The concept of "self" has been investigated and debated since its conception. In our daily lives, the word "self" is used constantly in many contexts. For example, I might say "I am a Christian" or "I am an American." However, the individual components of these statements are vague. When I use the words "self" and "me," I am using two completely different concepts. How does theology relate to the "self"? Can we, as Christians, have a "self" at all? Is "self-care" a Christian virtue or a selfish practice? What about the "selfless" love that Christ commanded (Matthew 22:37), which is expressed through practices such as self-denial (Luke 9:23)? There are many theological questions and conundrums surrounding the idea of "self." Therefore, in this article, we will be discussing the psychological definition of "self," which can then translate into a theological viewpoint and hermeneutic.

Historical Theories of "Self"

Given the complexity of the word "self" in modern Western English, there are multiple theories that attempt to simplify or explain the phenomenon. We will discuss only a few prominent ones here, and you may read more in my eBook by the same title. Psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung believed that individuals are constantly being shaped by their unconscious desires. Modern-day psychologist Carl Rogers posited that the "self" is how one sees him or herself based on the personalized input from others. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the "self" is merely a construct invented by humans in order to understand themselves better. Erich Fromm's theory of the "self" is not much different from Rogers', except that Fromm insists that when people create their own "self," they become trapped under the unyielding weight of human expectations and become less than what they originally intended for themselves.

Abraham Maslow described the "self" as a psyche-focused lens that seeks out other entities to combine with itself. This is a unique perspective on the subject. According to his work, the ego is the "consciousness of the self." Contemporary psychologist Robert Carkhuff discovered that the "self" is merely a way of interacting with other people. He asserted that people could not use the "self" effectively unless they possessed highly developed coping skills. Another concept of "self" was offered by Susan Blackmore, who believed that the "self" is nonexistent; however, she admitted that the "self-delusion," which is caused by a lack of clarity around the issue, is real. Finally, the majority of sociologists believe that the "self" is created and maintained through the eyes of those we interact with. These theories, although varying widely, will serve as the foundation for the following discussion.

Rethinking Conventional Wisdom

Most Christians agree that the "self" is a complex idea that needs rethinking, but there is disagreement over how. Specifically, Christians hold divided views regarding the "self" depending on their favorite doctrine or theological faction. Self-help gurus focus on what they refer to as "discovery of the 'self.'" Orthodox Christians tend to disagree with this practice because they maintain that Christians cannot know their "selves" apart from God, since the "self" is essentially intertwined with creation--which, according to this view, was sinful. Therefore, a biblically-based understanding of the human psyche must encompass creation and God simultaneously. The recent debates over the Enneagram within the church illustrate some of these theoretical differences among evangelical Christians. Christians in the Wesleyan/Pentecostal traditions, though they have differing perspectives on "self-realization," agree that Christians can be more than their "self" if they ask God to be present in their lives. If a believer has this intimate relationship with God, he or she can experience being made perfect in Christ. I personally believe that experiencing holiness while living on earth is not available to anyone even while clothed in sinfulness, but that is beyond the scope of this article. It is helpful for the reader to understand that while most evangelicals do not have trouble accepting the need for a relationship with God in order to reach perfection, some evangelical Christians maintain that they are already perfect in God's eyes. Not every Christian agrees that one must be transformed by God's grace in order to know his or her "self." Some individuals espousing a Christian identity believe that they have grown spiritually enough to know who they are independently of Christ. It is difficult to debate the validity of these claims.

However, just because the doctrinal beliefs of these individuals have merit, it does not mean that their thinking is theologically sound. After all, Christians also struggle with knowing if, when, and how salvation occurs. Therefore, there should be room for Christians to disagree on the idea of "self." One thing that Christians can agree on is that, if self-help books are appropriately interpreted, self-understanding can be beneficial if approached correctly.

This concludes our discussion of philosophical theories of "self." Next week, we will compare and contrast theories of "self" and modern trends of self-actualization.