"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 21, 2018

Who Am I? Individualism And The False Promises Of Social Identity

In not so many years past, the question ‘Who am I?’ was easily answered – a being created by God, endowed with an immortal soul, and placed on earth to serve Him and to attain a place by him in the next world. There were no complicating issues, no sidetracks, and no dead ends.  Our origins were simple, our lives only temporary and meaningless except as preparations for immortality.  We may be born socially unequal, but before the eyes of God we are equal, all to be judged according to His grace.

Hinduism has perhaps the most explicit statement of this reality.  Not only do human beings have no inherent value, but the world itself is illusion, without value, and without promise.  There is no rationale for existence nor uniqueness of being.  We will continue to be reborn into a meaningless, illusory life until we finally understand and join the nature of God.

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The caste system, so harshly criticized in the West, is designed to limit irrelevant choice and ambition allowing each person to focus on his only, unique purpose – spiritual evolution.  Within this system the individual is irrelevant.  The concept of individuality itself is fictitious.  There is no value in individual existence. What we do, who we marry, or where we live has no inherent significance.  Individual choice is a chimera, a subset of an illusory world. 

All religions espouse the same idea – we are nothing but divinely created beings whose only purpose is to fulfill a divine destiny.  They all vary in their expression of faith.  Some place a higher value on obedience to God and God’s laws; others focus on salvation; and still others on acceptance, moderation, and ritual; but all are consistent in their conviction that life if anything is only preparatory, never to be trusted, and a means to a spiritual end.

Such faith of course, while universal in principle, is irregularly applied.  Modern society has been completely reconfigured.  While faith may remain, it has become pro forma, little more than a spiritual template to frame human activity.  More importantly and especially within Protestant fundamentalism, an individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not only encouraged and possible, but common.  Individual salvation may depend on God’s grace, but an expression of faith and love, demonstrating individual worthiness and preparation, can create the right environment for spiritual recognition.

Such fundamentalism has its roots in the Reformation when Martin Luther rejected the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Pope, the clerics, and its laws. No longer would Christianity be a religion dominated by a patriarchal hierarchy, confining individuals within its rules and regulations governing matters spiritual.  Luther cut out the middle man, encouraged an individual, passionate, intimate, and direct communication with Our Lord.  Protestantism, especially at its most fundamental, has retained this sense of individual worth and enterprise. This religious individualism was a perfect match for the ambitious secular individualism of the New World.  While God chose whom to save, wealth, land, status, and property suggested who they were.

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In the early days of the new Republic God was never far nor removed.  For decades, despite the history of European religious oppression, there was little separation between church and state.  The church was the center of secular life responsible for civil order, education, and spiritual guidance.  The individual within the context of Christianity and the new nation was still supreme, but the church was felt necessary to rein in and control excessive secular ambitions as well as minister to the faithful. 

By the time of the Robber Barons and laissez-faire capitalism in the early Twentieth Century, all pretense to moderation and uniform respect of religious law and tradition disappeared.  It might be difficult for a rich man to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, but it was worth the risk.

Although the Unites States in the 20th century was judged to be among the most religious in the world, it was a specious conclusion.  While the vast majority of Americans observed religious rituals, expressed their faith in God, went to church, and prayed regularly, they were moving farther and farther from the principles of Christianity enunciated by the Church and codified in the Council of Nicaea. 

Philosophy and theology were becoming increasingly disassociated from the practice of religion.  Fewer and fewer Christians understood or even sought to understand the subtleties expressed in John 1:1-5, logos, and the very nature of God.  The mystery of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, good and evil, and especially the unique and subtle relationship between man and God, were largely lost in favor of absolutism, charismatic faith, and individualism.

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The Catholic Church – as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam – provided the foundation for moral action.  In fact, the religious authority of the Church ensured its moral authority.  As Dostoevsky suggested in The Brothers Karamazov, it might be more prudent to subsume the State within the Church and not the other way around; for what better way to keep civil order than through moral authority and the threat of divine punishment?  Yet today’s society has increasingly abandoned such notions and has considered the Church – any church – as confining, authoritarian, and restrictive of individual potential.   It is one thing to set a moral standard, another to enforce it arbitrarily.

In an era of multiculturalism, arbitrariness is the sin – a sign of an outdated authoritarianism, elitism, and racial and ethnic superiority.  There is no such thing as a singular moral standard no more than one way of worship.  All religions are equal, morality is temporal and relative, and the only validation of life is personal expression.  The world has become distinctly Nietzschean.

It is one thing to value the individual – all religions have placed salvation in the hands of the individual – but another thing altogether to revise the nature of individualism.  The focus on race, gender, and ethnicity and the insistence that individuals define themselves first and foremost by these criteria have distorted the essential moral and spiritual nature of being.  However one chose to find God or spiritual enlightenment, and whatever the religious template one followed, the enterprise was profoundly personal and passionate. 

No religion has denied the existence of unique character or soul; but only sought to align them with the divine.  Today, the trappings of individuality have replaced the foundations.  Once a person defines himself first as black, gay, Latino or any other variation of these signifiers, his real and unique value becomes less important and less vital.  If one assumes, as devout Hindus do, that life’s only purpose is divine; or even as amoral, atheistic Nietzsche assumed that all life is without purpose, then one’s special, uniquely configured individuality is paramount. 

Nietzsche’s Übermensch has no color, no race, no gender, no ethnicity.  A Christian soul has no attributes other than ineffable and divinely inspired. Accepting the false promises of ascribed value can only be distracting and a diversion from far more important concerns. 

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Not only does the mantra of race-gender-ethnicity divert attention from more spiritual and philosophical reflection; but serves to deny individual secular will.  While we may all exist primarily within the context of God, we are also secular beings.  Our self-actualization as such has nothing to do with race, gender, or ethnicity but only with our character, our intelligence, and our will.  Self-realization by any other standards is a chimera.

In a socially unregulated society (no caste or class system and despite social and economic disparities an equal opportunity country) it is harder to maintain or even recognize one’s natural, innate personal integrity than in traditional Hindu India; but important nonetheless.  Anything other than an encouragement of innate, personal, natural character is an imposition offering false promises.

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