“Who am I?”
The question of who we are is deceptively simple. When we begin to press the question, almost every answer that we can give is something other than the self. When we leave the (ideally) intimate communion of our early years and begin to forge our way into a social setting, an uncertainty begins to be our social companion. This questioning of identity (which is fairly normal) becomes the seedbed of shame as well as a life-long habit of seeking self-made “identities” to mask the nakedness of “who we are.”
The dynamics surrounding all of this are ever-present. Family often plays a powerful role. They name us. They may nickname us. They may repeat stories of our actions or compare us to other family figures. We slowly acquire a “brand.” The years of adolescence often bring something of the same process from our peers. Among the youth of today, hours spent on internet and phone interactions can intensify this process.
In the course of our lives, our “identity” is never assumed to be truly natural, that is, a revelation of who we “truly are” (except as a name for yet another false self). Rather, our identities are marketed to us relentlessly. Everything from automobiles to hairstyles are seen as a means of “making a statement.” In a consumer culture, a primary driver of marketing is the acquisition of an identity (something temporary, at best).
All of these various acquired identities serve to provide cover for our nakedness and shield us from unwanted attention (or, in somestances, attract it). At certain points in our lives they can even serve as a God-given protection. None of them, however, should be confused with the truth of who we are. That truth is synonymous with our salvation.
St. Paul is an interesting example in all of this. We know more about him, in many ways, than any of the apostles. In his letter to the Philippians, he cites a Jewish pedigree second-to-none:
“…circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”(Phil. 3:5–6)
But he has this to say:
“But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…”(Phil. 3:7–9)
St. Paul’s “excellence” as a Pharisee was clearly an “identity.” It drove him to a zeal that included persecuting Christians. This is typical of the “hollow” character of acquired identities. They do not represent true self and are easily undermined by various challenges. St. Paul’s persecutions are a tragic attempt to maintain a false version of himself. To this, Christ will say, “It’s hard to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). The truth of our existence goads against the many false identities which we create. Our own efforts leave us empty, unfulfilled, anxious and frequently angry. We cannot be satisfied, truly satisfied, by being someone other than who we were created to be.
St. Paul can be quite practical in how we live an authentic Christian life. In his own life, he noted that he had suffered the “loss of all things” (and he is not talking about wealth or property). What he has lost, he came to see as “rubbish.” All of the false versions of ourselves that we create – our well-crafted fig leaves – are just rubbish. We ourselves, however, are not.
St. Paul offers this advice:
“If then you were raised with Christ [in Holy Baptism], seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (Col. 3:1–4)
I will rephrase this. The truth of our identity is not known to us. You do not know who you are. An identity is not something of our own making – it is the gift of God. We come to know it as Christ makes it known to us. We can only know the truth of ourselves as we find it in Christ. Christ (“who is our life”) is the truth of our existence. We should never settle for less.
St. Paul’s struggles with his identity as Pharisee were particularly difficult and powerful. In his early life, to be a Pharisee was to be a righteous man. The original meaning of the term “Pharisee” meant “to be separate.” It was a position in which a man set God and His Law above all else and separated himself to it. Its deep alure was in its call to the heart. Who doesn’t want to be separated and set apart for God? How can it not be a good thing?
We have similar struggles as Orthodox Christians. We hear correctly and repeatedly that Orthodoxy is a “way of life.” Unfortunately, it can be diminished from way of life to mere identity. How this works can take many forms. In all of them, Orthodoxy becomes our “clothing,” but not the transformation of the soul. All of the hallmarks of shame-driven behavior (anger, defensiveness, aggression, social cliques, perfectionism, etc.) accompany Orthodoxy as identity. I think some of this is to be expected, particularly in personalities where shame has not been addressed (which is quite likely a near majority of personalities).
I am deeply aware of this in my own life as a priest. A priest inevitably carries an “identity” as a priest. The priesthood is, indeed, like a suit of clothes. The act of vesting a priest is part of his ordination. His public identification (as in the cassock, traditionally) is a matter of canonical requirement. Beneath it however, is the “hidden” life of a man, a reality that can, at times, be alienated from the priestly identity (and other suits of clothes), feeling like an imposter. He knows he’s not worthy of the honor that comes with the priesthood. There is the temptation to hide behind the identity and lose the sense of his own self. Fortunately, he is not alone. His confessor knows the same temptation, as do other priests as well. We call one another forth from the grave of identity and into the light of Christ. The priesthood belongs to Christ, not ourselves.
For each of us, the identities we acquire over our lifetime serve as temptations. Their worst aspect, I think, is that they are not hidden. As such, they tempt us to settle for something less. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field, Jesus said. We should not cease the work of selling all that we have (including the false, temporary identities) and buying the field. Nothing less than the treasure will do.
I am becoming an old man. I’m “retired” from being in charge of a parish. My days are mostly filled with mundane activities – household chores and the like. Of course, I still write. But I have long hours in which to ponder my life (and my sins). I can see a “sifting” taking place in my heart. Who I am is not who I’ve been or what I’ve done or what others think. “Who I am” is hidden with Christ in God and can only be known by finding it in Christ. Some of my daily reflections turn on this “end of the journey.” When Christ appears, then we appear. When we see Christ in His glory, then we find ourselves with Him in that glory.
There’s much about this that I wish I had known earlier in my life – but that is in the hands of God. St. Paul leaves us with this:
“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13–14)
Higher up and further in.
The photo is of one of my grandsons, caught in a moment of wonder…
Beautiful and timely reading to start my Monday.
I pray, Father Stephen, that my appreciation for your work encourages you as much as it encourages me.
Great photo as well (as well as one appropriate to your subject)!
Thank you, Mark.
A great reflection on our identities throughout our lives. I think the families we grew up in can sometimes thrust an identity on us that is not truly who we are. Our marriage partners can fail to see us for who we truly are. We can reject them or they us as we begin to grow into who we most truly are. Therapy helps us shed identities no longer useful to us. I believe what you said at the end: “Who I am” is hidden with Christ in God and can only be known by finding it in Christ.”
It amazes me (1) how far this kind of thinking is from my everyday, most-of-the-time awareness, and yet (2) how close the actual reality is to me: “more inward to me than my inmost part,” St Augustine wrote.
Fr Stephen, you wrote, “…the truth of who we are. That truth is synonymous with our salvation.” Is this truth discovered as an inherent gift of human nature, a gift always present but buried under the rumble of falsely acquired identities? Or is the gift (grace) given de novo, from scratch, newly arriving where it was not preset before? In other words, does a new believer come to realize who they truly are or do they receive a sort of “self” transplant?
It’s probably an impossible question to answer, but I’d appreciate your thoughts. The answer, I think, influences the way we share our faith. For instance, could we legitimately say to the unbeliever: “We can only know the truth of ourselves as we find it in Christ. Christ (“who is our life”) is the truth of our existence.” Is this statement true of all men, even though many don’t realize it yet? Some days I definitely don’t realize it…
There is one thing that can heal all this, or to be more correct, start the healing process (since complete healing only comes through blessed union with Christ upon beholding His inconceivable love and His pre-eternal “concept” [logos] of ourself): it is the holy gaze of a saintly spiritual Father in Holy confession, not any old gaze, but the one that perfectly mirrors Christ’s inconceivable love, which somehow sees past the sinful surface, His pre-eternal “concept” [logos] of ourself in us, and, like lightning, zaps the soul with healing Grace. It is unfortunately rarer than it ought to be!
Wisdom! Let us attend!
Owen, I’ll try to answer your questions.
Is the [truth of who we are] discovered as an inherent gift of human nature, a gfit always present but buried…or is it give de novo, from scratch?
Owen, it is given from the beginning of our existence – and is the gift of God. It is our true life. It is indeed hidden and buried under the rumble of falsely acquired identities. As such, it can be sometimes experienced as an emptiness or an unanswered question – many things.
Our life in Christ is, properly, a living into the truth of who we are (our true life) which is an ongoing gift of grace. I can posit the understanding that at some point in the life of grace a believer could come to know in a very full sense “who they are,” but this is speaking about the inner life of a saint. For most, we have glimpses, at best.
St. Paul gives us hints. He says things like, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man the good things God has prepared for us.”
All of this is for all people. How all of this unfolds in the life of an unbeliever is something only God knows – but it is not something that can or will occur apart from the active grace of God. There simply is no goodness apart from the active grace of God (inasmuch as God’s active grace is goodness itself).
The truth of who we are is a communion (for that is the very nature of life itself). Frequently, what is presented as the Christian life (the gospel) seems to know very little of this.
I suspect it’s even rarer than that.
In Matthew the Kingdom of God is likened to treasure that is buried in the field (that which is sought) and it is also liked to a person seeking fine pearls (that which is seeking). So, in the parables, the Kingdom of God is simultaneously like ‘that which is sought’ and ‘that which seeks’, which implies that ‘that which is sought’ and ‘that which seeks’ are in some sense the same. What is it we have really lost? We have lost ourselves. Luke 8 says that the soils on which the seed falls is a quality of the heart. The mystery of all things is buried within the noetic field of the heart, and that which we are truly seeking–true hypostatic life–can only be revealed within. Again, as Luke says, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
Thank you Fr. Stephen,
I am also in my waning years. I’ve struggled with shame and feelings of inadequacy most of my life. But in my retiree years these feelings have lessened as I have much more time for prayer and reflection. They’ve been wonderful years with our grandchildren too. (Thank you for your photo!).
Yes, my true self lies in Christ, in hiddenness. I feel most whole while in liturgy and in early morning prayer. God knew how desperately I needed Him and His blessed Church in the last half of my life.
Thanks for the response, Fr Stephen. Especially that part about communion. Realizing we exist *because of* relationship — rather than as disparate, autonomous substances which may or may not exist in divine relationship — provides a whole different ontology than the modern materialist one. Indeed, I wonder if the “self” could be simply defined as just that intersection of real relationships with Being and beings that we embody as personal processes of creation. Is there anything else? That question’s been bugging me lately.
It is both rare and ever present “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” Luke 17:21.
Matthew 4:17:”From that time Jesus began to preach and to say: Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (KJV)
Any sense of real identity that I have comes through real repentance. Usually alone in the middle of the night suffering from physical and/or spiritual pain. Feeling alone and separated, defeated, I cry out for Jesus Christ. “Lord, Jesus Christ! Have mercy on me a sinner!”
Yet even my identity as a sinner is transitory, but in accepting that AND His mercy that goes with it, much more is hinted at…
In the day to day life I am,at times, comforted and challenged by the words of the Christian playwright, Christopher Frye: “Shall we laugh? For the sake of laughter for it is surely the surest touch of genius in Creation. Would you have thought of it, I ask you
If you had been making man, stuffing him full of such hopping greeds and passions that he has to blow himself to pieces as often as he conveniently can manage it, would you have thought of it. The phenomenon of cachination is an irrelevancy that almost amounts to a revelation.”
Good clean laughter creates communion and destroys a lot of my self importance. A mystery to be cherished.
May God’s Mercy be with all and each of you.
St. Sophrony has written a great deal about our “hypostatic” existence (which is something fuller than a mere existence). As such, his theology of what it means to be “person” is more developed than you see almost anywhere. But, he doesn’t write about it in a concentrated form. If you want to dig into it, his book, We Shall See Him As He Is, is a good one to read. I suspect that only a saint could speak about what he does (with knowledge of what it means). But his speaking and writing about it allows the non-saints (like you and me) to be able to see more clearly what is going on within ourselves.
Orthodox anthropology – scattered as it is across a number of patristic writers (Nyssa, Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, etc.) provide a lot of insight. What is interesting about St. Sophrony is that he is a contemporary of ours, having reposed in 1993. He is aware of our questions and conundrums.
“I wonder if the “self” could be simply defined as just that intersection of real relationships with Being and beings that we embody as personal processes of creation. ”
Owen, there is something about this I like. It rhymes with the communion in the sense that processes aren’t static and processes can be can be ‘mutual participating’, i.e. communing. Like the creation story a process involves time. Also, it is easy to see that the ultimate truth of the personal creative process would have to lay in Divine Being.
All in all I like it.
I wonder if Fr. Stephen would be interested in weighing in on a somewhat hypothetical note.
I guess I am late to the party…
When I think about “who I am” I feel an emptiness at times profound and desolate. I can see in many of my behaviors an attempt to fill that emptiness, and behind it a longing for a stable identity. I find it hard to sit in that emptiness, even though I do not just want to fill it with falsehood. A lot of self-contempt and envy comes rushing in. But I prefer the emptiness to the falseness. It does make me wonder if God ever gives us a feeling of satisfaction or or being filled.
In my own experience, the emptiness comes as we turn our attention inwards (apart from the false images). It is “the abyss” in the words of St. Sophrony. He says that we should “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” I must confess that, when visiting the monastery in Essex, my favorite part was tea time.
But, what we want is not an abyss as the expression of the true self – but the light of Christ. We find the self, I think, in seeking Christ rather than seeking the self. The true self is revealed “in Christ.” We will not see ourselves truly – if it is apart from Him.
So, Christ says that whoever loses his life will find it.
Be sure to keep lots of tea on hand.
In my book, I have a chapter on the Holy Fools. I suggest that they are an example of Orthodox Christianity drawn with crayons. The “death of self” that we experience when we stand at the abyss (turning inwards apart from the false self), does bring a kind of emptiness and sadness. The Holy Fool, though, seems to find a joy through abandoning himself to that loss. He bears shame in extreme forms. He mocks any false pretentions in himself, and frequently in others around him, in order that we can see more clearly.
The modern world nakedly attempts to sell us false versions of the self. It creates empty narratives about the world we live in that are generally nothing more than well-told lies. Abandoning these things for Christ is a long, slow death to the world and the false self. That we might be alive to God in Christ Jesus.
A last thought. Some of the emptiness and pain can also be ripples from early trauma in life. That is a pain that can be brought into the light and healed. My experience is that it’s like the layers of an onion.
Father, if, even at the edge the abyss Jesus is there with me, why break off for a cupa?
Is there a way of retaining that reality here in “the real world”?
Indeed, like layers of an onion. Or using the analogy of soil, digging into the soil, finding the rocks, laying them aside, and watering the seed the Lord has planted. Then take a break with tea!
Dear Father, I love reading your book. I have been frustrated by the rocks I have found in my soul’s soil. When I come across them, I wish they weren’t there. Some of that experience has everything to do with the experience of shame, wanting ‘good’ soil, realizing the reality is far short what it needs to be. What it needs to be is also different from what we want it to be. Our Lord Jesus Christ is Life itself. And it is the life we need, not usually the life we think we want.
More likely to create a delusional existence by trying. St. Sophrony’s advice stands.
Thanks for your thoughts. It was actually really helpful just to name the experience in the comment.
I have struggled for years with prayer because of its inwardness. I feel like I pray better on the outer edges of my life, not the inner, because I am almost obsessive about my “self”, trying to guarantee its persistence through constant self-vigilance. I have described good prayer for me as moving from self-consciousness (which is a 3rd-person view of the self) to being a conscious self, which is a 1st-person self – seeing and experiencing with agency and liveliness..
I have your book, and have read the first few chapters – there were a few sections that really connected with me. I am grateful for the extended meditation on something that resonates with my own experience.
Thanks, Dee. I wondered how the reading was going. I like the image of the soil and rocks. I keep thinking I’ll strike gold…
Fr Stephen and Simon, thank you kindly. Not one hour after I read your comments, I received the following quotation by Saint Sophrony in my inbox. Apt, to say the least.
Thanks for sharing. That is a killer quote and it rhymes with your idea of personal creative process.
Lots to think about there!
Is this perhaps some of the deeper meaning of “and they realized that they were naked” in the third chapter of Genesis? And the “garments of skin” would be the provisional identities we have to use in this world, which are not our true identity?
Rare though the healing-confessor’s-gaze may be, it’s curious how it hangs on both the ‘guide’ and the guided. It’s evident when you observe the circumstances under which it’s occurred most. And we spot two things: one’s that there’s definitely something about the spiritual guide (since a seriously prodigious number of confirmations -of said experience- concerns certain ‘guides’ – like Paisios the Athonite or Aimilianos of Simonopetra). The other’s that there’s something just as primary to do with the one confessing (since it does not happen always).
It is certainly the model of the perfect confessor.
That’s one of the meanings (there are many). It’s an amazingly rich way of telling the story and the Fathers have mined it for its wealth through the centuries. But, given that shame is invoked in the Genesis account, I think this particular meaning is very much on point.
It is of note. Such confessors rightly have “St.” in front of their names at some point.
I loved your book. I have been researching feelings and emotions for at least two years at this point. Currently the answer to the question “who am I?” is “mom,” and child development has told us to pay more attention to their feelings for the past several decades. I can’t help but question the validity of this approach. Any ideas/tips?
I pray every day that “who am I?” will be answered “Christ’s” so that my mom mask could be properly influential.
I’ve struggled with shame and feelings of inadequacy most of my life. But in my retiree years these feelings have lessened as I have much more time for prayer and reflection.
It occurs to me that finding one’s “cell” is very important in life. This jumped out at me:
St. Paul can be quite practical in how we live an authentic Christian life. In his own life, he noted that he had suffered the “loss of all things” (and he is not talking about wealth or property).
I think for so much of my Protestant life (and beyond) the idea that St. Paul’s losses were of a material nature stuck with me. Turning those losses inward paints with a different stroke (so to speak).
There are many roles we all play (in the best sense of that word). There are times as parents (and as a priest) that the role can nearly swallow us up. Above all else, love is the key to working our way through this.
And I think it is a correct reading in that he has just referenced those things.
Thanks for this, Father, and a repeated thank-you for the photo – priceless!
This year I asked my Pastor/Confessor to assign me a book for Lenten reading – first time I’ve thought to do that… He gave me Mother Gavrilia (which is scarce as hen’s teeth to find used at $250, but a copy of which is in our church library). I’m still making my way through her life, not having come yet to the “Mother Give Us a Word” section. But oh, if there was ever someone who knew herself in Christ, it was certainly she! As I read, I have had to chase away the perfectionist/shaming idea that I’m such a failure in comparison, and embrace that what happened in her is what Christ wants for each one of us uniquely as we continue to receive the grace to lay ourselves open to him. My walk will be different than hers, and yet it is the same Christ to Whom I turn. Her claim to “not exist” belied her complete uniqueness and unforgettable impact on people as Gavrilia Papayannis, as her identity in Christ was revealed more and more. As Christ increases, his goodness sees to it that we do, too, though not in a way we expect or can quantify or, most of the time (to keep us in humility, as Met. Kallistos of blessed memory wrote), can even apprehend – and of course not the way the world teaches us to strive for.
When I think about this, a help for me is C. Yannaras’ description of hypostatic life as life “in another mode”. This reminds me of the modes on a remote control, when you switch from one “way of acting/being” to a different one, depending on the apparatus you want to make function. All analogies have limits, but this also helps keep me from denigrating the mode in which I find myself – it is sufficient for the moment, and one day I will be changed. Not as prosaic as having a cup of tea, but I find it useful – though I do like tea very much and have a lot on hand 🙂
Our parish bookstore has ordered you book to sell, Father. Very much looking forward to it, as are others who know it is on its way.
Much love to you-
The Mother Gavrilia book came back into print this year…I bought 2 copies. My wife has been reading it, so I’m waiting my turn. I’ve never heard anything but good about the book – and her – and always in the key of love.
Thank you for the kind words!
I had an unusual experience this Sunday, that really illuminated the “split” in me between one identity and another. In the church I currently attend, there is a professional singer who constitutes the choir, almost like a chanter. She does a good job, but I love to sing (and have studied in my past also). So, I was encouraged to go up there, put on a choir robe, and sing with her. Now I’m in my 60s, have sung in church since I was about 12, so what was new was just yours truly as the body of the choir. I was a bit apprehensive as it’s been a lot of years since I sang on a stage, and I was never professional as a liturgical singer.
Lately I have been struggling with a relationship with one family member who, for reasons I don’t know, really does not want me around. I’ve tried appeasing, pleasing, and all the rest of it. Lately I just decided I can’t *fix* this so I let it be, and I admit I feel pretty humiliated by it, and even ashamed although I can’t figure out what I’ve done that merits that. Let’s just say that some of my family are experts in shaming.
So here’s the strange thing. I prayed about singing in the choir box instead of my pew as I have of late in this church, and went up where I might have been embarrassed by hitting a wrong note or some such. But, encouraged in prayer, and by others in church, I did so. Well, it went well. But here’s the thing, after decades of my life singing in different churches, I was absolutely flooded with gratitude to serve in God’s house. That kind of feeling didn’t happen before. Just flooded with elation, and humility too. But the reason I’m posting this is because it worked as a strange *antidote* to the identity of being a despised relative. It was balm. It helped me experience this dual identity: the one given by “family” and the one given by the Lord’s house. I’ve never experienced those two things so strongly as dichotomy.
I know I’ll still struggle with this, but it was just such a clear differentiation. I wonder what you might make of that Father, and I would love to hear comments about this if you desire to make any.
PS Father, I have started reading your book in Kindle form (so grateful for that). It’s a bit like a balm, too, but I know I will struggle with the different threads of the issues as I read. I really liked the Introduction and I’m only about halfway into the first chapter, so stay tuned :-).
Father, where did you find the Mother Gavrila book?
I think that kind of affirmation proved to be good medicine!
Haha, thank you much Father! 😊
Thank you Father for writing about the true problem with which we all struggle from the time of our transition from childhood to adolescence. Who are we? In order to feel comfortable in our surroundings we have this need to identify with something, be it ethnic, religious, political, intellectual, philosophical . All this tends to lead use away from our true God given identity. As a result, we spend a good portion of our lives in regret and remorse, trying to make amends and corrections to our behavior. We, as Christian know that the kingdom of God is within us., we just fail to realize it. Your picture of your grandson speaks to Christ point, unless we become like little children, we will never see the Kingdom of God. We need to experience life with that child like amazement and innocence once again.
May the good lord have mercy on us all
Thank you Father! Helpful article.
I came to feel for some time the modern ‘selfconsciousness’ is pretty fake. Psychology has given me for a certain an amount of years the false impression ‘I knew myself’. Its quite sophisticated but Orthodoxy is so much more!
It seems to me to be of note that the few times a “soul” is depicted in icons, it is seem as that of a child or infant (cf. Dormition of Theotokos). Also, in Ps 131, we read, “I have calmed and quieted my soul as a weaned child with his mother. My soul within me is like a weaned child.” I develop this with some attention in my book.
I am watching a couple of grandsons grow up with an eye to all of this. There is a clear sense that we move from comfort and joy to a self-awareness that inhibits and creates cares and concerns. I’ve watched any number of children go through this in my years as a parish priest.
Our culture’s emphasis on the individual (which is especially important to its cult of consumerism) and the lack and fluidity of structures, puts terrible burdens on each person. It is little wonder that American adolescence is in the current state of cultural disintegration and dysfunction. We are driving children crazy. That said, it calls for extreme care and love on our part.
“The truth of our existence goads against the many false identities which we create. Our own efforts leave us empty, unfulfilled, anxious and frequently angry. We cannot be satisfied, truly satisfied, by being someone other than who we were created to be.”
As a transgender person who has spent many decades in denial, suppressing my nature and cultivating an elaborate false identity out of fear and shame, this strongly resonated with me– although probably not in the way you intended.
Should I wait for my identity to be revealed only in death? Why? What purpose does it serve to live a lie in the meantime?
It’s a complicated matter, no doubt. Gender dysphoria is real (as a problem), but I think that transgenderism is but one more effort at identity creation. My answer to your question is found in Christ Himself – Christ is the truth – we live Christ. The “lie” is when we make anything else the “truth” of our life. It is possible to live a life in which you’re honest about your gender dysphoria and the struggle (and suffering) that it creates for you without proclaiming that the “truth” of your life is a different self-created identity. But, I understand your question and will keep you in my prayers. All suffering has to be honored. Christ suffers in us and with us. For what it’s worth, I suspect that the suffering will not disappear by adopting a new identity – though only time would reveal that. God give you grace in all things.
PJ, having known a lot of people in my life with similar dysphoria and seen their pain deeply, I have genuine compassion for you.
I also know how mass culture creates false memes for each of us that make who we really are obscure, impossible and dark while promising freedom.
I have, in my life, seen many classes of people selected for the aggrieved class. It is a lie. But the mass mind of our “culture” is an intelligence superbly good at lying. It led me astray for a long time and often still does. I am 75.
Jesus’ Mercy is a real, palpable expression of His Person coming from a deep almost inscrutable love for each of us, not “in general” but specific to the pain and dysphoria of each of us.
Know that He is real, He knows you better than you know yourself and, as trite as it sounds, He loves you beyond anything.
I am a stubborn, opinionated person. It has taken me 50 years struggling through my own stubbornness to begin to realize what beauty and Grace He has for each of us revealed at the heart of my struggles.
I have made it difficult. Jesus is still there, reaching out from time to time as I will allow and accept.
PJ. the prayers and compassion of my wife are with you, through the intercessions of Mary.
The Mother Gavrila book is also available through this Greek church’s bookstore:
“This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
For myself and everyone,
I know this is NOT the forum to discuss gender identity issues and what they may entail. In fact, I am glad that Fr. Stephen keeps that trash off the site. But, I am also aware that to a person who may actually have neuroanatomy that is diverges from their gross anatomy that their identity as trans is more than a cultural trend. With FR. Stephen’s permission I would like to offer a few thoughts of my own that I hope adds perspective.
Here’s a thought experiment. If my brain was removed and placed inside my wife’s body…I would NOT be my own wife. Everything about my self-understanding as a male is neuroanatomical and grounded in biology. That is a fact. The idea that it would be purely a social construct does NOT help people who actually have strong biological grounds and essential reasons for their self-understanding. The idea that gender is a social construct is a deconstructionist project and in reality it doesn’t work. If everything is a social construct, then whose construct are we going to use? There is absolutely nothing to guide that decision but power. And that would be true of everything once we travel down the road of liberal arts departments and their deconstructionist agenda.
We live a chemical rich environment where our food is highly processed and that may be creating significant problems. For example, no one understands why peanut allergies is killing kids. Is our environment too sterile? Has the chemical ecology changed and created this phenomena? No one knows. But it is a phenomenon that occurs predominantly in Western countries. That much is known. Peanut allergies are not a social construct. Something in our environment is affecting our biology. How deep that goes is a legitimate question, but one that we are poorly equipped to answer.
I will note here that Simon is a scientist and I have respect for his thoughts on those subjects. We are at a strange place in our culture viz things like gender/trans, etc. issues. For one, science itself has been “tilted” by a preference for desired outcomes and pressure against contraindicative studies. The research money goes to a particular gender narrative. It is clearly the case, it seems, that what is taking place among youth on these issues has the hallmarks of something like social hysteria rather than any sort of biological cause. The numbers just don’t add up to biology.
I will say though, that what I have been describing in terms of shame and identity and the true self, is far deeper than the question of sexual/gender identities. It is simply the case that we do not at present know our true self (it is hid with Christ in God, St. Paul says). No amount of tampering with present identities will bring us any closer to it. The mystery that is the truth of who I am is only found in Christ. As St. Paul says, “Forgetting those things that are behind…I press forward…”
I believe that our modern world lacks the ability to bear suffering. We are deeply driven to fix everything, to relieve all pain, that it even drives us towards increasing use of euthanasia. We cannot bear our pain. The drive towards a painless existence is generally a guarantee that the world and our lives will become increasingly distorted and dysfunctional.
The Christian gospel has a very different account of pain and suffering – grounded in the Crucified Christ. PJ asked of his own suffering (or “living a lie” in his words), “What purpose does it serve…” The answer to that question is difficult – not because it is hard to say – but because it is hard to hear, and a heart has to be prepared to hear it. So I don’t spell it out here.
The present morass and confusion within our culture (no doubt complicated by our increasing poisoning of the environment and food chain) will not be solved on our culture’s terms. The narrative of modernity (as an explanatory story) is largely responsible for how we got into our present mess. It is not the result of Christianity – at best – it’s the result of heretical forms of Christianity. Or, as GK Chesterton said, “The virtues run wild.”
My ultimate thoughts on this (which is not a debate about science and such) is that the only way forward is through the Cross. I can preach that and offer that, but I cannot force it – and cannot make of it a political agenda. It is for us to live it and let God do with His Church what He will.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for your response.
Simon thank you. We each and all see through a glass darkly. As a student of history, I have been hoodwinked more than once by “social constructs” being passed off as “,The Truth”.
Fr Stephen’s critique of modernity is, as far as it goes, quite telling. Unfortunately, that includes most of what we call “modern science”.
As I age I find that without The Holy Trinity, The Incarnation and the Cross, I am ignorant, at best, of Truth. The Cross is far away from me most of the time, Lord forgive me.
Father, are not acceptance of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, learning to Repent and accepting both censure and forgiveness personally the beginning of the Life of the Cross?
You could say it that way – but each of those terms needs to be explained and enlarged on. The Christian life is a life-long journey and there are points where different things come to the fore. I’m loathe to reduce it to a formula.
I also want to respond to your statement viz. “modern science.” There is “science” and then are narratives that come from the world of science. Real science, actually working with real stuff, experiments, etc., the math, whatever – is not really a question. It’s as “solid” as the stuff it works with. Scientific narratives are secondary and can have more to do with culture than the hard facts themselves. It’s also where things become controversial.
When a narrative is developed to support eugenics, for example (as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), it is not “science.” It’s a cultural narrative hiding behind science. Modernity likes to pretend that it “knows” what it doesn’t know, and that it is based on the “facts.” It’s a way of shutting down conversations and questions (which is actually anti-science).
There is no contradiction between science and the Christian faith, just as there’s no contradiction between nature itself and the Christian faith.
All of that said, I think it’s inaccurate to bash “modern science” when what you actually mean are “modern scientific narratives…”
Father, all of what you say and more is included in the word “modern” — a word that has long been a pejorative in my mind. Forgive me for not making that clear.
The gift of the Christian faith is always about, in my experience, a revelation, or rather a series of revelations followed by learning in more concrete forms including worship, practice such as Repentance, Confession and formal Forgiveness.
As befits an interrelationship with a Living Being. May He have Mercy on me, an inadequate and arrogant sinner.
The very fact that the liberal arts community refuses to consider the legitimacy of objective, biological factors–what they term “essentialism”–is telling. In my opinion it rhymes with a refusal to admit to the possibility of truth. After all, if everything we say that we know as “truth” is really a social construct, then the question becomes “Whose truth?” At that point all bets are off. It’s chaos. We can only move forward once we have assumed that truth has an objective reality and that truth matters. If we can’t agree to that then it’s just power struggles. It is an implicit attack on the possibility of bedrock truth.
The way that question “Whose truth?” gets shamelessly belched out loud is also very telling.
Fr. Stephen I really appreciate the importance of the distinction you are drawing.
Perhaps one problem with modern scientific narratives and modern science is the fuzzy distinction lines. And I do not mean the obvious distinction Father alluded to, but, that there can often be a sort of (kind of eye-of-the-beholder, Heisenberg-uncertainty-principle type) of infiltration of the narrative upon the findings. A bias towards seeking facts supporting one narrative (and away from facts invalidating it) is possible, their establishment can even go unnoticed.
I also appreciate your drawing a distinction you are drawing, Fr Stephen;, and I appreciate your directing us to Christ and His Cross and His Resurrection even more. Thank you for keeping a vigilant eye on the comments to your blog articles. I have always appreciated this, but I do not believe I have thanked you before.
I have had my own struggles with identity and continue to do so. We all struggle with the fragmentation of sin to one degree or another. It’s not a unique struggle. My priest frequently and deliberately calls me by my baptismal name. That has been comforting to me on more than one occasion. At least I have that. I also understand that regardless of whatever else I might think of myself, I take comfort accepting that the truth of my existence has yet to be revealed. And this is true of all of us. We are all in this proto-hypostatic mess together, and the fullness of what that means is a matter of revelation. As Fr. Stephen says it’s something we see more clearly in the rearview mirror.
Dino, I find in my self it is worse. Not just a bias toward my own belief, but the certainty it (I) am true. Simon, forgive me.
Let’s be clear: Science has paradigms…it does not have narratives. Science is not the art of argument. It is the art of measurement. That’s it. If the bulk of what you are doing isn’t taking measurements, then you’re not doing science. I, personally, don’t take measurements. BUT, every piece of data I kill myself on is a measurement. And, statistics is a kind of measurement that allows researchers a common language for discussing and evaluating certainty, that is, the certainty they have about the significance of their results. Another point I would like to add is that there are entire careers built on the falsification of previous results. The idea that science does not invite evidence to the contrary isn’t true–not as a field. Yes, there can be resistance and appeals to authority, but all that is poo-poo-ed, complete with finger wagging and head shaking.
I appreciate the view from the inside.
Thank you, Fr. I really shouldn’t speak as if science is monolithic. Of course it’s not. And it is dominated by egos and personalities. Of course it is. That naturally lends itself to adversarial and antagonistic cross-examinations. I have never known it to be any other way. Also, if we aren’t careful we will persistently reify science, when we shouldn’t. Science isn’t a thing. It is a way of doing a thing, like making observations.
The claims of scientific paradigms or narratives characteristically rest upon certain ideological foundations. And we hardly find a natural science nowadays free of some “scientistic” narrative tenets of various kinds. We very often see that an entire worldview claimed to rest upon so-called ‘hard facts of science’, can in fact, rather easily be scientistic to its core.
Just as (regarding the truths of our faith) we cannot maintain, that what we believe does not affect everything else and merely stays in its own little corner, so too, the secular set of beliefs and narratives held, are of huge consequence in everything, including the collection, prioritisation and interpretation of scientific measurements etc.
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” — Kant
As I recall, there is a principle in science that a thing cannot be measured without being affected by the act of measurement itself.
The major problem I run into with statistics is having to remind those who quote them to me that a statistic tells you nothing about an individual, only about a population sample. For example, a co-worker of mine given to greater expression of anger than I am and also someone who enjoys confrontation advised me that scientifically it had been demonstrated that not expressing one’s anger and avoiding confrontation was bad for you.
I said, “You mean statistically.”
The two are not equivalent because confrontation does not make me happier. I am made miserable by it. I do not dispute that a study might show for *most* people in the sample my co-worker is right, but it would not help me to “trust the science” in my own case.
Perhaps a related question: Father Stephen, does not a belief in miracles mean that faith has to usurp science in some instances. I cannot think of a meaningful way to define those two words, miracle and science, which can avoid their coming into conflict. A miracle that does not violate the laws of science would hardly seem an actual miracle.
Dino, there are many religious people in science: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. It is a myth that scientists are necessarily secularist. These gross generalizations verging on conspiracy thinking towards people who gave us air-conditioning never ceases to amaze me and generally the people most suspicious are the people who understand it the least.
There is an Orthodox physicist and mathematician names Alexei Nesteruk. His books The Universe as Communion and The Sense of the Universe are fantastic reads.
There is one necessary assumption to make in order for an observation or measurement to be scientific: It must be replicable. Replicability entails the observation of an objectively generalizable mechanism. And people of all spiritual stripes voluntarily make that assumption because if you do n ot make the assumption that the universe is rational and lawful (ergo mechanistic), then where do you start?
I think a a miracle is, first and foremost, what it seems in Scripture: a sign. Simply breaking the laws of science would be meaningless in and of itself. It is – an act of God. As the troparion says (in a certain place) – God “does whatever He pleases.” If He pleases to say, “Peace be still,” to the winds and the waves – it is so. And a scientist might puzzle at it.
But, I do not forget that God made everything that is (including the scientist and me and you) and that everything, when understood, is a sign and sacrament and a means of communion with God. So, I don’t worry or think much about contradictions. I do know that science doesn’t and cannot know everything. It works in a convenient manner and it does convenient things. And that is enough.
It is not and cannot be a means of explaning the universe or its purpose or its meaning. I have seen many signs through the years – the fingerprints of God. I have a respect for science, because I know a number of scientists for whom I have respect.
Frankly, the arguments between religion and science seem terribly 19th century (rather than, say, 4th century).
I will observe at present, that we’ve strayed quite a bit from the article – and I think it would be better to return to it. Also, Simon, I would not have used the word “mechanistic” – for me it conjures up images of cogs and wheels and such. I would rather say that the universe shows that it is rightly described as reflecting the Logos. It is “logikos.” It is reasonable after a fashion. But, I’m trying to be poetic.
Simon, I believe you start by accepting that not all phenomena are amenable to scientific understanding. I say that coming from a deeply scientific background.
I don’t think you’re describing science. You’re describing “some people.” If I were to draw conclusions about Christianity based on my observation of Christians, I don’t think the conclusions would be at all flattering. And I would be reaching wrong conclusions.
In Simon’s defense, I think he was simply trying to respond to what was seeming like a failry broad dismissal or denigration of science. Like the rest of us, he stands before the mystery of God and wonders. What else can we do (well, worship and give thanks, of course).
I completely understand – I was a scientist for much of my life, and I suppose I still am in many habits of thought. I just think it’s important to make a distinction between denigrating science, and pointing out that it does not hold all the answers for all things.
I love your book and the challenges it frames so clearly for us all.
On your first page, you make the point that “shame is rarely absent from our lives. Described as the ‘master emotion’ , it accompanies us and shapes our social interactions, both for good and ill.”
Can we also say that whatever identity we take for ourselves apart from God .. in ‘broken communion’ … will have shame in its root?
And if that is true, can we also say that shame is a Cross .. and how we respond to it … can we embrace it and find Christ in it … or will fight it, run from it, or be paralyzed by it … can we find our Resurrection in the reality of this Cross?
The work you’ve done in differentiating healthy and unhealthy shame in an Orthodox context is (I believe) ground breaking and monumentally both necessary and valuable. This paragraph so accurately captures much of the work I have found necessary and useful:
“One way to think of toxic shame is to see it as a severe loss of boundaries. Adults recovering from such shame often need to undertake the difficult task of creating boundaries. They need to find the self that lies beneath the various shame-induced strategies and begin to affirm and nurture it in the inherent dignity given to each of us by God. At the same time, they need to establish inner and outer rules that govern what and who will be allowed to enter into relationship or conversation with them. Often, establishing boundaries involves the painful work of dismantling the habits of a lifetime. It cannot be done alone—we need assistance.”
I also think you linking our work with shame as a “repentance” is crucial and perhaps not intuitive to many of us. This paragraph beautifully captures this journey of repentance to salvation:
“There is a ‘me’ beneath the encrusted and obscured versions of the self that are generated by the dynamic of shame in our lives (as well as by other factors). It tells us that as we do the difficult work of healing, unlearning, discovery, and such (the content of repentance in the spiritual life), there is a goal that awaits us. We journey toward the true self, the image of God, the place of His true reflection, and in that place we discover that who we are stands before Him without shame or fear. This is the place of our salvation.”
Let me know if this identification of shame and the Cross makes sense to you?
May God bless you and this important work!!!
Thank you for your insightful comments. It is indeed a Cross, one that Christ has made His own. We don’t do this alone.
Yes. I don’t think anyone here was suggesting science holding all answers.
This will be the last thing I will share on the topic of science. My priest has been way more helpful to me personally than anything else I have come across–and that’s a fact. Forgive me in advance, but let’s put that into perspective. I have worked at one national laboratory performing comparative genomics research, two biomedical informatics laboratories (both related to pharmacogenomics), and I have an MS in Genomic Science. My thesis was applying concepts from graph theory (a branch of mathematics) to protein structure ensembles generated by molecular dynamics simulations. The idea was to use network analysis to identify surface accessible regions on proteins and potential allosteric pathways that could be developed as therapeutic targets. I think it’s fair to say I know something about science. But none of that compares to what I am learning here about the hypostatic communion we hope to attain with God. None of it compares to what I have learned with my priest about hypostatic identity–and I have had my fair share of troubles with identity. I don’t hope in science. I hope in Christ. I don’t look to science for anything other than a pay check. Having said that when I “go to work” I think in terms of mechanism and I think about data mechanistically and I try to do my job professionally. No one at work wants to waste their time with this debate because it doesn’t contribute to productivity. And that’s the truth. In my experience, researchers who are bar stool theologians, only want to talk about the lab when they are in the lab. There is no other way to do it that makes sense. But, to be clear, I am an Orthodox man. And that is what is important to know about me.
Please, forgive me, for ranting.
I read a prayer tonight that went in part:
“Heavenly Father, true God …
receive me as the prodigal son,
and clothe me with my former garment,
of which I was deprived by sin.”
It struck me that this could be a prayer about original identity, almost Adam speaking.
On a second theme, Father what do you think is the cause of our inability to suffer or bear pain?
Simon that did not seem like a rant, and it made sense to me.
I appreciate faithful scientists like Nesteruk, or John Lennox,… Such brilliance goes all the way back to St Basil. They do approach it from a different angle however, clearly. But so do the multitude of others. Wolfgang Smith had a perspicuous analysis of the topic some years back.
I should want to be as wary of conspiratorial leanings as I am of naivety since our Lord advises something like this re serpents/doves.
I had a scientist father(Harvard educated) and an mother who danced with Martha Graham’s Company and with Miss Graham. I was shown great humanity in science and great mathematical precision in art. In my home they were never in completion. I took the road away from science in 1968 for two reasons: 1. My history professor made history fascinating; 2. My Chem professor made Chemistry both pedantic and strictly about math and not about people.
Other layers: my mother challenged me to go more deeply into my being in a positive way My Dad was frequently angry in an abusive way. At best emotionally distant and confusing yet man of high intelligence and depth of soul he never realized during his 99 years.
When I was 18, my mother sat me down in the “creative” room of our house gave me a copy of Huston Smith’s “Religions of Man” and a small handmade silver cross that will always be the most beautiful, living Cross in my life (recently passed on to my niece for her son).
Along with the gifts my mother told me: “God is real. He is described in this book somewhere. You need to find Him.”
My Dad was a pantheist. A pantheist who had great insite to the manner in which Creation works and it’s irreducible beauty, but a pantheist at best.
So, just before my 20th birthday, in the midst of an academic and personal crises I said a prayer: “Jesus, if you are real. I need to know it!”
Alone and outside at the time, I received a deep inner assurance from Jesus as to His reality and saw the shimmering outline of a man about 25 feet away and off to my right confirming the Truth of His word.
The next day I changed major’s from Chemistry to American History and “the adventure began” as they say .
In 1973, I had one more choice after writing a short research paper my history professors thought should be presented before the Kansas State Historical Society because of its quality.
I took off to “follow Jesus” instead. That led me to a small, outwardly dark Antiochian Orthodox Church in Wichita one Sunday in 1986. When, during the Great Entrance, I saw the priest carrying a Chalice full of brilliant, non-physical fire, my course was set. I was home.
The problem I have with “science” is the same problem I have with “religion’: the tendency toward idol worship and cultural Gnosticism in both: Idols of the mind, heart, soul and form. Same can be said of History and any other human endeavor since our Creation.
When one is blessed to enter into the mystery of our Incarnate Lord, God and Savior through a fascinating and rewarding discipline, it is only natural to proclaim the value and beauty of that discipline.
There is no conflict. Just different facets of our interconnectedness with God and each other.
Glory be to God.
It’s not science, it’s the culture. The same is true of religion, sports, etc. Some of my readers might have become familiar with the work of Paul Kingsnorth (as he’s become Orthodox). Some of his thoughts on what he calls, “The Machine,” (which he recently said is just “modernity”) often dovetail with things I’ve written as well. His background and experience are different from mine and colors his work. I enjoy reading him.
The dominant place of modern culture in our lives is, I think, the proper place for critical examination (rather than the various constituent parts that are, more or less, held captive).
Science is a hammer and a pair of pliers. If you think of it as any more than that then you’re thinking more of it than many scientists do. Can we just drop the science thing? Fr. Stephen was being polite earlier.
Regarding hypostatic identity/ hypostatic existence I have been wondering to what degree non hypostatic or “merely” psychological beings can enter into communion. In my understanding communion is the “nature” of the Trinity and the Trinity “consists” of three hypostases. Hypostatic life and communion go hand in hand. The Trinity guarantees that hypostases do not exist in a vacuum. To be hypostatic means to be in communion with the life of the Trinity. Theosis, or salvation, is hypostatic communion in the life of God.
I believe that in reality Christ is in full communion with all that exists, but that reality is not revealed in all that exists. As Christ’s communion with all that exists is revealed in us, then we, like Christ, can become a eucharistic offering of communion with all things.
Here is an example of what I mean, I recently restored a relationship with a family member that was quite broken. I would like to believe that my forgiveness of wrongs is more than mere psychological dismissal of harm done and mere restoration of a former relationship–although that may be all that person is capable of experiencing. I would like to think of the forgiveness as drawing that person into my meager capacity for communion with Christ.
Maybe the communion that is made possible by Christ in us might become the many onions that will save the life of the world.
I had a beautiful antidote to the culture last night: Pre-Sanctified Liturgy.
In a number of the Fathers, the Cappadocians particularly, there is the schema: being, well-being, eternal being. We are created as being (having existence), and move towards well-being through the grace of God (which is moving into the reality of “hypostatic” existence, in the language of St. Sophrony), with the final goal of eternal being (full hypostatic existence in communion with God – i.e. theosis). It’s a useful model.
And, I think there’s something of a continuum in this. To experience communion is already some level of participation in hypostatic existence. The consequences of that are as you’ve suggested – and more.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for the response. It is appreciated.
Simon, for me and my house, it is dropped. Rejoice in the Lord Always
Michael, I prayed that same prayer. I was 22 and supposedly fully educated. God has not stopped showing me since. I have had so many things He has had to give His answer to. And the list keeps going. For me metanoia has been a very long process of change and reeducation.
FWIW I’m married to a mathematical economist. Every proof has assumptions in it. That’s faith. Every scientist should know that. And there is no science without hypothesis. Any scientist who rules out the “unproven” or “unknown” as if it couldn’t possibly exist is doing moron science.
Simon, however if you are ever in Wichita, Ks, after worship we can sit down together and have cup of tea.
Janine, of course. Wonderful prayer! He is, mercifully, still answering it in ways both small and large.
Janine, thank you for that. We all need grace in what we do .
Simon, yes we all do, don’t we? Sad, but maybe that is what is missing. So many don’t seem to be aware they need it, or maybe are looking in all the wrong places. I suppose that is life, and we have so many distractions to take us on so many detours.
it is indeed not science, (as an absolutely independent entity), as has been said that is a ‘problem’ [of course], it is as Father says, a broader culture and a worldview narrative issue. Far more, what is key, is that it is the fact that nothing exists in the secular understanding of ‘absolute independence’ from everything else.Science included.
So when we sloppily say with broad strokes that ‘science’ (or ‘art’ for that matter) can be recruited by evil, (eg.: it will be the sine qua non for evil according to Revelations 13-17) we are indeed being exceedingly sloppy with our words, (as it can be said that ‘science’ is also the prerequisite for building God’s Temples too) but I hope you see what the point that is being made is.
The story of Cain’s lineage’s later “technical progress”, as opposed to Abel’s predisposition for unsophistication is quite telling here. This sort of stuff has a rather solid patristic grounding I find, although, indeed, it is fertile ground for misconceptions too. Greater care in precise expression is indeed required to avoid this.
Respectfully, I note Simon’s request: “Can we just drop the science thing?”
Simon, you wrote:
“I know this is NOT the forum to discuss gender identity issues and what they may entail. In fact, I am glad that Fr. Stephen keeps that trash off the site. But, I am also aware that to a person who may actually have neuroanatomy that is diverges from their gross anatomy that their identity as trans is more than a cultural trend.”
First of all, I’m personally grateful to Fr Stephen for allowing “trash” such as me to post here. Thank goodness you are not in charge of content moderation.
More to the point, there is no evidence of neuroanatomical differences among male, female, and intersex people; nor between cis and trans people. Put simply, there appears to be no such thing as a “male brain” or “female brain”, just human brains.
“Everything about my self-understanding as a male is neuroanatomical and grounded in biology. That is a fact.”
As a scientist, you should know better than to say something so dogmatic and categorical. Is your physical body somehow more valid or grounded in reality than your spirit, or your soul?
Christ himself proclaims “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven,” and St Paul further clarifies that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The Lord’s human body was physically male (as far as we know), but his human nature encompasses all of humanity. Was his sacrifice ineffective for non-males, because he incarnated as a man? Of course not. Every human being possesses the FULLNESS of human nature, while each human person EXPRESSES that nature uniquely.
Biological essentialism is not a Christian doctrine.
PJ…pray for me. Take that energy and put it into prayer for me. I mean that with all my heart.
I’m as confused as they come.
You said,”Biological essentialism is not a Christian doctrine.” Neither is the rather Gnostic account of human gender that we find of late – which is neither good science nor good theology. It has been driven by ideology and social conversations more than anything else. Biology matters, and whatever is said about it, biology should and must be taken seriously. The present cultural confusion is unprecedented in human history. The confusion is a reflection of a culture in serious decay, the evidence of which is all around us.
I think we can take each other seriously – particularly acting with compassion towards all forms of human suffering. Nevertheless, gender ideology that undermines the centrality of biological realism is not part of Orthodox Christian tradition.
FWIW, The one statement I’ve seen in the Fathers viz. gender, was attributed to St. Maximus the Confessor, who describe male and female as “energies” of the human person. They are thus “expressions – active expressions” of the unique person who instantiates the one human nature. We could thus describe gender dysphoria as a dysphoria in the “energies” of a person. But that dysphoria is not grounded in biology (in the extreme vast majority of cases) but in the mental health of an individual. That said, most of us suffer from one mental disorder or another. So, we treat each other with patience and kindness.
I will add that the theology (anthropology) of human nature/person/essence/energies, etc. is much more sophisticated that what you are describing. Modern conversations on the topic (including among most Christians) are generally off the mark.
Dino, please, take that intensity and focus and direct into prayer for me as well.
I need all the help that I can get.
Well, um, okay, but there really are anatomical differences between female and male brains. Having said that, there is no difference in Christ in terms of the value of each person which is quite a different thing. Even if there be no “difference” between Jew nor Greek in terms of value in Christ, there remains a difference between Jew and Greek, but in particular ways that are not diminished. In fact, in Christ each one may be brought to its fullness in whatever way Christ has for that to be expressed. And I think that is theosis in a nutshell.
So what we come down to is what Father has started in this conversation to begin with: who are we in Christ? How do we make that journey? What does it teach us?
I tell the truth, every single day in this journey there is something else I have to learn, and something else I have to change my thinking about. Every day. It’s an adventure, a journey.
Simon, not that I think you need prayers more than I do nor anyone else, but since you requested I have put you on my prayer list too. God bless.
Father, this might sound slightly crazy, but in the spirit of exploration and truth (ha), I’m wondering if there is a link between a fear of particularities and fear of suffering. At any rate, since I’m still pondering your words on suffering that occurred to me to ask as well. (But if you choose not to respond I will assume that, as always, you have good reason for it.)
In my own life and pursuit of theosis (such as it is!), I have to say that I believe there is a lot about my own particularities, which I believe have been insisted upon through prayer, that I really don’t like in some conventional sense of “like,” and have been very afraid of, for all kinds of reasons. There is a definite conflict, also related to the type of losses which St. Paul speaks of for instance in Philippians 3:8. I do hope this makes some sense to others, sorry to confuse or muddle the subject.
Janine, (in response to 1:34)
I appreciate your voice in this conversation.
I’ve been conflicted by adding my own thoughts here. And appreciate your comment relieving some of that tension within.
I want to say thank God for this conversation and for all who participated in it, especially PJ’s and Fr Stephen’s thoughts that stimulated it. Such conversations conducted in love and to the best our ability, honesty, can lead to our shared edification.
This culture is so shaming. May God help us.
Dee, thank you. God bless you!
For whatever it’s worth,
I pray while I conduct science. This life the Lord has given to me is such that I am unable to distinguish one such act from the other. I pray for His hand in all that I do. We are fearfully made and there is the mystery of our Lord in all the world — in all things.
My husband sometimes accuses me of being a ‘know it all’. His critique helps to ground me. He knows how to dig in the dirt and tends the garden the Lord has given him. I pray that my own heart is so well tilled. I’ve got a lot of rocks in my own garden.
I’m not entirely certain that I understand your question – but,assuming I do, I venture an answer. I’ve written before about the problem of general vs. particular. In truth, nothing “exists” in general. There is only particulars. There is no “humanity in general,” even though we speak about “human nature.” We share a single human nature – but that nature nowhere exists apart from particular human beings.
One of the ways we “abuse” generalities is as a means to avoid suffering. Thus, the saying, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” Generalities, generalizations, etc., are extremely malleable, inasmuch as they are mostly products of the imagination and avoid the particularities of reality. It is noted, in the doctrine of the Holy Icons, that we are able to paint an image of Christ, not because He became man, but because He became “a man.” (St. Theodore the Studite.)
I think it’s also the case that theosis is an ever-increasing particularity. God is “transcendently particular.” It’s also only in particularities that we experience shame. In general, I could be perfect (with a lot of imagination). In particular, it’s quite painful.
Christ suffering on the Cross was not an abstraction – not a generalized suffering for humanity. In that He bore our sins, our shame, our brokenness, etc., on the Cross – He bore each of them in particular in its fullness. That is the fullness and character of love.
Our bodies are instances of particularity. No one is “woman” or “man.” I am “a man,” you are “a woman.” There are generalizations that can be made about “women,” but no single woman will likely be a perfect instance of such a thing. This is one of the many fallacies in modern gender transitioning. It cannot happen without a body – and the body, even if modified by surgery and chemicals, remains what it always was (by and large). And its particularity will abide as a source of problems.
I have ADHD (to use an example). One thing that it means is that my executive functions in the frontal cortex are somewhat lame. I can’t escape it. I work with it. I also would not be uniquely who I am without it. Our biology matters – learning to live an embodied life is consonant with Orthodox practice.
Fr. Stephen, is the incarnation the exception or the rule regarding God’s “mode of being”?
Father, I want to point out that my comment to Janine was a response to her comment at 1:34 pm. Two submissions occurred because the first went into moderation and I corrected my email and submitted again. The current order doesn’t reflect my intension to speak to Janine’s comment at 1:34pm.
Sometimes order, or context is important. I hope I’m not being impertinent to ask for a different order if it is possible. This is not a reflection of the subsequent comments, but I desire to have no misunderstandings.
Love in Christ,
I don’t think we speak of His mode of being.
I edited it and noted that it’s a response to 1:34, but I can’t alter the order.
Father thank you for your answer — its fullness gave me much to think about!! And I think you understood my question more fully than I did! Probably because you have already been writing about and working on such questions yourself and have a long history with the subject, and experience.
Dee, thank you for the clarification. Don’t worry, I think I understood it anyway!
Again, Father, just to say every time I load this page, your grandson is so cute! We all wish they could always feel that exuberance of joy.
Thanks to all!
Regardless of what we might call it, the question I am asking isn’t about a “mode of being” per se–thats why it’s in quotes. The question is about particularization. Is the incarnation as a particular experience an exception or the rule? Is God ever-incarnating or was the incarnation a singular, particular exception?
Simon, taking a stab: My mother, as noted, was a dancer. She was also a choreographer. She created dances and movement patterns. I one case she was able to bring some healing to a severely ADHD girl by observing the girls movement patterns and rythmn thenn using those to increase the girl’s ability to communicate with others. The music was intrinsic too.
My mother also would enter into her dances from time to time-interacting with the dancers for whom she created the dance. She became a dancer. She remained the creator of the dance–fully dancer and fully choreographer without change or diminishment to either. Fully dancer and fully creator.
….oh and to say she suffered so that the dancers could experience joy and beauty with each other and their audience was a real occurrence as well.
I appreciate your citation from St Maximos the Confessor, that gender operates on the level of human “energies” rather than human “essence.” That is what I was (clumsily) trying to express in my previous post.
I fully understand if you choose to not publish this reply in the interest of keeping discussion on topic. However if you’re willing to bear with me a bit longer…
“This is one of the many fallacies in modern gender transitioning. It cannot happen without a body – and the body, even if modified by surgery and chemicals, remains what it always was (by and large). And its particularity will abide as a source of problems.”
It strikes me that precisely the same argument could be applied equally well to any medical complaint, from cancer to broken bones to congenital birth defects. After all, a cancer-ridden body, even if modified by chemotherapy and radiation, remains by-and-large what it always was, and the disease will often persist as a source of problems even after treatment. And yet, the Church does not require cancer patients to reject chemotherapy and wait for their true, cancer-free nature to be revealed in Christ after the resurrection.
I seems to me that by the standard quoted above, ALL medical care would be pointless at best, or actively sinful at worst– a ridiculous doctrine that I’m sure you’re not espousing.
What is the difference, in terms of Christian anthropology, between correcting a congenital harelip (acceptable) and correcting a congenital mismatch between physical and mental/spiritual gender (unacceptable)?
Or again, what is the difference between providing Testosterone therapy to a cis man with low T levels (an extremely common medical practice which nobody seems to have a problem with theologically), versus providing Testosterone therapy to a trans man with low T levels?
Again, I thank you for your patience and your thoughtful, compassionate responses. Identity is a thorny topic no matter how you slice it! I hope I haven’t given offense with my language here.
What a beautiful metaphor! “Fully dancer and fully choreographer, without change or diminishment to either.”
It’s unique and particular. Though, in the Ascension, we see the Incarnation pass into the heavens and not coming to an end.
As my spiritual father once told an inquirer who had become enmeshed in
difficult bioethics decision concerning his family, “in the past, when things were biomedically simpler, even if we had more earlier deaths etc these dilemmas didn’t exist,now we have a continuous increase of them”
Somewhat thorny. Here’s an interesting proposition: What if there there were a pill that, when taken, would make someone comfortable with their biological status? Altering the mental state rather than attempting to alter the body?
What is wrong with the other proposition (the common practice today), is that we are taking a healthy male body (for example), and “fashioning” it through what is plastic surgery into a form that only resembles a female in certain ways. We cannot transition a male into a female or vice versa. Much of this is the word-games and mind-games of a culture – not an actual reality. Like much of our culture – it’s make-believe.
Removing cancer cells returns a body to health – helps it to be what it actually is.
We have plastic surgeries these days to help someone look like various animals – cats, etc. They do not become cats.
I fully understand the mental anguish involved in gender dysphoria. At present, we have hamstrung science, going so far as to outlaw research into treating the dysphoria – for what are political reasons, not scientific. From my own perspective, I see the entire LGBT, etc. movement has a subset of the so-called sexual revolution dating back to the 60s, which clearly had a political agenda, as well. We need (as individuals) to come to grips with the fact that society itself can make us “crazy” in various ways. The current numbers indicating an extreme rise in gender dysphoria within certain age groups and populations does not indicate something happening to brains (more people being “born that way”). It is better explained by a social contagion (and there have been many of these throughout the centuries). A recent outbreak of Tourettes Syndrome among young girls across the country was traced to a TikTok phenomenon. Doesn’t mean these girls didn’t experience this as “real” – they were not faking. But they did not have Tourettes Syndrome and were able to be successfully treated through therapy.
It’s a minor example, but worth noting and considering.
Your question assumed that our mental state (at any given time or over a given time) should be the basis for our existential/biological choices. I think that is a fallacy. It is also of note that a number of European countries have backed away from earlier trans treatments of underage youth because of a clear indication of the reversibility or change that can happen for many of these over time.
I am not saying that there is no suffering in gender dysphoria – of course there is. There are other conditions that cannot be treated, or whose treatment would involve unethical choices. But Christian ethics does not consider the relief of pain and suffering to be the primary purpose of medicine. That basis of medicine (Utilitarianism) commonly leads to evil ends (like murder, abortion, etc.).
Much of modern medicine is abusive in its practice. For example, we have a cultural cult of youth. A man my age (69) getting testosterone therapy so he’ll feel like he’s 29 is an abuse, I think. There’s nothing wrong with getting old – and feeling like it. There is, however, something inherently wrong with getting old but feeling like you’re 29 until you’re dead at age 90. I could multiply the examples. The Christian tendency should be a general resistance to these various abuses and a preference for what is natural.
If, for example, science invented a therapy that would keep us alive to age 200, I think Christians should refuse it (and it would like a much longer comment to explain why).
But, back to my point, I believe that the body, in its stability, is the preferred basis for our existence and choices. As noted, every surgery in the gender category is not a treatment – but an illusion. If everyone will agree, then the illusion is more powerful. It is little wonder that the power of the state seems to be required in addition to the surgery. The “will” of the individual is being made to seem as though it is Lord of biology and society itself. That’s not a long-term strategy that will be sustained.
Thank you for your honesty and your questions. They’re quite timely.
One last thought (ethical problem). What if transitioning, and being very public about it contributed to an increase in gender dysphoria in adolescents (a very painful and confusing experience). If that were the case (and there is a strong indication that this is so), is it not positively harmful on a social level to introduce and contribute to such suffering among children? Every time the pop culture idolizes a tran – it is entirely possible that are doing precisely this harmful thing. What should a Christian think about that? As a priest, I have been on the pastoral end of this question – trying to be of help to a troubled child. It’s not theoretical.
I have from time to time contemplated the dilemma you voice. Indeed the intervention of medicine and surgery is, IMO, made without enough thought when someone gets sick even unto death.
“To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.,”
But taking arms often does not end them…it merely changes the sea. Our fallenness is not transformed. Only repentance does that and then only by Grace and Mercy we cannot really comprehend.
I watched my late wife fall into a coma and eventually die because the medical intervention in her case did not “work”. Yet as she lay in her coma, her body slowly dying, her Guardian Angel came and prayed with/for her. I have no doubt repentance and mercy transformed her soul for the Kingdom in ways that likely would not have happen had the medicine worked.
No matter what I do, I will never get around what Jesus told us recorded in Mt 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand'”.
Pills or no pills; surgery or no surgery the fundamental reality is that repentance is the only medicine for the soul.
GOP polemicists popularized the phrase “social contagion” to imply that trans people are a disease infecting society, and therefore we ought to be wiped out, like germs. Such dehumanizing language is beneath you.
No. GOP polemicists used a much older phrase for their own political ends. I do not follow politics if I can help it. But “social contagion” or “social hysteria” various phrases has been used to describe such things as the “Dancing phenomenon” in the Middle Ages – when outbreaks of dancing would occur in villages with some people dancing themselves to death. In the 80’s and 90’s there was an epidemic of young girls (especially) with anorexia and bulemia that was also a “social contagion” or social phenomenon – and was fatal any number of times.
Human beings are highly social. No doubt, our formation and nurturance in gender expression, etc., also has a social component (always has). It is not entirely social – it has a biological basis. It’s a package deal. But if one part of the package is distorted, then things start to not work so well, and we get anomalies (which we see in abundance – eclipsing by a factor of 10 or higher – any number associated with it in the past).
I did not mean to give offense. Also, with respect to the GOP, I do not think they had in mind the eradication of a group of people. That’s Democratic rhetoric, which is equally reprehensible. I cannot write in a manner to make both of those groups happy. So, bear with me if you want the conversation. Also, it is not “de-humanizing” to be the victim of a social contagion – that is a societal-induced state of mind. Heck – we may all be victims of this in one way or another.
I’ve just googled for a minute and found the term: “psychogenic illness.” That is perhaps more felicitous than “social contagion.” I’ll use that term.
I find the orderliness and clarity of your responses on this matter superb Father Stephen; a magnificent way of articulating ‘the mind of Holy Tradition’ on a thoroughly modernist controversy.
You wrote, “With respect to the GOP, I do not think they had in mind the eradication of a group of people.” Agree to disagree on this point. Since you try not to follow politics, you might be unaware of the increasingly-violent rhetoric being employed by certain figures. It’s frightening.
Regarding the rapid increase in the number of people saying they’re trans in recent years:
We used to teach children that being left-hand-dominant was wrong– even demonic– and kids who tried to write left-handed were shamed, punished, and “corrected” by parents and teachers. My father, for example, was frequently beaten with a belt by my grandfather for using his left hand. (He remains left-handed to this day.)
Unsurprisingly, there were very few left-handers in those days.
Then in the early-to-mid 20th century, we stopped thinking of left-handedness as a moral failing, and eased up on the punishment and shaming. And what do you know! The number of left-handed people rose rapidly, from 3-4% of the US population in 1900 to a plateau of 11-12% by 1960. And that percentage has stayed extremely steady ever since.
You can see a similar phenomenon with the number of people diagnosed with ADHD. And indeed, there are still plenty of people who will confidently tell you how “ADHD” is not a real disorder but a scam, or a political plot, and/or a mass delusion– as you have no doubt experienced.
More people suddenly being open about their gender issues is exactly what you would expect to see, as the iron wall shame and social ostracism around gender non-conformity begins to crack.
WOW! I don’t know that one of Fr Freeman’s posts has brought so much discussion, both on and off topic! I have been glued to my phone for over an hour taking in all of the comments. So informative! So honest. I appreciate so much all of the insights offered. All suffering must be honored.
So grateful for God’s mercy.
There has been a lot of study and focus particularly on teenage girls recently, on this subject and others. It cannot be dismissed as rhetoric or political agenda. Suffering is not owned by one side or the other, especially if we are talking about where our faith leads. There are “solutions” to problems that are not solutions for everyone and tragedy results from that, too.
Our faith calls us to a deeper sense of compassion than that.
I am reminded once again how fighting the “givenness” of existence is invariably tantamount to Christ’s word to Paul, “it is hard to kick against the goads”. Dysphoria is only increased. Acceptance of what God gives is the route to Heaven and the reverse is also true.
The mind of modernity is thoroughly established in a type of prelest on this.
I’m familiar with this line of argumentation. I do not think it holds up to careful scrutiny. Interestingly, shame has not disappeared, it has simply changed targets. Human beings are no better than they’ve ever been, I think. BTW, 3 of my 4 children are left-handed. Which is odd – my wife and I are both right-handed. She is one of 4 children, I am one of 3. Only one of those 7 siblings is left-handed. All 4 of my children have ADHD (as do I and clearly my mother did as well – but it had no name back then). I take nothing for it (nor did my mother). I just suffer – gladly enough.
I genuinely do not think that the present manifestation is a reflection of a long-suppressed normalcy. Of course, it’s an argument that can be asserted.
For better or worse, we live in a highly politicized culture. A tricky place to be a Christian. It is a reason I say that “all suffering must be honored.” There are, of course, a variety of ways to honor it. Not all of it can be solved, and, as you say, some “solutions” can be tragic. I trust in the Tradition we have received – in its fullness – accepted with an abundance of repentance. I don’t know another way to live.
And, of course, living in the culture of modernity – we are told daily and incessantly – that we can build a better world and that, essentially, everything can be fixed. It is to be noted that in all of American history we have only had 17 years in which we were not at war.
I think it worth pointing out that Simon did not refer to any person or people as “trash”. He used it in reference to the topic of “gender identity issues and what they may entail”. That topic can be extremely divisive, dangerous ground on which to tread and often results in very uncharitable statements. Father is correct, in my opinion, to strictly moderate the blog and let it remain it as a safe place for everyone, yourself included. He will limit the conversation as he sees fit.
The Lord’s human body was physically male (as far as we know), but his human nature encompasses all of humanity. Was his sacrifice ineffective for non-males, because he incarnated as a man? Of course not. Every human being possesses the FULLNESS of human nature, while each human person EXPRESSES that nature uniquely.
I would note that Jesus is often called (the new) Adam and Adam encompassed the fullness of humanity in the garden. Eve was taken from Him and woman created out of his body (instead of out of the dirt). Christ does indeed hold the fullness of humanity, but we do not. It is in our union with Him (our salvation) that we become fully human. We are incomplete (one way to put it) now; we look to Him for our completion. It is not found in our self-expression but in His Holiness. Just my thoughts.
Since you try not to follow politics, you might be unaware of the increasingly-violent rhetoric being employed by certain figures. It’s frightening.
It is indeed frightening. What you hear though cannot be compartmentalized to a single subject. There are frightening voices all around. We hear many of them speak in this manner on a number of subjects. My personal view is that they have obtained a level of power that allows them to speak. That doesn’t mean they are any different than anyone else in history who has obtained such power. We are seeing and hearing what is frightening to us today in ever greater amounts because we have far greater reach than ever before (ex: the internet). But the world really hasn’t changed; people in power (and others) have always spoken this way on a variety of topics and at the expense of others. Pride and arrogance have always existed.
The number of left-handed people rose rapidly, from 3-4% of the US population in 1900 to a plateau of 11-12% by 1960.
These things are different by an order of magnitude. The percentage of change is much, much higher and, whereas the US population changed over roughly 60 years in the case you site, it has changed radically more in far less time now.
However, we need to be careful to recognize that people (specifically “persons”) are suffering and not paint with such broad strokes. That can only alienate some against others and cause suffering. Michael rightly pointed out that our repentance heals us.
Interestingly, shame has not disappeared, it has simply changed targets. Human beings are no better than they’ve ever been, I think.
I find that many of the voices of which PJ speaks are quick to simply “change targets” as it suits them. It is not for the benefit or our humanity that their statements are made, but for their own agenda(s) (whatever those may be). We should be careful that we do not become less human (in our thoughts and speech) by absorbing their statements. Scripture has much to say about our speech, with good reason. Just my thoughts.
Thank you Father! So many wise words there. Thank you.
You rightly state, “A tricky place to be a Christian.” I personally feel this more and more keenly. And voices of shame are all around, I might add. It seems to be the number one weapon.
Thank you Fr. Stephen.
Such a wonderful photo! 🙂
Please know that I appreciate and thank you for the courage and strength to share what this means to you.
Love in Christ,
What is the difference, in terms of Christian anthropology, between correcting a congenital harelip (acceptable) and correcting a congenital mismatch between physical and mental/spiritual gender (unacceptable)?
I am not qualified to answer your question in terms of Christian anthropology–although much of what Father Stephen wrote in his reply at 4:32 p.m. would have aligned with my immediate thoughts.
As the discussion has unfolded and you introduced the idea of handedness, however, that analogy might help with what I perceive as a difficulty for many who believe the mismatch, if it needs treatment, should be treated from the mental side, rather than the physical.
Leaving aside ambidexterity for conciseness, we have people who favor their left hand and those who favor their right. But suppose someone (physically) evidenced right-hand dominance and superior coordination and yet insisted he was left-handed–that he psychologically was left-handed and wanted those around him to acknowledge him as a left-handed person.
If he asked that a doctor remove his right hand to force his left-handedness to assert itself, I think you can see how many would react. Or if a parent asked the same operation be done to a child, I think it’s easy to see why many would not want that allowed. Neither objection would have to have roots in a hatred for left-handedness but rather in a belief that the physical evidence indicates that it is the mental state that is out of alignment with reality and therefore needs treatment (if treatment is necessary).
No analogy is perfect, but a feature of handedness that I think helps here in talking about “reality” is that it is difficult for someone trying to be objective to understand how the person with the mismatch is using terms. That is, either the physical definition is determinate or it is not.
In other words, how can one (by definition) be a left-hander with a dominate right hand? And if somehow one can be regardless of physical state–mental belief is more important–then why does the right hand need to be removed?
Please take my usage of this analogy in the spirit in which it is intended (to address your question via your later comparison and, therefore, hopefully in a less contentious frame than the topic of gender). It is not meant to trivialize the subject at all.
Mark, well said
Another huge issue with modern identity, as opposed to traditional one, is that it is wholly based on desire, whim, vice … Traditionally it was based on one’s role in the world (soldier, father, nurse, king, etc). It used to be more hypostatic in a nascent sense.
In other words, the “purpose” of identity used to be outside of the self, connectional, relational. Not anymore…
Dino, I am really uncertain what you mean.
if we look at what was the basis for one’s sense of identity traditionally, say prior to the renaissance, it had to do with their place in the world, their role. This was somewhat relational, somewhat akin, even, to the basis for the “identity” of the Father, or the identity of the Son.
The modern world establishes identity according to the fluctuating see of one’s selfish desires.
There’s much to be said about Dino’s observation. I think of Charles Taylor’s, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. The connectedness that was part of the Medieval World’s stability has largely disappeared. The modern “self” lives in isolation – often tasked with the work of “inventing” its own identity. Many of us in the English-speaking world have a “relic” of that stable past enshrined in our surname. Mine (Freeman), reflects an ancestor who managed to break free of serfdom, probably by taking refuge in a city and taking up a trade. Many are named for their trades: Smith, Carpenter, Wainwright, Cooper, etc. Some are named for a place. It is of note that our “given names” are just that – they are given.
Of course, many people later want to rename themselves – not surprising.
Of course, being a carpenter gives a “place” within a stable culture. But the trades were connected. Many (most) had a patron saint, and thus a collective feast day, something that drew its members into a transcendent relationship.
I’m not a Marxist (far from it), but there is a legitimate critique, from a Christian perspective, of how the modern world’s economic patterns have served to destroy connectedness and created many dilemmas for the problem of identity. Our economics prefers individuals over families (consider how poor the provisions are in the American workforce for family realities). It prefers that human beings be mobile, ready to re-locate, re-train, etc., despite the fact that such requirements are highly destructive of the family and other stabilizing social structures. Despite our pride in the modern exercise of “human rights,” they are rights that are largely defined by the economic requirements of our culture – not the wider human needs.
To my mind, the first person in literature to consider the nature of the self was St. Augustine in his Confessions. Some have said it was the first “modern” book. I certainly cannot think of anything else from his time period (5th century) or before that reads so much like a modern writing. But he thoroughly grounds the self in God: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”
Dino, as to the modern world establishing identity according to a person’s selfish desires, this is to say that we exist and are nurtured to be consumers. One commentator has observed that in the modern world, money is ontology. Frighteningly true.
St Augustine is a saint, and for that reason, I know I need to be circumspect about expressing my thoughts about him in an open forum. I’ve acquired a book exploring how his thoughts were manipulated in western theology, but I haven’t had time to delve deeply into it yet. I suppose such behavior is indicative of the woes of an over-worked employee–no time for reading and reflection. –Thank God I manage to say my morning and evening prayers, at least!
Generally I have avoided reading Augustine’s work because I have already been inculcated (in this culture) to interpret his words in the western theological way. But your quote from Augustine is a wonderful counterpoint. And I know its truth, personally and what I have seen in others. God willing that we all find rest in Him. Thank you for providing me a way to admire St Augustine!
A clear distinction needs to be made and proclaimed between “identity” and personhood.
“identity” is always a form of idolatry.
It can be either an individual idolatry or a corporate idolatry.
Prior to the cultural apostasy in the west c.1600 and continuing there was little understanding of “identity”. The On-line Etymological Dictionary lists the word identity as c.1600. Nothing prior to that.
For me, as I repent, my “identity” begins to disappear and my person begins to emerge. In communion with Jesus who I am is revealed.
This culture is awash in self-help and self-care “tools” and methods as a way to bolster and mitigate the emotional fallout of the damage of our self image. It is actually the image of God in our hearts. Ironically such tools place the ‘blame’ of the damage and the ensuing heartbreak and confusion on the individual. And therefore, they are told (implicitly and otherwise) that they need to ‘fix’ themselves. There is a background matrix, our culture, which is a context for this generalized dysphoria, and you have named it well, that of relation and the disintegration of such relations among us. It is hard for us to measure our degree of ‘wellness’ or ‘illness’ against such a matrix that has no value for relation, except for a relation of invention or fantasy.
We speak of love. But with the disintegration of family relations (often parents are children and children are parents among the many issues we face) deep fissures have formed. We no longer remember how they formed or how they might be breached. We make up our proverbial bridges, we make an agreement amongst ourselves that the bridge we’ve created is the ‘fix’. And then wonder in frightful dispair why it doesn’t function in the way we would hope. Then we look for more tools and self-care methods.
I’m not against the use of tools and methods (I admit I am a scientest–it’s pretty much what we do), but we have a distorted idea of how well we know how to use them and what purpose they serve.
May God hear our prayers. May we find rest in Him.
I sometimes think that the primordial fall of man was a fall into “consuming”, and its continuous increase, refinement, advancement has is taking us to unprecedented (…) “heights”.
Dee, and Dino,
If it’s true that we cannot simply “fix ourselves” (for the problem is larger than any of us), we must remember that it is no single person’s (or group of persons) fault. It doesn’t matter whether that’s used as an excuse – because excusing it doesn’t “fix” it.
St. Silouan, in particular, though born into a very different world (that of a pious peasant family in 19th century Russia) still recognized all of this and spoke about the “whole Adam.” Christ, in being the “Second Adam” (in St. Paul’s words), is thus the whole of us. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
The life of the Church is the Second Adam. His triumph over death demonstrates utterly and conclusively that the Second Adam is stronger than the first, that Christ is stronger than sin, death, etc.
The life of the Church, made manifest in that struggling little band of believers, whose faults we likely know so well (as if they were our won), united in the participation of Christ’s Body and Blood, is the union in Christ’s new life and is God’s single plan for the healing and salvation of us all.
It is such a humble thing – but it is life from the dead. And, in that context it is possible to slowly realize the commonality of our life and become, in St. Sophrony’s language, “hypostatic beings” (which is never merely a self or alone).
Augustine is an Orthodox saint, though his theology does require an asterisk or two. Much that he gets blamed for comes as a result of being too-influential in the Latin-speaking West. Had the West had equal access to the great Eastern Fathers, it would have offered a balance that was needed.
Some credite Augustine with writing the first autobiography. I suspect we read him that way because we read ourselves that way (focus on the self). It should be remembered that he called his work “The Confessions.” He did not see it as biography – or about Augustine – but about God and how he himself came to a saving knowledge.
Many Protestants love Augustine and champion his writing. But they ignore things like his account of miracles wrought in his Cathedral by the relics of St. Stephen the Protomartyr. He was thoroughly Orthodox and sought to defend the Orthodox faith (a little too hard, perhaps). Nevertheless, he helped defeat the error of the Pelagians.
It is the focus on the self (as though it were an object) that creates errors within us. Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. When they sinned, they becase self-aware – saw that they were naked and sought to hide.
Michael was right earlier when he described “identity” as a problem, including the late development of the word.
Thank you all for this interesting — I might say fascinating — conversation. Of the many things I see in the world around me I do see a great search for identity. But when we speak of groups and communions, I also see that as a pattern of what can be mistaken. People look for identity in a “tribe,” or in their “group,” in a political party, in social movements, in all kinds of places and ways that it seems to me are destructive. We can also seek a union in the wrong place, that is not going to give us the identity that is true. (Sorry, I don’t know if I’m using that word properly.) It seems that a search for self and a search for God are inseparable, for if God is the true consuming fire, then what St Paul calls the “things that fall away” are in God’s purview. In other words, God seems to show me, at least, who I am not — and both who I am not and who I am continue to surprise me. (I hope that makes sense to someone out there.) Maybe that just has to do with the particular things I needed to unlearn, and the things in front of me that I still need to discover. But it seems to me that is the journey. And it takes us “out of the world” as well as throws us back in. Maybe Christianity needs to constantly discover what this means for a new day and the present world that greets us.
I take some exception to the characterization of identity building as something that is selfish.
It is not selfish. It is an attempt to do for oneself what a community composed of families and extended families should have done for you. The problem for people isn’t identity per se. It is the absence of identity. The modern world has atomized the individual and placed persons outside of the types of communities I just described. In the situation, what alternative do people have except try to construct for oneself those things that should have been deposited at birth. It isn’t selfish. It is an effort to be human in a dehumanizing world. Given the other comments I doubt this will be well received. But I offer it as a perspective that maybe…MAYBE…worth considering.
I have been outside the Church. I have been the guy who has taken the one-way walk to the woods and only returned out of cowardice. I can remember a February when it was 20 some odd degrees. The sky was crystal clear from the absence of lights and humidity. I remember thinking how indifferent everything seemed to me. Even the stars–as beautiful as I could see that they were–were indifferent to whatever I might decide to do next. People are skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.
To see them as selfish overlooks how God-forsaken everything can be.
I am one of the few “lucky” few who have survived and have the tale to tell.
I’m cautious at the expression, “Maybe Christianity needs to constantly discover what this means for a new day and the present world that greets us.” There are tons of people out there who would love to constantly tinker with and fix Christianity. What I find in Orthodoxy is not something that needs to change – the agent of change, if you will, is the inner content of the mystery itself. GK Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
To my mind, the most disastrous decisions in modern Christianity have been the decisions to become modern. It has been a complete failure, succeeding only in doing what many centuries of persecutions and challenge did not: emptied Christianity of any significant content.
Yes, we struggle alone, much of the time. And yet, we’re never purely doing it alone. There’s a community (even when it’s only the invisible community) that is participating in some manner.
But, your point – not to despise the struggle is spot on.
Hi Father, thank you once more for your reply.
Yes, I agree the expression unfortunately can be construed to mean just what worried you about it. What I meant to say is that we, for example, live in a world filled with technology that didn’t exist 2,000 years ago and came into existence fairly recently. So, as Christians, we have to figure out how the faith received from the beginning would meet this new world. I don’t mean the faith itself changes, I mean where once we faced the Roman Empire and certain types of persecutions or conflicts like idol worship, we now face the worship of technology or the cult of Apple. I agree with your worries, and I have seen the outcome of what you are talking about up close and center, and have rejected it for myself as the wrong way.
Having said that, I see what is worrisome about the phrasing and the context in which you write.
Just to continue to try to explain, let me say that as a cradle Orthodox, I had to search far and wide as an adult only to be brought back home. In so doing, I “found” what was already there but that I had missed in my reception of it as a child. Such treasure was always there. In that sense, I mean whatever “new” ways the world looks today, the treasure of the faith must reveal how it’s meant to be met. The treasure is there, but it’s always meant to be mined. Just like the constant search toward the God who is a consuming fire.
25 See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, 26 whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” 27 Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.
And today, “yet once more” it seems that things are being shaken, and the faith must again meet where “things which cannot be shaken” will remain. My confidence is in Christ, albeit not perfect 🙂
My point more specifically is how the search for ‘sources of the self’ should be understood. Again, what other options do people have except to do the work themselves? It isn’t a circumstance that anyone chose for themselves. If people are getting everything backwards can they really be blamed?
Simon, there is a significant part of my personhood (I am discovering) that is contrarian in nature. Therefore, I embrace your comment with both laughter and joy. I am not being either facetious or sarcastic either.
Identity building can only adequately be done in a community of faith submitting to the Life filled interrelationships. such a community expresses.
That includes sitting down together on a quiet afternoon with a beer or a hot cup of tea with lemon juice and honey allowing one’s uniqueness to gently be seen by one’s self and whomever one is with.
Occasionally expressing one’s joy and sorrow to on robust outbursts followed by a round or two of cachination for which there is no outward reason.
knowing someone too-familiar with what you describe (regarding how God-forsaken everything can be), who has been extremely lucky to come back from that hell and find, perhaps, the best ‘expert’ to consult (leaving out all details here for the sake of brevity), although I realise how that horror perpetually looms around the corner for weak, fallen man, the Spiritual expert’s holy advice stands.
One could condense this advise wisely to various aphorisms (as has been done before) like:
“not my will, but thine, be done”, or
“keep thy mind in hell and despair not” or
“glory to God for all things”.
May God give us the secret grace to continuously redirect our attention to His almighty, unfailing love for us, (forgetting ourselves and trusting God), most especially when He is like deaf and blind to us, even when drowning in the dark hell of utter forsakenness. It might take years to build this Ark of private hope that weathers very great storms, but let us build now, as much as we can, while there’s some sunshine out, and our hope in God’s good providence will not be tested beyond what we can bare, but the test itself will be mixed with sweet, divine consolation so that we “despair not”.
Our heart’s predisposition to continuously redirect our being (gratefully/trustfully) Godwards, humbly/bravely wanting to place ourselves under His loving gaze
[as opposed to needily demanding the sweetness of His loving gaze over ourself], as much as we can muster this, is what attracts this divine consolation unflinchingly.
Thank you Fr Stephen and thank you Simon. I agree that the individual human person is often left to “search for sources of the self” on their own and I know of one 14 year old who has attempted to end the life God has given them specifically because of this “search” and although the person is an Orthodox Christian, anger with God is constant now. The parents and family are trying to get professional help and we pray. I know this child is not alone. Lord have Mercy on all Your Children.
May God indeed have mercy. The world does not stretch before us with easy selections to choose between. The world is a historical mess. I can think of any number of reasons why the non-Orthodox would take one look at Orthodoxy and walk away. I can think of plenty of reasons why many would see the whole of Christianity and walk away. Oftentimes the rejection of the faith is not based in selfish reasons – but very “Christian” reasons. Sometimes leadership in the Church behaves in an un-Christian manner. I left the Church in which I was Baptized after being scandalized by lies told by Church leadership (including the pastor) over a matter in Church-league basketball (as if it was worth it). I left the next Church, at age 13, over blatant racist teaching from the leadership (that was 1966). I was unchurched for a couple of years – and it’s a work of providence that ever brought me back.
By comparison to the present, times were simple then. Nothing is simple today. Our own propensity to judge is ill-placed. It would be far more accurate (and like the saints) to take full responsibility for the failings of others. The Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov said, “Each man is guilty of the sins of all…” And he taught this, not as a way of condemning, but of recognizing the nature of the whole Adam. If someone is “needily demanding” something of God – then it is my poor life and sins that have failed. I’ll not lay it at his doorstep. I take that to be the greater wisdom in such a question.
Fr. thank you for pointing that out.
Dostoevsky possessed a profound understanding of the human condition.
It is indeed monastic wisdom and always only applied to self, as Father seems to allude, never another. One who has tasted such unbearable despair and then sought advice, such as explained earlier, only wants all others to be spared such predicaments. But having also tasted the truth of the advice, would want all to have access to it in case they need it.
Thank you, Father Stephen, for this beautiful article. You contribute so much to my faith with your timely writings. I look forward to your next.
Simon, forgive me for my lack of clarity. I am the contrarian. Not you
Now I do owe you a beverage of your choice, at least…
Michael, please, note that comment has been removed.
I would love to have a drink with you….at Eighth Day books and spend the entire day pilfering around! We should do THAT!
Father, I keep looking at and reflecting on the picture of your grandson. In my heart, he is absolutely expressing his personhood deeply himself. even though there is nothing around him that bespeaks his “identity” in the modern sense yet there is a deep interconnection between him and the ship. Still each has an integrity which disallows any confusion between them
Father, in all this discussion of seeking one’s identity, a question occurs to me. How is this connected to St. Paul’s description of emptying himself of himself so he may be filled with Christ? It seems to me that this pursuit, which I take as immersing oneself in the life of the Church, would alleviate many of the desperate struggles (for identity) that we see in people today. But I have not considered it further than that. Would you provide some comment on these things?
The foundation in modernity for identity, I believe. Six weeks ago, I suffered a small frontal lobe stroke. One night in the hospital.
As mild as it was, some limitations and changes came with it, not all easy to welcome. Indeed some very frustrating as my dear wife knows.
Today though, I began to deal with Orthodox ontology vs modern identity from a different perspective. A perspective that is a joyful one for me.
In A. D. 1637 Rene Descartes published the blasphemous, but foundational doctrine of modernity (along with a Treatise) “I think, therefore, I am.”
Today, I had a moment of recognition, it occurred to me “I am, therefore I think.”
is a much better ontological foundation.
God, tells us: “I am!,” referring to Himself He also says that each of us is made in His ,”image and likeness.” “Male and Female created He them.” ….and many other specifics
The initial thanksgiving that came in contemplation was that no matter what mental faculties I have lost or had changed because of my stroke: I am still me. Even unto death and beyond. (Somehow fasting is in there)
The second realization was that my “I am” is a nearly infinite sea. Yet I have a small open dinghy and Jesus is with me as I cast out on that ocean.
“Identity” appears as the unnecessary and sinful proposition that it is.
Many more connections possible.
God forgive me.
“I am in Christ, therefore I suffer, love and think.”