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We Really Aren’t that Special

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

My latest post got some interesting discussion, and the latest article by David Brooks is spot on about our own inflated sense of self.

Per David Brooks:

The narcissistic person is marked by a grandiose self-image, a constant need for admiration, and a general lack of empathy for others. He is the keeper of a sacred flame, which is the flame he holds to celebrate himself………His self-love is his most precious possession. It is the holy center of all that is sacred and right. He is hypersensitive about anybody who might splatter or disregard his greatness. If someone treats him slightingly, he perceives that as a deliberate and heinous attack. If someone threatens his reputation, he regards this as an act of blasphemy. He feels justified in punishing the attacker for this moral outrage.

Hrmm, I wonder who that narcissist is? The title says Mel Gibson, but wait a second, he continues….

In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.

But, Carl Trueman decides to lay the hammer down. He does an amazing job, discussing the human infatuation with self. This is a great little essay on how many Christians, have this very issue.

The problem today is that too many have the idea that God’s primary plan is for them, and the church is secondary, the instrument to the realization of their individual significance.    They may not even realize they think that way but, like those involuntary `tells’ at a poker game, so certain unconscious spiritual behaviours give the game away.

I suppose my tell is quite obvious, I write a blog. Not so sure how much more self-important I think I could get. =) I discussed this before regarding relationships and marriage in a wider context, Trueman makes a similar point about church commitment. The narrative is similar though, “Why should I continue my commitment to X church, Y person, when they aren’t meeting my standards?” Roughly translated, “I think I am more special than X or Y and thus am deserving of something better/more significant.”

Christians themselves seem to have similar issues in this regard.

The West worships the individual; from the cradle to the grave it tells us all how special and unique each of us is, how vital we are to everything, how there is a prize out there just for us.  Well, the world turned for thousands of years before any of us showed up; it will continue turning long after we’ve gone, short of the parousia; and even if you, me, or the Christian next door are tonight hit by an asteroid, kidnapped by aliens, or sucked down the bathroom plughole, very little will actually change; even our loved ones will somehow find a way to carry on without us.  We really are not that important.  So let’s drop the pious prayers which translate roughly as `Lord, how can a special guy/gal like myself help you out some?’ and pray rather that the Lord will grow his kingdom despite our continual screw ups, that he will keep us from knocking over the furniture, and that, when all is said and done, somehow, by God’s grace, we will finish well despite our best efforts to the contrary.

Perhaps this is a huge reason why authors like Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel succeed. What gospel is better than a gospel that tells you “Your best life is now!” or God’s purpose is grand for you here on earth.  It’s funny because this sort of thinking is not just pervasive in the West, but has found a niche in Korean Christian communities as well. Take the parable about the talents. In my youth I have heard this sermon countless times about why I should become an Ivy League graduate/doctor/rich etc. Yet, the issue isn’t necessarily now that we’ve been misusing our talents. I think its everyone thinks they have 10 talents that God needs us to share. The weight of these expectations can be humbling to all and ultimately unsatisfying. The emphasis on our own work is the antithesis of the gospel.

I think this can be a major turn-0ff to non-believers as well. Some of the modern, evangelical identity has been rooted on the American sense of manifest destiny. While Christians and finance guys have often found themselves is a convenient relationship, its a perilous one as well. Listening to the talk radio or watching Fox News can lead one to think that a Christian’s main responsibility is to have a “Protestant work ethic” and defend an unalienable right against taxation.  While I certainly do support the basis behind these ideas, I wonder why they have become the crux of even some purportedly Christian commentators.

Take this article on the housing crisis:

In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,’ or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,’” he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”

It continues:

Lin finds the message at prosperity churches to be quintessentially American. “They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it’s God’s will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else.”

It all really boils down to one thing: idolatry. OK sure, we aren’t making golden calves and worshiping anytime soon. Its a bit more dangerous actually. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”  In fact, its been changed and found convenient. Take God and fit Him in a box that matches perfectly with our worldview. I read the Bible and think maybe God wants me to be like Daniel, an impressive leader in a secular world, or perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, a slightly more esoteric figure, but nonetheless a rich one. Cha-Ching!  Perhaps, a sexy story of redemption like Peter, but only if I get to be one of the greatest leaders in church history!

Or I could acknowledge why God called for children to come to Him, because of an inherent recognition of helplessness that each of them had in a world much greater than they could ever imagine. It should be clear if I believe in an all-powerful God, whatever significance I think I hold with my status/money/education etc. is probably not at all that significant.

Who knows what my “destiny” holds? But the first thing I need to realize is often when I put God in a box and worship it, all I am really looking at is a glorified mirror.

Natural disasters and economic development

January 20, 2010 3 comments

Great article by Brooks in the NYTimes a couple days back….

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html?hp

I think a couple things I would take further:

1) Aid will never be the solution to any long-term problems.

I am of course not talking about the aid we are giving now to alleviate the immense amount of suffering Haiti is undergoing via charitable intervention both private and government. However, long-term we’ll realize Haiti has had a whole host of problems: massive corruption, little infrastructure, lack of property rights, poor education etc. Why should anyone even think about starting a business? To get a business license takes an average of 218 days, to survive often you need to bribe the right magistrate/policeman/gangster and when there’s little existence of a stable capital market.

After the smoke clears, I think we should look to the problems of Africa and not the rebirth of New Orleans as the appropriate model for long-term solutions. While I am not sure we can simply do nothing; sending money that won’t reach the poorest of poor but will line the pockets of the kleptocrats and their cronies is not compassionate, but morally wrong. Acknowledging these problems requires a solution that is not as easy as texting the G-8 at a rock concert.

2) Global “green” initiatives need to take a back seat to economic development especially in third-world countries.
Brooks notes that one major problem in Haiti results from its lack of development, comparing the devastation to that wrought by the seismically similar 1989 earthquake in SF. The disparity in death tolls is staggering. This is not a unique trend.  The death toll after Hurricane Katrina was roughly 2,500 people; The Indian Ocean Tsunami was over 200,000. Katrina was insanely mismanaged and is its own story of what not to do during a natural disaster. However, this paled in comparison to  the severe underdevelopment in Southeast Asia. Developments in communication, construction and transportation often limits these mass casualties. (See also Bam, Iran). Technology, not mindless self-flagellation is the solution to alleviating this problem.

We’ve spent too much time arguing away the nuances of global warming (2 degrees that, 3 inches less, billions of dollars that), which severely impede the development of poor countries.  Yet, the major issues after the disaster in Southeast Asia were access to clean water, sanitation and simple medical treatments. While we take them for granted in the developed world, in a third world country, they are impossible to find amidst disaster.   Furthermore, due to lack of technological development there was  no ability to detect seismic activity and warn for the tsunami like we have in the US.  Limiting their access to energy  and natural resources only serves to keep these countries without the literal power that can fuel development. There are many examples of “green” groups pressuring banks and corporations from making energy investments in poorer regions.

You look at the massive growth and advancement of China, you’ll also see massive smokestacks fueling this growth. While China can afford to lift its proverbial middle finger at snooty environmentalists, smaller countries are forced to assuage the demands of NGOs insisting upon wind and solar energy. Interestingly enough, it is because of this very sharp economic growth that China can now invest in a plethora of green projects.

Forget the spurious connection made by some that the warming caused the XYZ disaster (unless you are climatologist/seismologist Danny Glover). Natural disasters will and always have been a part of life on Earth. We need to acknowledge this fact and our ability to at least limit our exposure to nature’s harshest strikes. I’ll listen to someone argue that “protecting nature” is more important than economic development, but often I find these very people shielded from nature’s most awful burdens protected by the comforts of Western technology while spouting their nonsense from their wifi notebooks. In no way is this a sufficient contention to address global poverty but I’m all for allowing countries to embrace green on their own terms.

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