Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Our Identity

"I think; therefore I am." So said Descartes, in a famous epigram. Perhaps a better topic to ponder, however, is *what* am I?  That is, what is my identity? It is instructive, I believe, to listen to people these days on how they identify themselves. Some do so by political labels, others by their tastes, and still others by their accomplishments. And yet, these descriptions are not, after all, the most fundamental fact about them. They are, at the best, descriptions of certain features they have, and not the substance of who they truly are. Yet the consequences of giving such undue prominence to such (relatively small) characteristics, such as happens rampantly in our society, are troubling. For not only do we miss the big picture if we fall for such a heresy (and I use that word deliberately), but it undermines the very basis for human equality. After all, in the same proportion as we define our identity primarily by details such as these, we inevitably build the foundation for inequality. That is so *precisely* because such details are where inequality undeniably flourishes. If my identity is dependent on my income, then one with a bigger income will be more valuable than I. If it is dependent on my looks, then someone with better looks becomes more important. If it is dependent on my political views, then one who disagrees with them would be fully justified (from their perspective) in depriving me of any rights I have (much less common courtesy) for my having embraced "political heresy", so to speak. When we look at the state of our society, then it becomes obvious why that, for all our talk about "equality", we display so little regard for the human dignity of large portions of our society. By identifying not only ourselves, but also others, not with the substance of who they truly are, but with their characteristics (such as, among others, those described above), the logical consequence is that we do not really believe in human equality, since it is evident we are not all equal in those respects. All our talk in favor of equality becomes a sham.

How are we then to get out of such a rut? That, I believe, comes back to the question of altering our perspective on how we answer the question of what constitues our identity. And that, I believe, is where Christianity (especially as displayed in the lives of the saints) holds the key. For from a Christian perspective, our identity is not to be identified (no pun intended) with certain aspects of our lives, but what makes us human in the first place. Christians believe in human equality because we are all of us, every single one, exactly that: *human*. And what is a human being? One who is made in the image of God. "Let us make man in our own image" is a line that becomes more and more important for us to contemplate, I believe, if we are ever to reverse the trend of our society. If we worship God as our Creator, then we will venerate His image, even if it displays flaws (including moral), because what makes the image most valuable is precisely He whose image a person is.  Or, as Chesterton remarked,  "For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King." If we realize, truly in our hearts and not simply as a matter of words, that any human being we meet (no matter what we may dislike about them) is in fact an image of the Almighty, even if unfortunately gravely distorted, then out of love for the King, we will greatly cherish the person for that reason, if for no others. That is how, through the grace of God, saints are able to love even their enemies, including those who persecute them. They see the image of God in that person, and consequently wish the image not to be destroyed through hate, but restored through love. I speak this, by the way, as a person fully conscious as having many times failed to keep such a perspective in mind himself. While I am unaware of ever having actually hated anybody, it is also true that many times in my anger I myself have also focused too much on a person's flaws rather than the substance of who they are as the image of God. And so, in consequence, I have at times given into the temptation of not giving them the regard due to equals. Only when I remember their true identity can I get out of such an error.

In short, if anyone really wishes to work for the cause of human equality, then let him follow the example of the saints in remembering that every person he meets is an image of Almighty, and that is his true identity. Such is the only sure foundation for the recognition of human equality, and how it is that "all men are created equal."