Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who Are We Anyway?

Last night I was reading an essay by Harvard psychologist Kimberlyn Leary where she makes a statement about race that connects with things I've been pondering deeply the past few months:

"Socially constructed meanings of race, racial stereotypes, and other similar automatic processes are often applied inflexibly to racially designated others. For this reason, I'm going to suggest that it is the social fact of being 'raced', rather than race itself, that inflects loving relations...In making this distinction between 'race' and being 'raced', I explicitly mean to parse the biological and cultural markers of difference from the way in which these differences become coded and differentially valued. To be raced is to be implicated in a system of cultural weights and measures that a priori aims to specify, stabilize, and fix who one is and who one may become."

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 and does not become marginalized by or treated as equal to the kinds of social constructs Leary is referring to. I'm reminded of a statement by 'Abdu'l-Baha:

"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? That will be the subject of my next post.

In the mean time, what do you think about identity? What are the implications of considering the soul as central to who we are?