John Calvin and the “Selfie”

I recently saw a collection of pictures from people around the world using selfie-sticks. (Think of the potential for infinite regress: pictures of people taking pictures of themselves taking pictures of others taking pictures of themselves, etc….but I digress.)

What is it about this whole phenomenon?  Why do we like the selfie, let alone the selfie-stick, so much? Are we just a bunch of narcissists? Narcissism is probably a part of it, but I don’t think that descriptor says enough.

Here’s my guess: The selfie (and by extension, pun intended, the selfie-stick) allows us to present ourselves to others as we have chosen to frame ourselves, that is, as we want them to see us.

Recently, I took part in a family photo session to celebrate my Mom’s 80th birthday. Problem is, I had no control over the pictures. I just had to try to smile nice and not close my eyes (which is near impossible for me, it seems). But the selfie-stick changes all that. It allows me to take a picture of myself–repeatedly even–until it is framed just as I want, even to the point where my eyes are actually open! The selfie lets me show myself to others as I would hope they would see me.

But here’s the thing: Does it really matter about how I frame myself? Is it really so important that I try to convince others to see me as I want to be seen?

At this point, you probably are thinking, “This is a theological blog, so obviously Guretzki is leading up to a theological point.” (Indeed). And you might think that my conclusion is,  “No, it doesn’t really matter how others see me, because what is more important is that people see God (or Jesus), not me.” Well, you would be thinking wrongly.

Recently I was reviewing the opening of John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion and I began to wonder, “Would Calvin take a selfie?” Ok,  not really, but I think his discussion may help us here.

In book 1 (1559 edition, Battles’ translation, McNeil’s edition, pp. 35-39), Calvin leads off with a nice three point sermon. (To be clear, the headings are supplied by theologian Otto Weber in his German edition of the Institutes.) Here it is:

  1. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. (35)
    What?? Shouldn’t we expect Calvin to start from the other direction? Wouldn’t we expect Calvin to start with the claim, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self”? Yes, we might expect that. But he doesn’t!

    Even though I’ve read this passage dozens of times, I have to admit, even I was surprised. Calvin is so often portrayed as a theologian of God’s glory that he is underappreciated for his positive anthropology.  You see, Calvin recognizes that it is possible, justifiably, for humans to be aware of their own unique giftedness and the great advantages they have over the rest of creation. Humans are indeed glorious creatures.

    So Calvin doesn’t start by denigrating the human, but by acknowledging their created glory. However, Calvin goes on to observe that it is only once we begin to understand “these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us” that we shortly thereafter start to become disillusioned with an increased awareness of our imperfections. For all of our giftedness, we quickly become painfully aware that we lack something–that we don’t quite measure up.

    But this is good, Calvin says, because as we become aware of this lack, this want, this failure, we are actually in  a position, hopefully, to contemplate that all this goodness has a source. The dew of heaven, hopefully, leads us to the spring itself (36), Calvin says.

    In other words, after looking at a thousand selfies, we begin to realize that no angle, no longer selfie-stick, no better pixel depth, will reduce our feelings of failure or inadequacy. But make no mistake, Calvin insists, having that self-framed portrait of ourselves is a good place to start, because it is through our own self-awareness that God “leads us by the hand to find him” (37).

    He goes on…

  2. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self. (37)
    Ok, that is what we expected! In good “Calvinist” fashion, Calvin makes the point that we cannot truly frame ourselves properly as humans apart from a knowledge of God.

    Most of us who have come up in Protestant churches have absorbed very well this truth of Calvin, even if we don’t realize it. But unfortunately, our understanding of this claim usually comes out, tragically, I think, this way: “Compared to God we are nothing.”

    Some have justifiably called this perspective “worm theology” (i.e., we are but worms) and many have associated worm theology with Calvinism. And although worm theology may in fact be Calvinist, I’m not sure it is from Calvin. Certainly the opening of the Institutes does not bear this out. Indeed, every human is endowed with “mighty gifts.” This doesn’t sound like a worm to me.

    So it is important to note well: Calvin does not start with an axiomatic understanding of the failure of humans (that is where, far too often, popular presentations of the Gospel start), but with an acknowledgement of the goodness of humans. Sure, it is followed quickly with a clear statement of the subsequent failure recognized within ourselves. But let’s not miss Calvin’s actual starting point.

    You see, for Calvin, it is not a simple, “Human is bad, God is good” contrast. Rather, Calvin says, set alongside God, whatever we might think of as pure and perfect and righteous shows itself to be “miserable weakness” when compared to the glory of God’s perfect goodness. Human knowledge is, in other words, dialectically derived by a relationship of comparison to God, not by delving either into the depths of the human essence or condition, neither by flight into the contemplating the depths of the divine mystery. In fact, these have been the twin theological temptations theologians have faced throughout Christian history: Either theology ends up being anthropology, or theology ends up being abstract divinity, disconnected from human reality. On the contrary, Calvin helpfully reminds us, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves as human go intimately together.

    In short, if we don’t have a point of comparison, mainly, comparison with God, we wouldn’t know that our self-framed “perfect selfie” isn’t, well, perfect.

    Moving on…

  3. Man before God’s majesty. 
    In essence, Calvin goes to note the various stories in Scripture where men and women–saints even–came into contact with the presence of God. It is clear, Calvin observes, that wherever and whenever God’s glory is revealed to humans, they are invariably “shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death…almost annihiliated.”

    And so, Calvin says (or at least, I infer that he says!): No amount of self-framing, no “selfie stick”, will be up to the task of helping us either to know ourselves, or to present ourselves to others in such a way as we really are created to be: To live before and in the presence of God. As Calvin points out, “We must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (39).

But here’s the Good News….

We do not have to frame ourselves with our phones and selfie-sticks, because God has already framed us in his own self-portrait–a self portrait named Immanuel, Jesus the friend of sinners. You see, God is no narcissist because he elected, from eternity past, to include us, his human creatures, in his selfie from the start.

It is just too bad that we keep trying to duck out of the family portrait.


5 thoughts on “John Calvin and the “Selfie”

  1. Grant, I am assuming you are talking about the last line? I meant by it that God in Christ has elected from all eternity to include us humans as part of his covenant family, but that as a result of the Fall, we have been trying to be independent and autonomous from God ever since. We have tried to come up with a “self” identity rather than an identity which flows from our being God’s covenant creatures.

  2. I just read 1 Corinthians 3 and often I hear vs 5-7 out of context or hear the words, “so neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but God gave the growth,” and only hear that I am nothing. But in fact, the entirety of the passage, and even verses 5-7, go on to express that each one builds their part but we find our building only in God.

    1. I also noted that Paul says they are “only servants” but adds “through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” Good eye, Brandon!

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