The Doctrine of the Ego, Through Chrsitian Liberal Protestantism

Throughout their history, Christians have sought to decipher the mysteries of their faith. With Christ newly ascended to the heavens, men like Peter and the Apostle Paul struggled to fully fathom how salvation worked. As their heirs, patristic writers such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine took on the task of defining what would become Christianity’s foundational principles. And in subsequent centuries, incisive theologians of every generation have offered deeper insight through new interpretations of traditional Christian ideologies. This endless process of comprehension is ever-evolving, while simultaneously striving to move ever closer to the fundamental truth of Christ’s life and message. Such a paradox of intellection is evidenced by the works of numerous 20th-century theologians who moved toward an articulation of “sin” as “egocentrism.” Though the vocabulary which delineates this “Doctrine of the Ego” is still emerging, the concepts that propel it forward can be identified in the writings of much earlier Christian thinkers, and even traced back to the original teachings of Jesus.

Salvation and Atonement

This exploration of the Doctrine of the Ego begins with a conceptualization of “salvation” and “atonement” as described by Gustaf Aulén in his book Christus Victor. This seminal work by the former Bishop of the Church of Sweden (d. 1977) outlines the various theories that have existed throughout Christian history about these two soteriological principles. Though Aulén personally espouses what he terms a “Classic” view (of a unified salvation/atonement as God’s victory over evil), the author also examines several “Latin” understandings, including a bifurcated “subjective” approach:

"Wherever the classic idea of the Atonement is dominant ... Salvation is Atonement, and Atonement is Salvation. With the Latin doctrine that case is different; Atonement is treated as prior to Salvation, a preliminary to it, making the subsequent process of salvation possible” (136).

Aulén then highlights a unique version of the Latin understanding as given by the 19th-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834). In this version, “Schleiermacher reverses the order; Salvation (the change in spiritual life) comes first, and Atonement (Reconciliation) follows as its completion" (136). Salvation is but the first in a two-step process where "Christ is regarded as the starting-point of the influences that work towards the strengthening of man's consciousness of God, because He is the embodiment of the ideal of religion, the Pattern Man, who has an absolutely perfect and blessed consciousness of God" (138).

The second step of atonement is explained by Aulén through the writings of another 19th-century German theologian, Albrecht Ritschl (d. 1889). For Ritschl, "Atonement follows subsequently, as the result of man's new relation to God, and signifies primarily a new relation to the world, characterized by ... self-realization" (Aulén 138).

Because Aulén sees the gaining of God-consciousness (salvation) and its consequent self-realization (atonement) as being conducted solely by man (with no active intervention from God), he deems the theory anthropocentric. But he fails to recognize that, though man may take the active role in his salvation, it is done by ridding himself of his own human (relative) perspective, in favor of the divine (absolute) perspective. It is a theocentric understanding that infuses temporal life with its sacred quality, by revealing it in light of the eternal.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) explains this same Salvation/Atonement theory using non-religious vocabulary in his book Fear and Trembling. Conceived as an observable practice which characterizes a person of true faith, Kierkegaard describes a double movement, where she first renounces the material world, and then returns to it with an informed perspective. In the first movement (which Kierkegaard refers to as the “knight of infinite resignation”), everything – including the self – is recognized as relative, contingent, and beyond the power of the individual to create or truly control; it is therefore resigned entirely to God. In the second movement (which the philosopher calls the “knight of faith”), the fully resigned human returns to her relative and contingent world, fully conscious of God’s replete presence. “What I gain in resignation” Kierkegaard writes regarding this double movement, “is my eternal consciousness in blessed harmony with my love for the eternal being” (98). Through Kierkegaard’s “knight of resignation” and “knight of faith,” the temporal, ordinary world becomes eternal and sacralized. “Salvation” is nothing less than the rejection of relative perspective, while “atonement” is the embrace of an absolute (or “theocentric”) consciousness.


The word “Sin” in Hebrew means “to miss the mark,” and in any version of Christian theology (not to mention many other religious traditions), implies a negative relationship to God that prevents us from the apprehension of ultimate truth. In the two-fold process of salvation and atonement described by Aulén above, “sin” would be a refusal to renounce the world in favor of God-consciousness (or, in Kierkegaardian terms, the failure to make the double movement). In simple terms, “sin” is to limit one’s awareness to the relative self – to live awash in the ego.

The German theologian Karl Rahner (d. 1984) perceptively articulates this idea as saying “no” to God.* Life, Rahner asserts, is a singular invitation for man to make the “double movement” and transcend his relative, temporal self. Man is free to answer this invitation as he chooses, though ultimately the way he lives his life becomes his response. As Rahner puts it, "the entire life of a free subject is inevitably an answer to the question in which God offers himself to us as the source of transcendence. We know moreover that such an answer can always be a radical 'no'" (101). Rahner goes on to explain why the refusal of God-consciousness is a mistake:

"This 'no' is one of freedom’s possibilities, but this possibility of freedom is always at the same time something abortive, something which miscarries and fails, something which is self-destructive and self-contradictory. Such a 'no' can give the appearance that the subject really and radically asserts himself only by this 'no.' This appearance can be given because the subject affirms in freedom a categorical goal absolutely, and in doing this he then misses everything else absolutely, instead of giving himself over unconditionally to the ineffable and holy mystery" (102).

Saying “no” to God is an attempt to create an artificial separation between the self and the cosmos, in denial of the evidence of reality. Expressed plainly, man’s unjustifiable notion of himself as the center of the universe is foolish, because false notions ultimately fail. On the other hand, saying “yes” to God is to perform the double movement, to appreciate how each finite man comprises infinite Mankind, and embrace one’s role as God in action.

Rejection of God consciousness is what St. Augustine of Hippo (d.430) says results in a “second death” in his book The City of God. All human beings are subject to “the first death,” which separates soul from body. The “second death,” however, affects only those who have had nothing but the self to cling to. For them, the “first death” is the end of the entire universe, the severest of punishments in which “the soul is justly said to die, because it does not live in connection with God" (413). In losing the only thing they treasure (the self), they have brought upon themselves a “second death” of permanent separation from God. In the words of Augustine:

"It is called the second death because it follows the first, which sunders the two cohering essences … Of the first and bodily death, then, we may say that to the good it is good, and evil to the evil. But, doubtless, the second, as it happens to none of the good, so it can be good for none" (413).

That Augustine understands “sin” as “egocentrism” can be discerned in his expressions of the goodness of God consciousness:

"When, then, a man lives according to the truth, he lives not according to himself, but according to God."

and the evils of “man consciousness”:

"When, therefore, man lives according to himself -- that is, according to man, not according to God -- assuredly he lives according to a lie; not that man himself is a lie, for God is his author and creator"

while defining “sin” in terms very similar to Rahner’s “saying ‘no’ to God”:

"For no sin is committed save by that desire or will by which we desire that it be well with us, and shrink from it being ill with us. That, therefore, is a lie which we do in order that it may be well with us, but which makes us more miserable than we were. And why is this, but because the source of man's happiness lies only in God, whom he abandons when he sins, and not in himself … ?" (445).

Of course, Augustine never uses the term “egocentrism” (in part because the word “ego” and its derivative terms would not appear until the 19th century), but his writings evince that an understanding of relative versus absolute consciousness existed even in the early 5th century.

The Kingdom of Heaven

The writers examined here differ greatly in their literary vocabularies and styles of writing. But in their talk of a “double movement,” of saying “yes” to God, or of escaping the “second death,” each of them is focused on the singular goal of acquiring and living in a full and complete state of God consciousness. This state is nothing less than the “kingdom of heaven,” which Jesus speaks of in his “Sermon on the Mount”:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In this first beatitude, from Matthew 5:3, Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven to the “poor in spirit,” a phrase that is puzzling upon first consideration, as it seems to indicate a weakness of faith. Obviously, this cannot be Christ’s meaning. Theologians have long studied and meditated on this beatitude, to penetrate its puzzling façade, and arrive at its truth. German theologian Meister Eckhart (d. circa 1328) achieved insight by first examining what is meant by the word “poor.” “There are two kinds of poverty,” he discovered, “the one is external poverty … but there is another poverty, an interior poverty, to which this word of our Lord [refers]” (111). Those unaware of this second poverty “are the people who cling with attachment to penances and outward practices” (111).

Eckhart outlines the traits that comprise this interior poorness. “For a man to possess true poverty,” the theologian instructs, “he must be … free of his created will” (111), “free of all the understanding that lives in him,” (112) and “poor of all his own knowledge” (113). A person who is truly “poor in spirit” is one who transcends everything relating to the self – a being who by design possesses an ego, but whose nature has become devoid of egocentric perspective.

To the human beings who achieve this transcendence, Jesus has promised that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” An indication that Christ himself understood this teaching in terms of the “Doctrine of the Ego” is distinguished in his choice of the word “is.” He does not suggest that the poor in spirit will attain the kingdom of heaven in the future, as a reward, but that the kingdom becomes theirs immediately, as a reality. These transformed individuals enter the kingdom of heaven as an informed life on earth, inhabited here and now, becoming what German theologian Paul Tillich (d. 1965)** terms a “New Being”:

"The New Being is not something that simply takes the place of the Old Being. But it is a renewal of the Old which has been corrupted, distorted, split and almost destroyed. But not wholly destroyed. Salvation does not destroy creation; but it transforms the Old Creation into a New one. Therefore we can speak of the New in terms of a re-newal: The threefold "re," namely, re-conciliation, re-union, re-surrection" (20).

In the Doctrine of the Ego, then, the concepts of sin, salvation, and atonement are really about getting rid of manmade separations between humanity and God. Christ Jesus is understood as the key to this process, because we witness in him no separation, and by his example, we understand that we can achieve a similar unity with what science calls the infinite, philosophy terms the absolute, and religions understand as God. Tillich would have us see that, in this unity of finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, mortal man rises as immortal:

"The word 'Resurrection' has for many people the connotation of dead bodies leaving their graves or other fanciful images. But resurrection means the victory of the New state of things, the New Being born out of the death of the Old. Resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow. Where there is a New Being, there is resurrection, namely, the creation into eternity out of every moment of time. Resurrection happens now or it does not happen at all" (24)

In speaking of resurrection, the Apostle Paul testifies in First Corinthians that the change which results in the New Being can occur “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call” (15:52). Though divine revelation may inspire the change, the actual transformation, Paul says, must be performed by man: it is the “perishable” which must “clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (15:50). This does not require total rejection of the self, but an enveloping of that (finite) self within the (infinite) embrace of God. Only in this way can the “second death” of eternal egocentric separation from God be escaped. For these New Beings born of salvation, Paul rejoices:

"Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin … but thanks be to God, He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).

* It is important to note here that this “invitation” does not presume a specific definition of “God.” God may be a self-conscious entity “somewhere out there,” or a bearded old man on a throne in the clouds; likewise, God might simply be the sum total of the cosmos, or a basic underlying energy that infuses all created matter. The point is that “God” is “the big picture” – the all of which each human is just a part. The invitation asks us to live in terms of the knowledge that each part is subjacent to the all.

** Though I reference many 19th- and 20th-century German theologians, I should point out that the viewpoints expressed in this paper are not exclusively those of “Liberal Protestantism” But I would like to point out that the works of theologians such as Augustine and Eckhart demonstrate that this doctrinal concept pre-existed the Reformation, and cannot, therefore, be strictly “Protestant.” As for being “liberal”: in the confines of this paper and footnote, my briefest defense is that, for those who believe that Christ himself may have held these views, this doctrine should be referred to by no other designation than “Christianity.”

Works Cited

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, (New York: Random House, 1950).

Aulén, Gustaf, Christus Victor, (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

Holy Bible, New International Version, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984).

Kierkegaard, Søren, The Essential Kierkegaard, (Princeton: Princeton UP: 1958).

Eckhart, Meister, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, ed. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (4th Edition), (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1993).

Rahner, Karl, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1978).

Tillich, Paul, The New Being, (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1955).

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