keswick movement from England. The spirituality of this movement could be summarized as "I am nothing; Christ is everything." This kind of spirituality views the self as being so sinful that nothing good can come from it. What is needed, therefore, is the obliteration of the self and the creation of an entirely new, spiritual self.
STEPS: I suppose this instinct has roots in older theological traditions?\
Ray: Sure. You have the Augustinian tradition that talks about "total depravity." I think this is an unfortunate term, because it suggests that every human, because of original sin, is totally corrupted. What was really intended by Augustine is what I have called "total inability." The idea was that, no matter how much good the human self manages to do, it is intrinsically unable, without the grace of God, to establish and sustain a new relationship with God. In general, however, this tradition has tended to emphasize the total corruption of the self. But whenever you find this emphasis throughout history, you always find—in opposition to it—those who take a more positive view of the self. For example, in opposition to Augustine you have Pelagius, who argued that all humans are born in the same condition as Adam and Eve before the Fall—without sin—and that we only become sinners as we fall into personal sin.
STEPS: It sounds like the struggle to find appropriate ways to think and feel about ourselves goes way back.
Ray: Absolutely. It certainly goes back to the first century. What you commonly see is that people read the Pauline writings in the light of their own theology of the self. For example, people in the Augustinian tradition read Romans 7 where Paul says "nothing good lives in me" and find a clear confirmation of their negative view of the self. On the other hand, those who emphasize a more positive view of the self would focus on the assumption in Scripture that the human self has the ability to choose. We are encouraged to "choose this day whom you will serve." In this tradition, even though the implications of the Fall are accepted, the Fall is not seen as destroying the self in terms of its moral and spiritual capabilities. We still need the grace of God, but even in sin we have a capacity to choose the good.
These opposing traditions can be seen all the way through two thousand years of Christian theological reflection. They constantly play off each other. In the Protestant Reformation you have Calvin solidly in the Augustinian tradition. But opposed to Calvin you have Jacobus Arminius. Arminius's response to Calvin was that, although we are all born in need of the grace of God, we are not born incapable of making decisions. Arminius argued that there must be a basis for moral accountability. The self must still be morally capable of responding to the gospel and have the freedom do to so. Again, these two ways of thinking about the ‘self' go clear back to the first couple of centuries of the life of the Church.
STEPS: You mentioned Paul saying in Romans 7 that "nothing good lives in me," but there is really a kind of balance in that chapter that seems to me to be in some ways saner than much of the theology that followed.
Ray: Yes. Many commentators site that passage as evidence that the self is no good. But in that same chapter you find Romans 7:22, where Paul says "in my inner being I delight in God's law." It is amazing how many commentators just skip over this text because they have already decided that Romans 7 presents the self as totally depraved. Paul is not that simple. Even though Paul sees no hope for the self apart from the grace of God, he still finds down deep within him a self that has a love for the law of God. The self in the light of the grace of God can find—even within itself—a positive core. Paul needs to be read carefully. It is a mistake to read into him a totally negative view of the self.
In fact, Paul's writings are a good corrective to both of the extremist tendencies. Paul leaves no room for the view that the self is so basically good that all it needs is a healthier environment in which to develop. For Paul, our dilemma is much more fundamental than that. But Paul would also be unhappy, I think, with the concept of total depravity if that means that we have no moral or spiritual capability at all. He would say we have total inability; we cannot, by ourselves, restore ourselves to a true relationship with God and others. We need the grace of God to discover even our essential goodness. So, in Romans 3, when Paul says "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" and "there is no one righteous" he is able to say that only after he has experienced the grace of God, which has in fact rehabilitated his self. Paul's self has been rehabilitated. He doesn't just have a brand new self after the old self has been destroyed. He has a rehabilitated self.
The rehabilitation process begins with the rehabilitation of the core self. That is a process of grace by which we overcome and are healed from some of those instincts and drives that work within us. Paul called these the "flesh," the "law of the flesh" and the "old Adam." Without using psychological terms Paul is dealing with the same things we might call drives, instincts and addictive patterns. Romans 7 is a pretty good description of addiction using nontechnical, nonpsychological language. The things I don't want to do? I am obsessed with them. The things I want to do? I find I am incapable of doing them. It's a kind of a confession of addiction. Who will deliver him? Well, it is the grace of Christ thatdelivers. But the deliverance does not come by a total annihilation of the self, but through a process in which Paul is empowered to become a rehabilitated person. This process involves discovering that there is a core within him that must be affirmed and loved and valued—a self which, he says, has a love for the law of God.
STEPS: It seems to me that not only does Paul have a better balance than many of the traditions that followed, but he also seems to be much closer to the instincts of Jesus. I think often of the prodigal son, who practiced his "I am not worthy" speech on the way back to his father. How people understand that speech is quite indicative of how they think about the self. Some people think that the prodigal's sense of worthlessness was a good thing! I have heard it preached that it was this sense of worthlessness that made it possible for the father to receive him. There are others who feel that the prodigal's thoughts and feelings about himself were part of the problem. They were certainly incompatible with the thoughts and feelings of the father toward the son.
Ray: The latter view is clearly, I think, the point stressed in the parable. It does say that the prodigal "comes to his senses" in the far country. But I do not take that to be much of a positive spiritual move. There is no empowering for him in that experience. His attitude toward himself is still full of far-country thinking. He has not yet experienced an empowering spiritual transformation. The father meets him and immediately seeks to empower him before expecting him to do anything. The first act of the father is to empower him. Before there are any expectations placed on the son—even the expectations of confession and repentance—there is the experience of empowerment. One of the tragic fallacies of spiritualities based on total depravity is that they disempower the self and then lay heavy burdens on the self for obedience, spirituality and discipleship. The true grace of God that Paul experienced was first of all an empowerment that restored and rehabilitated his true self. Only then was he given a kind of life-long journey of healing and recovery. Paul was in recovery for the rest of his life. But his recovery was a gracious recovery. Even though he may slip and fall, he is able to reach back within himself and remind himself that it is Christ that lives in him. It is the love of God that has been poured into our hearts, Paul says, that restores us.
STEPS: There must be a lot of churches today where a prodigal can go to have their sense of worthlessness encouraged and supported.
Ray: I suspect there are many congregations who would have baptized the prodigal son immediately and put him in a discipleship program rather than throwing a party for him. They probably would say: "Now you need to be discipled. Now you must learn how to live the Christian life. Now you must assume a certain kind of persona." But you see, the real conversion and the real repentance of the son only took place after the party, after the empowerment. I tell my students that I would love to have been there at the breakfast table the next morning after the party. I think the son would have said to the father, "I want your permission now to go back to the far country." The father would say, "I don't understand. You've just come from there and been saved from that." The son would say, "When I was in the far country I said bad things about you. I said you were a terrible father. I need now to go and to correct that. I need to tell the truth about you and to make amends for the harm I have done. I need to let them know that there is grace and forgiveness and not just punishment and deprivation." That's what real repentance involves. True repentance follows grace. The empowerment comes first. That is, of course, why the Twelve Steps begin with recognizing that we are not powerful enough to manage our lives on our own but that there is a Higher Power who can do a better job of managing our lives than we have done.
STEPS: Another sign of a very negative attitude toward the self is when people are unable to do appropriate self-care or have an aversion to experiencing pleasure.
Ray: A negative view of the self comes with the assumption that the pleasure instinct, the desire to feel good, the desire to experience well-being, is itself sinful and that it needs to be avoided at all costs. I argue that the image of God involves a kind of positive narcissism. The narcissistic aspect of feeling pleasure is a divinely endowed gift. God takes pleasure in things. And we, made in the image of God, need to take pleasure in things as well. Sin is not the desire for pleasure. Sin is connected with self-gratification. We use all kinds of stimulants and other means to try to gratify our divinely endowed pleasure instinct. What the grace of God does is to empower us to move beyond self-gratification to what I call self-fulfillment. A simple example might help. When I was a child, I got pleasure from taking a toy away from one of my playmates. I wanted it all to myself. I wanted it now. I did not want to share it. My own gratification was all I understood or valued. Later, as I learned the ways of love, I can find fulfillment in giving up things that are mine so that others can share the pleasure. I have learned delayed self-gratification. One of the signs of spiritual maturity, as I see it, is this capacity for delayed self-gratification. This is not the same as avoiding gratification completely. It's a very serious mistake to think that God does not intend us to experience gratification, pleasure, or fulfillment. We delay self-gratification because it is what makes self-fulfillment possible. We give up the less satisfying to acquire the more satisfying.
STEPS: Like storing up treasures in heaven?
Ray: Exactly. In a sermon I preached some time ago I read the text "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for God treasures in heaven." And then I paused a bit. Finally, a woman on the front row spoke up and said, "My Bible doesn't say that." She was right, of course. The text says, "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven." People look at this text and miss this point because they think it is wrong to do things for yourself. But clearly we are to lay up treasures "for ourselves." Addiction is about instant self-gratification of the pleasure instinct. But the solution to this problem is not to seek liberation by killing the pleasure instinct. It is an instinct given to us by God. We find liberation by attaching the pleasure instinct to an ultimate goal of fulfillment. When you receive a one-year sobriety pin, there is an incredible amount of satisfaction. You've earned it. And it is a powerful symbol of God's grace. That kind of deep fulfillment is pleasurable! It feels good. We don't typically pass out pins in church; no credit or acknowledgment is given for sanctification. But in Twelve Step programs you reward sanctification—and it is thoroughly biblical to do so. What the Twelve Step programs have shown us is that the only way to break the cycle of addiction is to get a person on a program that involves obtaining satisfaction incrementally for the positive gains they experience as they gain freedom from compulsion.
Ray Anderson is a Professor of Theology and Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California and pastor of Harbor Fellowship in Huntington Beach, California. His views on the self are discussed in more depth in Self Care: A Theology of Personal Empowerment and Spiritual Healing (Victor Books, 1995)