Self-actualization, The Christianized Acceptance and Renaming of Sin: Calling the Crooked Straight

Can Sin be defined, theologically, as Self-actualization? If so, and I think so, then, no doubt much of our Western culture (and Eastern for that matter), and in particular, much of American (and Western) Christian ministry platforms are building their houses on sandy-land. Here is an example of what Self-actualization might mean for today’s winner and upwardly mobile movers:

Seeks to be a ‘way shower‘, cannot settle for mediocrity, always strives to reach greater plateaus, is self contemplative, and seeks to know even the mind’s shadows, doesn’t readily surrender to fear, sees the means as the important conquest, not the end. For the self-actualized there is no end, just a constant movement to expand and become and express more of Oneself! [Taken from The Center for Self Actualization, Inc.]

Or maybe, more famously Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of Self-actualization might be more explicit and apropos:

Surely there is some truth, some pragmatic utilitarian reality to Maslow’s hierarchy, at least on a purely horizontal plane. But that is the point, right? We don’t live ‘purely’ on a horizontal plane, our  horizontal plane has vertical elevation and purpose that provides its ultimate shape and what it means to finally be ‘actualized’; if, that is, we are even willing to continue to use the language of actulization as a viable anthropological category for supplying us with what it means to be a human, and a successful one at that!

Maybe to get more to the point, and bring this closer to the American Evangelical home and ministry (because I know in the past and present this book is appealed to by leaders in Evangelicalism); what about that infamous book written by a Mormon The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? Here are the Seven Habits:

Independence or Self-Mastery

The First Three Habits surround moving from dependence to independence (i.e., self-mastery):

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive

Take initiative in life by realizing that your decisions (and how they align with life’s principles) are the primary determining factor for effectiveness in your life. Take responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.

  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Self-discover and clarify your deeply important character values and life goals. Envision the ideal characteristics for each of your various roles and relationships in life. Create a mission statement.

  • Habit 3: Put First Things First

Prioritize, plan, and execute your week’s tasks based on importance rather than urgency. Evaluate whether your efforts exemplify your desired character values, propel you toward goals, and enrich the roles and relationships that were elaborated in Habit 2.


The next three have to do with Interdependence (i.e., working with others):

  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win

Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had gotten his way.

  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving.

  • Habit 6: Synergize

Combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals no one person could have done alone.

Self Renewal

The Last habit relates to self-rejuvenation:

  • Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle. It primarily emphasizes exercise for physical renewal, prayer (meditation, yoga, etc.) and good reading for mental renewal. It also mentions service to society for spiritual renewal.

Philosophically (and thus theologically through a Thomist synthesis, which I will need to discuss at a later date) all of this talk about self-actualization can be traced back to that Greek great, Aristotle. His notion of habitus, or habituating in certain kinds of behavior in order to shape an interior person that might be considered virtuous, successful, moral, or even upwardly mobile could be blamed for our culture that believes that Self-actualization is the only way to live an existentially fulfilling life. Maybe this mode of Self-actualization could be reduced and summed up to that all to familiar axiom of ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’. So the focus is on the outside/in; it is on outward appearance, and it is this which counts as being a successful and effective person in our actualized age.

But what if all of this, this ‘Self-actualization’ is really just what the Bible calls ‘Sin’? John Webster reports how another theologian of import, Eberhard Jüngel believes that this rather modern (with pre-modern and classical rootage) turn towards the Self-actualized self is really and simply just sin. Here is what Webster writes of Jüngel; and within Webster’s commentary, he provides a quote from Jüngel:

Jüngel thinks of modern society as haunted, both theoretically and practically, by the image of the human person as achiever, by the axiom: ‘[W]ithout increased performance, no increase in the quality of life.’ His theological judgement on the image is that it reinforces that human compulsion to act (Zwang zur Tat) which is the essence of the disorder of human life. ‘Sin’is, simply put, the hopeless drive to self-realization: ‘amongst the worst human failures is the desire to realize oneself alone through one’s good acts, through one’s righteous action — whether it be only legalistic or even moral. The category of self-realization, which today is used in such an unreservedly positive sense, is more accurately to thought of as the quintessence of sin, according to the biblical understanding of the matter.’ The attempt at self-realization is condemned to failure precisely because humanity is essentially relational, …. Thus, in a passage typical of many others, Jüngel writes:

[W]hat Holy Scripture calls sin is … the drive to have one’s own right prevail at the expense of others and in this way to be the one nearest to oneself. We have set out and understanding of righteousness as the ordering of richness of relations between those existing with one another in such a way that justice is done to all those included without their needing to seize if for themselves. Sinners, however, are characterized by a belief that they must and can seize their own right. Those who try to seize their own right take away the right of others. And precisely in this way they break out of the well-ordered richness of relations in which they have been included by God. Sin is the Godless drive away from the diverse relations of created life protected by God, and into relationlessness. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 188.]

If what Webster writes, and Jüngel thinks, is correct, and I think it is, then the trajectory of American culture in general, and insofar as Evangelical’s have imbibed this trajectory, in particular, is, again, on the sandy land of man’s own making—thus Sin!

As admirable as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits might appear, even though he finally gets to others; he only first starts with the self. Even as apparently true as Maslow’s hierarchy of Self-actulization might appear it runs directly contrary to the ethic and direction that Christ’s kingdom does; remember this dominical teaching?:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[g] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. ~Matthew 6:25-33

So Self-realization really equals Self-justification, or usurping godness for oneself. Doesn’t this remind you of this:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” ~Genesis 3:4-5

The Christian view of justification, salvation, is that salvation is primarily and antecedently inacted by God in Christ. Salvation for the Christian isn’t a se, or internal to the person, a possession innate to the person, simply waiting to be activated through habituating in certain kinds of behavior and activating activity; Nein! Salvation for the Christian is extra nos, or outside of us; it is an alien righteousness, as Luther might quip. It is a life that is received, passively; a life that is only ‘given’ activity through the life of God. So the conclusion then is that we ought to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto us’.

If you want to be successful in the pyramid of God in Christ’s kingdom, then understand that his kingdom inverts the pyramid of this world. If the American Evangelical church wants to be successful, then take up your cross and follow Jesus; be willing to lose your soul that you might find it in Christ.