“Self-understanding” is a term frequently found in the writings of contemporary Christian theologians - Catholic and Protestant alike.
It is used because in the modern culture of Western Europe and North America it is now nature that is believed to be the source of every human problem. And, through disciplined observation, mathematics and common rationality, it is nature that is believed to be the source for all solutions to human problems.
Nature! Self-understanding is the human expression of nature. So it is that in modernity, the act of self-understanding serves as the point in nature where religion is understood to begin.
Self-understanding consists of presumptions, beliefs about who or what deserves one’s loyalty. This belief is much more than simply an opinion - it is belief that unavoidably forms one’s behavior. It is that to which an individual holds herself or himself to be accountable. It is one’s understanding of one’s own code of obligation. These codes function so thoroughly within each individual that often they go unrecognized by those acting in accord with them.
Self-understanding is variable. In different social settings each individual understands her/himself in different ways. Each social setting entails presumptions about one’s self, some code of behavior unique to the individual in the particular setting.
In the family, individuals understand themselves one way. If it is the workplace or the school or neighborhood or community or religious institution, individuals understand themselves in other ways. The codes govern one’s belief about what she or he ought to and ought not to talk about; to whom one does and does not defer.
But for each relatively healthy adult there is one code that applies in every social setting. No matter what the setting, this code obligates; it is unconditional, the one expression of self-understanding that shepherds all others, the one that is absolute in every circumstance. The social setting for this code is the human family as a whole.
Self-understanding with all of its components is the beginning of the human’s religion. This is the point in contemporary religion’s use of modern culture to convey its message. But two more features must be acknowledged. The first has already been suggested. Self-understanding with integrity requires wakefulness, the intent to learn which presumptions actually function within an individual’s behavior. Self-understanding abides in feelings, powerful feelings often obscured by learned fears and evasive communicative habits. Awaken!
Wakefulness seeks to recognize one’s understanding one’s self. It is not an end in itself. It functions for the sake of the fundamental human responsibility; namely, to choose how one understands one’s self. Self-understanding in its wholeness entails faith, understood as wakefulness for the sake of decision - what one wills to be one’s self-understanding.
In its completeness, self-understanding exceeds the content of obligation; it is finally the responsibility to act, to create one’s own self-understanding. So it goes for the human truly accountable to one’s own task as a human. Ducks and beagles do not bear this responsibility; only the human.
It is this inescapable and distinctively human act that religious faith addresses. Whether it is the spiritual traditions of the Anishinaabe , or that of Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism or Christianity - all address the issue that belongs strictly to the human; namely, in every circumstance to choose one’s own understanding of one self, to decide who or what warrants accountability in absolutely every social setting.
For the first century church, it was Jesus. And for the 21st century church it is Jesus; to understand oneself as one who exists in the presence of Jesus, summoned in every instant to practice Christ like regard equally toward the neighbor and toward one self.
These comments do not claim that only one religious response to the human responsibility is the true one. Instead they confess that there is one true religious response and that there may be many. No religion is in a position to judge another, negatively or positively.
Always, however, each is in a position to judge itself - continual reform for itself and for the culture within which it functions. That too is the nature of authentic human existence.
To convey the gospel, Jesus and the primitive church used the culture of first century Palestinian society encompassed by the agrarian-peasant society gathered around the Mediterranean Sea. It is well to remember this in our interpretations of that event.
What I suggest above is that the contemporary church do the same - namely, use our culture, that of modernity, to convey the gospel. In this we author a new verse for a glorious and very old hymn.