I and thou and ze?
Self-realization is possible only in relation to a reality beyond the self.
“What religion do you identify as?” one of my students asked me the other day. To answer in the stated terms—“I identify as a Christian”—would be to wear my identity too lightly. To say “I am a Christian” has greater existential weight; but God help me if, having made such a profession, I cannot carry the weight.
“What are your preferred pronouns?” I heard one student ask another. I am a grammatical traditionalist, but I appreciate the idealism behind this question, the generous willingness to embrace whatever self-presentation another person might elect.
My students say such things out of sensitivity to others. In the instances I’ve observed, it’s not a case of narcissistic identity politics gone mad, as some media pundits would have it. But the “identify as” wording does reflect a pervasive unease. We’ve lost our bearings on a fundamental question about human nature. We’re told, on the one hand, that identity is a fact we are born with, written in our genes; on the other, that identity is endlessly open to revision, written on the water. These two notions are in conflict, and we’re uncertain how to negotiate a truce between them. The virtue of notion one—identity conceived as fixed—is that it encourages loyalty to one’s kind; its characteristic vice is exclusion. The virtue of notion two—identity conceived as fluid—is that it encourages self-awareness and capacity for change; its characteristic vice is anomie.