Rethink Your Self
By Trevin Wax
The desire for a spiritual dimension in life, something that feels transcendent and contributes to our sense of wholeness and wellness, is strong for many people. Surveys show that even people who do not believe in God still find themselves praying from time to time. Likewise, people who claim no religious affiliation often borrow rituals and practices from different religions in order to discover a deeper connection to the world or to a higher power.
When people looking for personal fulfillment turn to spirituality, they may believe they are looking outside themselves, when in reality they are still taking a “looking in” approach to life, where prioritizing self-discovery and looking deep in your heart for your own dreams and desires takes precedence over all. Looking up, when it comes last in terms of priority, is more about finding a “God” who will get behind your personal project of being true to yourself.
When you think the purpose of life is to find your deepest self and express that to the world, then all of your most significant relationships are recast in light of self-fulfillment. Marriage is about finding your “soul mate,” someone who completes you and makes you happy as you pursue and become the best version of whatever makes you unique. Friendship becomes an avenue for mutual self-fulfillment, where it’s easy to take on new friendships or leave behind old ones based on their success in offering personal benefits. Religion (the decision to look up after you’ve looked in and around for others’ affirmations) may add a spiritual dimension to your life, but it’s the life you’ve already defined for yourself. Sure, you may go to church or join a religious group, but you see your faith community much the way a consumer sees a club or a gym: it exists to provide you with religious services and spiritual feelings. The teachings and activities are only relevant so long as they better your way of life.
Some people have claimed that the “look in” approach to life leads away from religion. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Plenty of people still want to look up, even if it comes last in terms of priority.
The end result of the “look in” approach to life isn’t the emptying of churches, but the filling of churches with people who believe they need spiritual assistance in being true to themselves. Religious practices don’t disappear; they morph into something adaptable and helpful.
Religion becomes less about shared beliefs and values and more about uniting people who all embrace faith on their own terms. The idea of a faith based on something real, enduring, objective, and true (for everyone, not just yourself) doesn’t make much sense in this kind of world. Faith becomes a subjective thing, a feeling that serves as an aid in your pursuit of self-expression and self-fulfillment.
The “look in” approach to life still maintains a place for “looking up to God,” but what you’re looking for is divine affirmation and assistance in your life as you’ve determined it. You’re looking for inspiration intended to lift you up and restore your sense of self so you can continue down the path you’ve chosen. If you belong to a church, your inspiration will come from biblical sources—words of encouragement or exhortation, or psalms of lament or prophecies of restoration. But divorced from their historical setting or divested of their biblical context, even biblical words no longer have the power to truly challenge you about the path you may be on. They are marshaled in support of the path you’ve already chosen.
In other words, church attendance, devotional books, religious practices—all of these become ways of helping you along in the life you envision for yourself (a life of seeking to find and express who you are), rather than powerful words that might radically reorient and shift your self-understanding. We can “mount up on wings like eagles,” “run and not grow weary,” “be strong and courageous,” and find joy in “God’s plans to prosper us” as we walk life’s road. These words and images are drawn from the Bible, but they’ve been reduced to inspiration and shorn of any sharp edge of challenge. So yes, we look up, but only as long as our fundamental sense of self-definition and self-display go unchallenged.
But is this what it means to really look up? In the past, religion played a very different role. It didn’t mean “pick and choose whichever religion you think will help you live your life as you define it.” Even now, for most religious people in the world (outside of our society), it still doesn’t mean that. It’s no wonder that devout Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Jews—those who believe their religious faith says something true about the world, regardless of how “helpful” it is—protest the appropriation of certain religious practices without any kind of serious commitment. It’s like trying to enjoy all the benefits of a religious identity without adopting the authentic version, because the authentic version would challenge you.
It may feel authentic to “look up” in this way, but in doing so, you choose personal authenticity over an authentic religious tradition. The self takes center stage. Even God must get in line.
If you really want to be authentic, be honest with yourself. If you have a spiritual investment, what is it there for? Why is your faith important? Is it because faith feels good and it helps make you a better person? Or is it because it’s true and real? Is it because it provides a community and social base for you? Or is it because you truly believe in its source and authority over your life? If you pride yourself in being someone who looks up to God for direction, make sure it’s not just as a subset of your “looking in”, where your faith is there for you, but you’re not there for your faith.
Excerpted from Rethink Your Self by Trevin Wax. Used by permission of B&H Publishing. Copyright 2020 by Trevin Wax.