A theme that has occupied quite a bit of my thinking the last few years is that of ‘identity and otherness’. It appears to me as if there is a universal need for human beings to have a clearly defined identity, hence we all ask ourselves who we really are? This endeavor into the realm of the deep existential questions is obviously not always conducted with rigor and intellectual sharpness but the problem of being–what it means to exist–are in one way or another dealt with by all of us.
In his book Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton University Press, 1994), the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains that human identity is partly shaped by the recognition, or non recognition, of others. Basically this means that we’re all in need of other people to affirm our existence to understand ourselves as actual ‘beings’. If Taylor is right, and I believe that he is, this observation will lead us onto an insight regarding how we all participate in a ‘game’ of defining each others identities and self-understandings. In this ‘game’ we tend to distinguish other people from ourselves by markers like gender, family, race, social groups, religious faiths, politic affiliations, etc., and the result of this is a world in which we live and define each other as either ‘us’ or ‘them’.
From a historical perspective there’s no doubt that the right to define the other hasn’t belonged to everyone on equal terms and there would most likely be few protests to the claim that we still have a clear power structure even within the democratic parts of the present world. However, we have seen a significant decentralization of power the last 500 years, a time period during which there has been a distinct focus on the ‘individual’. This development is important for the argument I’m putting forth because it has shaped our understanding on the close connection between ‘individual freedom’ and ‘existence’. My thesis here is that we tend to consider ‘individual freedom’ as a necessity for us to actually exist, hence we believe that freedom is the precondition for a ‘personal identity’.
The process of democratization should obviously be seen as a positive development but I believe that there is an inherent problem in the way we seem to be inclined to view our own ‘identity’ since the Enlightenment up till this present day. This problem has to do with how we relate to the concept of ‘freedom’. What I mean by this is that ‘freedom’ is commonly understood as ‘free from’ rather than ‘free to’. Thus, we find here an inner contradiction in the logic by which we live since we create a distance to those around us in order to be free (from them), but this distance then make it impossible for them to affirm our own identity, which as Taylor points out is necessary for the self-recognition of our own identity.
Something that troubles me when i center my attention towards this analysis is that the Church doesn’t really appear to ‘represent’ an alternative to the world. This is not to say that there hasn’t been Christian individuals who have done otherwise, but it seems to me that the collective opinion about the Church is that we are the ones who have not only drawn lines in the sand to distinguish ’us’ from ‘them’ – we have been the ones who have built high walls to keep the ones we have declared ‘monstrous’ out. This is ironic to me since I believe that the Christian faith is ‘the’ faith that contains an ‘antidote’ to the selfish heart. What I mean by this statement is that within the Christian gospel is embedded a unique, harsch condamnation against the exclusion of the ‘other’ and a call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ represents a victory over the evil forces of this world and therefore a shattering of all the ‘identity markers’ we use to keep people at a proper distance from us. On the cross Jesus defeats sin and death and to follow him implies to ‘die’ with him because how else could we share in his resurrection? To follow Christ means to ‘die’ away from sin, to be transformed by the grace of God and to live a life shaped by his resurrection. If sin is to live with ‘your heart turned in on itself’ (Luther), then the life shaped by the resurrection means to have it directed towards the ‘other’. I think that there is a close correlation between this ‘symbolic’ definition of sin and the modern, individualistic desire to ‘exist free from others’. Thus, the desire to be free from others is something that we need to die away from if we want to follow Christ. In the end, Christ did not exclude ‘the other’ for his own freedom, but he walked obedient towards his divine calling, all the way to his death on the cross. Hence, the ‘sinless one’ became the ‘excluded one’ and this is how he unmasked the evil, sinful behavior of the heart that is turned in on itself.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2.1-11)