“Who am I?”
Throughout time, humans have been both perplexed and fascinated by the complex variety of answers that only began to crack open the mystery of the human person. The growing acceptance of identity politics, however, would indicate that the answers may be much simpler than we thought all along. As the list of identity categories expands, it appears as if a mere system of “boxes and checks” are an adequate mode of expressing the totality of who we are as humans.
In the past, many looked to religious traditions and philosophical pursuits to shed light on the various aspects of who they are and on their daily experiences. But do religion and philosophy merely offer antiquated modes of thinking that have been rendered useless after the various social sciences “discovered” the new plethora of identities? Are these identities, which are simple enough to be systematized into a list of boxes and checks, enough to capture the fullness of one’s identity? The discourse surrounding identity politics, especially regarding religion, fails to fully apprehend the complex human realities which it seeks to communicate.
Some will insist that young people don’t care about religion anymore and that many are even violently opposed to it. This radical opposition may characterize the youth of previous generations, but the juniors in my World Religions class are surprisingly receptive to learning about the beliefs and traditions of various religions. I attribute this, in part, to their thirst for authentic meaning in a world that is plagued by pure calculability and the technologizing of human intimacy. The obsession with grades, salaries, and measurable success exhausts them. Many openly complain about the fact that we judge students according to their academic performance and leadership potential.
I also attribute their openness to religiosity to the tenets of identity politics with which the culture has formed them. When I ask my students about why people are so closed off to religion, they often respond that it is due to intolerance and prejudice: “We shouldn’t judge people for believing different things….I believe that all people should have equal rights no matter what they choose to do with their lives.”
Replace the religious identity group with a gender or racial identity group and you’ll see what I mean. The phenomenon of identity politics has become the predominant means by which we communicate about whom we are and navigate our interactions with each other. The motivation behind placing such an emphasis on categories like race, gender identity, and sexual orientation seems to be a yearning for solidarity and communion. As the motto of our country proclaims, this expresses the triumph of our desire to be one amidst our many differences. Though you may be black, I may be gay, and he may be Jewish, we are all equal. But is your experience as a black person the same as mine as a white person? And is your experience as black person the same as that other black guy? As sincere an attempt to establish solidarity and equality as identity politics may be, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate about our unique individual experiences when relying so heavily on these systematized identities.
This neat and concise system struggles even more to express differences in religious belief. Does one’s religious “identity” hold the same implications as her gender identity? And do all religious identities equally convey the intricate phenomenon of religious belief? When one sees a progressive white feminist who attends an elite university toting a sign that emphatically reads “WE ARE ALL MUSLIM” over the picture of a hijab, it’s safe to say that they will understand this as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims who are persecuted for their religious convictions. As sincere as the gesture may be, it fails to recognize what makes the Muslim distinct from her: namely, that a Muslim’s conclusions about what defines her humanity are likely quite different from her own.
The root of the word “religion” signifies that both universality and divisiveness are proper to religiosity. The Latin religio indicates the “binding of oneself” to something. Each religious tradition proposes a path that will lead to a comprehensive answer to that ubiquitous question “who am I?” This proposed path addresses this question less on a pragmatic level (the biological or functional dimension of personhood) and more on the existential level (the dimension of meaning and purpose). The answer that each path leads to claims to be the ultimate meaning of our existence.
Because each religion recognizes that the human person is not reducible to the pragmatic dimension of her existence, they offer her a moralitas, a way of living, which is derived from the answer it proposes. The way one lives as a woman or queer person, or the way one makes sense of his experience as a person of color or someone who is disabled, is intimately tied to the ultimate meaning of their existence. Thus belief in this meaning becomes a firm foundation, a solid ground to stand on, from which she can begin to “under-stand” the depth of her personhood and identity.
Religion as a mere category of identity fails to account for the distinct ways in which each religious tradition answers to these questions. The Christian belief that God became a man is blasphemy in Islamic theology. It’s an affront to the oneness and purity of the Muslim conception of God-a conviction that holds significant weight in Islamic morality and social thought. As much as holding a sign that proclaims that “we are all Muslim” may intend to be a gesture of solidarity with Muslims, it minimizes the beauty, intricacies, and gravity of the Muslim faith. Relegating the phenomenon of religious belief to just another identity box to be checked off is more demeaning than it is tolerant.
The various identity categories indeed play an important role in communicating who we are as people. The labels Hispanic or heterosexual are tied to metanarratives that indicate something about who I am as a person, but only to an extent. The inconvenient truth about us humans is that we are complex, we are mysterious, and there is always more to the story. You can slap an easily comprehensible label onto a person that may only tell you very little or even nothing at all about that person’s unique experience. We need to be able to open a space for a way to make sense of that “something more” that defines us as humans. Perhaps we can begin by ceasing to reduce religion to a mere identity category that is equated with others like race and gender, and affirming it as the complex phenomenon that it really is. There are opportunities to uncover this phenomenon on a daily basis, whether it be through teaching a World Religions class or in a simple encounter between friends. Opening this space to freely pursue the “mysterious answer” that reveals our true identities can allow us to grow in even deeper solidarity with each other.