Theology from Prison, Part 2: The False Self

I've tried to use my time here at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp to read, and one of my favorite authors has been Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk. I've written about him and his book No Man Is An Island before on this blog post. Merton wrote about what he called the True Self and the False Self. He did this to try to explain Jesus' teaching that we must die to ourselves, or "lose ourselves to find ourselves" (Mark 8:35). Others might call the True Self the divine within us, or our soul, and the False Self our ego, or our personality.

I wanted to start with the False Self, since that's what I know best. Paradoxically, the False Self doesn't even exist, but is still quite real. Unlike our eternal True Self, we self-create it, therefore it dies with our physical death. Our False Self is characterized by fear, but fear is the root of judgment, anger, and greed, to name a few. It likes to be appreciated, even worshiped, but dislikes being exposed or examined. It's fragile and easily offended and thus needs to assert and defend itself.

In Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, he writes, "We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves...For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which does not even exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin" (pg. 36).

I've seen False Self religion most of my life. I've lived it too, sometimes intentionally and sometimes just ignorantly oblivious. I've often practiced the gospel of comparison which believes that I may be rotten, but at least I'm better than that other guy. False Self religion interprets the gospel as a success ladder to heaven. It wraps power, hard work, knowledge, and success with the Bible and calls it all good. In this country we sometimes even double dip by wrapping it all a second time with the American flag. That's usually when we start quibbling over whether waterboarding is torture while we are unable to comprehend "love your enemies". Our False Self believes we can attain the presence of God with Bible study, tithing and mission trips, forgetting why we do all those things. It also misses that we are already in the presence of God because God is within us.

If you are like me, your False Self has been carefully constructed over many years. You like it. It's comfortable and familiar, like a pair of old jeans. Eventually though, we have to "shadow box" our way beyond this illusory False Self. This boxing match can feel like a slow painful death as it often occurs during times of suffering or loss. Richard Rohr writes that Jesus, Buddha and other great teachers "all knew that if you do not learn the art of dying and letting go early, you will miss out on the peace, contentment, and liberation of life lived in your Larger and Lasting Identity, which most of us call God."

More next time on the True Self, about which I have almost no experiential knowledge.