Posted in Book Reviews

Rejecting The Modern Construct That Sees The Self As Empty

Snip20160710_2The Reciprocating Self – Balswick, King, & Reimer

“The Reciprocating Self,” responds to and rejects the modern construct that sees the self as empty, the book provides “an alternative view of selfhood — the reciprocating self” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Locations 139-140). The empty self construct returns development theories that are fragmented and lack a unifying theorem. “Developmental teleology refers to developmental completeness or a theologically informed understanding of the goal of development” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Location 108).In “the Reciprocating Self,” the authors progress this notion that God has a goal for our development. The baseline assumption is that we are created by God for a purpose. The authors depart from secular developmental psychology positions that understand human development to be the result of evolution, environment, or social context. Modern psychology endeavors to evaluate human behavior and human development in terms of what is normative. They seek to answer the questions, “What is normal?” and “What is deviant?” But extracting God from human development story creates a problem. “The modern project has become the modern predicament, resulting in an era of fragmented, lonely, isolated people. One of the main moves of modernity has been to displace God from the transcendent to the immanent sphere, shifting the locus of the divine from a God who is Other to impersonal forces within the human mind and will-into human subjectivity” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Locations 128-130).

Understanding who we are and who we should be begins with creation. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). To be human is to be shaped in God’s image. To be shaped in God’s image implies we are called to relationship with God and with one another. God’s image as expressed in the trinity is relational. Only in relationship can we find our shape. Jesus’ prayer in John affirms this relational dynamic. “Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one… I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:11, 20-21). The goal of development involves developing the self in relationship to God and to others. The authors quote James Torrance, “What we need today is a better understanding of the person not just as an individual but as someone who finds his or her true being-in-communion with God and with others, the counterpart of a Trinitarian doctrine of God” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Locations 152-153).

Balswick, King, & Reimer return a biblical model that “allows us to assess the human self as an interactive being.” They identify this “as the reciprocating self — the self that, in all its uniqueness and fullness of being, engages fully in relationship with another in all its particularity” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Locations 160-161). It is this assessment that allows us as individuals to engage in our own development of self with a goal in view. What do theologically normative relationships look like that allow healthy development? The authors draw on Martin Buber and return that “I-Thou” relationships best articulate the kind of relationship that moves our development forward. “This supposes an authentic personal encounter of both the I and the Thou. One is not dominant; the other is not inferior. The relationship is characterized especially by the reciprocity of communication” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Locations 428-429). Jesus returns a similar high standard but uses love as the pivot point. “He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37-39).

The weakness of the approach in “The Reciprocating Self” is that it does not propose actions we can take to nurture the reciprocity that results in a whole self. In other words it lacks a prescription. Nevertheless there is an implied challenge for us to understand that we are not designed to be empty, isolated selves. Drawing on Stanley Grenz  we understand that “relationality as the key aspect of being human” (Balswick, King, & Reimer, Kindle Location 148). The context of our relationality is critical for transforming our self.

The first aspect of our relationality that shapes us is that we do not have a God that is distant. We can have relationship with him and that intimacy must be our baseline. Psalm 139 demonstrates the comprehensive nature of this intimacy:

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
13 For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts;
      you knit me together in my mother’s womb

God created us with intentionality and purpose. The significant application of the psalm is that we have a God that sees. He sees me and He sees us. He takes actions to establish and maintain our relationship. He has always been the initiator. And we are transformed as we interact directly with the living God. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

The second aspect of our relationality involves our relationship to one another. We are not called to be independent of each other but called to be present with each other. Jesus exhorts us. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Love is the component that shapes the relationship toward reciprocity.

Understanding cultural context becomes important especially as we perceive or develop our self in interaction with the other. The self is influenced by our cultural context. “People in different cultures have strikingly different construals of the self, of others, and of the interdependence of the two. These construals can influence, and in many cases determine, the very nature of individual experience, including cognition, emotion, and motivation” (Kitayama, Shinobu and Markus, Hazel Rose.  “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review, 1991. (Vol. 98, No. 2, 224-253)). Western dominant culture constructs a self that is independent. While Asian cultures insist on the “fundamental relatedness of individuals to each other. The emphasis is on attending to others, fitting in, and harmonious interdependence with them. American culture neither assumes nor values such an overt connectedness among individuals” (Kitayama and Markus). The message of the gospel is that God is shaping us into a new creation. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This newness means we must allow ourselves to be acculturated to a new culture. We are all immigrants to the Kingdom of God. We are like the adolescences discussed by Kyunghwa Kwak who must construct their self in a new acculturation environment. We must move away from our original or first cultural base and learn new sets of socialization and cultural rules in this new settlement society. (Kwak, Kyunghwa “Self-Development and Relationships through Acculturation.” Culture & Psychology. (2010 16: 365)).

Both independent and interdependent constructs of self face challenges of acculturation as our self-definition shifts toward a theological, image of God,  and reflection of reciprocity. Those with an independent self-image must move away from our ego-centric posture and be truly present with others. For David Foster Wallace this is a move toward compassion. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day” (Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” Commencement Speech to Kenyon College class of 2005. Web. <;). We must be intentional and active in shaping our self toward reciprocity.

For those who have an interdependent construct of self their normative interdependence helps them understand their self as connected in relationship to others. But it presents competing priorities that must be navigated as their source cultures are no more aligned to the priorities of Christ than the independent cultures. In many respects they must recognize that the source culture that promotes interdependence nurtures a sense of failure and guilt when expectations are not met. “There are naturally some side-effects from such strong dosages of cultural interdependence of relations for the family and self-construction. On the one hand, the duty of filial piety and loyalty, perceived as an invaluable but impossible task to complete, makes family members feel perpetual guilt attached to self-development” (Kwak, 2010). The love of Christ in this context is free and unmerited. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ep 2:8-9).

In all cases to follow Christ is a call to sacrifice and surrender. His goal for our development is to be transformed to his image. Like Kwan, we might exhibit different selves. We might maintain a self that connects us to our earthly family and relationships and native culture and another self that Paul calls the “the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ep 4:24). But through the process of time as we embrace Christ’ mission in the world our self on display will be the self He is transforming us into.












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