on “dying to self”

I have quite a few thoughts on this issue, but for now I thought I’d just turn over the soil for later planting. And I’ll do this by quoting Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity at some length.

The cross is the single most universal symbol of Christianity, in the New Testament, in Christian worship and practice, and in Western popular culture. Like all symbols, it has multiple meanings, and Christians have legitimately seen many meanings in it. […]

In particular, the early Christian movement saw the cross as a symbol of “the way.” It embodies “the way”: the path of transformation, the way to be born again. The cross, the central symbol of Christianity, points to the process at the heart of the Christian life: dying and rising with Christ, being raised to newness of life, being born again in Christ, in the Spirit. […]

Sometimes this internal process of dying is spoken of as “dying to self” or the “death of the self.” […] But I think “dying to self” is too imprecise because it is subject to misunderstanding. “Dying to self” has been used to encourage the repression fo the self and its legitimate desires. Oppressed people, in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last out of obedience to God. When thus understood, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-abdication.

But the cross is the means of our liberation and reconnection. It is not about the subjugation of the self, but about a new self. And so to avoid the potentially negative meaning of “dying to self,” I prefer to speak mure precisely of an old and new identity and way of being. The way of the cross involves dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being, one centered in God.

Not only does this language avoid the negative meanings of “dying to self,” but it recognizes that we exist as selves. This is not wrong. I am persuaded that this is one of the meanings of the biblical understanding of creation: we are created to be selves. The problem is not that we are selves. The issue is what kind of selves we are, and what kind we might be.

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