Friday, August 16, 2013

Is who you are made by what or by who?

As The Who memorably asked, "Who are you? Who? Who? Who? Who? I really want to know." Given that the times in which we lived are frequently described by means of the contradiction "post-modern," it is little wonder that so many people are left wondering who they are. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that we are told and even encouraged to invent and then continually re-invent ourselves, to try on identities like we try on shoes to see which one(s) fit and how they look on us. In my view, at the root of such a view of ourselves and the constantly re-shaped world we inhabit is self-deception. The main problem lies in too many people seeking to make themselves someone who is a walk-on character in the story of their lives, a person who is discontinuous with who they have always been, which, let's face it, restricts our possibilities to a certain degree. This often has the effect of making a person's life a work of fiction and usually not a very good, or compelling work of fiction.

An example of what I am trying to explain, despite the peculiarities of the story (every story has its unique features, which is what makes it this story and not another), is ABC News editor Don Ennis, who had a sex change to become a woman before deciding to "return" to being a man. I guess being a news(wo)man with amnesia, who believes (s/)he is living fourteen years in the past, which seems impossible on first glance, is the best proof of Qoheleth's milennia-old observation- "Nothing is new under the sun!"

I find it interesting and highly significant that one of the first and still very influential purveyors of this view, who said, "In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," perhaps the inventor of self-reinvention, Andy Warhol, seemed to know who he was and never really drifted from being the son of Slovakian immigrants from Pittsburgh with a creative flair. Many are still surprised to learn that Warhol attended Mass almost daily at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City, though it does not appear he was a communicant. According to the remembrance of the parish priest, Warhol sat or knelt towards the back of the Church, keeping a low profile. Warhol stated his reason for so doing was that, as an Eastern Catholic attending a Roman Rite liturgy, he didn't want to been crossing himself right-to-left in the Eastern Christian manner... but I digress.

I believe this whole phenomena of self-invention and re-invention is an attempt to reduce, or over-simplify one's self, to reduce what is irreducible. As human beings we are complex creatures. Very soon after I first posted this, my dear friend Fred, who is always more insightful than I am, quipped- "the quickest way to becoming annoying is by fixating on one's self-concept, e.g. identity politics including the hideous phenomenon of Catholic identity." It would be easy to cite many passages of Scripture to support this, especially from the Psalms, like this from Psalm 8:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.

Sexuality is perhaps the most pervasive of post-modern pseudo-identities. By using "pseudo" I do not mean to suggest that our sexuality is not a constituent part of our human personalities and identity, it certainly is, but it alone does not constitute, or, as many would have it, dictate, who we are in toto. What and who we desire sexually does not tell another person everything about us they need to know. Our sexual desires and proclivities are not even the most interesting thing about us, let alone what completely defines us.

I ran across something just this morning by Brendan O'Neill, who is an atheist himself, written a few days ago for The Telegraph, about how atheism has become one of these invented identities: "How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet." By posting this I am not blind to the fact that Christians are often very annoying and, at times, quite smug. In fact, also this week, I heard and then read about the arrest and subsequent acquittal of two pastors in California who were reading the Bible out loud to people who were lined up outside the California DMV office in Hemet, California. As a U.S. citizen, I readily concede that this seems to be well within their constitutional right speak freely. However, as a Christian, I find such ham-fisted approaches to sharing my faith (I refuse to call it evangelism) probably more frustrating and annoying than most non-Christians, many of whom are probably all too happy to have a certain stereotype and caricature confirmed.

What struck me in O'Neill's piece was his diagnosis of what has "gone wrong with atheism." I think he is quite right to assert up-front that atheism itself is not the problem, correctly noting that when you cut-to-the-chase atheism is simply "non-belief," it is "a lack of something." What turns simple non-belief into what he describes as "today's monumentally annoying atheism... is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life." Those he describes as "today’s campaigning atheists" seek to make their "lack of belief in God... the be-all and end-all of their personality." As he notes, while it is possible, it doesn't make much sense to base one's view of the world, of life, of one's self on a negative. He contrasts the so-called "new" atheists with the atheism of non-believers of previous generations, whom, he insists, viewed their lack of belief in God "as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever..." Now, whether this is a wholly accurate assertion of past atheism I do not possess enough expertise to tell, but he contrasts this with "today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare 'I am an atheist!' as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t."

The inverse does not hold true, however. Being Christian is the basis of my identity. It is constitutes who I am. Based on Jesus' exchange with Nicodemus in the third chapter of St. John's Gospel, Christians believe that in baptism a person is re-born as a child of God. As Archbishop Migliore once said in a homily I heard him preach in Jersey City, "You're not really born until you are baptized." Being God's daughter or son is an identity and ought to shape how we live, which is according to the very challenging teachings of Jesus. This is something positive, not negative; not a lack, but a life-giving abundance for anyone who cares to heed the Lord's invitation- "Come, and you will see" (John 1:39).

It's quite unintentionally been a week focused on metaphysical questions here at Καθολικός διάκονος. There is no topic that is of more interest in this field than that of personal identity.

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