The Atheising Tendency of Altruism

John Piper recently spoke at Google on the topic, Jesus Christ Egomaniac? The impetus for that question is the astounding number of prominent people who have explicitly rejected Christianity because they have perceived God (or Jesus) as being an egomaniac. While Piper seems to think that these rejections are based on a misunderstanding of God's love, I'm going to argue that these people are actually rejecting God because of their adopted morality of altruism. But let's start with the four noteworthy instances of such rejections which Piper recounts.

Four Case Studies

When Jesus says in Matthew 10:37-39 that anyone who loves father, or mother, or son, or daughter, or even his own life more than Him, is not worthy of Him, Eric Reece responds on NPR, saying:

“Who is this person speaking 2000 years ago, a complete historical stranger, saying that we should love him...more so than we should love our own fathers and sons? It just seemed like an incredibly egomaniacal kind of claim to make.”

When God commands worship, Michael Prowse responds in London’s Financial Times:

“Why should he . . . expect us to worship him? We didn’t ask to be created. Our lives are often troubled. We know that human tyrants, puffed up with pride, crave adulation and homage. But a morally perfect God would surely have no character defects. So why are all those people on their knees every Sunday?” -March 30, 2003

When God says in Deuteronomy 5:9, “For I the LORD your God am a jealous God,” Oprah Winfrey responded:

“I was caught up in the rapture of that moment until he said, “jealous.” And something struck me. I was 27 or 28, and I was thinking God is all, God is omnipresent, God is . . . also jealous? A jealous God is jealous of me? And something about that didn’t feel right in my spirit because I believe that God is love, and that God is in all things.” 

Finally, in an interview with Parade Magazine, Brad Pitt says:

“I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, “You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!” It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”  

Egomania or Egoism

All these people rightly see that God truly does value Himself above all things (Isaiah 48:9-11), and that He demands that we value Him above all things as well.  They see it, and then reject God because of it. Why? “It’s egomania,” they say––and, of course, everyone knows that egomania is a bad thing. That’s what mania means. It’s a pathology, a delusion. But is it really the mania they are rejecting, or the ego?

The term, egomania, is meant to denote delusion about oneself. The egomaniac has too high a vision of himself; his self-evaluation doesn’t match reality. Is that the problem these people have with God? When they say He’s an egomaniac, are they saying that He really isn’t all that great; that He’s in need of a reality-check? I don’t think so. Their objections don’t seem to have anything to do with whether or not God truly is as great as He thinks He is. What do they mean, then, when they say He’s an egomaniac?

They mean that He values Himself above all things––and that that is a bad thing; a maniacal thing. It’s not that He values Himself more than He ought to, but that He values Himself, period––and what’s more, He’s explicit about it. That’s the problem these people have with God. They don’t hate Him because He’s an egomaniac. They hate Him because He’s an egoist.

Egoism, as opposed to egomania, doesn’t mean a self-obsessed delusion. It means having an accurate view of oneself, and valuing oneself accordingly. An egomaniac is a drunkard who thinks he’s a hero. An egoist is a successful businessman who knows he’s successful, and why. An egomaniac is “puffed up” tyrant who “who craves adulation and homage” to prop up his delusions of grandeur. An egoist is a God who demands, not that His creations pretend that He is great, but that they recon with reality of His true greatness.

That’s the problem that these people have with God: not that He isn’t as great as He thinks He is, but that He really is that great––and He knows it. He’s not ashamed of it. He doesn’t try to hide it. And it goes beyond just His view of Himself, to His very actions and motives. It’s not just that He knows His own greatness, but He does all that He does––including the salvation of sinners (Is.48:9-11)––for His own sake. He is the ultimate egoist.

Atheism & Altruism

Why do people recoil when they discover this truth about God? Why does it appear to them as obviously, self-evidently, immoral? Because it flies in the face of everything we believe is moral. The essence of morality, we’ve been taught, is about loving other people. It’s about sacrificing your own desires for the sake of others. It’s about serving others, helping others, caring for others. Morality, for us, is supposed to be entirely others-oriented. In fact, what is supposed to be the ultimate evil? Anything which can be labeled as selfish. This is the morality of altruism (i.e. otherism), which teaches that the essence of morality is being others-oriented as your ultimate goal in all that you do. This is why we’ll say that business and profit (which are typically thought to be selfish, and therefore evil, ventures) are okay, so long as your motivation in them is to help others. Under altruism, the ultimate moral justification for any given action is that it is aimed at helping others––and the more you can sacrifice and deny of yourself in the process, the better. Under this moral code, the essence of evil is the  man who is self-oriented; the man who does all that he does, not ultimately for the sake of others, but for his own sake; the man who knows his own value, and refuses to deny it––the egoist.

It’s no wonder, then, that people who seek honestly to follow this moral code of altruism would reject the Biblical God for His egoism. According to this morality, the Christian God is not the standard of all good, but the standard of all evil. If altruism is the proper moral code, then the God of the Bible is a moral monster. The vicious irony is that this moral code, which makes the God of the Bible out to be a moral monster, is the moral code which has been presented to our culture as “Biblical” morality! Such is the hopelessly miserable state of modern Christian thinking on philosophical issues like morality.  

Either, Or:

One thing is clear: one of these things has to go. We must either jettison altruism as a moral code, or we must jettison the Biblical conception of God as valuing Himself above all things. They cannot go together. If we try to have both, then the idea with stronger influence over us (which is altruism, in our modern culture) will inevitably begin to morph and erode away at the truth of the other idea (God’s value for Himself). This is why we have new, aberrant, views of God’s justice (The New Perspectives on Paul), of the atonement (alternatives to Penal Substitution), and of hell (Annihilationism) cropping up all the time. All of these are attempts to make the God of the Bible fit more consistently into the moral code of altruism. But it can’t be done––and at least those atheists quoted above are honest enough to admit it. The more the Church pushes the morality of altruism, the harder it will be to hold onto the God-centered God of the Bible.

This is the point which Piper, unfortunately, seems to miss. Even in his passionate defense of God’s God-centeredness, he still seems to feel the need to justify this essential attribute of God in altruistic moral terms. God’s God-centeredness, he emphasizes, is the only way He could truly love us––because in upholding Himself for us, He is upholding that which will most satisfy us. This is preciously true, of course. But, because he offers this (rather than a moral defense of God’s egoism) as a response to the critics of God’s egoism, it comes across as an attempt to justify God’s God-centerdness on altruistic moral grounds. In other words, it seems as though Piper is saying:

Yes, God is God-centered––but only because He needs to be, for your sake. The reason His God-centeredness isn’t egomaniacal is because He’s not doing it for Himself. He’s doing it for you. At the end of the day, God’s God-centeredness is really His way of being an altruist. It’s His way of holding something other than Himself up as His ultimate goal. God's God-centeredness is actually a result of His others-centeredness.

That’s the danger of Piper’s answer, left as it is. The implication, then, is that God really isn’t God-centered; that if it weren’t for us, He wouldn’t truly care about His own glory; that our need of it is the ultimate moral justification of His passion for it. This, I submit, is a dangerous path. Rather than attempting to justify the God of the Bible on unbiblical altruistic moral grounds, we ought to reject moral code of altruism, altogether––and labor to rediscover true Biblical morality. While I can't launch that project here in this article, I can give a hint on the direction: the place to start is in the morality of God: the God who is God-centered. The God who is the ultimate egoist.

 

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