Karen Swallow Prior begins the conversation by reminding us that there really is no thing as autonomy. We are born into communities, times, and places, and everything that makes up who we are comes from others. In other words, our particularities come from somewhere outside ourselves. As Christians we understand that God determines the things that make up the individual self.
Jen Pollock Michel points that it can be burdensome to believe in yourself. Humans tend to be unreliable and fail everyday. But Christianity helps us face the truth about ourselves: there’s good that I don’t do and evil that I do, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, and if our only ethic is to believe in ourselves, we’re left in a truly hopeless position. We need other people!
Karen agrees, adding that we not only need other people, but that meaning and purpose come from beyond the human realm.
Jen mentions the book Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, which chronicles the stories of people who at the end of their lives discover that finding meaning outside of themselves leads to a more joyful and full life. This is true, Karen adds, not only at the end but in every other stage of life. All throughout life we are changing and growing, but to believe in ourselves means to believe in something different in every stage of life.
It’s ironic, Jen notes, that we think believing in yourself is the way to freedom when it reality it only leads to slavery. Freedom always tends towards flourishing when we have our boundaries, because those boundaries are established for our good. We often think of obedience as negative boundaries, but they are actually meant to free us.
Finally, Karen concludes that our development never happens in a vacuum. We always cultivate our desires based on who or what we set our eyes on.
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This episode was produced by Heather Calvillo.
Jen Pollock Michel: Karen, how do we make believing in Jesus compelling in a “believe-in-yourself world?”
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, I think that we can approach our non-theistic, non-believing friends with some common truths that we all really acknowledge and understand, and that is, there really is no such thing as complete autonomy. We are all born into communities. We are born into certain times and places and bodies, and all of those things that make up who we are are things that are part of being in that community. And that’s true whether we are Christians or not, or whether we believe in Jesus or not.
And if we can just help people see how important it is to our sense of self that we are born into these specific particularities, then, we can point to the fact that those particularities come from somewhere. They come from somewhere outside of ourselves. As much as we might believe in our individuality and our self-determination, we still are rooted in these times and spaces and people. And, of course, as Christians, we understand that it’s God who determines those particularities. And we can go from there, but there just really is no such thing as being completely self-made or being completely autonomous. I think that’s what people want to believe but deep down, I know they know that’s not true.
Jen Pollock Michel: Yeah. And it’s a burden, too, isn’t it, to believe in yourself. Like at the end of the day, I kind of know myself to be unreliable, you know? I mean, I think to really face the truth about yourself, that’s why I feel like Christianity has such explanatory power because it actually says, “Wow, that’s a huge burden.” If I were to believe in myself, like what I know to be true of myself is more like what the Apostle Paul says in Roman 7. Like, “There’s good I don’t do. There’s evil that I hate that I do.” You know, and so, how do I make sense of that if my only ethic is “believe in myself,” you know?
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah. If that’s all we have to believe in, then, we know we’re going to fail because we fail every day. And we need so much more than that. We need not only other people and meaning and purpose from those other people who are in our lives, but meaning and purpose that comes from even beyond the human realm.
Jen Pollock Michel: It’s interesting because I was just reading a book about aging. Being Mortal, I think, is the book. And it was talking about how people, at the end of their lives, they need a meaning and a purpose outside of themselves. And so that’s why nursing homes sometimes become these really desolate places because, essentially, there is no meaning or purpose to be made outside of oneself.
And so when you look at how some of these scientists or, you know, doctors who are running these facilities and brought in animals and brought in plants, and so that when you actually have someone or something to care for outside of yourself and you have meaning outside of yourself and purpose outside of yourself, you’re actually…you live more joyfully, more fully. And I feel like that’s just an example of where…like, if I get, Oh, I only have to believe in myself. If everything’s internal to me, you know, is there real purpose in that?
Karen Swallow Prior: I mean, when we’ve talked about the stages of life, we talk about the end-of-life stages. But all throughout life, we are changing all the time. And our beliefs change, our values change, our perspectives change, I mean, hopefully in a good way because we’re growing as people. But to believe in ourselves means that one day, it’s going to be one thing, and the next week, something else. So to understand ourselves more in the context of something much larger than ourselves makes a whole lot more sense.
Jen Pollock Michel: Absolutely. I think it’s interesting. It’s ironic that we feel like an ethic of “Believe in yourself” is the way to freedom. But it’s actually really the way to slavery, you know. And to believe in something beyond yourself, something bigger than yourself is incredibly freeing.
Karen Swallow Prior: I remember hearing a long time ago, I mean many years ago, about some sort of study of school children playing in a school playground. And they did this experiment where one playground had a fence around it and the other one did not have a fence around it. And they found that the children who were playing in the yard that had the fence around it played more vigorously, explored more. They went up to the boundaries, the edges of the fence because they felt secure. And the children playing in the playground that had no fence sort of tended to huddle in the middle and be close to one another because they didn’t have that protective barrier.
And so, freedom always tends more toward flourishing when we have boundaries. And I think that’s true of even what we believe about ourselves is understanding that is being connected to other things and not just some, you know, us out in the middle of this ocean with nothing else inside but ourselves. That’s really not freedom and that’s not really how we can self-actualize.
Jen Pollock Michel: It’s a paradox, you know. I think of Moses standing before the Israelites and saying, you know, “Obey the Lord, and this is life.” You know, we think of obedience, sometimes, or culturally we might think of obedience in exactly the way that you’re sort of… that it’s constraining our freedom. But it’s actually inviting us into freedom, into life, into flourishing. So there’s so much promise in that, isn’t there?
Karen Swallow Prior: There is. And, again, another reality is simply that we always cultivate our desires based on what we see and what we’re looking at. And so, if we’re looking at other people as examples or role models or looking at God’s word and looking at the calling that he has on our life, that’s gonna make all the difference. We never develop our sense of ourself or a belief in ourself in a vacuum. We’re always looking and having something mirrored back at us. And so, we really need to choose those mirrors carefully.