Psalm 103 – four dimensions of reality

Jan 17, 2022 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

I’m interested in the idea of “the self”, that consciousness of me as an independent, unique person, who has a unique set of experiences, thoughts and feelings. The ‘I’ who relates to my environment – physical, psychological and spiritual – in a unique way; being impacted by other people, the seen and unseen realms, as well as in small ways, having an impact on them. Psychologists talk about how this awareness can be seen in normal child development, referring to the first as the “existential self”, which is where French philosopher Descartes started in his quest to find a ‘ground zero’ for enquiry, and the latter as the “categorical self”, the sense of being an object as well as a subject.

In his 2020 book ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’, Carl Trueman explains how the current rapid changes in understanding about sexuality and gender, identity, and the dominance of “woke” ideology in other areas of life, are based on the ways the secular West now understands “self”. Previously, he says, in the ‘pre-modern’ era, the individual’s understanding of him/herself was tethered to certain unchangeable ‘givens’ in the environment. For example, the physical world (the cycles of the seasons, animal and crop husbandry etc), the social world (laws and norms established by tradition in communities); the religious world (God, and or other gods, seen as controlling the world, our lives and ‘fate’ in some way).

When it became fashionable, in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, to question the truth of the bible and even the existence of God, for the first time people were growing up having to construct their sense of self without the God ‘hypothesis’. Trueman shows how very soon afterwards, philosophers began to blame problems in society and the bad behaviour of individuals not on the doctrine of sin, as previously, but on outdated social conventions and morals, and societal structures. If we agree that God is dead, they argued, then we should also get rid of ethical demands based on the bible. In fact all authorities should be questioned, and if necessary, overthrown.

It took many more years for the next stage to be reached, but from the 1960’s onwards it became more commonplace to believe that human beings have the power not only to change the facts of theology and sociology, but biology as well. Marriage no longer has to be between a man and a woman for the purpose of reproduction…a foetus in the womb can be declared a non-person, and hence disposed of…the immutable characteristics of biological sex can be seen as an unwanted prison, easily erased by hormones, surgery and new legal “self-identification” to suit how a person feels. This is “expressive individualism” – how I feel must be accommodated and affirmed by society, put “out there”, and any questioning of it should be suppressed. Sixties philosopher Philip Rieff, whose ideas are summarised by Trueman, called this phenomenon “psychological man”. Using this somewhat dated phrase Rieff foresaw how what was hailed as a ‘breaking free’ from constraints of religious worldview, social convention and even the physical world would not bring liberation, but a hellish confinement[1].

So these four elements – me, others, the world, God – are in fact four pillars of a building, or four dimensions of existence.  To erase three of them leaves the self as one-dimensional. I’m not even a badly-drawn boy (who in this song recognises his two-dimensionality, and longs for more substance), I’m just a floating dot.


Sadly, many church leaders have shied away from any kind of critique of contemporary secular culture, and the powerful ideologies which people believe. Instead, they have decided that it is more ‘Christian’ to uncritically affirm whatever people think about themselves (see here for an example). In contrast, turning back to the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures ensures that the church critiques false ideology, and then offers a saving and wholesome way of thinking about self, based on truth and humility.

Psalm 103 is a poem about God, but it begins with the “existential self”, where the real “I”, or “my soul”, talks to myself, “my inmost being”. In true Hebrew fashion, time is not wasted in the contemplation of the Greek philosophers or contemporary teenagers in their bedrooms, “who am I?” David begins with inner attitude and action in relation to Another: “praise the Lord…and forget not his benefits”. I exist, but I have a choice in my consciousness: to focus primarily on myself, or God.

The implication, straight away, is that this doesn’t come easily or naturally. God is perceived in a different way to the physical realm. My natural inclination not to praise him, and not to be mindful of his gifts, physical and spiritual, is the first sign of sin in me, and a world in disharmony, in which there is sickness and misfortune. So I must remember that he forgives sin, heals physically and psychologically, restores to satisfying relationship.

So in these first few verses, the psychological and spiritual dimensions of life are established. God does not restrict in a damaging way, but provides inner wholeness, so I can be the real me, rather than having to construct my identity from my sinful feelings.

Then David goes on to observe himself in relation to others. He is part of a community, the people of Israel (v7) who are also living in relationship to God. And there is a richness to the sense of being in community, the historical element which stretches back to Moses, and forward to our children’s children (v17). It goes beyond a national or racial identity – it includes all who fear God and seek to live in accordance with his will (v18). Lastly there is the physical dimension. God gives us the good things we need, but our lives are finite, like the grass of the field. It would be wrong to conclude from this that the physical aspect of our existence is somehow less important, that the psychological and spiritual ‘real me’ can be detached from or even at odds with my mortal body and the hard world around me. I am a body-soul-spirit unit.


So let’s not say to our neighbours “your expressive individualism is great – just add Jesus!” That is colluding with the zeitgeist. And if we take the pietist line, and say we don’t need to analyse and understand the cultural currents and what people are being taught to feel, it shows we’re not paying attention to our neighbours in distress in their one-dimensional existence. Instead perhaps we need to say, with grace and compassion like God (v8), “we understand what you think about yourself and why, but that won’t work. Try the wisdom of Psalm 103 and you’’ll be restored to the four dimensions you were created to live in and enjoy”.


[1] [1]   “…our…world rejects the vertical in favour of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: ‘Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.’” From ‘A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age’, by Bruce Riley Ashford, Themelios

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