The Spiritual Solution to Our Collective Identity Crisis

“In Jesus Christ the Son of God we find a fundamental insight into our deepest Christian identity.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Giuseppe Craffonara, “Portrait of Christ”, ca. 1825-1830
Giuseppe Craffonara, “Portrait of Christ”, ca. 1825-1830 (photo: Public Domain)

Contemporary American culture is obsessed with the question of identity. The quintessentially American ideology of liberalism, whether in its classical or progressive form, tends to produce this obsession with crafting an individual identity. To claim one’s rights, to make one’s way in the world, to be free to express oneself as one desires — this is to make something of oneself. It doesn’t matter whether it is the wealth-seeking entrepreneur or the gender-fluid teen — the same ideology and the same culture tends to justify this journey of self-discovery.

“Identity politics” is but the translation of this cultural obsession into political discourse, and it is a heated discourse that produces intractable divisions among the public. Liberal ideology has always produced political movements for the purpose of protecting the right of the individual to make his own way in the world, however this is conceived. Identity politics is just one particularly vehement expression of this tendency.

What light can the spiritual tradition of Catholicism shed upon the problem of identity? In New Seeds of Contemplation, the Trappist monk and mystical teacher, Thomas Merton, wrote that “the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” Thus, Christianity too is very concerned with the question of identity. For the Christian and the aspiring mystic, the question is: Who am I, really? Who does God intend me to be? What is my truest, God-given identity?

The spiritual perspective offered by Merton assumes that each person already has a true identity, quite independently of his or her choice in the matter. This is a deep contrast to the secular obsession with identity and self-determination, which is entirely wrapped up with freedom of choice. To be sure, humans are capable of choices regarding their identity, but those choices do not determine the truth of one’s identity. Human beings are distinct from trees and animals in that they are given the gift of liberty — “liberty to be real, or to be unreal,” as Merton puts it. “We may be true or false, the choice is ours.”

In other words, liberty is a metaphysical fact of human nature, but the truth of our identity is not measured by the freedom with which we make our choices. By our liberty, we are capable of choosing to live in accord with our truest selves or our false selves. Who we really are lies hidden beneath all the masks and false identities that we are tempted to put on and off, to exchange with one another, in the free activity of our own self-determination. Our spiritual calling is to discover this true and hidden identity, which requires a certain renunciation of our liberty, at least on the surface.

The journey to discover one’s true identity, in the Christian sense, is thus not the journey of self-discovery of liberal identity politics, which glorifies freedom of choice without reference to anything more fundamental, and thus ignores the division between our true and false selves. In a very real way, the Christian journey of self-discovery is precisely the reverse of the secular one. In order to discover one’s true self, one has to become detached, as it were, from one’s liberty by refusing the temptation to make something of oneself — that is, one has to order one’s liberty to what God has ordained from all eternity.

Merton writes:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

According to Merton, the very essence of sin is to live according to our most cherished illusions about ourselves. We live according to such illusions when we cling to our selfish desires at the expense of the needy around us; or when we let memory keep alive our grudges or our unwillingness to forgive; or when we rigidly cling to a role that we have chosen despite circumstances that call us away to something else; or when we would rather let ourselves languish in indulgence and distractions than be silenced by the inner voice of God in prayer. In these and so many other ways, we make into our identity something that is merely illusory, a false self.

The true self is the one known and loved by God from all eternity. It is not the illusory self or series of selves which I am tempted to put on and off, to exchange for one another when I have the whim, in a fruitless effort to “become somebody.” It is a truly hidden identity, and one that in some sense remains hidden as long as we have an ego that is easily tempted — in other words, as long as our identity is given and received from God alone. To discover my true identity in God, I must put off all other projects and pursuits related to the search for identity, and simply rest in the silence of my inner emptiness. I must become nobody, in order to become Christ. I must, in other words, crucify myself, so that “not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Identity politics represents a total inversion of the mystical journey of self-discovery, as understood by the Christian tradition. While much of the secular journey for self-discovery is often couched in terms of “finding one’s true self,” there is nothing true about any of the identities we construct for ourselves. Our truest identity is in God alone, and we discover this identity only by divesting ourselves of everything else, so that we are reduced to emptiness and oblivion. For it is in our emptiness that God resides.