The Lenten season can sometimes make one feel a bit self-absorbed. Do we really have to spend all that time denying ourselves, searching our hearts, repenting, praying?
In many ways, you would think that the Christian concern for the self should be right at home in our day, age, and place. If you take North America as the measuring stick, it's hard to imagine a time more obsessed with the individual.
The individual today is the measure and the mark of almost all of our public life. The most vociferous debates in our law revolve around individuals. In Canada, at least, the question of selling, ending, or controlling one's body is settled on the question of what limits, if any, are appropriate to place on the individual, whose freedom to choose is presumed to be—because of our constitution—the highest end of political life. And this is true for legal questions that are supposedly communitarian in nature as well—schooling, employment, etc. They're all read through the lens of the individual.
And it's not just the state that's obsessed with individuals. The markets are actually much more concerned with getting at the individual. And while access to your wallet remains the holy grail, the market is willing to get personal to get that access. This line from AMC's Mad Men sums it up nicely: "The greatest thing you have working for you ... is the imagination of the consumer. They have no budget. They have no time limit. If you can get into that space, your ad can run all day." As anyone who's had to give their postal code while buying propane for the barbeque, or who finds themselves trailed by ads which are remarkably similar to something they just searched for on Google can attest, the best way to get to your wallet is to get you.
Why is it then that Christians and others who take religion seriously find themselves so at odds with much of what goes on in the modern state and the markets? Why do Christian schools face such opposition? Why are some, like Cardus Senior Fellow Jonathan Chaplin (and it's not just Christians who think this) concerned "that there is an intentional strategy at work to reshape the independent associations of civil society in the uniform image of an ever-expanding set of identical individual rights, imposed with the monopoly power of public authority"?
Perhaps it's because, in its obsession and support for the individual, our modern age is willing to diminish the self, the emergence of which owes a great deal of debt to Christianity. Modern liberalism focuses on individuals as political and economic units. It intentionally does so because it wants to avoid the contentions that arise from individuals as complex selves, complete with a complex array of relationships, desires and loves. But, in severing politics and economics from this complexity, we are left with a hollowed out individualism. It is in these contentious debates that Christianity—and other religions—finds itself in conflict with the modern state's conception of the individual. Yet, even here it is not enough to call it "a simple contest between reactionary practitioners of intolerance, exclusion, dogmatism, and confinement (them), and liberating heralds of tolerance, inclusion, openness, and freedom (us)."
Anyone who's participated, even as a visitor, in Christian practices such as those observed in Lent, or has read even basic theological text, knows that the disagreements between Christianity and the individually obsessed present are disputes over what that self is. Christianity doesn't want to subjugate the individual. It simply acknowledges two basic realities—that you've got to serve somebody, and that the person/thing to which you pledge allegiance will shape who you are—and proposes that if we are to experience the fullness of our individuality, we should serve God.
Thus, the Christian obsession with God and self during the season of Lent, is a natural and better outflowing of the liberal obsession with individuals than liberalism itself. To paraphrase one of the pillars of our modern understanding of the self, "We never attain to a true self-knowledge until we previously contemplate the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into ourselves."
Lent's self-obsession is really an obsession with God. And an obsession with God is what prevents self-obsession from becoming self-absorption. It is what allows someone like Pope Francis, who, when someone from the crowd shouts, "Francis, there's nobody like you!" to both affirm the individual and set the stage for our social life: "You, too! There's nobody like you, too! There are no two people like you!"