The Self

What is “self”? How is the self of a human being defined? While in this world we can assume any number of identities (through our professions, male and female roles, etc.) here we are concerned with spiritual identity, that self image that endures for all time. This identity is grounded in our creation. So we begin with Genesis. “(The) Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). In Chapter 1:26, God says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . ” and this is affirmed in 5:1, “When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” It is clear from these passages that man’s self is not his flesh (dust) but is constituted of God’s spirit or breath. Man is not God but his identity derives from God. Let us consider Soren Kierkegaard’s definition of the self: “The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self.” The self, created in God’s image but existing in a physical body, must always be in relation to God in order to exist in image of God; this relation to God is (defines) the self. We can say that the relation to God completes each of God’s creations; it is the defining factor, defining each according to its place and purpose in Creation. Man, having the breath of God, is the only one who exists in image of God, imparted through his relation to God, but God gives meaning (place and purpose) to each creature in relation to Himself. While the breath of God in man is man’s unique essence, it has to be sustained in relation to God; it doesn’t exist in isolation. The self must exist in meaning and meaning is gained through relation, through relating itself to something or someone outside itself. Adam, before he sinned, related himself to God and God imparted His symbolism to Adam; thus Adam existed in God’s image. The relation between man and God is the self and this relation relates itself to its own self (defines itself in God’s image). To exist in image-of is the same as “the relation relates itself to its own self”. God’s image is spiritual so man is spiritual; he has a spiritual identity. But man in sin exists in a much different image. Again, the image in which one exists is determined by relation. If the relation to God is broken, it is a person’s relations to others (parents, role-models, etc.) that defines his self, in terms of the flesh. Man was created in God’s image but, because of sin, he is conceived in the image of an earthly father (Gen 5:1-3). The image of an earthly father is essentially an image of the “man of dust”.



We see from the preceding then that the image in which we exist can be spiritual or physical. The image in which a person exists is the image he invests or symbolizes; it is self-meaning, identity. Now all people, born into sin, are invested symbolically first in their physical natures (following God’s judgment, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Gen 3:19), not mental images. As infants it is not only love that shapes us but also the gratification of our physical needs. We have no mental images as such at first. A parent’s love and physical nurturing pretty much constitute the meaning of life at this stage. To gain greater self-meaning, we must transcend our physical natures in some way. This is another way of saying that we must relate ourselves symbolically to something beyond ourselves; transcendence is relation to something beyond a given context. In normal development, a human being invests both his id (physical/biological urges) and mental images symbolically. Most people relate themselves not only to the mother of their oral stage of development but eventually also to the father or other representative of the social world who represents a greater context beyond their immediate physical existences. They symbolically invest the images of these latter figures and so gain an expanded self-image and greater meaning in life; they now see themselves in terms of society. Our social relations define us in terms of the world, giving us a place and purpose in it. Transcendence of our physical beings can also be achieved through the use of a talent or gift, fulfillment of a calling or in a given profession, etc. If you gain meaning from it, if you invest it with meaning, then it’s a symbolic relation that transcends your physical existence as such. Just as the cultural person invests societal images as a context, so the creative person invests his personal creation as a context. Context is that arena – that personal world built around an image, a multitude of images, an object or objects – in which your self has meaningful relations. This context is not the entire world; it is the more immediate environment around you, comprising the things and people that have meaning to you. The relations and the interactions that go on within this context and, in a more abstract sense, the greater context of society, define you as the self you are in this world. Whatever you invest symbolically has meaning, or effect, to you and whatever you don’t invest is abstract. Thus the images you do invest shape your world, the immediate context from which you derive effect and get identity.


Each human being from birth constructs a space-time context, a world that revolves around himself; its building block is symbolic relation. He expands an initial relation to subsequent relations to people and things that give him more meaning; thus the dimensions of his world are not point because his life has many points, many things from which he derives self-meaning. If the dimension of his world was point, his self-image would be derived wholly in relation to God alone, a relation that defines a self in image of God. If you get your identity from your physical being and your roles in society relative to others, your identity is based on these shifting roles and relationships; the meanings you derive from these relationships change over time. Because they change, because they are relative, your context is shaped by space and by time; it evolves. Your relation to anything – man, beast, inanimate object – is, by the very nature of objects, a spatial one and it is temporal because objects and thus your relations to them evolve. You don’t exist in only one relation to one object or person your entire life long. No, you outgrow many of your early relationships, you move on to new ones in order to gain more meaning in life. Space-time is an abstraction of point, a consequence of not being defined as a self in the here-now alone by whatever it is you are in relation to. Consider it. Can you know yourself here and now without knowing what you were in the past, yesterday or the day before yesterday or the day before that? Isolated from your past, would you know who you are? No, you rely on memory, conscious and unconscious. Self-image is not image of God; it’s a composite image dependent on a number of relations to people and things. So one’s self-image, derived from and sustained by symbolic relations that form a person’s space-time context, is ruled entirely by relativity from birth to death. The individual, not God, is the center of this world. People’s worlds interact with one another, unifying spacetime contexts. Gravity as space-time is specific to each individual, a specific realm or construct. Whatever you call into symbolic, into meaningful, relation to yourself becomes part of your world, “gravitates” to you, so to speak. Gravity begins with point and ends in a void. It ends in a void because your meaning in life, your identity, cannot be temporal, as it is when your symbolic relations are relative, without eventually becoming point-less.



To recap some of the main points (!) so far: Symbolic relation determines the dimensions of the world in which we live. These dimensions are, on the one hand, point and on the other, space-time. Point is the dimension in which we exist in absolute relation to the one God here and now, no past or future image of God. All meaning is God’s meaning. God Himself gives meaning to all existence, to each and every entity that exists. This meaning is centered in God to whom all things are in relation. Space-time is the dimension in which all things exist in relative relation to human beings. All meaning, symbolism, is that which man himself confers; we decide what is the relative meaning of things as they exist in terms of our own individual lives within the greater contexts of our societies and world. Meaning is centered in man and therefore in countless individuals, each with his own unique worldview. Thus meaning is fractured and relative. You can’t dismiss meaning. Symbolism is the basis of life, the very constitution of a self who is essentially spirit and not dust.