I have recently found myself contemplating the question of identity. The term “identity” is often bandied about in popular media in relationship to a variety of topics – politics, religion, and human development among them. The way in which we identify ourselves as individuals, group members, and nations has a powerful influence on our opinions and behaviors. Mental health practitioners tell us that a realistic and balanced sense of who we are in relationship to others is crucial to healthy psychosocial functioning. For many of us, our sense of self is often tied to group memberships ranging from genetic/biological categorizations like race and gender to our identification with political parties, professional affiliations, and national character. Such connections give us a sense of belonging and often compel us to act the way we do.
The problem is that there can be tremendous disagreement over what it means to be a member of a certain group – both from within and outside of it. For example, the construct of gender itself has changed to such an extent that to expect an individual to behave in a certain way simply because she has two “X” chromosomes is ludicrous. Hard and painful experience has taught us that presuppositions about behavior based on race can be deeply destructive. And, despite the progressively more polarized ideologies of American political parties, it is unwise to assume that people who call themselves “Democrats” and “Republicans” espouse only ideas unique to either of those parties. The same is true of religion, and yet many people fail to acknowledge this reality – people from both within and outside of religious groups.
I am a Christian and I know many other Christians, but very few of them believe exactly as I do. While many of these people gracefully acknowledge the differences between our individual theologies, others have suggested that the disagreement in our beliefs means that I am not a Christian. When I was a young woman I moved three thousand miles from my home of origin to be with the person I loved. We had agreed that, although we were both committed to our relationship it was unwise for us to marry based only on the understanding of one another we had developed during what had been primarily a long-distance relationship. Both of us came from relatively conservative families who did not (at that time) believe that people should live together in a non-platonic way without being married. Nonetheless, we moved in together because we believed that such a step was important in our relationship. We had a rocky start. My boyfriend’s mother passed away during our transit across the country. I was terribly homesick. We had friends but they were generally adventurous folks who were unable to understand my adjustment difficulties. I was therefore thrilled that my first job in my new home was at a Christian preschool. Having been raised in a supportive Christian church community I believed that my Christian affiliation would be helpful in my new job and through it I might make friends to sustain me in my new life. I was wrong. Upon finding out that I was living with my boyfriend, my Christian colleagues asked me if I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was going to hell. When I began carpooling with one of my fellow teachers and developed a headache from the volume at which she played her Christian praise music, she asked me why I didn’t love Jesus. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had suggested we stop by Starbucks on the way to work.
The conflict I had with my Christian colleagues was one of identity. We all considered ourselves to be Christians but we had different ideas about what that meant – and each of us was acting according to what we believed was foundational to that identity – with disastrous results. The dissonance in our beliefs was compounded by the preconceptions we had about one another. The same thing happens daily on a global scale with much more significant consequences. Assuming knowledge of what a person believes and how they will act based on one understanding of what it means to belong to a certain group can have far more severe consequences than making a fool of yourself. And it makes no sense. If two psychologists can evaluate the same person and come up with different diagnoses, then two Christians can certainly differ as to what constitutes the core tenants of their faith. Losing our expectations in regard to what others believe is vital if we are ever to understand ourselves and one another.
And understanding is only the beginning. Appreciating our differences is important, but only when it leads to tolerance – and tolerance requires emotional flexibility. I am not suggesting that individuals should adjust their beliefs to accommodate changing situations. Faith is not fashion. I am arguing that faithful individuals need to recognize that we live in a diverse world and it makes sense that there is a broad spectrum of belief represented in it. And I submit that God is beyond the comprehension of any faith or intellectual schema. The danger lies not in any one belief system. The danger lies in an inability to accept the necessity for differing perceptions about such beliefs.
We demonstrate our religious identities by acting on our beliefs. The more rigid those beliefs are the more circumscribed our actions will be. Put simply, living according to our faith is easier when the rules are clear and uncomplicated by moral ambiguities. But easier is not better. The most seductive words in the universe are “Do [this] and you will be saved,” particularly if those words are not open to interpretation. There is a difference between pure faith like that of a child and rigid faith colored by the experiences of adulthood. The most treacherous believer is the one who accepts without thought – whose identity is based on doing without apprehending. Regardless of what he may call himself, that believer is not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an atheist. That believer is a zealot, and zealotry is its own identity. The conviction that their way of thinking is the only pathway to fulfillment is the core of a zealot’s identity. It is not the religious belief itself that matters; it is the unconsidered and absolute adherence to the individual’s perception of it that is crucial. Zealotry is highly individualized. Although there are communities of zealots, their associations are practical, not spiritual. Zealots maintain a narrow focus that leaves no room for consideration of the needs of others. An unambiguous belief system cannot navigate the complexities of human nature. There is no “think” only “do.”
But human beings have the capacity to think. Human beings have the have the ability to empathize. Human beings crave community. I believe these are gifts from God – and my belief system reflects this understanding. I am a Christian. This is what that means to me: I adhere to a Christian practice based on what Jesus said when asked what the greatest commandments were. Love God, he said, and love your neighbor as yourself. This means recognizing both the capabilities and limitations of being human. It means working with and for others. It means thinking before acting. It means being firm in my faith without condemning those who do not believe. These things are not what I am, but who I am. Such is my identity.