Secularism’s “Authentic Self”

Jeremiah 17:9 "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"

Our modern world rages at the claims that a person must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. These words, spoken by Jesus, summarize the heart of conversion in Christianity. A person is not made right with God simply by moral conformity to a set of rules, or by changing one’s behavior. All the moral effort in the world cannot save us, for the simple reason that sin runs far deeper than our outward actions. The root problems are in the heart, and until the heart is born again, until the heart has been regenerated to know and love God through faith in Jesus Christ, all the moral conformity in the world will get us nowhere.

The modern secular mind sees things very differently though. They believe that what is most needed in this life is for a person to discover their most authentic self. True salvation, according to the secularist, occurs when a person frees themselves from the shackles of society and the false norms of civilization that hinder them from truly being free. Secularism in this sense, is nothing more than a new expression of the classic phrase of the french philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” According to Rousseau, there exists inside each of us a pure version of ourselves, not tainted by the constructs and chains of society. We must therefore remove all limitations and pressures that attempt to get us to outwardly conform toward something other than our true self. As Rousseaus’ ideas developed through the years into postmodernity (a core layer of modern secularism), it became apparent that no greater hegemonic power existed other than that of religion (particularly Christianity). Religion, according to secularism, is the greatest enemy to all true authentic freedom, because religion imposes upon a person’s true inner authenticity with external laws of conformity. Carl Trueman summarizes the various predicaments of postmodernity well.

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence. All these things play into legitimizing and strengthening those groups that can define themselves in such terms. They capture, one might say, the spirit of the age.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. United States: Crossway, 2020.

This “spirit of the age” stands in utter contradiction to the worldview of the Bible. Both cannot be true simultaneously. We cannot live in a world where each is his own God and free to construct life as he sees fit with no true moral compass or true standard of consequences, and also live in a world governed by a God who has infused humanity with a fixed standard of morality under which we all stand accountable. Either one premise is true and the other premise false, or both premises are false and some alternate is true. But both cannot simultaneously be true.

Let us take the example of “traditional sexual codes” as described by Trueman above. What Trueman is indirectly referencing is the Biblical vision for sexuality. According to God’s Word, sexuality is a wonderful gift of God to be enjoyed by one woman and one man in a lifelong covenant of marriage. All perversions of this Biblical ideal fall short of God’s standard, and not only fail to give God glory as King, but also bring tremendous real world tragic consequences.

Recall that the postmodernist rejects grand meta-narratives as well as traditional categories of right and wrong, true and false, man and woman, etc. They see categories like these as malleable social constructs rather than fixed absolute truths. The obvious dilemma is that the postmodernist is unable to truly live in alignment with their own presuppositions. For in their effort to break away from God’s “traditional” sexual ethics, they have rewritten their own. In other words, they claim they want ‘no boundaries,’ but they have constructed their own boundaries. No matter how hard they try they cannot escape the need for fixed boundaries on ethics. Even the most ardent postmodernist would admit there must be some lines upon which pursuing your own expression of sexuality may not be permitted to cross. Is it ethical, as it was in first century Rome, as well as currently in a number of Middle Easter contexts where it commonly known as “boy play”, for older men to rape younger boys? (See Sayed Hamed’s article Bacha Bazi, While this may sound barbaric and perverted, the practice is normalized within some cultural contexts today. Is the postmodernist able, according to the consistent principles of their own worldview, to say that “boy play” is wrong?

Biblically, the answer is that a gross perversion of God’s beautiful standard of sexuality such as “boy play” is categorically wicked. God’s Word has dictated both the bounds and the purpose of sexuality, as well as the responsibilities of caring for our youth. But by what standard can the postmodernist appeal to say that “boy play” is necessarily wrong. As soon as the postmodernist, or the agnostic, or the atheist appeal to some universal fixed standard of right and wrong, they have abandoned their own worldview which demands no such universal standard exists. The postmodernist may truly feel that “boy play” must be wrong. But all that true belief reveals, is that their own worldview cannot possibly be correct. There must be some fixed limitation on the ethics of sexuality. If the postmodernist is content to say that sexual ethics are simply agreed upon conventions, then they have no legitimate grounds to condemn the practices of someone else’s conventions, no matter how different from their own they may be.

The reality is that the world has been greatly terrorized through the modern pursuit of the authentic self. “Boy play” aside, Western society is attempting at breakneck speed to erase historic categories of right and wrong established by God in Scripture. Watching this heartbreaking foolishness play out in real time is painful. In the rush to confirm individual’s inner sense of self, we have made heroes of those who by medical standards are clinically experiencing significant mental illness. The modern secular mantra is ‘I am what I feel’. Therefore, if I am a biological male yet feel like a woman, I am a woman, not just in mind but in reality. The ethical implications for such overt attempts at removing the historical categories of male and female are everywhere. Middle School girls are expected to change in locker rooms with grown biological men who desire to express themselves as females. And vica versa, Middle School boys must change in rooms where biological girls are changing. Biological men are slowly eviscerating women’s sports and scholarship programs. And if at any point a hesitant father of daughters raises their hand in objection that perhaps the historic categories of male and female should be reconsidered for the glory of God and the health and safety of our sons and daughters and society at large, they are brandished as out of touch with our new reality.

These are the real-world results of secularism’s pursuit of self-authenticity. If it sounds like an Orwellian dystopian novel, that is because it’s not far off. Secularism’s authentic self is failing before our eyes for the very reason that it cannot arrive at the “authentic self”it promises.

Against the foolishness of postmodernity stands the steadfast claims of Jesus Christ that a person must be born again, not by looking inwards to their truest self, but by looking outward to Jesus Christ. In a rather poetic irony, it only when a person is born again that they discover their truly authentic self, a person in right relationship with God and right alignment with how God designed them to life, and feel, and think. The Scriptures teach that if we look to the heart of man for solutions, we will only find more brokenness, more deceit, and more pain. The solutions we will develop will only cause further brokenness. But if instead, we simply confess that our heart is corrupt, our motivations are impure, and we need salvation to come to us from beyond ourselves—we need God to intervene. Then our hearts will look to the cross, where Jesus Christ died for broken-hearted sinners like us, in order to offer us new life. Only in Jesus is there a solution to the condition of the natural human heart. No other religion or secular pursuit can accomplish what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection. No other path can lead to the truly authentic self.


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