Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Brief History of Bad Ideas

If you have ever studied philosophy, religion, or political thought, you will have noticed that the course of history is heavily impacted by ideas. At various points throughout history, either a revolutionary ideology, a political philosophy, a new religion, or a "spiritual awakening" has sprung up, each time claiming to hold the solution to the ever-pressing problem of the human condition. Ideas like these are powerful because they give people a sense of hope for a better future. They can shape culture and influence our collective consciousness, thus impacting society with great force. Such ideas can be expedient, bringing about societal change with short-term benefits. But tragically, many of them ultimately lead us away from God. For example, Gnosticism, the Religion of Reason, Marxism, Mormonism, secular humanism, selfism, and the New Age movementto name just a fewall hinge on the belief in human perfectibility/deification though human effort (whether it is through the realization of an inner divinity, through self-actualization, through societal progress, or through works-based salvation). In this way, they each distract fromor attempt to completely negatethe human need for a supernatural Savior. 

In actuality, each of these false religions and philosophies veil man's deep-seated desire for self-autonomy in rebellion against his Creator. The fact is, there is usually simplicity on the other side of complexity. While the elaborate religions and mind-bending philosophies of men are widely lauded as "genius," "revolutionary," "ground-breaking," "eye-opening," or "spiritually enlightening," they all start out as they eventually end up: as a power-grab in direct opposition to the authority of God. They can be deceptive, however, because they can generate mass-appeal on an intellectual or emotional level, and they may contain enough partial truths to be convincing. But, each one—whether it has grains of truth or notmerely represents yet another chapter in the perpetual story of man's rebellious grasp for self-empowerment that has repeated itself over and over in every generation throughout history.

It is an old, old story—far older than the self-adulation that's rampant in our culture today...far older than Marx's claim that man created God, not the other way around...far older than the Gnosticism and the destructive greed sects that first infiltrated the early church. It is a story that began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve made that first, fatal grasp for godhood themselves at Satan's beckoning. And it's a story that was pre-echoed by Satan himself in the prideful power-grab that led to his downfall, and the fall of his legions, from Paradise even before the world's creation. As Scripture tells us, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." (Prov 16:18). And it is when we are puffed up with conceit that we can fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Tim 3:6). What easier way for Satan to wreak havoc in the world than to tempt man with the promise of his own godhood?

The default setting of the fallen human heart is self-worship. The heart is deceitful above all things because it is plagued by pride, an inherent tendency to love and serve oneself in God's place, which stems from the chronic heart-condition of Original Sin. Satan prays on this desire, tempting us into sin, which eventually leads to our separation from God. In James, we read that "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (Jam 1:14-15). And so, Man's lust for personal godhood perpetuates a ceaseless pattern of self-destructive human behavior, manifesting itself in many different forms...

...We devise elaborate philosophies that place the self at the center of all things. We pore over books that help the self and we seek out strategies to empower the self. We create religions that deify the self. We promote a culture that idolizes celebrities and worships humanity. And, perhaps worst of all, we try to squeeze God into a self-created box of our own cognitive construction. We tweak and remold the identity of Christ to fit neatly into our own self-generated worldview. We create counterfeit gods that are shaped by our cultural preferences, our preconceived religious convictions, our selfish needs and desires. There are countless examples of humanity's inexhaustible pursuit for self-autonomy—some of them are subtle, some more glaringly obvious—but the motive behind each is strikingly consistent. 

The Age of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth-century, for example, was revolutionary in that it emphasized reason over tradition and introduced the idea of human perfectibility in an era when great scientific advances and a new political order provided a compelling case for societal progress. Throwing off the long-held belief that society was in an unalterable process of decay, Enlightenment philosophers, like Voltaire, believed that this progress would inevitably lead humanity toward a perfected state, as articulated in 1795 by Condorcet in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. For the Enlightenment thinkers, the need to seek salvation in a supernatural God was negated, if heaven was possible—indeed inevitable—here on earth. This marked a distinctive shift from the Christian belief system of the era, and an attempt to take back full control over human destiny from God. In essence, it represented a grasp for self-autonomy.

The Enlightenment, along with nineteenth-century "freethinking," gave root to secular humanism, which is highly influential in today's society, especially within academia, because it offers an intellectual, rational, and scientific approach to bettering society. As the Council on Secular Humanism puts it, "We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems."[1] While Christians also use the tools of science, rationality, and intelligence, they do so primarily for God's glory. Secular humanists, on the other hand, view these things as tools for purely human ends. Furthermore, secular humanists "deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation."[2]

In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx had already developed a materialist interpretation of history, holding that history is driven by economics and a man's identity is bound up in his labor. Marx envisioned an earthly utopia (while he vehemently denied that his ideas were utopian) in which people collectively own everything and all work together for the common good of mankind. But Marx’s theory necessitates a government that is free from corruption and elitism within its ranks. A brief look at history, however, will quickly reveal that our past is littered with examples of how power corrupts fallen mankind. A nation or government may kill the idea of God, but someone or something will take God’s place. That someone is most often an individual or group who begins to tyrannize over the population with coercion in an effort to maintain power at all costs. Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler are all twentieth-century examples of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Scripture is clear that humans are not perfectible in our own strength because we are intrinsically sinful as a result of Adam's Original Sin against God. We are born sinners and we are sinners by nature (Psa 51:5). And all people who are not in Christ are "sons of disobedience." (Eph 2:2) But man-made theories that tout a human means to a higher state of existence are always predicated on a rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is because Original Sin necessitates the atoning sacrifice of a Savior and our dependence on God, thus presenting an inconvenient obstacle in the pursuit for self-autonomy.

Take, for example, the false religion of Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) openly rejects the doctrine of Original Sin in its statement of faith: "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression." Mormonism, the fastest growing religion in 26 American states[3], is known for its emphasis on family values and morality. At first glance, it may seem like a virtuous religion, but the fact is, Mormonism veils that same insidious motive: the desire for self-deification. 

It can be misleading when Mormons call Jesus their Savior and worship Him. But while the Mormon Jesus may be divine, his is a derived form of divinity, which is neither unique to him nor inherent in him. Milton R. Hunter, who served as a member of the LDS church’s First Council of the Seventy from 1945 until his death in 1975, wrote, “Jesus became a God and reached His great state of understanding through consistent effort and continuous obedience to all the Gospel truths and universal laws.”[4] In other words, Jesus achieved godhood through works, like the Heavenly Father had before him. And because divinity is earned, Mormonism holds that all men possess the potential for godhood. Indeed, the LDS tenet that men can become gods was famously coined in a couplet by fifth LDS President Lorenzo Snow who declared, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.” In actuality, the ultimate goal of Mormonism is self-glory, not God's glory—whether this is openly admitted by the LDS Church or not. Mormonism goes even further than secular humanism in its goal to deify man; rather than denying God, it actually attempts to recreate Him in man's image.

Strikingly similar are the philosophies of the New Age, which have had far-reaching influence in today's society, having been promoted by heavy-hitting celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and a slew of NY Times bestselling authors. Like Mormonism, New Age philosophies incorporate the figure of Christ into their occultist beliefs, which can confuse undiscerning Christians. But a closer look quickly reveals that the New Age Jesus is presented as an imparter of wisdom rather than a savior from sins. Similar to the Mormon Jesus, the New Age Jesus is generally believed to be a mere man who achieved a high level of spiritual enlightenment, which afforded him godlike attributes. He is esteemed as one of the “Masters,” along with Buddha, Krishna, and others, all of whom illuminate the path for humanity to spiritual enlightenment. 

A widespread New Age belief is that Jesus is actually a separate being from a divine entity, which is often referred to as “the Christ.” Many New Agers perceive “the Christ” as being impersonal, cosmic, and abstract in nature—in essence, a “Christ-force.” New Agers claim that this Christ-force took possession of the body of the man, Jesus, in order to guide humanity towards a process of spiritual evolution. “The Christ” is said to lie dormant within each person, waiting to be fully realized so that humanity as a whole may experience spiritual awakening.[5] (The counterfeit christ of the New Age is apparently more Jedi than he is biblical!). As Andrew Harvey puts it in his virtual seminar, The Christ Path,  "By seeing Jesus’s life with fresh eyes, we take him off the pedestal as an untouchable Savior and begin to see him as a way-shower for all of us to embody more of our innate divinity as we co-create a more just and compassionate world."[6] 

The prevailing thrust of New Age thinking, then, culminates in shaping one's own destiny and finding one's inner truth as a means to achieving a spiritually enlightened state. But these theories are nothing new. The Christ-force concept finds its origins in the Gnostic movement that begun in the second century AD, as a heretical sect of early Christianity. Widely read New Age authors today, like Eckard Tolle, are heavily influenced by Gnosticism. Basic Gnostic beliefs hold that humans are emanated from a Supreme Being and are divine spirits trapped inside physical bodies. In Gnosticism, salvation of the soul from the material world is achieved through the realization of gnōsis [7]—esoteric or intuitive knowledge of the truth—rather than the atoning death of a Christ figure. In this sense, it is yet another self-autonomous religion. Some Gnostics identify Jesus as an embodiment of the Supreme Being who became incarnate in order to bring gnōsis to the earth. Others, like contemporary Gnostic Reverend Todd Ferrier, founder of The Order of the Cross, suggest that the word “Jesus” was merely a code-word assumed by a historical being. Most Gnostics believe that there has been more than one authentic Messiah, and that “The modern Christian claim that Jesus was the only Christ (or Messiah) is simply not tenable.”[8] And all this, of course, predictably paves the way toward self-deification. 

In keeping with the trend of human nature, today's popular culture is dominated by a narcissistic form of self-worship. From self-promoting humblebrags on Facebook to the endless stack of NY Times bestsellers that line our bookshelves each touting the same self-help ethos, our culture is all about Me. We are constantly told we need to "find ourselves" and look within ourselves for the answers. We are encouraged to embark on an exhausting pursuit of self-discovery in order to get in touch with our inner-truth and find our center. Teens are encouraged to "find out who they really are" and to explore their sexual orientation so that they can be “true to themselves.” To experience freedom, in this context, is to live an "authentic" life as the "real Me." This involves breaking free from the shackles of shame, self-loathing, and inhibition to embrace a new found pride in oneself. 

The real Me in today's secular culture doesn't need an external God. The real Me is God. And so, we are encouraged to serve the real Me first and foremost. As a result, it's become commonplace, even hackneyed, to make self-centered statements like, “I need to do what’s good for me.” The concept of loving oneself and putting oneself first is lauded on day-time TV as the harrowed housewife’s solution to her woes. Our youths strut around unabashedly announcing they are going to "do me" (put themselves first). The sense of self-entitlement our younger generations are growing up with stems from this also. It's not just talk-show psycho babble that spouts these cliches. This form of self-worship is an insipid product of the widespread "selfism" in our culture that is becoming so deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious that we can barely recognize it anymore. 

Selfism or self-actualization theories were first popularized in the 1960s and 1970s and underlie much of today’s psychotherapy[9]  helping to form the ideological basis—and justification—for the increasing self-absorption of our culture. Self-actualization is a term used in various theories of psychology—most famously in the work of Abraham Maslow and his influential “hierarchy of needs” pyramid[10]—usually to describe the process by which we can reach our full personal potential, and transform our lives. As Maslow puts it, “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…It  refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”[11]

The idea that we should aspire to become more of what we are—in biblical terms: sinful; weak; lost—as opposed to being made new in Christ, represents a fundamental rejection of our need for God. This is the epitome of selfism, which is characterized by what Ray C. Stedman so accurately describes as, “godless chatter, profane babblings, talking endlessly about man, his abilities and his wisdom, but never recognizing God.”[12] The impact of such thinking has not been confined within an academic bubble or limited to prevailing theories of psychotherapy alone, but has laid the foundation for many social changes in our society (as ideas tend to do!)—including the growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality and the redefinition of the family structure.

It seems like the precursor to the destruction of our society. As Paul warned, in the last days, people will be lovers of themselves (2 Tim 3:2) and false teachers will worm their way into the homes of gullible women and gain control over them (2 Tim 3:6)—this verse reminds me of Oprah Winfrey appearing on gullible housewives' TVs across the country beckoning them to gain access to their self-truth! 

Billy Graham, in a 2012 open letter titled, “My Heart Aches for America" lamented the state of a nation in which “self-centered indulgence, pride and a lack of shame over sin are now emblems of the American lifestyle.” It is not surprising that in our increasingly self-centered culture, the word pride has taken on new meaning, often being construed as an admirable trait, and even being paraded with rainbows on banners in city streets. Yet as Christians we are taught to surrender to His sovereignty, to humble ourselves before Him, and to let go of our pride, acknowledging that we are lost without His grace. As Paul put it, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). 

Despite their differences, Marxism, Mormonism, Gnostism, self-actualization, the New Age movement, etc., are all based on the same power-hungry desire to elevate man above God. Founding LDS Prophet, Joseph Smith, may have claimed back in the 1800s to have received divine revelations enabling him to restore the truths lost to the corrupted Scriptures...New Age author Eckard Tolle may claim to have had a "spiritual awakening" brought on by a near-death experience enabling him to guide others toward path of spiritual enlightenment...And the Gnostics before them may have claimed to have found the path to salvation of the soul from the material world through the realization of gnōsis...But none of them really offer up anything new; these man-made ideologies and belief systems may appear in the individualistic form of self-worship or in the collectivistic form of humanity-worship, but they all amount to the same thing. They merely represent repetitive chapters in the same old story. 

And it's a story that is by no means exclusive to secular philosophies or false religions. Tragically, the tendency to wrestle with God for control is all too prevalent among His own people. The Old Testament is peppered with examples of God-anointed leaders who rebelled against Him. For example, Samson was a gifted leader of the Israelites for 20 years, but in the end he was arrogantly self-serving, letting himself be governed by his sexual desires rather than by God—a tragic story that culminated in his eventual suicide. Likewise, Saul, the first king of Israel, had great humility when first chosen by the prophet Samuel, but his pride later came into play and he disobeyed God's instructions, thinking he knew better. Eventually he also was driven to kill himself. Like them, King Solomon was a gifted leader, being profoundly wise, but he too faltered and disobeyed God's written Word; accumulating personal wealth, fame, and beautiful women became more important to him than building up his country. His desire for personal aggrandizement caused him to neglect God's will. Solomon's son suffered for it later, inheriting but a fragment of the Kingdom of Israel due to his father's failure. You would think Israel's great kings and leaders would have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors before them! But instead the pattern repeats itself.

Isn't this the same problem we often see in ourselves? How many times have we taken control back from God and rebelled against Him? How many times have we found ourselves going down a prideful path of self-destruction? How many times have we let self-ambition distract us from honoring God in the things we say and do? Sometimes, it seems like we will never learn. And history seems like it is doomed to repeat itself forever. 

But here's the actual truth: there is hope in Christ! Our lives don't have to conform to the patterns of this world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can break the cycle of sin! We no longer have to live in the flesh and be governed by its deceitful desires because we have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. So the life we are free to live now, we can live by faith in the Son of God (Gal 2:20).

It is a daily process involving daily surrender. Jesus said, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:23-24). It is when we deny ourselves, we are truly set free. The world will tell us that we are only free when we are "true to ourselves." The world will tell us living in obedience to God is to be enslaved. But the only true source of freedom is to be found in Christ, for "Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Gal 5:1). Let's be encouraged, then, as those made new in Christ, to stand firm in our freedom, and to put off the old self with all it's deceitful desires of the flesh (Eph 4:22-24). 

We learn from Adam and Eve's fateful grasp for self-empowerment that pride is our worst, most insidious enemy. It leads us into rebellion against God and to be deceived that we know better than He, that we deserve more than He has given us. Whenever we feel pride creeping in, then, we should remind ourselves how far we fall short of God's holy standard "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23). And God warns us, "I will break down your stubborn pride." (Lev 26:19). When we find ourselves humbled though suffering trials, or after we fall, we can take heart that it is for our own good, remembering Jesus' own words: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11). 

The fallible self is a shaky foundation on which to base one’s life-meaning and purpose, and many who do so ultimately find themselves sinking in a quick-sand of sin (Matt. 7:24-27). Man-made ideas will not stand the test of time. Indeed, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight (1 Cor 3:19). And as it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Let's stand firm then in God's truth, "for Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles." (1 Cor 1:19-25). 

If we find ourselves coming up against the lofty intelligence of a scholar, we shouldn't balk. We can have confidence that God's wisdom trumps anything a tenured Ivy-league professor has to say. Unbelievers that the world may deem to be "genius thinkers" or "spiritually enlightened gurus" will be revealed as frauds one day. Every knee will bow.

So, instead of building our lives on the quick-sand surface of a relativistic world, let's be encouraged in our resolution to build our lives on the ever-enduring, solid rock of absolute truthThe Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6).


[1] Council for Secular Humanism, "Affirmations of Secular Humanism,"  https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/12 
[2] Ibid
[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/02/mormonism-fastest-growing-religion_n_1469566.html
[4] Milton Hunter, G.T.A., p. 51, (emphasis added)
[5] Hanegraaff, Hank, “The New Age Christ: What is the New Age view of Jesus?” article published by the Christian Research Institute
[6] Harvey, Andrew, A New Life Virtual Training: "The Christ Path, A 7-Week Journey to Awaken and Embody Christ-Consciousness" March, 2013
[7] Gnosis is the common Greek noun for knowledge
[8] Institute for Gnostic Studies, online posting, June 2000.
[9] Vitz, Paul, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, (1977, 1994, William Eerdmans Publishing)http://www.narth.com/docs/vitz.html
[10] Maslow, Abraham Harold, (1908—1970) was an American professor of psychology at Brandeis UniversityBrooklyn College, New School for Social Research and Columbia University who created Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
[11] Maslow, Abraham Harold, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, (1943). p370-96.
[12] Ray C. Stedman, O MAN OF GOD! (http://www.pbc.org/dp/stedman/timothy/3781.html)


Grainne McDonald said...

Self-worship is at the root of it all. Thanks for an excellent analysis.

Anonymous said...

The problem with this post is that it assumes Adam & Eve were real. Science has clearly shown that they weren't. Different lines of evidence from population genetics, the fossil record and anthropogy has shown we evolved from a small population of around 10,000 not 2. Therefore original sin doesn't exist and it never happened. There was no fall and there is no rebellion against a creator of any kind. We do the things we do because we are animals with animalistic instincts. It's not evil, just nature.

Anselm said...

Ideas like these are powerful because they give people a sense of hope for a ... 1giftsformen.blogspot.com

JBsptfn said...

Anonymous, the name for Adam in the manuscripts is actually Eth-ha-had-ham. Genesis was probably written in a poetic style, and there are two creations (the sixth and the eighth day).

The last two sentences are garbage, though. You sound like a believer in Evolution, which isn't a sound theory.