Identity and the Current Tumult

January 27, 2019 4:42 pm

Central to the discussion of cultural and pastoral issues concerning ministry in the current societal tumult is the matter of identity, specifically in reference to what constitutes identity and on what it is based. This touches on every aspect of human existence and is especially at the core of any discussions regarding human sexuality, even when it is not explicitly noted.

‘Individualism’ is a term first cited by DeToqueville in connection with Enlightenment assertions (broadly considered) about the nature of human personhood, a movement which marks the transition from what Charles Taylor has referred to as the ‘porous self’, in which individuals existed in communion with a world beyond the visible (an ‘enchanted’ cosmos of spirit forces and communion between these and the tangible, visible order), and the ‘buffered self’, a society of persons that sees a hard fixed boundary between persons and ‘the other’, specifically any supposed supernatural, if it even exists. The buffered self cannot discover its meaning beyond itself, but must instead look within itself for identity, or at least to other visible norms, whether ancestral/societal, achievable, or demonstrable. We can refer to these as assigned identity, achieved identity, and assertive identity.

Assigned Identity can be easily recognized in a variety of English place-names: Baker, Hunter, Mason, Smith, and so on. The name of the individual is theirs because of the utility their ancestors had within a particular community. The names are a cultural hangover which now places no burden or expectation on the person who bears one.

This is because of the development of Achieved Identity. Many left traditional cultures where social mobility was limited for the new world where one could more fully and freely put to use one’s gifts and abilities and achieve prosperity, as well as a sense of self, rooted not in what was an inherited role but in a success that was attained and demonstrated.

This, however, has certain limits, as people would not wish to be known simply as the sum of their work: we are more than what we do or what we have accomplished. Not only that but what was achieved and gained could be quickly forfeited through any number of unfortunate setbacks.

In response, a more nuanced view of the self, the ‘assertive self’ has come into view and gained ascendency in contemporary Western culture. By ‘Assertive Identity’ we claim to exist to express ourselves; this self-expression is what it means to be fully human, manifesting the true person. In the words of Sociologist Robert Bellah, a pre-modern person would seek to make something of the world, but the post-modern person seeks to make something of the self. This has the force of religious dogma is a post/anti-religious culture, and it is why any move to ‘deny the self’ by oneself, or to deny any person the ability to assert identity is seen as ‘heretical’, dangerous, and anti-human.

Any force or restriction which assails the assertion of the self is thus viewed as personally and societally counterproductive. It is alien to the flourishing of culture, demeaning to the person, and is, in this view, intolerable and must be resisted and overthrown.

The search for the authentic self is in turn rooted in Romanticist notions of the self, of giving full expression of feeling, especially that which is spontaneous and therefore viewed as ‘authentic’. Nature is seen as neutral and intrinsic to the self. “Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner ‘elan, the voice or impulse… expressivism is the basis for a new and fuller individuation…” (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1989), p374-375)

The neutral view of nature is critical here. If human nature – as a part of all nature – simply ‘is what it is’ and no external moral standard can be applied to it for no external moral code is needed, then the full expression of feeling and thought, flowing from the interior to the exterior, is a manifestation of the truly human. In regard to gender discussions, sex is something between one’s legs but gender is something between one’s ears and may well be fluid even if the physical body is static. Likewise, sexual desire is untethered from both body and moral code, and is simply a kind of quasi-Aristotelian notion of the essential married to the modernist notion of assertive expression. True virtue, heroic virtue (!), exits not in denying the self for the sake of the other but in expressing the self for the sake of the self; only in such a fully expressive state can ‘others’ be helped, though their help is not especially in view.

This assertive view of identity is referred to by Charles Taylor as ‘radical expressivism’ and is the dominant/default setting of the current sociological discussion, affecting everything from Psychology and Medicine to the Law and Pastoral Practice. It is not stating that we each merely have ‘an original path’ to live out, an idea old and banal, but that we have a moral obligation to fully express ourselves in accordance with our interior feelings, our bodies mediating our inner truths and selves to the world so that the individual is fully manifest. This ‘expressive individualism’ (Taylor) is at the bedrock of current civilization, and any discussion of the LGBTQ+ issues must take it into account.

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