I am going to pick up where I ended on this last post. I will use the ethics of authenticity (see above) as a test case for how you might start out inside of someone’s framework and then work to the outside of their view (i.e., to Christianity). The goal is to explain how gospel makes more rational and emotional sense than their view.
First, the ethics of authenticity undermines our most relationships that require commitment and sacrifice. Families, friends and marriages are viewed instrumentally and are quickly abandoned if they cease to serve as a means for self-actualization. If a close friend or even a spouse is seen as are restricting my ability to pursue what my heart tells me, to be “true to myself,” what resources does EA give to motivate me to stay committed? To stick it out when it is really hard? I will put up with them only as long as the benefits they provide me outweigh my obligations to them. After all, if a relationship is confining, why not find new relationships that don’t demand self-denial and sacrifice?
If someone were to consistently hold to the tenets of expressive individualism, it is difficult to see how they wouldn’t find themselves suffering malnourished relationships. And research from the social sciences seem to support this conclusion. One thing that I have learned from my university students, though they are surrounded others, they often feel depressed and alone. EA, which is the default setting of our culture, tends to undermine thriving community.
If you set out to point this out in a conversation, someone might reply, “Yes but I don’t live like that. I understand the pull of expressive individualism, but I do have relationships that are altruistic.” This is significant: many who have generally assumed expressive individualism do strive to live sacrificially in some of their most intimate relationships. Here is something we can affirm and use as an opening to help them understand the gospel (turning to the outside of their framework to connect the gospel to cultural aspirations).
When people refuse to abandon important relationships in the name of personal freedom, instead valuing others more than their own self-actualization and autonomy, they seem to be admitting something parallel to the Bible’s teaching: namely, that saying “no” to some desires is an important part of genuine flourishing. They are admitting that personal sacrifice is essential for deep, life-giving relationships. This concession just might open the door for Christ’s teachings to be seen in a new light. When Jesus tells us we must die to live and he gives us rules to live by, he is inviting us to a deeper, truer kind of flourishing.
Second, EA is impractical. It is impossible to live out. We cannot help but constantly look to those around us to learn what we should value and how we should legitimize our own significance. We are always defining our lives in dialogue with our community. We all look to something or someone for our identity and sense of worth. This leads to a third problem with denying Christianity in the name of freedom.
Third, though EA may promise us freedom, it cannot deliver on that promise. Everyone has a master. If what a particular group of friends or your parents or a partner or your kids think of you is the most important thing to you, then you will build your life, your happiness, and your worth around them. Their responses to you will limit you and control your life. If they reject you, if they let you down, or if they are taken from you, your life will feel empty. And you know it. So you will do anything you can to avoid losing them. The many different “gods” of our modern world will restrict us, consume our time, and wreak havoc on our emotions. If we make them ultimate, they will, in the end, not just let us down—they will destroy us.
So when Jesus promised his followers an abundant life, he was not telling them that he would usher in a life of freedom from norms and submission. That is impossible. We all submit to and are enslaved by something. Jesus, however, can paradoxically promise true freedom (John 8:32 –36) through submission because he is the one person we were designed to submit to, the one person in whom submission results in true freedom—the freedom to become the people we were designed to be. To better understand this, we need only look at Jesus, the most free and satisfied human who has ever lived.
This is just one example of how you might apply inside out to interact with the assumptions held–normally below the radar–which make Christianity seem implausible. Start inside of their beliefs. Listen. Ask questions. But also be aware of general cultural trends; his will help you better understand individuals when you are in discussions. Find out what you can affirm and what you need to challenge. Listen for both, problems that need to be pointed out and cultural aspirations that are actually meant to be fulfilled in Christ.