A Self-Imposed Poverty of Identity

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to identity lately–specifically because of the way America and other Western nations are shattering into a million different special interest groups. Multiculturalism is part of that, of course, but it’s hardly the whole problem. We increasingly see people basing their own sense of self on things like their sexual proclivities or their disabilities. We see them trying to finding identity in the opposite genders, in new genders, in non-genders, and even in non-human beings.  All of this points to a crisis of identity in the West that goes far deeper than our problems with mass migration.

We humans are always looking for something larger than ourselves to be a part of–to be included rather than alienated. That’s part of our being made in the image of God. Just as God is three persons but one substance, human beings are individual persons who share a common humanity. Husband and wife become one flesh, and children—who we describe as our own flesh and blood—proceed from that union. Accordingly, We are by design social individuals. One can’t understand human nature without understanding both the individual and the group aspects of humanity. Just as most anti-Trinitarian heresies begin by trying to emphasize God’s unity at the expense of some Persons of the Godhead or emphasize a Person at the expense of divine Unity, a whole lot of philosophical errors begin with exaggerating one side of humanity at the expense of the other. It’s our nature to want to be part of something that is simultaneously us and more than us–somewhere that fits us personally but where we are not alone. We want an identity that is both personal and more than personal.

People have traditionally found such identity in a wide variety of places–few of them mutually exclusive. We found it in our religions, where people come together to serve the same God, follow the same rituals and ceremonies, form a defined community together, etc. We found it in our nations where people share a history and, broadly speaking, a common worldview that contains concepts on how to live among one another in an orderly fashion. We found it in our families–the most fundamental building-block of humanity.  This is where God first puts other people into our lives and we have the opportunity to learn to love others. And as with a nation, a family has a history—continuity with previous generations through blood, heritage, and a story in which we all play a part.

We found it in our careers–in the work that we do for a living. That’s why so many of our surnames are simply vocations (e.g. Smith, Taylor, Weaver, etc). We found it in being male or female. This is usually in conjunction with another identity, but sex has always been a big part of it because men and women are different. Coming of age rituals in different societies are virtually always sex-specific. Different societies will have different gender roles, but they’ll always have gender roles.

But you’ll no doubt quickly notice that over the past few generations, we in the West have deliberately made each of these things very very small in comparison to the individual–too small to be something greater than us. In fact, we’ve largely come to view these things as so tiny that being part of them is actually restrictive. We think that they make us smaller than ourselves—that they imprison us and keep us from being who we’re meant to be.

By and large, Americans treat religion as a matter of personal preference. When it comes to which rules to obey, which rituals to participate in, and even who our gods are, we’ve come to believe that there is no objective right and wrong—just matters of individual faith. We’ve subjected religion to the individual because we think that makes us freer, but it’s impossible to find identity in cafeteria style religion. I’ve often heard American religious belief (even or perhaps especially within the Church) described as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” The basic idea is that we believe in a distant god who is mostly uninvolved in our lives or in the universe, but makes a few rules to follow and is there when you need him to make you feel better–to let you know its not all meaningless and there’s somebody, somewhere with whom the cosmic buck stops. But a God you keep as an accessory to your life, who is remembered and forgotten when convenient, is necessarily something that’s much smaller than you.

As for the nation, we’ve deliberately tried our best to keep anyone from finding their identity there for a few generations. We try hard to look at America in a way that makes it too evil to want to identify with. We disparage our own heritage and over-emphasize other cultures out of false humility to the extent that our own history evaporates from our minds. The only defining characteristic of being an American that we’re allowed to acknowledge without being called racists or imperialists is existing in a specific geographical space. And even that space has no right to firmly defined borders or consistently applied laws. As with religion, this makes nation a matter of personal choice that’s consequently far smaller than the individual.

Needless to say, the family is under constant attack in our culture. On one side, children are seen as a thing to desperately avoid because they may interfere with our lives to the point that we murder them by the tens of millions. Even way back when I was in high school, our health class essentially treated pregnancy as just another STD. On the other side, parents are usually portrayed as the people against whom we need to rebel in order to become ourselves. I’ve lost track of how many TV shows and movies I’ve watched where the overarching theme is that your friends are your REAL family. Plus, I think there must be some kind of law that requires every young adult novel to be set in a dystopian future where teenagers are forced into some barbaric system created by the older generations for their own self-interest. No, we’re all taught that we’re supposed to be around the people we choose to be around—the ones who understand us because they’re pretty much just like us. Those weird people in our families that God has literally forced into our lives are to be discarded at the first opportunity. Once again, we have made the family far smaller than the individual.

Generations as recent as the Baby Boomers sought mightily to find their identities in their careers, but this too is eroding. Long gone are the days when companies routinely invested in their employees. Instead, workers are considered to be “human resources,” just another kind of replaceable, consumable part. Its hard to blame millennials for acquiring a reputation for job-hopping under such circumstances. Unless you’re an entrepreneur or work for a non-profit whose cause you’re devoted to, it’s difficult to find identity in career. And those paths aren’t for everybody–or even for most people.

And when it comes to our sex… well, feminism deliberately obliterated anyone’s ability to find meaningful identity there. The new dogma is that men and women are completely interchangeable in every respect that matters, and if you don’t think so, you’re the most evil bigot to have ever lived. If you’re a woman, you’re no different from a man, and if you’re a man, you’re just toxic, so there’s no fertile ground for identity there. As I was going through old children’s books to read to my kids recently, I came across a Berenstain Bears book from the 70’s called He Bear, She Bear. It starts out by noting that every bear is either a he bear or a she bear and that only he bears can be fathers and only she bears can be mothers–something controversial enough to get you banned from social media these days. But the entire rest of the book is about how there are absolutely no other differences between he bears and she bears. And if that’s the only difference… how different can mothers and fathers really be? And for the growing number of people who despise the idea of having kids, what does it matter anyway?

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised that people are trying to find their identity in rather extraordinary places. After all, we have actively destroyed all the ordinary ones. Religion, nation, family… we think these are all beneath us now. But the human impulse to be part of something greater still remains. What we’re seeing now is an attempt to satisfy that continuing hunger by being part of something that is only greater in the sense of being made up of additional people who are as close to being identical to ourselves as we can manage. And if we don’t quite match up–if we don’t have the right bodies to be women or the right beliefs to be Christian or the right sexual desires to be fruitful–we demand that the world patronize us until we can actually believe it ourselves.

It will never work, of course. Identities forged from fantasy cannot satisfy us any more than imaginary food can. Two plus two will never equal five no matter how many people we torture until they confess it. Most conservatives realize this much. But what far too few of us understand is that this realization is only half the problem. Rejecting the myriad of fake identities won’t create real ones. Neither will it prevent us from being replaced by peoples who actually have a sense of self. Our strategy of merely conserving has left us with precious little left to conserve with respect to identity.

To be part of something greater than ourselves, we need to renew and rebuild our ability to perceive a bigger world. We need a God who is greater than ourselves. But that means proclaiming Jesus Christ and everything he taught–not just the parts that appeal to us personally. We need to embrace the challenge of family once more. But that means both honoring our parents and passing along the love they gave us to children of our own–and we cannot have larger families without women willingly embracing motherhood over feminism. We need a nation and a heritage. But that means honoring our own culture more than others, respecting our own borders against invaders, and dropping the incoherent burden of religious neutrality so that we remain Christian in every aspect of our public lives and civic responsibilities.

Can we do it? Well, the future belongs to those who show up for it. For those possessing hope sufficient to that end, there can be only one answer.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Christian Youth, Culture, Feminism, Law, Musings, Politics, The Modern Church, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

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