It must be some 40 or 50 years since the “Power of Positive Thinking” was published, writes Rev Sydney Maitland, and since then there has been a veritable flood of books and courses on self-improvement, positive thinking/being/ action and so on. “Spirituality” has become an exercise in self-improvement, and essentially inward-looking. Advertising has developed themes of becoming more successful, beautiful, accomplished and of course, fertile. In short all these have probed – not to say mined – a deep but rich vein of insecurity and indeed of self-rejection.
And it is not that I have anything against the improvement of the inner person. One of my favourite blessings in the bible is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:
“That according to the riches of God’s glory, they may be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith; that they, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that they may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3: 14-19).
This is not exactly a recipe for self-hatred or rejection. And equally, the place of godly formation and education is indeed needed to establish our sense of being and purpose as we come to believe and trust in Jesus Christ and in Him crucified.
Unfortunately the very procedures and processes for self-achievement all seem to be based on a rejection of God and the wholly unearned favour that He has bestowed on us, and hence my strong scepticism.
But there is another strand in modern thinking which is quite the opposite to either godly or godless formation and this is a form of nihilism which seems to reject – well, practically everything. Rationality and evidence are replaced by emotion and prejudice; the rule of law and the presumption of innocence are supplanted by such an enhanced view of the victim’s rights that accusation is proof of guilt, and hence should rarely be probed with any precision. Culture comprises self-expression without clarity of what is being communicated or whether it is comprehensible. Democracy is undermined by pressure and promotional groups and who a person is gains more significance that what they say.
And the outworking of this is to be found in the surging popularity of far-left, far-right and indeed extreme “plague-on-all-your-houses” movements: extreme apathy and abandonment. This is not even about politics – rather it is a profound rejection of humanity which seeks to communicate, to reason or to reconcile. It may be that the extreme economic circumstances of the last few years have brought to the surface something that was always there – an atavistic self-rejection and hence a rejection of society, economy, polity and culture which is the opposite of the gospel of forgiveness and regeneration.
In this sense the rank inhumanity of the Daesh/Isis movement in Syria/Iraq and its cadet branches elsewhere has also found its precursors in Revolutionary France and Russia, and Nazi Germany. Who however is to say that these things could not appear here? To say that we are British or Scottish is no kind of answer, for who is to claim that what undermined the humanity of the French, Germans or Russians could not also affect us?
This is why our faith is always far more than a social or cultural construct. It is founded on the depth of God’s love for us which draws us to Himself and which approaches us in the person of Jesus Christ. To be made new in Him is thus to touch a sense of reality which is not undermined by social movements but which rather has the confidence to meet them and express another path to finding ourselves. Back to Paul’s benediction and prayer to the Ephesians.