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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Identity and Action

We live in strange times.  I think the strangest bit of modern life, or perhaps I should say 'post-modern' or 'post-post-modern' (it is so hard these days to keep up with all the fancy jargon of the higher-education types), is how we have fractured Identity and Action.  That is to say, what I do and who I am can be two entirely different things in the modern/post-modern thought-world.

This has really been a problem for modern religion, where being a Christian and doing Christian things have become two separate categories.  It used to be that your religious identity defined your actions.  You knew when to pray and what to eat.  There wasn't a whole lot of 'freedom' in such a system, but there was a lot of stability and certainty.  Those are things that cannot be undervalued, because humans try making stability and certainty the moment that events take them away.

But, along comes the 1960s, and suddenly you have a lot of purposeful destabilization.  We were told to 'break free' of these stable bonds and 'be liberated.'  But, we have identity, right?  What do we do with that?  Don't worry, we were told, you can bring that with you as your 'stability.'

So, for the Roman Catholics, you have Vatican II, where the cardinals felt free to ditch all the old 'rules' and do whatever they felt like.  Catholicism became an identity without rules.  The same thing started happening in many of the Protestant 'mainline' denominations.  When action and identity separate, you can just say you are a '__________' and it automatically becomes true.

The only problem with this is that the next generation comes along and says, "So, tell me... why are we ___________?  It does not really change who I am, so it must not be important."

The 1960s person who buys into this split chuckles at such 'innocence.'  He knows that identity is powerful because it gives a sense of stability, but that was from a time when identity gave stability of action... as in you knew what to do.  The previous generation has a lot of nostalgia for this stability, while personally rejecting its actual usage now.  But, the new generation has no nostalgia for this past, because their present was made by those that did away with the old order and its stability of action.

Now there is only identity, and nobody can put together a decent explanation as to why it is important.  So, this generation is leaving those churches that bought into the divide.

The Orthodox bishops and theologians of the previous generation did much the same thing.  They talked about 'liturgical renewal' because it was all the rage with the Roman Catholic theologians they were hanging out with.  They wanted to break with 'old ways' and try new, 'relevant' things not associated with the traditional actions of the Church.

So, you get clean-shaven, suit-wearing priests rather than the bearded and cassocked kind you had before.  The communities build weird, and mostly ugly, churches to express this 'new freedom.'  Fasting?  Don't be so Pharisaical!  Let's shorten the services!  And, if we use English, let's make sure it sounds really simple, because we don't want all those 'high church' trappings.

Of course, the young people bail out because there really is no reason to be anything anymore because it is just an identity and along with all the other freedoms we got it was the ability to change identities.  Of course, I am speaking of America, as opposed to other places in the world where your identity is inescapable to a large extent.  Over here, it is fluid and not a 'birthright.'

Now the 1960s generation is wringing their hands because the young people are leaving, and the solution is to lower the standards and given them 'more freedom' to do things differently from the adults, which actually underlines the whole point that the identity is meaningless if it means that two people who share it can do two entirely different things: kids have to do their own things, while the adults do something else.  And, the young continue to leave.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church here has a different 'problem'... there are lots of new converts coming in and, as a big surprise to the 1960s generation, they want all the actions along with the identity.  They are seeking the old stability of Identity and Action as one subject.  This puts them at loggerheads with the older generation in many parishes and even with the hierarchs, who identify more with the separation of identity and action.  They have all the nostalgia of the 'Old Country' to fall back on, and get rather annoyed when all these pesky newcomers come in and demand a 'return' to those constricting old ways.

They fail to see that the converts really didn't come for just the Identity.  They really don't think that the bishops and clergy and laity of the Orthodox Church are just so cool 'as is' that they want the identity but to continue to do their own thing.  And, when some of them do that, then the 'establishment' gets ticked at them because they usually do things that annoy everyone in the establishment and get them grousing about how these converts are wrecking the nostalgic atmosphere of the church community.

It also reminds them of the beauty of the restrictions that the tradition brings.  Every time they have to play that card, it hurts at a deep level.

I see it every Sunday when I look out and observe all the young women in headscarves and most of the old women (yes, the 1960's generation has gotten old, hasn't it!) are 'covered' with nothing but hairspray.  The younger generations want a reason to be part of an identity, and the only real reason to go to the trouble of changing your identity is to do things in a different way.  They want the restrictions, because they want the stability and security that go along with them.  They don't have the great pile of nostalgia to nourish themselves with.

This is why the 'great reformers' like Frs. Schememann and Meyendorff have lost their 'edge' since their deaths.  Nobody is really interested in another rupture of action from identity.  Their 'renewals' were largely ignored in favor of what explanations they were able to provide for how and why things are done in the Church.  

Addicts understand what I am talking about.  There's no use in calling yourself an addict unless it defines what you do.  When you enter into recovery, and what you do matters, then the identity is extremely important.  On the other hand, if you don't care what you do, then the identity is really meaningless or even 'counter-productive,' since admitting you are an addict really puts pressure on you to do something about it.

Addicts in the Church also find benefits in the return to the union of Action and Identity.  The traditions bring clarity help keep our free wills from running amok.  We stop fighting and arguing and start working together to be transformed.  The only transformation offered by the separation of Action and Identity is that you can opt out of being transformed.  The identity doesn't change you... it is just there like a piece of emotional jewelry.

Those addicts seeking spiritual transformation will find it in the Church, though they will often be greeting by those 1960s folks who will tilt their heads and wonder why you are taking it all so seriously.  They don't understand spirituality as a life-or-death proposition as it is for those in recovery.  They don't understand how important Identity and Action are together as a coherent manner of being. 

 What do you do in such cases?

Just smile and wave...

{Please pardon my sarcasm, but I wrote this at 4am when everything else but my sarcasm was asleep.}

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