Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Fluidity of Identity and the Created Self

There are many amazing aspects about the process of meeting a new church.  Of course there are the challenges of moving into a system that is already well established, of becoming subject to traditions and power-lines that are long established, and to engage congregational dynamics as they flow and shift.  It is to see the aspects of the congregation that people want you to see, and to sometimes see dynamics that those who have been swimming in the congregational system cannot see.  It is to learn the “myth” of the congregation, and to learn the “history”, and to see the differences.

As happens with the congregation, so also happens with individuals… and whether they realize it or not, the same happens with congregants meeting you, their new minister.  We are learning both each other’s history, and our mythology… each of those bound up in that most slippery of words, identity.

I remember a book I read when I was in college.  The assignment for my senior year seminar as a history major was to write a publishable academic review of a history-related text, assigned by the teacher.  The book I was assigned is titled Slippery Characters, by Dr. Laura Browder, currently professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond. The book is a study of Americans who had become “ethnic impersonators”… who had claimed ethnic identities other than their own, either in literature or in public life. The Christian woman who had written an autobiography as a Jew… the black man who traveled Europe as a Native American Chieftain… the rich man who styled himself a hobo, hitching rides  across the United States on trains he could probably have bought.

What I took away from the book, (and what Dr. Browder confirmed for me was part of her intent when I shared my review with her), was that if identity could so easily and consistently be faked, was it as firm a foundation as I had always thought? And if identity was not the firm anchor of the human being, then what was?  Or are we just motes floating on a breeze of transience and impermanence?

It was during my years of engaging a study of Buddhism in the Zen tradition that I found part of my answer to the idea of an uncertain sense of identity and self in a universe of transience and impermanence.  One of the near universal ideas across the many schools and traditions of Buddhism is that the human sense of identity and self is indeed illusion.  More than the “slipperyness” that Dr. Browder implies, Buddhism teaches (and I have come to accept) that the human sense of self is more than illusion, it is a created illusion.  Dogen Zenji, the ancient founder of the Chon and Zen traditions, put it this way…

“To study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to become one with all beings”.

Now, many people interpret this concept in Zen and other Buddhist schools as advocating a kind of radical “lack of self”, or even as being disparaging of self and identity.  I do not see that in the teachings, nor do I see it in my experience, both as a human being and in my pastoral practice.

What I believe this teaching is pointing us toward is not a negation of the self, but a different understanding of self and identity than is commonly accepted in western society.  A understanding of who you are that is rooted deeper than the vagaries and myriad experiences of human life, and concept of self and identity that is fluid, shifting not only with our human experience and development, but also with conscious choice… choices we are personally responsible for.

Notice I am talking about two different things, our “center of rootedness” and our “created self” from which we build identity.  Different religious traditions and other human institutions give different names for what I am terming the “center of rootedness”.  In Buddhism it might be called one’s “connection to the Dharma”.  In Christianity it has been called place where God/Jesus lives within you.  Wicca might refer to it as your inner God or Goddess.  For a Humanist it may be expressed as the aspect of humanity from which comes wonder, awe, and mystery.

I just refer to it as the soul.  I’ve said in other articles here at Celestial Lands that I believe the “soul” (or however you conceive of our human center of rootedness in your tradition) is the center of our emotions.  I believe that it is beyond our ability to control, and that it has existence that is only secondarily connected to the experiences, inheritances, and choices of our lived lives.  Our soul can be fed by our lived lives, and our soul can be damaged by our lived lives… but it is neither born out of nor significantly shaped by those lived lives.

Our created self is a different story.  It is composed of our personal mythology, or the meanings we have chosen to impart to the events, learnings, and experiences of our lives.  It is composed of our inheritances, from the social systems we participate in, to the communities we have been accepted into.  It is composed of the choices we have made, from the jobs we choose to do to the political stances we take, to the relationships we choose to nurture… and beyond into the whole realm of human free-will and choice.

I believe there is interaction between the created self/identity and the soul (or center of rootedness), but it is not a direct one.  I have counseled with people who have experienced events in their lives that have both wounded and fed their soul.  I also believe that the choices we make in our created self (and what others perceive as our identity) are guided by ideals, emotions, and values rooted in our souls.

In working with people who have experienced significant trauma, be it in the emergency room, in family life, or on the battlefield, I have seen significant differences in their levels of resilience to that trauma.  Though I do not believe it is the only factor in resilience, I have come to accept that those individuals who show a significant awareness of and conscious connection to their soul (defined as center of rootedness), are better able to adapt to the transitions and transformations that happen in the created self and identity that arises from it than those who do not feel a center of connection to their soul.

The reason for this difference in resilience, I believe, is that those who are more connected to their soul are less in need of their created self and identity for self-knowledge.  Therefore, when that created self and identity change radically (as it always does during trauma), they are not faced with the fear of annihilation… for they center their being somewhere other than a transient and impermanent created self and identity.

And, this then leads them to a creativity of self that I aspire to, and have spent much of the last ten years of my life seeking to emulate.  The ability to experience many different, and even sometimes contradictory aspects of my created self and identity over the years, because I know my being, my soul, rests elsewhere.

As I have told my story, my “personal mythology” over and over in the process of intentional meeting with the congregation, I have reflected that I am indeed all of that personal mythology of identity and created self… and I’m so much more.

And so are every one of you… and that is why you, all you, the whole human race… that is why you fascinate me so…

Yours in faith,

Rev. David



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