Quaker Universalist Conversations

A comment on “Seeing beyond Identities”

Friend Jim Wilson has a helpful comment on the QuakerQuaker republishing of my post, “Seeing beyond Identities”:

Mike, I wonder if your statement, “identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers”, makes sense. It sounds to me like postmodernist sloganeering.

For example, if I am hungry I want to distinguish, that is to say, ‘identify’, a pizza and distinguish it from a rock. Are you saying the boundary between a pizza and a rock is a figment of human conceptualization? That doesn’t make sense to me. A pizza belongs in the concept ‘food’, a rock belongs in the concept ‘non-food’. What is the problem?

In a similar way, I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.

Thanks again, Jim. I see I still need to say more clearly what I am addressing here.

“Identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers” is not meant to be postmodernist sloganeering. If anything, it is premodern Buddhist psychology, confirmed in many ways by modern neurobiology of consciousness research.

Certainly human beings need to be able to “identify” distinctions between different objects (pizza :: rock), different concepts (food :: non-food) and spiritual traditions (Universalist Quakerism :: creedal Christianity). Our use of language depends upon distinguishing and naming categories as helpfully as we can.

I therefore agree with your statement: “I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.”

Vine
In “Seeing beyond Identities” I am using the term “identity” in a somewhat different sense.

If I say “I am a convinced Friend,” that may “identify” something of my history in the first sense. However, “convinced Friend” is not an “identity.”

We are so accustomed to the language which says “I am a Christian,” “I am an American,” “I am a gay man.” Our common habit is to take this as affirming an “identity” between an individual human being and all people in the named category. Obviously, though, no two “Christians” or “Americans” or “gay men” are the same. What we are actually doing when we use those labels is ascribing to ourselves certain very loosely defined characteristics.

The problem is that to assert “gay man” as an “identity” would be to reduce all the vast, complex, constantly changing realities of my 65 plus years of life to a few culturally “identifiable” markers. What “I am a gay man” actually says is “I belong to the widely diverse category of men, each of them unique, who are willing to publicly affirm the homosexual aspects of their lives.”

“Christ of the Desert,” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM In “Seeing beyond Identities” I wrote: “I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.”

I am trying to affirm “identity” as a matter of belonging, not as a matter of definition.

I belong to a boundless community of human beings, a community which transcends time and space—and belief systems—all of whom recognize and turn to Jesus as the center of a circle without circumference.

However, most people associate the term “Christian” with a specific, doctrinal set of beliefs—as well as with a horrendous history of violent abuse of power. I cannot say “I am a Christian” if that misleads people into thinking I subscribe to those doctrines. I would rather not say “I am a Christian” if to do so means others cannot see me past their personal anger and resentment and fear regarding “Christian” abuses of power.

Likewise, I do not say “I am a Universalist,” because I do not want to mislead either people who claim that label as naming a belief system or those who reject that belief system and, hence, those who claim the label.

I am not dodging the issue.

I want us to see beyond identities if we are using them as boundaries between those who belong to the wholeness of humanity and those who don’t.

Blessings,
Mike


Image Source

Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

Comments

If I understand you correctly, Mike, you see “identity” as belonging to a like minded group rather than a way to define yourself as holding the belief system of a specific group. For those who feel marginalized in certain groups, especially those who call themselves Christian or Universalist, I can understand the tendency to see their identity as belonging to a specific group. I can understand gays, for example, identifying with the group that accepts them completely.

In my case, as a Roman Catholic trained in the Ecumenical outlook of Vatican II by the Jesuits at Marquette University, I came to the Quakers as someone who expected the group I joined to be inclusive. I expected that of my highly formalized, ritualized, and organized Roman Catholic faith. That sense of belonging was very important to me.

However, after Pope John XXIII died, the scene changed in the Catholic church and there was a conservative backlash. At one point, there was even talk of banning altar girls because girls should not touch the “Sacred Book” and other sacred objects. At that point, I felt that, as a woman, I could no longer belong to the Roman Catholic church. I came to realize that women were marginalized in the Catholic church. So I became confused about my identity as a Catholic.

In turn, I belonged, or so I felt, to an all inclusive group, the Quakers. But somehow, even though I belonged to this group, I somehow felt different for I’d had a unique background and experience as a “cradle” Catholic that set me apart. Could I honestly call myself a Quaker? That question was solved with the notion of “attender,” but in all fairness to the group, could I be an “attender” forever?

So I’ve returned to the Roman Catholic church, not the community so much as the rituals and belief system, most of which have been rather thoroughly explored and explained to me by the Jesuits. Does this mean that I define myself as belonging to this group? I don’t think so. There are so many Catholics who disagree with me on basic issues, the reproductive rights of women, for example, that I still feel marginalized as a woman. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about seeing an identity not so much as belonging to or even being a part of a group as taking a solitary stand, if necessary, to embrace a definition as a believer of a particular faith tradition.

Joanne,

This is a very interesting alternative statement: “there is something to be said about seeing an identity not so much as belonging to or even being a part of a group as taking a solitary stand, if necessary, to embrace a definition as a believer of a particular faith tradition.”

It actually comes close to my experience, insofar as I identify myself either as a “birthright Lutheran” or as a “convinced Friend.”

In fact, in the Pagan traditions, there are “solitary witches” who share the communal faith and practice yet are not part of covens.

Especially since I left South Carolina, I have often thought of myself as a “solitary Friend.”

Blessings,
Mike