I often question how our modern society became so strangely self-oriented. When I look for answers, I have to sift through a vast array of opinions and possibilities to find something a bit more concrete—something that resembles more of a source than simply a result. What is the big idea that caused our modern version of self-centeredness?
In the 16th Century, Martin Luther came to understand self-centeredness was the essence of sin. His definition of sin was that humanity is ultimately curved in on itself (“incurvatus in se”). What Luther was really saying was underlying whatever a person does, whether good or evil, is their desire to promote, protect, or validate themselves. Essentially, we are all bent on self-glory. This has influenced generation after generation throughout history to act in certain ways and believe certain things.
Part of what I've found to be a satisfactory answer to my initial question is the cultural phenomena of godlessness. Its form today is practical atheism. In Western culture, although society at large has some idea of God or a deity, it lives as though there is no divine Being whom they recognize as ruling and reigning over all things. Ultimately, the majority of people walking the streets, commuting to and from work, and living next door, don't believe there is a God with whom they have to do. They don't live as though God created them and sustains their lives.
Less than one hundred years ago, two philosophers constructed the idea I think has good evidence of being the source of our modern problem. Their names are Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a German philosopher, and Jean Paul-Sartre (1905-1980) from France. Their big idea was to construct a new vision for our existence and being without God in the picture.
Both Heidegger and Sartre did not come up with the idea but are responsible for constructing it in a way society as a whole would devour. They were influenced by another philosopher named Edmund Husserl who himself built upon the world-famous line from Rene Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." Husserl concluded, "For me, the world is nothing other than what I am aware of and what appears valid in my acts of thought."
Are you beginning to see how this gets us to our modern self-centeredness?
Well, Heidegger and Sartre both took this sentiment to heart and set out to understand who we are and what is our purpose in life. Life, Heidegger believed, is merely using the pressing time before death to produce something meaningful. Heidegger looked at humankind's existence and concluded we are all fighting anxiety from the ultimate threat of living a life of nothingness. Our only purpose, according to Heidegger, is to beat the clock by realizing our potential and living that out to the fullest.
Sartre took it one step further. He looked at who we are, and because he had already concluded there is no God, concluded there was no such thing as human essence. Essence was what a creator designed into their creation. Essence, or human nature, meant a person was designed to fit the function their creator intended. Sartre wanted none of that. He wanted the freedom to do whatever he wanted with an unrestrained conscience. Without God in the picture, there was no idea, design, or purpose to which humans must conform, leaving each individual's existence as the only source of meaning or purpose. For Sartre, man must, in a sense, create himself.
The freedom Sartre and Heidegger sought is the autonomous freedom our culture champions today. But this freedom is deadly. Because there are no moral obligations, each person is forced to be free. Each person must choose for themselves what they want to be. There is no other option for them. If they don't choose, they are not free. To maintain their freedom, they must embrace what is repulsive, or else they become enslaved to some moral law. Here, then, is our answer to why modern culture is so obsessed with self: we are free from God, and it is now our responsibility to create ourselves into whatever image we choose.
How is the sovereignty of God relevant in the 21st Century?
Sartre was right, God could not exist if humanity had autonomous freedom. But this is where it gets interestingly problematic for some Christians. Free will is the capstone of autonomy. Autonomy is necessary to be a post-modern man according to Sartre, but according to many Christians, autonomy (or free will) is necessary to be responsible before God for sin.
…But God exists.
And God exists as the sovereign creator and sustainer of everyone and everything; He rules and reigns over everyone and everything—this is basic Christian doctrine. Paul contended that in God "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17-28). God has created mankind with an essence that precedes experience. That means because God is sovereign, He determines what gives us purpose and meaning (and that is what makes us responsible for our actions). He has created us; therefore, we cannot create ourselves without doing damage to God's design for us. We are not free to choose our existence.
If God's sovereignty is incompatible with our culture's understanding of humanity, how can it be relevant? The answer is simple: it creates a new vision for humanity—one that rights all the wrongs our culture's vision has produced; one that aligns with God's vision for us. Sure, it deals a death blow to our idea of free will, but it introduces a new understanding of man and replaces free will with the gospel's message of man's depravity. It confirms humanity's great need for salvation we easily observe while walking the street, working alongside our co-workers, and spending time with our families. What's more relevant than speaking and thinking according to reality, or more relevant than finding our innate meaning and purpose in life?