The objective foundations of identity

Last week I began to write about the forgotten virtue of exterior modesty, which needs to be rooted in interior humility. Modesty is very much a social virtue. I wrote that modesty has everything to do with how I understand myself, who I am, where I stand in relationship to others, and so I how present myself to others in accordance with a right understanding. It is then an indispensable condition for respect.

That means that modesty requires a right understanding of who I am. Thus in order to talk about modesty we actually have to address first the controversial subject of identity. Identity has two basic components, what we have been given in some way, and what we have done with what we have been given.

That means we need to understand first the basic givens of identity. First of all there are the things that are common. Each one of us is first of all a human being, endowed with intelligence and free will in a living body. That body is either male or female. We did not enter the world fully formed, but we were conceived in our mother’s womb, born, and have grown from there. So the second basic given of our identity has to do with the particular circumstances of our birth, above all who are parents are, but also the time and place of our birth as well.

Here we come to the hard part: each one of us, to one degree or another, is wounded in our origin.

We are wounded in the origin we have from Adam, which means that we entered the world deprived of sanctifying grace, which is a participation in the divine life and nature that we are meant to have, with our mental power darkened, our will inclined to evil, weak in our drive to overcome obstacles, prone to take the easy route of sensible pleasure.

We are also wounded in the particular origin we have from our own parents. Even the best of human parents (apart from Mary and Joseph and maybe Joachim and Ann) are far from perfect. We received our life through our parents and so much good from them, but that good has been mixed also with evil. Such is life in this world.

Our wounds ultimately come from sin, our own or others, and not from God; for that reason it is particularly false to justify immoral behavior, referring to its roots in our wounded personality, declaring, “God made me this way.”

As a consequence of these wounded origins, before our mind and will even began to wake up, we grew for several years in the world subject to and shaped by sights and sounds, feelings and impulses, that were a mixture of good and bad. Sometimes that ‘waking up’ was like waking up to find yourself on a ship in a storm.

In any case, all of this means that while we have been endowed with the nobility of a human nature that comes from God, that was created in his image, we have a particular origin that has been wounded. That means that for all the good in life, there is an underlying tragedy that was expressed by the pagan poet: “There are tears in things.” (Virgil, Aeneid, Book I, line 462)

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Jesus said to Nicodemus, Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above … Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Holy Spirit. (Jn 3:3,5) Through our baptism Jesus has given us a new birth, a new origin, in the Holy Spirit, restoring us to the sanctifying grace that was lost by Adam, giving us the identity of the children of God.

All of this means that identity is first of all something objective: a person is first of all the son or daughter of their parents.

Identity is also shaped by what we do with what we have been given. That implies two things: how a person perceives and reacts to his objective identity and a person’s goal.

In this life we cannot simply “be” because we are growing and developing (or decaying), moving forward, or backward. As far as our goal is concerned there is again a subjective and objective part: there is the goal of our human nature, which is brought to completion in the goal given us in baptism, and our personal goal or goals.

At the heart of the social problems of our time is the disconnect between how a person perceives himself (subjective identity) and the objective givens of his identity.

Properly a person should strive to bring his self-perception or self-image into line with objective reality, which will involve the difficult work of recognize, accepting, and learning how to live with his wounds (or scars).

Unfortunately, our society (it scarcely merits the name of ‘culture’) is increasingly seeking to validate people’s self-perception over reality. Nowhere is this seen so radically as in the ascendancy of transgenderism.

The validation of a person’s self-perception, however, radically cuts him off from others. It cuts his identity lose from given relationships (for example to parents), giving him a purely internal, independent origin. It thus undermines the very possibility and meaning of modesty, and with modesty, respect for self and others goes out the window. It produces a truly barbaric society.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.