narcissism and more

Here in New Zealand we have been watching in disbelief as a case makes its way through the courts.

Having inflicted 216 stab wounds in killing his student/girlfriend, a young university lecturer occupied the witness stand for days as he defended his actions in an effort to gain a 'manslaughter' conviction, rather than a 'murder' one. Read about it here and here and here.

A crucial part of the debate revolved around the assertion that he suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder - and that this somehow excused his actions to the degree that manslaughter, rather than murder, could be the conviction.

He failed.

However it has been heartening to see narcissism in the headlines. These "-ism" words are so useful. They speak of worldviews. The invisible roots which provoke the visible behaviour in society. Hardly ever discussed and rarely ever seen. Integral to Christian mission is the need to surface these worldviews, to be distressed by their influence, and then to engage them. That is why it has been good to see narcissism in the headlines. The unspoken has been spoken.

It is interesting to listen to Christians speak of the "-isms" which concern them the most. Humanism? Secularism? Consumerism? Maybe even postmodernism? Yep. All of the above. But I wonder if there are a Deeper Four:

Naturalism. The defiant slamming of the door in God's face. The cosmos, the creation 'is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be' (Carl Sagan). God is shut-out from his creation. Life is lived 'under-a-lid' (Brian Smith). God is left out of history. There is no Mind behind it all. This "-ism" owns the university.

Pluralism. The global culture has arrived and pluralism is its first principle and essential lubricant. It is the air we breathe, the reigning assumption at work in popular culture. Tolerance replaces truth (which was just a cover for power and its abuse anyway). There are oh-so-many beliefs and values out there and each one has an equally viable and valuable place in the marketplace of ideas. Go on - sit down to the sumptuous belief buffet and feast.

Narcissism. Life is lived by looking in a mirror at myself, rather than through a window at the world. It is all about a soaking in the self until totally self-absorbed. Everything that happens in the world is viewed from the perspective of how it impacts me. It is 'self-centeredness elevated to an unrecognized principle of interpretation' (DA Carson).
[A later article in the paper develops this further]

Technicism. Ellul had his concerns about 'technique'. Postman has his about a technopoly. 'The prophecy of technicism is simple: If it can be done, it will be done ... the ethics of technicism follows immediately: If it can be done, it should be done. In fact, doing it constitutes progress' (James Sire). This cultivates a hope that technology will be the means of solving the world's ills.

These are the tap roots which need to be surfaced. These are the idols over which I feel the most distress. They cause far more pain than any one recognises. The response? Well - there are Deeper Truths that match these Deeper Roots. You fnd them in that most relevant and practical piece of literature, the systematic theology textbook.

As an antidote to naturalism, there is nothing more powerful than the people of God believing and living the truths of theology and eschatology. Theology is about lifting that lid and allowing the transcendent God to reveal himself and to draw near with love and justice and purpose. Eschatology is about God's presence in history and an affirmation of the reality of the Christian hope.

As an antidote to pluralism, there is nothing more powerful than the people of God believing and living the truths of christology. Christology is about holding fast to the 'unique and universal Christ'. It is about being cruciform. It is about coping with the discomfort that "I am the way, the truth, and the life" causes in this world - knowing that it is not only the good news, it is the true news.

As an antidote to narcissism, there can be nothing more powerful than the people of God believing and living the truths of anthropology and ecclesiology. Anthropology is about understanding what it means to be human, made in the image of the trinitarian God. The tension of dignity and depravity. The paradox of 'I do not know who I am until I know whose I am'. The wonder of 'make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free'. Ecclesiology is about reflecting the trinitarian God as communities given to interdependency and intimacy, losing themselves in lives of worship and service.

As an antidote to technicism, there can be nothing more powerful than the people of God believing and living the truths of pneumatology. Pneumatology is about the Spirit at work in creation, in revelation, in salvation - and in the life of individuals and the church. Here is where the displays of the power and the hope for which the world so craves really take place.

Don't ever believe those who tell you that a sustained and systematic feeding on these "-ologies" is irrelevant. It isn't. There is nothing more relevant than having biblical preachers open the text with one eye on the ologies and the isms. There is nothing more strategic than a community setting apart a tithe of its people to engage the Deeper Roots and the Deeper Truths in a sustained way through theological study - and then to be that yeasty beach-head for a renewed commitment to mission.

Sickened to the core as I have been by this court case, I am reminded again that I am swimming in this stuff as well. In the quiet and private recesses of my own life naturalism, pluralism, narcissism, and technicism have an allure just as they have an influence. It remains a battleground. And it is in the transformative truths about God and history, about Christ, about humanity and the church, and about the Spirit where I need to soak and where I find solace.

nice chatting



Sean said…
Excellent work! Thanks for this very helpful piece.
Grant said…
Paul, this is a big challenge that you are laying down. A tithe of people - a big commitment for any church. A risky challenge, sending members off to learn, think, examine, evaluate, apply, etc - being equipped with the "-ologies" to address the "-isms". Gaining the insights of seeing not only the "-isms" in the world, but also may have subtly permeated the the thinking and the practice of churches. Maybe this "new yeast" will need discernment, wisdom and a pastoral heart both inside and outside the church.

I see that Nigel Wright is visiting Baptist churches in mid August. His work on post Christendom ecclesiology helps inform this subject. Maybe, he will also bring this type of challange to the churches.
Rhett said…
This is a great post. Often it can feel like an indulgence to spend time and interest on the -ologies... time which could better be spent on "kingdom work". So, thanks for laying out some encouraging and practical implications.
In this New Zealand context we have never appreciated just how deep and transformative theological training can be ... partly because for so many decades what was on offer wasn't so flash. Not any more. With Carey, Laidlaw, and Otago humming along - degree level theological training in NZ has never been better.

So, churches are without excuse ... with one year Certificates and one year Graduate Diplomas able to be completed anywhere in the country (or world) by anyone.

By the way, Grant, in the only church I ever pastored we exceeded the tithe (which admittedly is easier to achieve in smaller churches) - and that was before all these current options were available.

Behaviour is shaped by worldviews. Worldviews are shaped by deep culture. Deep culture requires a deep mission. Deep mission requires a deep thinking. For deep thinking to occur the local church will need to have a deep conversion as it confronts the 'cultural captivity of the church' (in the name of being relevant) in its own generation ... and nothing nurtures that conversion better than systematic biblical preaching (for all) and transformative theological training (by a tithe in order to benefit all).

In the space of a couple of hours last night with my daughter Bethany, two sobering examples of these invisible isms quietly going to work in our culture...

Naturalism and Pluralism

(a) Yesterday a class at Uni considering reproductive systems, particularly in relation to women. A resplendent NATURALISM to the fore as a combination of "mother nature, evolution, and magic" are given the credit. Are you for serious?! How can people be duped so easily? You mean there is no Mind behind it all? You mean you can sit there and be content with answering the 'how it works?' question and give no thought at all to 'why it works?'

(b) And one that makes me smile and which I'd love to use in a class - but alas I have no more classes!? This is just the sort of observation I delight in making. We've watched two versions of Sense & Sensibility in the last few days. The longer 2008 BBC version - and a shorter version from about 1995 (Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslett). 13 years apart.

The shorter version still managed to include two church scenes - both of which did not make the cut in the longer, more recent version.

Don't even begin to try and convince me that the growing and deepening rootage of pluralism in British society is not partly, and quietly, behind this piece of editing!
Heather said…
Hi Paul,

I must first make the proviso that I have been unable to go to church for more than 6 years, so my observations are no longer contemporary. However, I am familiar with the discussion of your first two 'isms' (pluralism and naturalism) in Christian circles; but not the latter. And they seem to be different castings of idols that greatly concern me: individualism and education.

Living, as I do, with great *dependence* on others, I have thought a lot about independence, and have come to the conclusion that my illness has actually *freed* me from one of the biggest idols in our Christian culture in this part of the world. One day I'd like to write about this in detail, but it's still brewing at the moment. But I believe that Jesus's prayer towards the end of John is hugely important. That unity, with him and with each other, isn't (just) about enjoying each other's company: it is about depending on each other, working with each other etc. Which is not just hard - we have so distorted things that we think that such dependence is weak and shameful. Anyway, my thoughts haven't quite sorted themselves out yet, but I was interested to see you having similar thoughts in your comments on narcisism.

Similarly, I am disturbed by our enormous faith in education. As a possessor of three degrees myself, I value education highly. Yet the idea that you can solve all problems and even transform people's characters simply by running a course (or doing a viral social marketing campaign) has infected all of our society, including churches. It links into technicism, although in this case leaning on a technique, not a technology.

Interesting. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.
Ah, Heather, you have a knack of adding a little insight here and there with your comments. I always appreciate it.

You have used the biblical vocabulary and placed the isms within that framework - they are idolatries. When the -ism takes them beyond 'nature' or 'plural' (which are to be celebrated) and turns them into ideologies by which to live, they immigrate ito the world of idolatry. (Great new book out, by the way, on a biblical theology of idolatry - by Beale).

The key to being contemporary is not so much flowing with the tides and trends of the age, but knowing how to hold on to the eternal amidst those tides and trends. Maybe that sums up your comment here?
thanks Paul, don't worry about your lack of classes, just continue to teach through the blog! :-)

One more, against Technism, pneumatology and ethics. Ethics may not be an ology, but it is needed to brings sanity to an out of control scientific and manufacturing community.
Heather said…
Hi Paul,

Thanks for your kind words!

I guess my main point was not so much "The key to being contemporary is not so much flowing with the tides and trends of the age, but knowing how to hold on to the eternal amidst those tides and trends." (although I strongly agree with you), but that I believe that the church is aware of the dangers of naturalism and pluralism but is oblivious to those of technicism and narcissism, so it is mainly in those latter two that the danger of idolatory lies.

Your post and the comments on it have spurred me to capture a few more thoughts on independence and what I have learned by its removal. Thank you for that also!

--Heather :-)

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