So much has happened in the past couple of weeks! Looking at the news optimistically, despite the horrifying attacks that have occurred, I see tremendous opportunities for healing in the national conversations about race, gender, and sexual orientation. That is, the fact that we’re having the conversations at all is extremely positive.
I usually try not to jump into any of the rings of the media circus. I am way behind the news cycle with this post, because I’ve been cogitating for quite a while about what I want to say. All the headlines lately have to do with identity in one way or another, and that’s my subject today. It’s complicated, as you know, and I’m afraid that someone may come away from reading this feeling insulted or minimized, which is certainly not my intention.
I started on this back at the time earlier in June, which seems like ages ago, when everyone was talking about Caitlynn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal,* and we were endlessly treated to analyses of those two cases of identity change. I don’t normally pay any attention to celebrities-for-celebrity’s-sake; it wasn’t that long ago that someone had to explain to me who Kim Kardashian was, and I wasn’t clear how Jenner was related. (Argus Hamilton quipped that before Dolezal identified as black, she identified as a Kardashian-American.) But there has been some real usefulness in the confusion people have been expressing and in their attempts to work their way through it.
It seems like the group mind has concluded that it’s pretty much OK to change your appearance and who you say you are in order to fit with who you feel you are on the inside, but that it’s not OK to lie. That’s fairly simple. There’s nothing simple about identity, though.
The fact that same-sex marriage is now legal and recognized in all 50 states (Lord, what fun it is to type those words!) is one sign that our view of human identity is more flexible and tolerant than it used to be. The lowering of the army of northern Virginia’s battle flag in some Southern states is another. The burning of African-American churches—six of them in four states in just the past week— following the murders at the church in Charleston is a sobering sign that the opposite is still true.** We have a long, long way to go.
From a biological viewpoint, race is nonexistent, and gender is fuzzy. Each of us contains multiple lines of ancestors and multiple genetic potentials. Why shouldn’t identity be large enough to contain those multitudes? I am so accustomed to switching roles in the course of a day or a week that it’s hard to imagine being limited to existing as any one thing. I wonder if we can or will get to a point where being intentionally multiple will be seen as normal.
In the matter of race, it seems inevitable; there are more and more mixed-race people all the time (all of us are mixed-race, of course, but I mean those for whom it’s an overt identity), so surely everyone will get more and more used to that. Genetic studies have shown how closely everyone on the planet is related, and that fact will most likely become more widely known.
With regard to gender, I wonder what would happen if our concepts of male and female expanded enough that a boy who feels like a girl could be comfortable remaining identified as a boy while expressing feminine aspects without restriction. That is, I wonder if trans people would feel less pain and less need to transition if society got over the idea of gender being binary and opened up the possibilities. But I am fortunate in that my own identity is not painful and is not being forced on me in any way, and I cannot speak for anyone else.
I read an impassioned essay from June 9 by Fr. Robert Barron, who strongly criticized trans people for saying that they are mentally one thing and physically another.+ He wrote that the Church has always seen the material body as good (which doesn’t sound to me like the Catholic Church I was brought up in), with identity being a characteristic of the body and not just the mind. “Moreover, the mind or will is not the ‘true self’ standing over and against the body; rather, the body, with its distinctive form, intelligibility, and finality, is an essential constituent of the true self.”
Since I am very much aware of the existence of human beings who are not currently living in bodies, I find this point of view astonishing. I wonder what in form Fr. Barron imagines humans to exist in his version of heaven, where physical bodies must be irrelevant. I don’t mean to say that the mind should be set against the body, but it is clear that the body cannot be the “true self.”
Speaking of a council that was apparently convened in Rome the week before, he said that he was particularly bothered by “the claim that the secret council was calling for a ‘theology of love’ that would supplant the theology of the body proposed by John Paul II.++” Christians espousing a theology of love? Shocking! Certainly no basis in the New Testament. No idea where they could have gotten such stuff.
If I had the chance to converse with Fr. Barron, I might ask him how his body-centered spirituality deals with the fact that the body is always changing and does not have “distinctive form” or “finality.” The many, shall we say, gifts of middle age put this fact in front of me every day. For example, my vocal range has changed enough to cause a new label to be applied to my voice, one that feels like it doesn’t belong to me, and I am trying to gracefully let go of the old one. It would be silly to get overly involved with concepts of having to sound a certain way or having a certain hair color or even being a certain height, because those are going to be different, and sooner rather than later. My mother, at age 90 1/2, has been expressing surprise that her body is changing so quickly and dramatically. My elderly patients and friends often say things like that, but add that they feel exactly the same on the inside as they always did.
On the spiritual level, none of our outer identifiers, the things other people see when they look at us, have any real meaning at all. I don’t have to tell you that body shape, size, color and the like are not who you really are. But let’s go a bit further. Some philosophers say that there is no “real you” at all.
Brian Hubbard, husband of Lynne McTaggart, wrote the book Time-Light, describing his theory that what we think of as our personality is nothing more than an accumulation of experiences we have not sufficiently understood, that stick to us and make us “time-heavy.” He claims that he got over his persistent depression by letting go of the past and returning to a state much like that of a small child.
Brent Phillips, a healer and teacher whose work I encountered a few months ago, is one who insists that the you that manifests in the physical world is only a kind of fictional character— he likes to use Harry Potter as the example. When you look further and further inward, he says, you find that “no one is home.”
I have been very uncomfortable with this concept that there is nothing and no one at the center of a person. Not because I particularly want to cling to my own existence; in fact, I feel empty of it much of the time, as if there is someone talking and doing various things, typing this right now, but “I” am not particularly identified with that being, and even the “I” that is observing its activities does not feel fundamental. The problem is that I, whatever I that means, directly experience a something in a human being, some irreducible spark behind all those characters in their shifting roles. That something exists in animals as well. At the core of all is an awareness. That is what’s home.
A long time ago I heard a talk by the Dalai Lama in which he was asked what the nature of consciousness really is. I remember him saying that it is a “luminous I.” Now I can’t find that quote anywhere, but I’ve found standard Buddhist references to consciousness as being “luminous and knowing.” Consciousness is the thing that illuminates, meaning that it lights its objects so that they can be apprehended, and it is the thing that knows, independent of what is known. At least, that is my best effort at understanding this. And the awareness that is found at the center of everyone is the same awareness that is found at the center of everyone else. This gets tougher to grasp. If one follows along through Phillips’ teachings, it becomes apparent that he too is talking about this universal awareness, not truly saying that there is no one home anywhere.
Universal awareness has found a staggering variety of ways to express itself, and I find that to be a tremendous joy. The “luminous I” is free to manifest as any physical appearance, any set of interests and talents, any gender or sexual orientation. The objective human mind sets limits, but in reality there are none.
*For those who have been living on Mars or who may read this in the future when these names have faded into history: Caitlynn Jenner is the name of the person who used to be the Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner before she transitioned. Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who changed her appearance and identified as black, and who led a chapter of the NAACP before she was outed as white by her parents.
Fr. Barron uses Jenner as a reason to attack his real target, Gnosticism, which he trashes viciously, and which he appears to understand poorly, as seen in his use of the term “the Gnostic heresy” at this late date. It seems, also, that he has more of an issue with dualism than with Gnosticism; he conflates the two, and this is misleading. But all that is a subject for another day and probably a very long post.
Here is a summary of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” I had not heard that term before, but I was all too familiar with his resistance to contraception and to any kind of sex outside of marriage (not to mention an equal role for women within the church). I always admired John Paul II overall, but he went much further than I realized with these ideas, which seem to me to dismiss and denigrate the body’s biological needs just as Catholicism has done for centuries. I am deeply saddened by words such as this: “Therefore, in such a case, the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.” “If the procreative aspect of conjugal union is excluded, then that truth of the person and of the act itself is destroyed.” There is no room at all for those who are anything other than heterosexual and monogamously married, nor even for those of us who have been sterilized for medical reasons or who have undergone hysterectomies! This does not reflect the reality of nature on this planet. And for a celibate old man to suggest that since I had a tubal ligation in my late 20s, in all these years my husband and I have not experienced “an act of love,” is beyond offensive. I am well and truly ready for a theology of love to replace this one.