The problem with finding ourselves

The problem with finding ourselves

Choice is a value we prize highly as a society in the West. Our media promotes narratives replete with individuals who choose their own path and our popular music often focuses on people defining themselves as individuals outside the crowd. Coming of age in our society has no ceremony, instead it’s a process of figuring out who we are or choosing what kind of person we’re going to be. The idea of young people finishing education and going out to ‘find themselves’ has become normative to us. None of this is inherently bad in and of itself, but it is a recent thing and it does have its problems.

The process of finding ourselves is also a decidedly secular idea, it assumes that we aren’t really anything unless we choose it. This is increasingly being applied to the most basic parts of our identity including our gender, a more recent belief that empties the idea of our biological sex containing any inherent values in and of itself outside of the anatomical.

Its interesting too that forms of Christianity that emerged more recently, modern Evangelicalism for example, prioritise and praise road to Damascus style conversion experiences over inherited forms of faith. If your testimony isn’t suitably dramatic theres the chance that people might question the sincerity of your faith in the first place. In this we see a distinction from ‘mainline’ or traditionally ecclesial church movements and these opt-in conversion orientated churches that descended from non-conformist or holiness movement backgrounds. The same bears out on attitudes towards infant or believers baptism, paedo or credo baptism. I say this as an advocate of credo baptism. Its also why we see an embrace of increasingly unorthodox Christian movements and theologies being promoted by both Christians and Atheists alike. This fits in with our contemporary society, and theres a market for it. As a culture we prioritise the selfs choice and are less trusting of the answers of previous generations dressing them up in the language of oppression. We do this as they threaten to place limits on our self-determination, our choice.

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

Spoken by the Satan after his fall from heaven in John Milton’s Paradise Lost – Book II

Choice can be a genuinely good thing, the setting of many dystopian novels is that in which the protagonist becomes aware of the choices he’s been disallowed by the State, of the world outside what the State decides is appropriate and desires to experience it always at great personal cost. The idea of these novels isn’t to leave us depressed but to encourage us to see that choice is a valuable and necessary part of human experience. For a more practical example, the isolationist community of the Amish practice something we know as Rumspringa which encourages their youth to go into the world and live in it for a time. This is to help them decide whether or not they truly want to become a part of the community. The choosing and conscious acceptance of tradition can bring a new understanding to that individuals participation and relationship to the community they find themselves participating in. Something which wasn’t arguably present before the choice was made.

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapter 17

In the Abrahamic faiths choice is not something that features so heavily. To be Jewish today is less of a religion in some instances and more akin to an ethnicity. This isn’t recent, even in the Bible the Jews are known as the children of Jacob,the grandchild of Abraham, later known as Israel. In Islam they are not so much bound by ethnicity but practice, at birth the first thing a child should hear is the whisper in their ear of the Islamic call to prayer by their father. A child of a Muslim parent in many places around the world is considered a Muslim whether the child later wants to be considered such or not. Christianity differs in the relationship of the individual to the church, the process and timing of baptism has differed over time and been a normative or selective act in various cultures throughout history depending on the standing of Christianity within that culture. Jesus himself not being baptised until he was in his 30’s and yet entire households later being baptised simultaneously once the Church had begun.

Choice isn’t something we see prized to the same degree outside of the West and it is argued by some that it is Christianity’s attitude towards the individual that is atleast partially responsible for this modern secularism. Historian Tom Holland writes..

The origins of much that seems most modern to us can in fact be traced back to the distant past. Neutrality between different religions, as it is practised in Europe today, can never itself be culturally neutral, for the simple reason that it depends on a philosophy that is ultimately Christian in character. That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should exist distinct from each other: here are presumptions with which many Muslims, for instance, would disagree profoundly. Certainly, there is nothing in the Quran equivalent to the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, had neither the slightest hesitation in formulating a fiscal policy nor in laying claim to political authority. For those who imagine that the western model of the multicultural state can emasculate Islam as readily as it has de-fanged Christianity, this should be a detail of more than merely theological or antiquarian interest.

Tom Holland, Uncomfortable Origins – Article in the New Statesman

What we see today then is not a ex-nihlo secularism from the void but an attempt at Christianity without Christ. In place of Christ we have placed our own self, idols not like the Philistines had of stone and wood but of flesh and bone. Increasingly its not ourselves properly but the idea of ourselves, idealised in the electronic age through the use of cameras, retouching and selective editing enabling people to choose the brand of themselves they present to the outside world in an effort to be more appealing. This desire for affection and appeal leads westerners to imitate those seen as more attractive than themselves in both the shapes they take and actions carried out. People increasingly delight in those less fortunate or successful then themselves in an effort to reaffirm their existing standing in the eyes of others. This primacy given to the self and choice can prove overwhelming. We find ourselves in a culture which is increasingly defined less by what is true than by what is popular at any given time. This makes us especially susceptible to populist political and social movements like we are presently seeing in both the UK and the US.

Too much choice can also feel as stifling as no choice at all. In a post-industrial, geographically mobile, unstable familial, individualistic and diverse sexual environment men in particular are showing signs of struggling. Whatever your views on masculinity healthy rolemodels are just something which are increasingly rarified. Those in existence have to compete with mass media, both the centralised and decentralised forms, in order to be heard. Some might say that this is affording us the opportunity to be more flexible in our understanding of men and women but this is in the context of a population that is increasingly medicated to handle social ills, unable to deal with diverging viewpoints and struggling at times to find a reason to keep going. If this is a social experiment, it is a costly one, if this is societal love of the self at the expense of the actual self then it is tragic.

Choice as a component of our decision making is something which is useful, their is a dignity to ascribing an individual agency over their own fate. Raising up our ‘authentic’ self as an idol, as the end goal to which everyone works, erodes the dignity of all our choices by depriving us of the means to discern if we are making sufficiently good or bad choices. This is why the Teacher of Ecclesiastes writes..

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In trying to find ourselves we retreat into private narratives that preclude the devaluing of the beliefs, history, culture and values we once held in common. As people, as Christians, we are defined in context and relation to others, our neighbours and God himself. Wherever we are its important to recognise that choice is a component of our life and not our bedrock. We don’t exist in a vacuum but find ourselves in a much broader narrative, a narrative that shapes the world as God works through his Church. Just as it shapes the world we should likewise be willing to let it shape us.

Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes 336,6
I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth,and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free,who is he that sets his own power above God’s?
Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes 336,6