A comment on “Seeing beyond Identities”

Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations on on 10/19/2015.

Friend Jim Wilson has a helpful comment on the QuakerQuaker republishing of my post, “Seeing beyond Identities”:

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.”

Vine
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.”

“Christ of the Desert,” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM 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.

Blessings,
Mike


Image SourceChrist of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

2 comments On A comment on “Seeing beyond Identities”

  • When reading this, I felt overwhelmed with both angst and joy.
    One thought (from among the stampede in my mind:-):

    You wrote, “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.”

    So important. But do you not find difficulties in doing this. My whole life has been a constant tug and yield, trying to be open and yet centered. Your phrase, “center of a circle without circumference” creates such a powerful image of what I have sought to do.

    BUT, (looking back now from the fragmentation of older age), it seems that the difficulty of semantics and truly different worldviews get in our way most of the time.

    For instance, I’ve identified as “liberal” or “very liberal Friend” for a very long time, many years, yet it turns out that what those words mean to some is very different from what they mean to others.

    Of late, now that (starting about 3-4 years ago) I finally gave up on identifying with various labels, even have been using words like “God,” the Divine,” etc. less and less,
    still much miscommunication seems to happen because I find that when I seek to understand others (whether atheist, Christian, Muslim, and so forth) that they truly are sometimes–indeed, often–from a “different country,” indeed from a different universe.

    It would seem that in the 21st century, maybe, humans are even less committed to the “wholeness of humanity” than sometimes in the past.

    At the present time, I’m feeling discouraged with the contrast between the possible joy of communion versus the nearly constant realization that many worldviews including some in the large tent of Friends are harmful and wrong.

    Being opened and centered both equally each moment ain’t for wimps;-)

    • Michael Austin Shell

      Thanks very much, Daniel.

      You write:

      “My whole life has been a constant tug and yield, trying to be open and yet centered. Your phrase, ‘center of a circle without circumference’ creates such a powerful image of what I have sought to do…. [The] difficulty of semantics and truly different worldviews get in our way most of the time.

      “[Much] miscommunication seems to happen because I find that when I seek to understand others…that they truly are sometimes–indeed, often–from a ‘different country,’ indeed from a different universe.

      “It would seem that in the 21st century, maybe, humans are even less committed to the ‘wholeness of humanity’ than sometimes in the past.”

      Yes. You describe my own predicament well. I have essentially remained silent for decades, not voicing my personal witness because I feared that my eccentric use of conventional terms and labels would be misread as having…well…conventional connotations.

      I suspect that the posts I’ve been publishing here and on Quaker Universalist Conversations over the past few years have been a sort of “clearing of the decks for action.”

      I don’t want to keep writing apologetics. I want to let my poetry sing.

      We shall see what happens.

      Blessings,
      Mike

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