“Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!
Who am I? 24601!”
Some time ago, I taught a class at Bryan College entitled, “Bible and Contemporary Life.” One of my favorites. Each year I would take the students on a tour of the evolving moral and social landscape. We explored contemporary cultural issues in an attempt to understand and respond to them from a biblical worldview.
This was an upper-level class so they did most of the work (this is why college professors like to teach upper level courses). But I did my homework, too, since I had a vested interest in making sense of the world. I wanted the students to dig deep and get behind the headlines, the clichés, the talking points and the bumper stickers. We wanted to uncover the foundational beliefs within culture that explained and predicted the public acceptance or rejection of issues.
Each year, the moral critical mass became clearer: the “self” was becoming the fulcrum on which society was pivoting. Rather than God, society or moral standards, individual choice was the beginning and the end of moral reasoning.
The extent of personal liberty and the rights associated dominated discussions.
We all knew the times were changing and the landmark turning point had been Roe v. Wade (1973) when a woman’s right to an abortion was grounded not in any transcendent moral truths but in a woman’s right to privacy. If a mother had the right to choose the life or death of an unborn child, then almost any other social issue was open for re-interpretation.
The Roe decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court 19 years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey when the court majority added another twist to human choice: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” At face value, this sounds reasonable but when it becomes the lowest common denominator for determining public policy and morality, the result is a carnival of confusion. The human quest for truth, good and beauty collapses. No one can claim to know what is right for anyone except themselves.
Predicting the Future – Today!
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
~ “For what it’s worth” – Buffalo Springfield
We began to predict what the future held for American society if long-accepted moral and social standards were fundamentally changed to reflect the individual choice.
Here are some of what we came up with:
*Entertainment technology would be the most obvious example of personal choice. All communication and entertainment would become localized in one piece of technology and personalized. Broadcast television would give way to a person’s ability to choose to watch whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted (we predicted this in the early 1990’s before cell phones were common).
*Marriage would be redefined to accommodate individual’s choices:
Same sex, multiple spouses, group marriages, and other polyamorous relationships;
*Recreational drugs would be legalized and left up to the individual to decide whether to use or not;
*Educational curricula would become boutique – specialized for the individual’s desires, schedule and goals;
*Self-identity would become an obsessive abstract. That is, people would no longer talk about “who am I” but “what am I.” Since a person cannot change their actual identity, they will choose how they want to be identified by others.
The last prediction has been accelerated by social media where a user can identify themselves any way they choose. Identity markers proliferate in order to provide more options for self I.D.
Stories like male Bruce Jenner choosing to identify as female Caitlyn Jenner or white Rachel Dolezal choosing to identify as a black woman are front page news now but soon will become passé.
In a society where the connection to ultimate meaning is banished, our craving for self-identity is relentless. Why? Not because it distinguishes us from others but because it connects us to them.
Which character are you most like in Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, Frozen, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, etc.? Labels multiply. Sexual identity dominates. It began as Heterosexual male and female; then homosexual, then Gay, then Gay/Lesbian, then LGB, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, . . . Face Book alone has over 50 choices for users to identify their gender and there are complaints that the list leaves out too many options.
Religion and politics don’t care what you call yourself because they flip the script and have taken the labeling frenzy to extreme. They can slap a label on someone and ruin their career or put their life at risk. It has become an art form.
Looking for Me in all the Wrong Places
All horizontal quests for meaning, purpose and identity end in despair. Nothing in this life can fulfill our deepest longings. Like the prodigal who humiliated his father and then wasted a fortune on himself, he found nothing but emptiness in his pursuits. He returned to his father, filthy and starving, hoping for a slave’s job, only to be enveloped by his father’s embrace and tears and welcomed back as his son. When the horizontal cravings turn vertical, and we look up, then we see all that we have been looking for.
In the musical version of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean wrestled with whether or not he should reveal his past imprisonment. He concludes,
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope, when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Then Jean Valjean admits to the public court that he was convict #24601. He could have lied and escaped but he refused to let an innocent person suffer in his place.
Valjean had every reason to reject God. He had been beaten and brutalized in prison for 19 years for stealing some bread to feed his sister’s starving children. But he was transformed when he received underserved mercy and forgiveness from a bishop. Now his connection to God and his awareness of God’s grace in his life was all the identity he needed. That grace changed not only the trajectory of his life but who he was. His life, his future, his moral choices were defined by the answer: “I am Yours.”
We can only answer the question of our identity when we return ourselves to the One who made us. He says we find ourselves when we give ourselves away; doing what we were made to do.
“You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. . . Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
~C. S. Lewis