This weeks’ lectionary gospel reading includes the famous saying of Jesus’ “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”, This is one of those hard words that is very familiar and whose familiarity has blunted its awful force.
Jesus appears to call on all who would call themselves his followers to embrace crucifiction and more generally to “deny” or reject their selves. They are to turn against their very being. In the passage this saying belongs to the word psyche appears four times, usually translated twice as “life” and twice as “soul” but “himself” translates another word heautou which is just the reflexive pronoun, “himself”. We are called on to reject ourselves.
Why would this be and what can it mean? There is a widespread tendency to assimilate Christianity to a humanistic affirmation of the self, to self-actualisation, to “growth” and there’s something in this. After all we are promised life in all its fullness. This saying reminds us, though, that this can only be part of the story. If we want to save our psyche we will lose it. To gain it we must lose it for Christ’s sake, we are told.
I read this to say that any attempt of ours to establish and preserve an identity will and must fail. There is simply nothing there. Our grasping after a significance or even a reality of our own is futile and destined to failure and despair. This insight is not unique to Christian or to religious thinkers. It is a staple of philosophical thought in modernity, at least from the eighteenth century. My own expertise is in Rousseau and he found it agonising that we can know ourselves only through the reflection shown us by others a reflection that is distorted by our anxieties and by theirs. More recently the currents derived from Heidegger including existentialism and deconstruction grapple with similar issues.
The difference is in the response. Philosophy has no recourse other than either a nihilistic despair of the self (what terrified Nietzsche so much) or an empty affirmation of the will (his response and that of many others in less dramatic form), We Christians, though, have another way. The will affirmed is not our own and the self it posits and informs is filled from outside itself. We believe that our selves have real existence and worth dependent not on their own self-reflexive effort but on the very structure of the way things are, in God. Creation is made good by a good God and we are good through it and through our place in relationship to God.
What are the implications of this for Christian discipleship and the life of the Church?
First that we should not try to define too closely what it means to live the holy life. The more tightly and definitively we do this the more it looks like the desire to save our psyche. To say that we have to follow some well understood set of rules or practices seems to me to consist of being unwilling to lose the self for Christ. Whatever we are now, whatever we believe now, whatever we value now, all this has to be offered to God in the knowledge that it might be destroyed.
Second we should grasp that this is because what we are is not what we are to be. The redeemed self will be different from the current self because now we remain exiled from God in a world of sin and death. We have to believe in the promise of eternal life and eternal joy as our proper state. Part of the meaning of the cross we are to carry is the agonising awareness that every injustice, every sickness, every death is not, as the world thinks, just part of the way things are. Each and every one is a tragedy that does not need to be. The unnecessary nature of all the ills of the world should make them hurt.
The Church, too, should recognise that it needs to die for Christ. A good part of Church life revolves around the simple preservation of itself. The ensuring that the worship of God and the fellowship of God’s people continues. This is as it should be. Just as the people of Israel sang the Lord’s songs in a strange land until they were able to return so we, in exile, have to preserve the memory of what has been lost and of the promise of restoration. What we should not do is confuse this task with remaining, ourselves, the same.
We need to recognise the difference between fidelity to God and fidelity to institutional forms and habitual customs. We need to be ready to die as we are in the hope of resurrection to new life and we need to be ready for this every day.