The “looking glass self” is a concept taught in introductory level college courses. I found it in both Psych and Soc. And though introduced into the discipline(s) in 1902 by Charles Cooley, my real, and most profound, introduction to it comes from a famous sermon preached by Sociologist/Preacher Tony Campolo in his sermon, It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming.
I can’t help but think that in the ancient world, all the way up through premodern times (and for a few of us even in the early modern era too), regular folx had no access to mirrors. You surely would see your own reflection in pooled water, but even that has limited perspective. Self-image based in a world so entirely devoid of mirrors and electronic cameras and monitors (TV), surely is stunted. Right?
Well, it helps a lot to have a rudimentary understanding of “the looking glass self.”
As I see it, there are two main views we live our lives between: self-image and worldview. (Sociologists speak of the second in terms of “social construct of reality.” This is “the matrix” you find in the movies, only now we are talking about the real one.
Campolo’s sermon is fantastic on many levels and for many various points. If you go listen to the full-length original recording, you will find the end portion makes the sermon famous – and you will find the last portion recycled and preached again in shorter sermons on the internet. But that first sermon covers a lot of ground and opens us to a look at this sociological phenom where Campolo masterfully links it to spiritual matters.
It turns out, no matter what you look like in a mirror or on TV, the you you see in the eyes of people with whom you share important relationships govern your self-image, your self-worth, and your inner peace. Campolo’s sermon asks you to consider how you look to God, a God who loves you more than you know and whose relationship you find more important than any other.
That’s a great idea!
Don’t you think?
But Campolo merely establishes a link. He surely could have explored implications further, and if he had, I think he would have enough material to write at least one more book.
I am a bit leery about going outside the Bible for spiritual guidance. Preachers do this all the time, and I think their preaching usually (not always, but usually) fails to honor God when they do it. There is, after all, “worldly wisdom” and godly wisdom (look into I Corinthians especially for more on that). But sometimes, and this takes good discernment (I say), we find wisdom of the world illuminates God’s will and/or is congruent with it. The looking glass self seems to be wisdom of that kind.
The looking glass self is a good way to broach topics like image-bearing theology. We are made in God’s image for a reason – perhaps even reasons, with an s. There are functions at work in that. The invisible God is seen in Jesus (and in us). Of course, sin tarnishes the image in us, but not Jesus. Still, the creation groans like birth pangs awaiting the revelation of the sons of God (the image bearers), according to St. Paul (Rom. 8). The world responds to God’s presence which it finds (or is supposed to find) in us.
But there is a social aspect to that as well.
We respond to the image of God manifest in one another too. When an image bearing creature (a Spirit-filled Christian) looks at you with love in her heart, you feel valued. The looking glass self perspective says this is where you really see yourself for who you really are – a child of God. You come to know God in one another!
We see this at work in our family here at the Fat Beggars Home for Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners every day. We get these little babies from foster care, and we sit in the rocking chair feeding, holding, singing, snuggling, talking babytalk, and all that with the little ones, and it is just natural on the one hand, yet it is supernatural on the other.
The psych and soc researchers study rhesus monkeys and determine that this kind of social interaction is vital to a baby’s development and well-being. I suggest we piggyback on the link Campolo gives us with his looking glass self observations, and postulate that by God’s creative design, this kind of care for children is a display of his image at work (even though tarnished by sin) healing, growing, and developing humans for life.
If we can establish such links and explore the implications, I think that one of the effects is that so much of the godly wisdom we find in the Bible, wisdom which is foolishness to the world, suddenly has tangible impact on the world.
Now come back and talk to me about family values.
It’s not all some spiritualized, esoteric psychobabble of rightwing conservatives who have lost touch with reality (though there is plenty of that to be had too). No. We suddenly have grounds to talk about stable marriages with life-long commitments. Of communities supporting those commitments and marriages. Of supporting the children of those marriages and so forth. Not as some religio/political power play, but as a resource for world peace.
And even more… we find that simply spending time around a table, eating together, sharing a meal lovingly prepared and shared by those gathered (family/church/community) is a stabilizing force. That Eucharist is one expression of exactly that! In fact, it is the supreme expression of it.
AND THEN… we can begin to consider how such simple, seemingly esoteric and/or otherworldly wisdom and impact emitting from such simple praxis competes with (if not outclassing) the power sought after and found in money and ballot boxes.
AFTER ALL THAT… then we will be able to sit sober mindedly and discuss wholly other strategies for dealing with the homeless problem. Strategies which currently seem foolish to the world (and to the church). Foolishness to the wise and stumbling block to the Jews. But nevertheless redemption for creation.
Hmmm… I started with a bit of Soc 101 here. And I don’t mean to belittle it, but I don’t think that is what the post is REALLY about. But I think I have shown a true link between this world and the next, one church people should easily find exciting.