Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Who Are We Anyway: 2

In my previous post Who Are We Anyway, I made the following assertion:

"Stated simply, so called racial identities represent not who we are but rather something that is done to us and which to varying degrees we do to ourselves. I would go beyond race though and say that we are likewise 'gendered', 'sexually oriented', 'ethnicitied', 'nationalitied' and on and on. All of these dimensions of our human experience are at best descriptive but are not definitive. The soul has no race, no sexual orientation, no ethnicity, no nationality, no class. We are more than the sum of these social constructs. I believe the degree to which these so called 'identities' have assumed a primacy in the way we think about ourselves and others is a measure of the power materialistic assumptions about reality have come to exert in our lives. My point is not that these aspects of the soul's journey in this world have no meaning, they may even be said to facilitate our spiritual development in important ways. Rather, it is a more subtle issue of maintaining a balanced understanding in which the soul remains at the center of our self-concept..."

I also quoted Baha'i scripture and raised a question:

"How good it is if the friends be as close as sheaves of light, if they stand together side by side in a firm unbroken line. For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 76)

If there are in fact "multiple identities that were born of passion and desire", what is the object or objects of this passion and desire?

I believe that there are at least two ways of understanding the object of the passion and desire that 'Abdu'l-Baha is telling us gives birth to "multiple identities". The first is the passion and desire for attaining privilege from oneself of one's group over others. Baha'u'llah refers to this as the seeking of "preference and distinction":

"Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate. Those who have quaffed from the ocean of divine utterance and fixed their gaze upon the Realm of Glory should regard themselves as being on the same level as the others and in the same station. Were this matter to be definitely established and conclusively demonstrated through the power and might of God, the world would become as the Abha [Most Glorious] Paradise. Indeed, man is noble, inasmuch as each one is a repository of the sign of God. Nevertheless, to regard oneself as superior in knowledge, learning or virtue, or to exalt oneself or seek preference, is a grievous transgression."
(The Universal House of Justice, 1999 Feb 22, Rank of Counsellors, p. 2)

A second object of passion and desire related to the social construction of "multiple identities" is the attainment of freedom from the oppression which is the inevitable fruit of "seeking preference and distinction". Ironically, sometimes the efforts of the oppressed to reclaim their nobility involve replacing the identities imposed upon them by their oppressors with equally problematic identities that suffer from the same limitations, namely the marginalization of the soul and the exaltation of material attributes such as skin color, or sexual attraction, or geographic origins, or language etc. So called "identity politics" is the common phrase for this dynamic.

Whether we seek preference or seek freedom from its destructive consequences, the ultimate cost is quite high. If we are to "find a new way of life" as Baha'i scripture is encouraging us to do, I think it must begin with a re-centering of the soul in our understanding of ourselves and others. Such a re-centering is the answer to "Who are we anyway?" It will also serve as an effective approach to social problems as suggested by the Universal House of Justice:

"The principal cause of this suffering, which one can witness wherever one turns, is the corruption of human morals and the prevalence of prejudice, suspicion, hatred, untrustworthiness, selfishness and tyranny among men. It is not merely material well- being that people need. What they desperately need is to know how to live their lives -- they need to know who they are, to what purpose they exist, and how they should act towards one another; and, once they know the answers to these questions they need to be helped to gradually apply these answers to everyday behaviour. It is to the solution of this basic problem of mankind that the greater part of all our energy and resources should be directed."
(The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 282)