The Rise of Religious Narcissism
We live in a very neo-Romantic age, in which feelings are considered more significant than facts. This is why a man can claim to be a woman just because he feels like one and be taken seriously, even held up as a hero, despite the obvious biological evidence to the contrary. The Achilles heel of this mindset is that feelings often lie, especially self-centered ones. Unfortunately, this mentality has also spilled over into the religious world, where it has given rise to self-absorbed spirituality that can best be called religious narcissism.
In Altar to an Unknown Love, Beasley remarks that this trend "has been a longstanding development of subjective religion here in America: a kind of modernized emotion-based-existentialism which subjugates everything beneath the thoughts, feelings, intentions, and imaginations of the worshipper." The foundation for this was probably laid by the pietistic brand of Christianity that became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe.
While theological declarations of faith predominate over personal emotions and experiences in older hymns, nineteenth-century hymns often tend to be moralistic, sentimental, and subjective, with the pronoun "I" appearing in many lines. This religiosity received new impetus with the advent of psychotherapism and the New Age movement. Though they denigrated traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism, humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow recommended Eastern mysticism as a means of self-realization. Since it is a religious outlook making few absolute moral demands, the New Age approach appealed to a free-wheeling, morally liberated youth culture, as Melanie Phillips observes. However, many of the Eastern societies where such religions flourish have been conspicuous more for their conformity and groupism than for individuality and self-actualization.
Subsequently, this therapeutic New Age outlook has given rise to a self-centered, highly emotional brand of religion, even among Christians. Contemporary religious writers such as John Eldredge and Sarah Young are cases in point, since both come from psychological, counseling backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, the Jesus who mystically speaks to them sometimes sounds a lot more like a pop psychologist or a New Age guru than the Jesus of the New Testament.
Many others today also seem discontent with simply reading their Bibles; they have to be Bibles. Consulting their inner spiritual impressions and psychic wounds, modern believers frequently look to God mainly for therapeutic benefits and pleasurable, drug-free feelings, along with greater self-esteem. Riding the pop psychological wave, church leaders such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren have become purveyors of self-esteem, self-help, and self-actualization by means of religion. Even before their popularity, pastor and best-selling author Robert Schullerhad recommended abolishing the traditional concept of sin, replacing it with self-esteem and "possibility thinking." Showing their obvious self-esteem, many modern religious writers and speakers make unabashed, liberal use of the self-centered pronoun "I." Full-blown religious narcissism took the stage when Victoria Osteen brazenly declared that we practice a life of faith not for God, but for ourselves.
Following the lead of such people, scores of religious leaders today preach therapeutic, motivational messages rather than expounding the text of any scripture. Subjective, postmodern religiosity has allowed skepticism into the evangelical movement, which was originally committed to biblical authority as the objective standard of faith.
Insightful critics of this phenomenon have come from both secular and religious backgrounds. For example, in regard to a pop psychologist telling people that "God wants you to have it all," Justman moans that this approach results in the "stripping of transcendence and sublimity from religion."
Long ago, the American theologian Jonathan Edwards discoursed at length on the problem of religious narcissism, which he considered the essence of hypocrisy. Many others have also been convinced that the Bible prophetically warns about this type of religion in passages such as 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NASB): "... difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness[.]" The Apostle Paul is speaking here of the religious world, not the secular world.
Self-centered religion goes hand-in-hand with shallow sentimentality, irrational mysticism, and moral laxity, especially toward sins like arrogance and selfishness.
Gleaning any helpful moral guidance from self-centered religion poses a real problem. Of course, religious narcissists may choose to assume a moral pose, especially when it enhances their social standing in line with the current groupthink, a recent example being the viral video "I'm Christian, But I'm Not..." On top of that, it is hard to derive any incentive to worship such a deity, since the god of the religious narcissist is inevitably a small one, who exists only to gratify the believer. Therefore, the best remedy for religious narcissism is allegiance to a transcendent deity with a written, rational revelation not so easily susceptible to misuse and manipulation. Faith in such an ultimate reality leads people away from the delusion that subjective feelings are what really define them. Rather than plunging down the rabbit hole of introspection for direction and fulfillment, they should be looking outward and upward.
Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, and a board member of the Jonathan Edwards Center, Japan.