Which Self Should We Be True To?

By Kevin Brown, author of Designed for Good

Years ago, a prominent evangelical figure named Mark Pierpont was working vigorously to promote a Biblical view of sexuality and to “cure” gay people of same-sex attraction. But Pierpont had a problem.

He was gay.

In the 2007 documentary “Protagonist”—Pierpont openly discusses the dissonance he experienced between his beliefs against homosexual behavior and his own homosexual desires and actions.

In a 2011 New York Times article, philosopher Joshua Knobe explores Pierpont’s unique story. Specifically, he was interested in the tension he experienced while attempting to harbor these two competing perspectives of identity.

When presented with Pierpont’s dilemma, many are quick to respond that he simply needs to be true to himself—a “distinctive ideal of modern life.” Indeed, the council to be “true to yourself” is so oft-cited and ubiquitous, it seems to have the status of an irrefutable metaphysical principle.  But there is a problem with all of this, writes Knobe.  Which “self” should Pierpont be true to?

Who is the real Mark Pierpont?

One perspective says that the true self can be found by reflecting on values. In other words, if you want to know who a person is, look at their beliefs.  Under this line of reasoning, Pierpont’s “true self” is the Bible-believing heterosexual.

An alternative perspective is that the true self is observed in people’s behaviors. Their suppressed urges, desires, and emotions are the more accurate indicator of who they are.  Under this line of reasoning, if you want to know who a person is, look at their actions.  According to this logic, the real Mark Pierpont is the closet homosexual.

Knobe is dissatisfied with both of these views. Believing that neither perspective fully captures the complexity of the “self,” he points to the larger question of human purpose and design.  After conducting his own research, he concludes, “People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.”

Knobe found that when respondents were presented with Pierpont’s dilemma, those who frown upon the homosexual lifestyle claimed that Pierpont’s true self was the evangelical activist, while those who support and celebrate the LGBT lifestyle understood his true self as being the suppressed, closet homosexual. In other words, each of the seemingly objective determinations about the “real” Mark Pierpont was closely tied to an underlying value judgment about what it means to live well.

It appears that to answer this question (What is the true self?)—we need an answer to some antecedent questions: Who are we? What are we designed to do? What is the purpose of a human?

It is here that the Christian faith tradition provides a unique lens by which to consider this question. Specifically, people of faith believe in creation, and creation implies intention. Take, for example, a flute. How would I know whether a flute is “good” or not?  To answer this, we must first have an account of a flute’s purpose, aim, or end (i.e., a flute exists to produce beautiful music).  Further, it is in defining a flute’s purpose that we can characterize it in a normatively descriptive manner.  That is, it is good because it fulfills its intended design (or not good because it fails to).

This idea of purpose is called “teleology.” It means a person, place, or thing’s intended purpose, end, design, nature, etc.  A flute has teleology because it was created to do a specific thing (make beautiful music).  So what about humans?  What is our teleology?  What is our purpose?

First, we need to recognize that if humans were created by a deliberate designer (as Christians believe)—then we have teleology. Specifically, Christians believe that all of humanity was created for other-centered communion with God and with neighbor.

To relate this to the case of Mark Pierpont, it is not simply a matter of who he is—it is first and foremost a matter of who he should be. It is about determining his teleological ends.  Debating whether the real Mark Pierpont is the Bible-believing evangelical leader or the closet homosexual becomes nothing more than two ships passing in the night if those conceptions are not brought to bear against an overarching reality.

Second, reflecting upon our teleological ends as a human created in God’s image and created for God’s communion allows us to think carefully about the moral significance of our actions.  Does an action allow us to better fulfill our purpose as a human?  Does it prohibit wholeness, or does it encourage flourishing?

Not only does the concept of teleology allow us to think differently about being true to ourselves (i.e., which “self” to be true to)—it allows us to consider who our self should be true to: our creator.  As Augustine famously stated, we exist to participate in the life of God—and we are restless until we find rest in him.

Kevin Brown is an associate professor of business at Asbury University
and also serves as the lead editor of the Christian Business Academy
. His formal education spans the areas of theology, philosophy,
and economics–and his writing seeks to explore the interplay between
these fields. He resides with his wife and children in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Designed for Good by Kevin BrownKevin J. Brown’s Designed for Good is a study of classical virtue ethics from a Christian perspective. This book shows Christians that their faith contains resources to help them recover the idea of virtue in the face of our modern moral bewilderment. Brown argues that true virtue—the kind we can actually strive for in our day-to-day lives—requires a holistic vision of the good life, not a list of rules determined by our preferences or the latest market trends. Instead, it is precisely what we were designed for by our Creator: life in the community of Christ’s body, the church. Virtue then becomes the pursuit of wholeness in harmony with God’s design.

For more information about Designed for Good, read this Q&A with Kevin, watch this video about the book, or check out our website!

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