The philosopher wonders, “why am I here?” He considers the natural order, man’s place within it, and the thoughts of others who have sought to understand man’s nature and what fulfills it. The religious person gratefully asks God, “why did you give me life?” In addition to the understanding obtained through philosophy, the religious person considers what God has revealed, receives instruction from those who have spent their lives following God, and asks God for guidance.
Today these grand questions are often reduced to the question of identity: “who am I?” Even philosophers have largely abandoned the big questions. “Religions” are thought to be chosen according to individual preferences like any other consumer product or as forms of self-expression or self-help, alongside newer alternatives.
Many “nones” explicitly prefer the choose-your-own-adventure approach. Life has always been an adventure, but people previously used philosophical and theological compasses and maps to orient their lives. Now, people tend to orient the universe based on who they understand themselves to be and write off the compasses or maps used by others as mere expressions of those who made them, having no bearing upon themselves. This self-orientation leads to disorientation, which is compounded by isolation and individualism. While we still use surnames, we view ourselves more as individuals than as members of communities, and many of us don’t even know our neighbors.
Those approaching life in this way proclaim their freedom, yet this approach places an unbearable existential weight upon one’s identity. People struggling under this pressure often try to strengthen their disoriented, “free” identities by identifying themselves with causes, organizations, and movements, or simply as “citizens of the world.” They may also base their identity heavily on personal achievements, characteristics, or even feelings and then associate with groups of people who share these, reinforcing this identity.
Without a personal identity rooted in stronger, deeper relationships, such as God, family, community, and friendships built on the pursuit of virtue, the disoriented, “free” person relies much more heavily on political, economic, commercial, virtual, and other passing associations to fill the gap. “Freedom” from some relations is replaced by a new dependence upon others. Any perceived challenge to one of these supporting associations is seen as a challenge to the disoriented person’s own identity, which in turn appears to threaten the entire universe oriented to that identity, as evidenced by certain extreme reactions.
Over this past year, many significant issues touching upon the dignity of the human person have been debated. Perceived threats against human dignity understandably aroused great passion. However, lacking a deeply rooted identity, many people were manipulated by demagoguery and ideology, including identity politics. You are more than your demographic. Furthermore, to vote for a candidate or support the platforms of a political party is fine, but to simplistically identify with them is to build your house on shaky ground, subject to the shifting winds of political victories and losses and the tumultuous storms of political scandal.
Identifying ourselves in this way also contributes to division. Those who support candidates, parties, or ideas different from those with which one identifies are not seen as merely disagreeing, but as hostile to one’s very self! This sometimes leads to viewing them as enemies and describing them with dehumanizing language. Such tension causes a breakdown of communication. Many people choose to remain silent to avoid division with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and even fellow Christians who identify so strongly with certain groups or ideas that they would reject anyone who opposed these. But this very silence betrays the fact that they are already divided.
Instead of looking to the mere shadows of what is passing in order to “find ourselves,” let us look to Jesus Christ, the Light, who “fully reveals man to … himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Rejecting God explicitly or in practice doesn’t make us fatherless. God still loves us. It also doesn’t make us brother-less or sister-less. We merely fail to recognize “them” as being fellow children of God along with “us.” But if we do not recognize God and our identity as children of God, we become prodigal sons and daughters who falsely identify by other, shallower associations. These can never affirm the dignity of our true identity or provide us the foundation for true unity with one another the way that our Father can. Our creation in the image of God is the foundation of the dignity of each and every human person, including those with whom we disagree the most. At the same time, God offers us the grace of adopted sonship in Jesus Christ so that each of us, in all our diversity and beauty, may shine brightly like the saints and glorify God.
Let us pray that all of us modern men and women who suffer from self-alienation and alienation from one another learn from the prodigal son’s return to the Father and look to God, who invites us to communion in his family. May God give us the grace to affirm the dignity of all persons made in the image of God and to be conformed to Jesus Christ, so that firmly planted in our identity in him we may resist the deception of false identities tied to what is passing and be most fully configured to him and united with one another through him in the glory of heaven for all eternity.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Thanksgiving (used with permission)