One of the most perceptive religious voices in our time is Bishop Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles. His ‘Word on Fire’ has touched the lives of millions through the internet and other avenues of communication. He has especially reached out to those in our culture who are no longer affiliated with religious faith. Consequently, he can provide us with a solid context to judge what is going wrong in our world.
One of his key insights is that our world today has become a ‘Culture of Self-Invention’. In this false way of seeing the world around us, there is no such thing as objective truth. We can create the truth according to our own wills.
This seems a bit abstract, but it occurs over and over again in our popular entertainments. Usually, the hero or heroine of the story we are watching has a difficulty and feels discouraged by it in their lives. Then another character comes in and says something like: “You have to believe in yourself. Follow your dream. You can be anything you choose to be!” The music swells, the subject smiles and everything falls into place. They accomplish what they set out to do. Notice how God is completely absent. There is no need for God’s grace. If I believe in myself, I can do anything that I want or become anything I wish to be.
This is nonsense.
If I wish to be a quarterback for the New York Giants, and I wish it strongly enough, and if I follow this dream of mine, I still will never be a quarterback for the New York Giants! I am a 71-year-old man who knows nothing about throwing a football. This is the objective truth that does not bend to my whims. While it is a good thing to believe in oneself, it is a better thing to believe in an omnipotent and all-loving God who directs and fulfills my life at every moment. Both my belief in God and in myself open me up securely to believe in others as well. This is the very nature of the Good News. This objectively works. For me. Now.
I cannot simply invent myself. I have already been created with some things that are given. How I dedicate and creatively use them is what is most possible and most beneficial to me.
This is the form of legitimate and realistic creativity that opens up to reality as it is in itself. I can seek to become what I want to be as long as it conforms with the objective reality of who I am and what reality around me gives me. I do not objectively have the gifts (youth, strength of body, the fruit of years of practice on the playing field) that I would need to even qualify for a try out for the Giants. But I may have the gifts to be able to help someone through a family tragedy. Having spent a lifetime hearing Confessions and reading spiritual works of theology, I may have the ability to help guide a person in spiritual direction through the dangers of vices and help them build up the virtues needed.
Thus, there is plenty of room for invention of self, but only when one has the material resources and habits and work ethic that are the natural means to what we are trying to make of ourselves.
And then there is God and His Grace! For not only does God bestow the material resources for self-development, but He is always at work with His Grace to aid and abet us who remain in contact with Him through faith and prayer.
We cannot overestimate the power of God’s Grace. There is no force on earth stronger than it. But Grace builds on Nature which is another form of God’s Grace since by Nature we mean ‘What God has already done by his foresight and incalculable power and wisdom’. So, asking God to help us in our quest for self-fulfillment and our forming our contribution to the global community is necessary and an inherent part of striving to be the best that we can be.
God is our natural and necessary ally in becoming what we are meant to be. It is a process of discovery and faith. It is not the fruit of wishful thinking and imaginary and unreal planning. We must conform to the real limits and possibilities of our God-given nature and thus grow into what God intends with our cooperation to create in our original and unrepeatable human being.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7