Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations on on 10/19/2015.
Mike, I wonder if your statement, “identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers”, makes sense. It sounds to me like postmodernist sloganeering.
For example, if I am hungry I want to distinguish, that is to say, ‘identify’, a pizza and distinguish it from a rock. Are you saying the boundary between a pizza and a rock is a figment of human conceptualization? That doesn’t make sense to me. A pizza belongs in the concept ‘food’, a rock belongs in the concept ‘non-food’. What is the problem?
In a similar way, I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.
Thanks again, Jim. I see I still need to say more clearly what I am addressing here.
“Identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers” is not meant to be postmodernist sloganeering. If anything, it is premodern Buddhist psychology, confirmed in many ways by modern neurobiology of consciousness research.
Certainly human beings need to be able to “identify” distinctions between different objects (pizza :: rock), different concepts (food :: non-food) and spiritual traditions (Universalist Quakerism :: creedal Christianity). Our use of language depends upon distinguishing and naming categories as helpfully as we can.
I therefore agree with your statement: “I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.”
In “Seeing beyond Identities” I am using the term “identity” in a somewhat different sense.
If I say “I am a convinced Friend,” that may “identify” something of my history in the first sense. However, “convinced Friend” is not an “identity.”
We are so accustomed to the language which says “I am a Christian,” “I am an American,” “I am a gay man.” Our common habit is to take this as affirming an “identity” between an individual human being and all people in the named category. Obviously, though, no two “Christians” or “Americans” or “gay men” are the same. What we are actually doing when we use those labels is ascribing to ourselves certain very loosely defined characteristics.
The problem is that to assert “gay man” as an “identity” would be to reduce all the vast, complex, constantly changing realities of my 65 plus years of life to a few culturally “identifiable” markers. What “I am a gay man” actually says is “I belong to the widely diverse category of men, each of them unique, who are willing to publicly affirm the homosexual aspects of their lives.”
In “Seeing beyond Identities” I wrote: “I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.”
I am trying to affirm “identity” as a matter of belonging, not as a matter of definition.
I belong to a boundless community of human beings, a community which transcends time and space—and belief systems—all of whom recognize and turn to Jesus as the center of a circle without circumference.
However, most people associate the term “Christian” with a specific, doctrinal set of beliefs—as well as with a horrendous history of violent abuse of power. I cannot say “I am a Christian” if that misleads people into thinking I subscribe to those doctrines. I would rather not say “I am a Christian” if to do so means others cannot see me past their personal anger and resentment and fear regarding “Christian” abuses of power.
Likewise, I do not say “I am a Universalist,” because I do not want to mislead either people who claim that label as naming a belief system or those who reject that belief system and, hence, those who claim the label.
I am not dodging the issue.
I want us to see beyond identities if we are using them as boundaries between those who belong to the wholeness of humanity and those who don’t.
Image Source“Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.