(You can find the day’s reading from My Utmost for His Highest at Utmost.org. To view past or future dates, use the pull-down calendar.)
This is my inaugural blog post for An Utmost a Day, and oh, boy, are we beginning with a bang.
When I was working on my book about Utmost, December 12th was one of the entries that gave me the most food for thought (read: trouble). When Oswald Chambers uses the word “personality,” he’s not just talking about a person’s unique character (i.e. he’s not using it the way we might today). He’s joining one of the fiercest philosophical and cultural debates of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Consider this quote by the Scottish Evangelical P. T. Forsyth, one of Oswald’s favorite thinkers:
Christ is certainly no less concerned than Nietzsche that the personality should receive the fullest development of which it is capable, and be more and more of a power. The difference between them lies in the moral method by which the personality is put into possession of itself and its resources—in the one case by asserting itself, in the other by losing it.
What’s Nietzsche doing here? The German philosopher surfaces in Oswald’s sermons, too, a testament to his far-reaching influence in the era (it’s actually difficult to overstate Nietzsche’s importance in Western Europe in the years leading up to the First World War).
The strand of his thinking that Oswald and Forsyth—along with numerous other Christian thinkers in this era—addressed most often did indeed have to do with “person”-ality: that is, with what a person was and with how a person could, and should, go about the task of living.
Nietzsche put forth the idea of the Übermensch—we call it the Superman. The Superman was an ideal: a fully independent individual, a self-actualizing “will-power,” who created his own values, rather than deriving them from a system, a religion, or history. This notion—particularly the power it promised—was extremely appealing to citizens of the late nineteenth century, who were grappling with the massive changes brought on by modernity. Many felt hemmed in on all sides—by the industrial forces that had ripped them from their ancestral homes, sending them en masse into cities and factories; by the oddly distant political system that had replaced the old one, breaking the ancient bonds of kin and clan; by the economic system, capitalism, which seemed to make money the entire measure of the man. People—and particularly men—began to describe themselves as “cogs in a machine.” Talk of a “crisis of masculinity” was rampant.
It might seem odd today, but there was actually a good deal of kinship between Nietzsche’s way of thinking and that of Evangelicals like Oswald and Forsyth. The idea of breaking through false systems—governmental, religious, or economic—to set the individual free was key to both. And both latched on to the same idea—”personality”—to make the point. A human “person” was not a cog in a machine or a passive subject; he was not merely a member of a crowd; he did not exist in the mass. He was a unique entity, the basic building block of society, and all of creation existed within him. He was sacrosanct.
Of course, Christian Evangelicals diverged from Nietzsche on crucial points: Nietzsche hated Christianity, calling it a religion for weaklings. Oswald worked hard to overturn this myth. He frequently made the point that both Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were “personalities,” full of power and agency, and unable to be contained or controlled by systems, namely theological ones. In fact, his entire definition of Christianity could be summed up as: two personalities in personal, unmediated, relationship to one another, i.e. Christ with the Christian. Both he and Forsyth argued that, since Christ is the only true power, only Christians in relationship with Christ could be truly powerful.
There is much more to say on this subject (I didn’t even mention the main point of the December 12th reading, which is distinguishing between individuality and personality), but as it will come up again in Utmost, I’ll end today’s post by addressing Oswald’s statement that a person can only fully possess his own personality by “merging” with another’s. It’s similar to what Forsyth says above—that a person has to “lose” his personality in order to gain it. Both are responses to what was (and is) a common criticism of Evangelicalism: that in reducing Christianity to a personal relationship with Christ it encouraged isolation, broke communities, and allowed questionable theologies to flourish.
For Oswald and Forsyth, the personal relationship with Christ was all about others. It was all about acquiring Christ’s personality, which was humble, oriented toward serving others, and moved, as and when God commanded, between moments of private devotion and public activity.
Do you have thoughts on today’s reading from My Utmost for His Highest? Please share them below!