Against Identity, or By the Grace of God I Am What …

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

“You are my eternal Father, but I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you.”

– Augustine, Confessions, XI.xxix

“I look inside myself and ask: ‘Do I feel like a man or a woman?’ And the answer is that I feel like shit.”

– ContraPoints, “Non-Binary Genders

Identity is a recognizable sameness through spacetime. It’s the that-ness of a thing. If I saw a wood thrush there-and-then and see a wood thrush here-and-now, and if I can’t tell them apart, perhaps they share an identity. Easy-peasy.

Heating things up, let’s say that wood thrush’s identity (the consistency of the wood thrush with itself) isn’t just its passing appearance to me but its essence in itself, the unseen and unchanging reality of that wood thrush as that wood thrush. Thinking this way is a little more intense, but not unmanageable.

Now to scorch it: Let’s say that wood thrush can’t be called that wood thrush anymore. It never was that wood thrush at all; I was in fact confused, by a personal sensory failure or a perversity in the wood thrush’s behavior or both, and it was actually this Eastern veery—in its core, fixèd substance.

A lot of folks are talking about identity now. (Not for wood thrushes; for people.) And we’re far past the smoke point. Strangely, it comes from all corners: not just radical ideologues or liberal Protestants but fundamentalist evangelicals, moderate atheists, magisterial Catholics, and others. Of the many identity categories now on offer, few exercise people as much as “gender” and “sexuality.” This essay considers recent Christian holdings forth on that direction. Mainly I’m looking at conservatives, since their use of identity rhetoric—so long a leftist trademark—surprises me. In any credo, though, their centers cannot hold. Things fall apart because identity itself is splintered, always.

Besides the external sources that scandalize or bewilder me, though, what really prompted this essay was my own feeling of confusion at myself. I usually recognize myself as gay—until a crush fades after flaring, or my lust smolders toward some unexpected body, or my gestures don’t register in the given styles (camp, butch, basically competent male, …). A designation meant to liberate unconventional modes of living turns into a burdensome convention all its own. In identity’s vertigo, what can I hold onto?

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Social changes make many of us anxious. In Protestant America, these changes get easily billed as a slide on the slippery secular slope, tobogganing from godly obedience to autonomous pleasure. When what’s at stake are “human identity” and “self-conception,” the very center of gravity for each of us, falling harder and faster seems an even more present threat. So to stabilize these disorienting changes in self-understanding, conservatives have resorted to two main sources: science’s authority and the family’s necessity.

To illustrate the former: In the words of one document, “WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners…to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.” In the maelstrom of identity loss, these Christians wanted to steady the self with “biological sex.” To be clear, I’d like the certainty they’re advertising. And so would many feminists, some of whom also root their politics in their chromosomes. But for conservative Christians, this appeal should ring hollow. Notice that they’ve tried to clarify their clarification (identity is sexual, and sex is biological) with a field that is also in question—that is, a number of the writers of this document dismiss contemporary biology for its “unbiblical” account of human origins, so how could it bolster their argument? Even if fundamentalists didn’t oppose it, the appeal to “science” would still falter. Cue my favorite passage in Nietzsche:

You see what it was that really triumphed over the Christian god: Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness that was understood ever more rigorously, the father confessor’s refinement of the Christian conscience, translated and sublimated into a scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price (The Gay Science, sec. 357).

Which is to say, in our zeal for untainted truth, Christians come to rely on the natural sciences even for ethics, but the sciences work on their own terms, without and even against Christian revelation or metaphysics. (As it happens, Nietzsche is also discussing identity loss; “any price” includes the cost to one’s “self-conception” that absolute truthfulness may demand. After all, if atheistic scientism turns out to be the truth, then you’ve got to believe it! And if God was your only basis for morals and self-understanding, then you’re screwed. All because you first believed God wanted you to selflessly follow the truth.)

For a moment, then, let’s put aside “biology” as a basis for self-recognition. Let’s just do “sex,” in a more theological register. Surely that category is clear.

Unless St. Augustine has something to say about it. According to his account (by no means the only ancient interpretation of Genesis 3) hormones and genitals don’t settle “self-conception”; they destabilize it. Even Christian marriage can’t settle them (The City of God, 14.24). Exhibit A: spontaneous erection! Behold how Augustine describes the first moments after the Fall: “They”—Eve, too?—“experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God” (13.13). On Augustine’s account, our sexed bodies defy our wills, in order to punish our wills for defying God. How then could any sexed body clearly communicate a message besides “f***”?

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Individual material conditions are too slick and shaky to hold up our identities. Beyond independent concerns, let’s look at social conventions. Another group attempts it this way: In the contemporary “crisis,” the instigator is “gender theory,”

which ‘denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. … Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.’

Having just come off our favorite repressed North African bishop, one may ask: Where’s the lust? Where’s the violent, humiliating concupiscence, undermining coherent identity? Even if we’re talking un-fallen humanity, how did these arch-conservatives replace Augustine’s (and Paul’s) assumption of female submission and male authority with “difference and reciprocity”? How did blatant ancient hierarchies become prim modern heterosexism?

I don’t know. But instead of attacking merely individual “self-conception,” this document grounds its argument in worry about social fabric—if gender conventions go, then the family goes, then society, and then it’s all over. There’s certainly no recognizable sameness in anarchy!

Like the strange convergence of fundamentalist and feminist appeals to the sexed body, so both conservative churchmen and progressive social activists try to link self-identification with a community, whether it’s the nuclear family or the oppressed but woke collective. Obvious differences divide these political projects, often the difference of pain, which is not to be relativized. What I mean is that divergent groups invest themselves in certain institutions hoping for a handhold that isn’t as solid as they need it to be.

In the quote above, the line of reasoning assumes that orderly families prevail right now, forming us with consistent ideas of ourselves. I have my doubts. This whole anthropology rests on a pristine vision of “the family,” in which spouses and children can discover their true selves.

But as Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann said (no “liberal” he), “We do not even remember today that marriage is, as everything else in ‘this world,’ a fallen and distorted marriage,” and its product, “the family,” “can be a demonic distortion of love.” What these institutions need is not churchy blessings but Jesus’s “restoration,” which “infinitely transcends the idea of the ‘Christian family’ (For the Life of the World, 81-82, my italics). I admire and care about my relations, but even in the most harmonious families, the second expectation will prove more accurate—and more Christian—than the first.

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In theological terms, I’d parse this conundrum in two ways. It’s like someone who stares into a snowy vista, who, being “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In this case, the nothing that is there is God, No Thing in creation but Being itself. And the nothing that isn’t is sin, privatio boni, a nihilistic rupture in the world. What usually feels true for humans now is the latter: relationships corrode, self-understanding cracks, good deeds prove empty and selfish. But what is true about us essentially—true because it is No Thing, transcending created things that can break down—is that we are mysterious gifts to ourselves and one another, gifts always being given, so that we never arrive.

One of the most striking accounts of this latter kind of self-uncertainty, of beautiful mystery rather than of miserable contradiction, comes from Gregory of Nyssa—patristic dream boy, beloved of universalists and feminists. He says that the basic reason we can’t recognize ourselves, deeper than that sin makes us incoherent, is that we are No Thing, too:

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?” the apostle asks [Rm 11:34]; and I ask further, who has understood his own mind? Let those tell us who consider the nature of God to be within their comprehension, whether they understand themselves — if they know the nature of their own mind. How then is it dispersed into the manifold divisions of the senses? How is there diversity in unity? How is unity maintained in diversity? 

But I find the solution of these difficulties by recourse to the very utterance of God; for He says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” … therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the Divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype. … since the nature of our mind, which is the likeness of the Creator evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its own unknowableness the incomprehensible Nature. (On the Making of Humanity, XI.2-4)

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I’ve obscured matters. A few notes of clarity are in order.

Perhaps most important for me to say: Identity politics responds to real violence that demands rectification. Undermining identity can dilute cultures or ignore pain, but it need not. Acknowledging the dynamic, multifarious tugs each of us feels within ourselves, far exceeding any definite consistency, can put the delight and repair we need on a different foundation, so that we can hold their truth with open hands rather than “a Manichaean gesture.”

Seeing through a glass darkly, we can’t recognize even our own reflections now. It’s easy to pass off incoherent identity as chic, but in experience, it isn’t. It’s dangerous and unnerving. The inner confusion in my life already depresses me, and all this talk of disorder exacerbates my melancholy. Still, I’ve written against self-consistency here because the alternative—repressing my sense of disorder and pretending biology or family steady me—is worse.

“Christianities” do not sustain me, either. Often they cause further damage. And like the family, the Church is in constant need of exorcism (“For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God”). I do believe Jesus can support me, and sometimes I experience it, but where—who—is Jesus? On Earth, only demons recognized him without extra prompting, and he shut up everyone who did. Even at the Judgment, both sheep and goats will have missed him. (He was malnourished, foreign, indecent, incarcerated.)

From the Ship of Theseus to quantum field theory, we know that the more we focus attention on a thing, the more uncanny it becomes. Every infinitesimal subtlety becomes a sharp difference within a thing, which begins to seem anything but itself to the observer. Yet for practical convenience, and maybe because of a deeper intuition, we still call that thing “that thing.” Identities have to suit the moment as it presents itself: in passing, like all creation, but passing away, because fallen and chained to death. At least for now.