The Temptations of Identity

“Who am I?”

The question of who we are is deceptively simple. When we begin to press the question, almost every answer that we can give is something other than the self. When we leave the (ideally) intimate communion of our early years and begin to forge our way into a social setting, an uncertainty begins to be our social companion. This questioning of identity (which is fairly normal) becomes the seedbed of shame as well as a life-long habit of seeking self-made “identities” to mask the nakedness of “who we are.”

The dynamics surrounding all of this are ever-present. Family often plays a powerful role. They name us. They may nickname us. They may repeat stories of our actions or compare us to other family figures. We slowly acquire a “brand.” The years of adolescence often bring something of the same process from our peers. Among the youth of today, hours spent on internet and phone interactions can intensify this process.

In the course of our lives, our “identity” is never assumed to be truly natural, that is, a revelation of who we “truly are” (except as a name for yet another false self). Rather, our identities are marketed to us relentlessly. Everything from automobiles to hairstyles are seen as a means of “making a statement.” In a consumer culture, a primary driver of marketing is the acquisition of an identity (something temporary, at best).

All of these various acquired identities serve to provide cover for our nakedness and shield us from unwanted attention (or, in somestances, attract it). At certain points in our lives they can even serve as a God-given protection. None of them, however, should be confused with the truth of who we are. That truth is synonymous with our salvation.

St. Paul is an interesting example in all of this. We know more about him, in many ways, than any of the apostles. In his letter to the Philippians, he cites a Jewish pedigree second-to-none:

“…circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.(Phil. 3:5–6)

But he has this to say:

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…”(Phil. 3:7–9)

St. Paul’s “excellence” as a Pharisee was clearly an “identity.” It drove him to a zeal that included persecuting Christians. This is typical of the “hollow” character of acquired identities. They do not represent true self and are easily undermined by various challenges. St. Paul’s persecutions are a tragic attempt to maintain a false version of himself. To this, Christ will say, “It’s hard to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). The truth of our existence goads against the many false identities which we create. Our own efforts leave us empty, unfulfilled, anxious and frequently angry. We cannot be satisfied, truly satisfied, by being someone other than who we were created to be.

St. Paul can be quite practical in how we live an authentic Christian life. In his own life, he noted that he had suffered the “loss of all things” (and he is not talking about wealth or property). What he has lost, he came to see as “rubbish.” All of the false versions of ourselves that we create – our well-crafted fig leaves – are just rubbish. We ourselves, however, are not.

St. Paul offers this advice:

If then you were raised with Christ [in Holy Baptism], seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.(Col. 3:1–4)

I will rephrase this. The truth of our identity is not known to us. You do not know who you are. An identity is not something of our own making – it is the gift of God. We come to know it as Christ makes it known to us. We can only know the truth of ourselves as we find it in Christ. Christ (“who is our life”) is the truth of our existence. We should never settle for less.

St. Paul’s struggles with his identity as Pharisee were particularly difficult and powerful. In his early life, to be a Pharisee was to be a righteous man. The original meaning of the term “Pharisee” meant “to be separate.” It was a position in which a man set God and His Law above all else and separated himself to it. Its deep alure was in its call to the heart. Who doesn’t want to be separated and set apart for God? How can it not be a good thing?

We have similar struggles as Orthodox Christians. We hear correctly and repeatedly that Orthodoxy is a “way of life.” Unfortunately, it can be diminished from way of life to mere identity. How this works can take many forms. In all of them, Orthodoxy becomes our “clothing,” but not the transformation of the soul. All of the hallmarks of shame-driven behavior (anger, defensiveness, aggression, social cliques, perfectionism, etc.) accompany Orthodoxy as identity. I think some of this is to be expected, particularly in personalities where shame has not been addressed (which is quite likely a near majority of personalities).

I am deeply aware of this in my own life as a priest. A priest inevitably carries an “identity” as a priest. The priesthood is, indeed, like a suit of clothes. The act of vesting a priest is part of his ordination. His public identification (as in the cassock, traditionally) is a matter of canonical requirement. Beneath it however, is the “hidden” life of a man, a reality that can, at times, be alienated from the priestly identity (and other suits of clothes), feeling like an imposter. He knows he’s not worthy of the honor that comes with the priesthood. There is the temptation to hide behind the identity and lose the sense of his own self. Fortunately, he is not alone. His confessor knows the same temptation, as do other priests as well. We call one another forth from the grave of identity and into the light of Christ. The priesthood belongs to Christ, not ourselves.

For each of us, the identities we acquire over our lifetime serve as temptations. Their worst aspect, I think, is that they are not hidden. As such, they tempt us to settle for something less. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field, Jesus said. We should not cease the work of selling all that we have (including the false, temporary identities) and buying the field. Nothing less than the treasure will do.

I am becoming an old man. I’m “retired” from being in charge of a parish. My days are mostly filled with mundane activities – household chores and the like. Of course, I still write. But I have long hours in which to ponder my life (and my sins). I can see a “sifting” taking place in my heart. Who I am is not who I’ve been or what I’ve done or what others think. “Who I am” is hidden with Christ in God and can only be known by finding it in Christ. Some of my daily reflections turn on this “end of the journey.” When Christ appears, then we appear. When we see Christ in His glory, then we find ourselves with Him in that glory.

There’s much about this that I wish I had known earlier in my life – but that is in the hands of God. St. Paul leaves us with this:

Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.(Phil. 3:13–14)

Higher up and further in.

The photo is of one of my grandsons, caught in a moment of wonder…

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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168 responses to “The Temptations of Identity”

  1. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Simon, not that I think you need prayers more than I do nor anyone else, but since you requested I have put you on my prayer list too. God bless.

  2. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, this might sound slightly crazy, but in the spirit of exploration and truth (ha), I’m wondering if there is a link between a fear of particularities and fear of suffering. At any rate, since I’m still pondering your words on suffering that occurred to me to ask as well. (But if you choose not to respond I will assume that, as always, you have good reason for it.)

    In my own life and pursuit of theosis (such as it is!), I have to say that I believe there is a lot about my own particularities, which I believe have been insisted upon through prayer, that I really don’t like in some conventional sense of “like,” and have been very afraid of, for all kinds of reasons. There is a definite conflict, also related to the type of losses which St. Paul speaks of for instance in Philippians 3:8. I do hope this makes some sense to others, sorry to confuse or muddle the subject.

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Janine, (in response to 1:34)
    I appreciate your voice in this conversation.

    I’ve been conflicted by adding my own thoughts here. And appreciate your comment relieving some of that tension within.

    I want to say thank God for this conversation and for all who participated in it, especially PJ’s and Fr Stephen’s thoughts that stimulated it. Such conversations conducted in love and to the best our ability, honesty, can lead to our shared edification.

    This culture is so shaming. May God help us.

  4. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, thank you. God bless you!

  5. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    For whatever it’s worth,
    I pray while I conduct science. This life the Lord has given to me is such that I am unable to distinguish one such act from the other. I pray for His hand in all that I do. We are fearfully made and there is the mystery of our Lord in all the world — in all things.

    My husband sometimes accuses me of being a ‘know it all’. His critique helps to ground me. He knows how to dig in the dirt and tends the garden the Lord has given him. I pray that my own heart is so well tilled. I’ve got a lot of rocks in my own garden.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    I’m not entirely certain that I understand your question – but,assuming I do, I venture an answer. I’ve written before about the problem of general vs. particular. In truth, nothing “exists” in general. There is only particulars. There is no “humanity in general,” even though we speak about “human nature.” We share a single human nature – but that nature nowhere exists apart from particular human beings.

    One of the ways we “abuse” generalities is as a means to avoid suffering. Thus, the saying, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” Generalities, generalizations, etc., are extremely malleable, inasmuch as they are mostly products of the imagination and avoid the particularities of reality. It is noted, in the doctrine of the Holy Icons, that we are able to paint an image of Christ, not because He became man, but because He became “a man.” (St. Theodore the Studite.)

    I think it’s also the case that theosis is an ever-increasing particularity. God is “transcendently particular.” It’s also only in particularities that we experience shame. In general, I could be perfect (with a lot of imagination). In particular, it’s quite painful.

    Christ suffering on the Cross was not an abstraction – not a generalized suffering for humanity. In that He bore our sins, our shame, our brokenness, etc., on the Cross – He bore each of them in particular in its fullness. That is the fullness and character of love.

    Our bodies are instances of particularity. No one is “woman” or “man.” I am “a man,” you are “a woman.” There are generalizations that can be made about “women,” but no single woman will likely be a perfect instance of such a thing. This is one of the many fallacies in modern gender transitioning. It cannot happen without a body – and the body, even if modified by surgery and chemicals, remains what it always was (by and large). And its particularity will abide as a source of problems.

    I have ADHD (to use an example). One thing that it means is that my executive functions in the frontal cortex are somewhat lame. I can’t escape it. I work with it. I also would not be uniquely who I am without it. Our biology matters – learning to live an embodied life is consonant with Orthodox practice.

  7. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen, is the incarnation the exception or the rule regarding God’s “mode of being”?

  8. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, I want to point out that my comment to Janine was a response to her comment at 1:34 pm. Two submissions occurred because the first went into moderation and I corrected my email and submitted again. The current order doesn’t reflect my intension to speak to Janine’s comment at 1:34pm.

    Sometimes order, or context is important. I hope I’m not being impertinent to ask for a different order if it is possible. This is not a reflection of the subsequent comments, but I desire to have no misunderstandings.

    Love in Christ,
    Dee

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t think we speak of His mode of being.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I edited it and noted that it’s a response to 1:34, but I can’t alter the order.

  11. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father thank you for your answer — its fullness gave me much to think about!! And I think you understood my question more fully than I did! Probably because you have already been writing about and working on such questions yourself and have a long history with the subject, and experience.
    Dee, thank you for the clarification. Don’t worry, I think I understood it anyway!
    Again, Father, just to say every time I load this page, your grandson is so cute! We all wish they could always feel that exuberance of joy.
    Thanks to all!

  12. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Regardless of what we might call it, the question I am asking isn’t about a “mode of being” per se–thats why it’s in quotes. The question is about particularization. Is the incarnation as a particular experience an exception or the rule? Is God ever-incarnating or was the incarnation a singular, particular exception?

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, taking a stab: My mother, as noted, was a dancer. She was also a choreographer. She created dances and movement patterns. I one case she was able to bring some healing to a severely ADHD girl by observing the girls movement patterns and rythmn thenn using those to increase the girl’s ability to communicate with others. The music was intrinsic too.

    My mother also would enter into her dances from time to time-interacting with the dancers for whom she created the dance. She became a dancer. She remained the creator of the dance–fully dancer and fully choreographer without change or diminishment to either. Fully dancer and fully creator.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    ….oh and to say she suffered so that the dancers could experience joy and beauty with each other and their audience was a real occurrence as well.

  15. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    Father,

    I appreciate your citation from St Maximos the Confessor, that gender operates on the level of human “energies” rather than human “essence.” That is what I was (clumsily) trying to express in my previous post.

    I fully understand if you choose to not publish this reply in the interest of keeping discussion on topic. However if you’re willing to bear with me a bit longer…

    You wrote,
    “This is one of the many fallacies in modern gender transitioning. It cannot happen without a body – and the body, even if modified by surgery and chemicals, remains what it always was (by and large). And its particularity will abide as a source of problems.”

    It strikes me that precisely the same argument could be applied equally well to any medical complaint, from cancer to broken bones to congenital birth defects. After all, a cancer-ridden body, even if modified by chemotherapy and radiation, remains by-and-large what it always was, and the disease will often persist as a source of problems even after treatment. And yet, the Church does not require cancer patients to reject chemotherapy and wait for their true, cancer-free nature to be revealed in Christ after the resurrection.

    I seems to me that by the standard quoted above, ALL medical care would be pointless at best, or actively sinful at worst– a ridiculous doctrine that I’m sure you’re not espousing.

    What is the difference, in terms of Christian anthropology, between correcting a congenital harelip (acceptable) and correcting a congenital mismatch between physical and mental/spiritual gender (unacceptable)?

    Or again, what is the difference between providing Testosterone therapy to a cis man with low T levels (an extremely common medical practice which nobody seems to have a problem with theologically), versus providing Testosterone therapy to a trans man with low T levels?

    Again, I thank you for your patience and your thoughtful, compassionate responses. Identity is a thorny topic no matter how you slice it! I hope I haven’t given offense with my language here.

  16. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    Michael Bauman,

    What a beautiful metaphor! “Fully dancer and fully choreographer, without change or diminishment to either.”

    Wow.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    It’s unique and particular. Though, in the Ascension, we see the Incarnation pass into the heavens and not coming to an end.

  18. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    PJ
    As my spiritual father once told an inquirer who had become enmeshed in
    difficult bioethics decision concerning his family, “in the past, when things were biomedically simpler, even if we had more earlier deaths etc these dilemmas didn’t exist,now we have a continuous increase of them”

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    PJ,
    Somewhat thorny. Here’s an interesting proposition: What if there there were a pill that, when taken, would make someone comfortable with their biological status? Altering the mental state rather than attempting to alter the body?

    What is wrong with the other proposition (the common practice today), is that we are taking a healthy male body (for example), and “fashioning” it through what is plastic surgery into a form that only resembles a female in certain ways. We cannot transition a male into a female or vice versa. Much of this is the word-games and mind-games of a culture – not an actual reality. Like much of our culture – it’s make-believe.

    Removing cancer cells returns a body to health – helps it to be what it actually is.

    We have plastic surgeries these days to help someone look like various animals – cats, etc. They do not become cats.

    I fully understand the mental anguish involved in gender dysphoria. At present, we have hamstrung science, going so far as to outlaw research into treating the dysphoria – for what are political reasons, not scientific. From my own perspective, I see the entire LGBT, etc. movement has a subset of the so-called sexual revolution dating back to the 60s, which clearly had a political agenda, as well. We need (as individuals) to come to grips with the fact that society itself can make us “crazy” in various ways. The current numbers indicating an extreme rise in gender dysphoria within certain age groups and populations does not indicate something happening to brains (more people being “born that way”). It is better explained by a social contagion (and there have been many of these throughout the centuries). A recent outbreak of Tourettes Syndrome among young girls across the country was traced to a TikTok phenomenon. Doesn’t mean these girls didn’t experience this as “real” – they were not faking. But they did not have Tourettes Syndrome and were able to be successfully treated through therapy.

    It’s a minor example, but worth noting and considering.

    Your question assumed that our mental state (at any given time or over a given time) should be the basis for our existential/biological choices. I think that is a fallacy. It is also of note that a number of European countries have backed away from earlier trans treatments of underage youth because of a clear indication of the reversibility or change that can happen for many of these over time.

    I am not saying that there is no suffering in gender dysphoria – of course there is. There are other conditions that cannot be treated, or whose treatment would involve unethical choices. But Christian ethics does not consider the relief of pain and suffering to be the primary purpose of medicine. That basis of medicine (Utilitarianism) commonly leads to evil ends (like murder, abortion, etc.).

    Much of modern medicine is abusive in its practice. For example, we have a cultural cult of youth. A man my age (69) getting testosterone therapy so he’ll feel like he’s 29 is an abuse, I think. There’s nothing wrong with getting old – and feeling like it. There is, however, something inherently wrong with getting old but feeling like you’re 29 until you’re dead at age 90. I could multiply the examples. The Christian tendency should be a general resistance to these various abuses and a preference for what is natural.

    If, for example, science invented a therapy that would keep us alive to age 200, I think Christians should refuse it (and it would like a much longer comment to explain why).

    But, back to my point, I believe that the body, in its stability, is the preferred basis for our existence and choices. As noted, every surgery in the gender category is not a treatment – but an illusion. If everyone will agree, then the illusion is more powerful. It is little wonder that the power of the state seems to be required in addition to the surgery. The “will” of the individual is being made to seem as though it is Lord of biology and society itself. That’s not a long-term strategy that will be sustained.

    Thank you for your honesty and your questions. They’re quite timely.

    One last thought (ethical problem). What if transitioning, and being very public about it contributed to an increase in gender dysphoria in adolescents (a very painful and confusing experience). If that were the case (and there is a strong indication that this is so), is it not positively harmful on a social level to introduce and contribute to such suffering among children? Every time the pop culture idolizes a tran – it is entirely possible that are doing precisely this harmful thing. What should a Christian think about that? As a priest, I have been on the pastoral end of this question – trying to be of help to a troubled child. It’s not theoretical.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    PJ,
    I have from time to time contemplated the dilemma you voice. Indeed the intervention of medicine and surgery is, IMO, made without enough thought when someone gets sick even unto death.
    “To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.,”

    But taking arms often does not end them…it merely changes the sea. Our fallenness is not transformed. Only repentance does that and then only by Grace and Mercy we cannot really comprehend.

    I watched my late wife fall into a coma and eventually die because the medical intervention in her case did not “work”. Yet as she lay in her coma, her body slowly dying, her Guardian Angel came and prayed with/for her. I have no doubt repentance and mercy transformed her soul for the Kingdom in ways that likely would not have happen had the medicine worked.

    No matter what I do, I will never get around what Jesus told us recorded in Mt 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’”.

    Pills or no pills; surgery or no surgery the fundamental reality is that repentance is the only medicine for the soul.

  21. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    Father,

    GOP polemicists popularized the phrase “social contagion” to imply that trans people are a disease infecting society, and therefore we ought to be wiped out, like germs. Such dehumanizing language is beneath you.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    PJ,
    No. GOP polemicists used a much older phrase for their own political ends. I do not follow politics if I can help it. But “social contagion” or “social hysteria” various phrases has been used to describe such things as the “Dancing phenomenon” in the Middle Ages – when outbreaks of dancing would occur in villages with some people dancing themselves to death. In the 80’s and 90’s there was an epidemic of young girls (especially) with anorexia and bulemia that was also a “social contagion” or social phenomenon – and was fatal any number of times.

    Human beings are highly social. No doubt, our formation and nurturance in gender expression, etc., also has a social component (always has). It is not entirely social – it has a biological basis. It’s a package deal. But if one part of the package is distorted, then things start to not work so well, and we get anomalies (which we see in abundance – eclipsing by a factor of 10 or higher – any number associated with it in the past).

    I did not mean to give offense. Also, with respect to the GOP, I do not think they had in mind the eradication of a group of people. That’s Democratic rhetoric, which is equally reprehensible. I cannot write in a manner to make both of those groups happy. So, bear with me if you want the conversation. Also, it is not “de-humanizing” to be the victim of a social contagion – that is a societal-induced state of mind. Heck – we may all be victims of this in one way or another.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve just googled for a minute and found the term: “psychogenic illness.” That is perhaps more felicitous than “social contagion.” I’ll use that term.

  24. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    I find the orderliness and clarity of your responses on this matter superb Father Stephen; a magnificent way of articulating ‘the mind of Holy Tradition’ on a thoroughly modernist controversy.

  25. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    Father,

    You wrote, “With respect to the GOP, I do not think they had in mind the eradication of a group of people.” Agree to disagree on this point. Since you try not to follow politics, you might be unaware of the increasingly-violent rhetoric being employed by certain figures. It’s frightening.

    Regarding the rapid increase in the number of people saying they’re trans in recent years:

    We used to teach children that being left-hand-dominant was wrong– even demonic– and kids who tried to write left-handed were shamed, punished, and “corrected” by parents and teachers. My father, for example, was frequently beaten with a belt by my grandfather for using his left hand. (He remains left-handed to this day.)

    Unsurprisingly, there were very few left-handers in those days.

    Then in the early-to-mid 20th century, we stopped thinking of left-handedness as a moral failing, and eased up on the punishment and shaming. And what do you know! The number of left-handed people rose rapidly, from 3-4% of the US population in 1900 to a plateau of 11-12% by 1960. And that percentage has stayed extremely steady ever since.

    You can see a similar phenomenon with the number of people diagnosed with ADHD. And indeed, there are still plenty of people who will confidently tell you how “ADHD” is not a real disorder but a scam, or a political plot, and/or a mass delusion– as you have no doubt experienced.

    More people suddenly being open about their gender issues is exactly what you would expect to see, as the iron wall shame and social ostracism around gender non-conformity begins to crack.

  26. Patricia Avatar
    Patricia

    WOW! I don’t know that one of Fr Freeman’s posts has brought so much discussion, both on and off topic! I have been glued to my phone for over an hour taking in all of the comments. So informative! So honest. I appreciate so much all of the insights offered. All suffering must be honored.
    So grateful for God’s mercy.

  27. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    There has been a lot of study and focus particularly on teenage girls recently, on this subject and others. It cannot be dismissed as rhetoric or political agenda. Suffering is not owned by one side or the other, especially if we are talking about where our faith leads. There are “solutions” to problems that are not solutions for everyone and tragedy results from that, too.
    Our faith calls us to a deeper sense of compassion than that.

  28. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    I am reminded once again how fighting the “givenness” of existence is invariably tantamount to Christ’s word to Paul, “it is hard to kick against the goads”. Dysphoria is only increased. Acceptance of what God gives is the route to Heaven and the reverse is also true.
    The mind of modernity is thoroughly established in a type of prelest on this.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    PJ,
    I’m familiar with this line of argumentation. I do not think it holds up to careful scrutiny. Interestingly, shame has not disappeared, it has simply changed targets. Human beings are no better than they’ve ever been, I think. BTW, 3 of my 4 children are left-handed. Which is odd – my wife and I are both right-handed. She is one of 4 children, I am one of 3. Only one of those 7 siblings is left-handed. All 4 of my children have ADHD (as do I and clearly my mother did as well – but it had no name back then). I take nothing for it (nor did my mother). I just suffer – gladly enough.

    I genuinely do not think that the present manifestation is a reflection of a long-suppressed normalcy. Of course, it’s an argument that can be asserted.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    For better or worse, we live in a highly politicized culture. A tricky place to be a Christian. It is a reason I say that “all suffering must be honored.” There are, of course, a variety of ways to honor it. Not all of it can be solved, and, as you say, some “solutions” can be tragic. I trust in the Tradition we have received – in its fullness – accepted with an abundance of repentance. I don’t know another way to live.

    And, of course, living in the culture of modernity – we are told daily and incessantly – that we can build a better world and that, essentially, everything can be fixed. It is to be noted that in all of American history we have only had 17 years in which we were not at war.

  31. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    PJ,

    I think it worth pointing out that Simon did not refer to any person or people as “trash”. He used it in reference to the topic of “gender identity issues and what they may entail”. That topic can be extremely divisive, dangerous ground on which to tread and often results in very uncharitable statements. Father is correct, in my opinion, to strictly moderate the blog and let it remain it as a safe place for everyone, yourself included. He will limit the conversation as he sees fit.

    The Lord’s human body was physically male (as far as we know), but his human nature encompasses all of humanity. Was his sacrifice ineffective for non-males, because he incarnated as a man? Of course not. Every human being possesses the FULLNESS of human nature, while each human person EXPRESSES that nature uniquely.

    I would note that Jesus is often called (the new) Adam and Adam encompassed the fullness of humanity in the garden. Eve was taken from Him and woman created out of his body (instead of out of the dirt). Christ does indeed hold the fullness of humanity, but we do not. It is in our union with Him (our salvation) that we become fully human. We are incomplete (one way to put it) now; we look to Him for our completion. It is not found in our self-expression but in His Holiness. Just my thoughts.

  32. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Since you try not to follow politics, you might be unaware of the increasingly-violent rhetoric being employed by certain figures. It’s frightening.

    It is indeed frightening. What you hear though cannot be compartmentalized to a single subject. There are frightening voices all around. We hear many of them speak in this manner on a number of subjects. My personal view is that they have obtained a level of power that allows them to speak. That doesn’t mean they are any different than anyone else in history who has obtained such power. We are seeing and hearing what is frightening to us today in ever greater amounts because we have far greater reach than ever before (ex: the internet). But the world really hasn’t changed; people in power (and others) have always spoken this way on a variety of topics and at the expense of others. Pride and arrogance have always existed.

    The number of left-handed people rose rapidly, from 3-4% of the US population in 1900 to a plateau of 11-12% by 1960.

    These things are different by an order of magnitude. The percentage of change is much, much higher and, whereas the US population changed over roughly 60 years in the case you site, it has changed radically more in far less time now.

    However, we need to be careful to recognize that people (specifically “persons”) are suffering and not paint with such broad strokes. That can only alienate some against others and cause suffering. Michael rightly pointed out that our repentance heals us.

    Interestingly, shame has not disappeared, it has simply changed targets. Human beings are no better than they’ve ever been, I think.

    I find that many of the voices of which PJ speaks are quick to simply “change targets” as it suits them. It is not for the benefit or our humanity that their statements are made, but for their own agenda(s) (whatever those may be). We should be careful that we do not become less human (in our thoughts and speech) by absorbing their statements. Scripture has much to say about our speech, with good reason. Just my thoughts.

  33. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Father! So many wise words there. Thank you.

    You rightly state, “A tricky place to be a Christian.” I personally feel this more and more keenly. And voices of shame are all around, I might add. It seems to be the number one weapon.

  34. Elizabeth Avatar
    Elizabeth

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.
    Such a wonderful photo! 🙂

    PJ,
    Please know that I appreciate and thank you for the courage and strength to share what this means to you.
    Love in Christ,
    Elizabeth

  35. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi PJ,

    You asked:

    [quote]
    What is the difference, in terms of Christian anthropology, between correcting a congenital harelip (acceptable) and correcting a congenital mismatch between physical and mental/spiritual gender (unacceptable)?
    [end quote]

    I am not qualified to answer your question in terms of Christian anthropology–although much of what Father Stephen wrote in his reply at 4:32 p.m. would have aligned with my immediate thoughts.

    As the discussion has unfolded and you introduced the idea of handedness, however, that analogy might help with what I perceive as a difficulty for many who believe the mismatch, if it needs treatment, should be treated from the mental side, rather than the physical.

    Leaving aside ambidexterity for conciseness, we have people who favor their left hand and those who favor their right. But suppose someone (physically) evidenced right-hand dominance and superior coordination and yet insisted he was left-handed–that he psychologically was left-handed and wanted those around him to acknowledge him as a left-handed person.

    If he asked that a doctor remove his right hand to force his left-handedness to assert itself, I think you can see how many would react. Or if a parent asked the same operation be done to a child, I think it’s easy to see why many would not want that allowed. Neither objection would have to have roots in a hatred for left-handedness but rather in a belief that the physical evidence indicates that it is the mental state that is out of alignment with reality and therefore needs treatment (if treatment is necessary).

    No analogy is perfect, but a feature of handedness that I think helps here in talking about “reality” is that it is difficult for someone trying to be objective to understand how the person with the mismatch is using terms. That is, either the physical definition is determinate or it is not.

    In other words, how can one (by definition) be a left-hander with a dominate right hand? And if somehow one can be regardless of physical state–mental belief is more important–then why does the right hand need to be removed?

    Please take my usage of this analogy in the spirit in which it is intended (to address your question via your later comparison and, therefore, hopefully in a less contentious frame than the topic of gender). It is not meant to trivialize the subject at all.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, well said

  37. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Another huge issue with modern identity, as opposed to traditional one, is that it is wholly based on desire, whim, vice … Traditionally it was based on one’s role in the world (soldier, father, nurse, king, etc). It used to be more hypostatic in a nascent sense.

  38. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    In other words, the “purpose” of identity used to be outside of the self, connectional, relational. Not anymore…

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I am really uncertain what you mean.

  40. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michael,
    if we look at what was the basis for one’s sense of identity traditionally, say prior to the renaissance, it had to do with their place in the world, their role. This was somewhat relational, somewhat akin, even, to the basis for the “identity” of the Father, or the identity of the Son.
    The modern world establishes identity according to the fluctuating see of one’s selfish desires.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, Michael,
    There’s much to be said about Dino’s observation. I think of Charles Taylor’s, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. The connectedness that was part of the Medieval World’s stability has largely disappeared. The modern “self” lives in isolation – often tasked with the work of “inventing” its own identity. Many of us in the English-speaking world have a “relic” of that stable past enshrined in our surname. Mine (Freeman), reflects an ancestor who managed to break free of serfdom, probably by taking refuge in a city and taking up a trade. Many are named for their trades: Smith, Carpenter, Wainwright, Cooper, etc. Some are named for a place. It is of note that our “given names” are just that – they are given.
    Of course, many people later want to rename themselves – not surprising.

    Of course, being a carpenter gives a “place” within a stable culture. But the trades were connected. Many (most) had a patron saint, and thus a collective feast day, something that drew its members into a transcendent relationship.

    I’m not a Marxist (far from it), but there is a legitimate critique, from a Christian perspective, of how the modern world’s economic patterns have served to destroy connectedness and created many dilemmas for the problem of identity. Our economics prefers individuals over families (consider how poor the provisions are in the American workforce for family realities). It prefers that human beings be mobile, ready to re-locate, re-train, etc., despite the fact that such requirements are highly destructive of the family and other stabilizing social structures. Despite our pride in the modern exercise of “human rights,” they are rights that are largely defined by the economic requirements of our culture – not the wider human needs.

    To my mind, the first person in literature to consider the nature of the self was St. Augustine in his Confessions. Some have said it was the first “modern” book. I certainly cannot think of anything else from his time period (5th century) or before that reads so much like a modern writing. But he thoroughly grounds the self in God: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”

    Dino, as to the modern world establishing identity according to a person’s selfish desires, this is to say that we exist and are nurtured to be consumers. One commentator has observed that in the modern world, money is ontology. Frighteningly true.

  42. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    St Augustine is a saint, and for that reason, I know I need to be circumspect about expressing my thoughts about him in an open forum. I’ve acquired a book exploring how his thoughts were manipulated in western theology, but I haven’t had time to delve deeply into it yet. I suppose such behavior is indicative of the woes of an over-worked employee–no time for reading and reflection. –Thank God I manage to say my morning and evening prayers, at least!

    Generally I have avoided reading Augustine’s work because I have already been inculcated (in this culture) to interpret his words in the western theological way. But your quote from Augustine is a wonderful counterpoint. And I know its truth, personally and what I have seen in others. God willing that we all find rest in Him. Thank you for providing me a way to admire St Augustine!

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A clear distinction needs to be made and proclaimed between “identity” and personhood.
    “identity” is always a form of idolatry.

    It can be either an individual idolatry or a corporate idolatry.

    Prior to the cultural apostasy in the west c.1600 and continuing there was little understanding of “identity”. The On-line Etymological Dictionary lists the word identity as c.1600. Nothing prior to that.

    For me, as I repent, my “identity” begins to disappear and my person begins to emerge. In communion with Jesus who I am is revealed.

  44. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    This culture is awash in self-help and self-care “tools” and methods as a way to bolster and mitigate the emotional fallout of the damage of our self image. It is actually the image of God in our hearts. Ironically such tools place the ‘blame’ of the damage and the ensuing heartbreak and confusion on the individual. And therefore, they are told (implicitly and otherwise) that they need to ‘fix’ themselves. There is a background matrix, our culture, which is a context for this generalized dysphoria, and you have named it well, that of relation and the disintegration of such relations among us. It is hard for us to measure our degree of ‘wellness’ or ‘illness’ against such a matrix that has no value for relation, except for a relation of invention or fantasy.

    We speak of love. But with the disintegration of family relations (often parents are children and children are parents among the many issues we face) deep fissures have formed. We no longer remember how they formed or how they might be breached. We make up our proverbial bridges, we make an agreement amongst ourselves that the bridge we’ve created is the ‘fix’. And then wonder in frightful dispair why it doesn’t function in the way we would hope. Then we look for more tools and self-care methods.

    I’m not against the use of tools and methods (I admit I am a scientest–it’s pretty much what we do), but we have a distorted idea of how well we know how to use them and what purpose they serve.

    May God hear our prayers. May we find rest in Him.

  45. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    I sometimes think that the primordial fall of man was a fall into “consuming”, and its continuous increase, refinement, advancement has is taking us to unprecedented (…) “heights”.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, and Dino,
    If it’s true that we cannot simply “fix ourselves” (for the problem is larger than any of us), we must remember that it is no single person’s (or group of persons) fault. It doesn’t matter whether that’s used as an excuse – because excusing it doesn’t “fix” it.

    St. Silouan, in particular, though born into a very different world (that of a pious peasant family in 19th century Russia) still recognized all of this and spoke about the “whole Adam.” Christ, in being the “Second Adam” (in St. Paul’s words), is thus the whole of us. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

    The life of the Church is the Second Adam. His triumph over death demonstrates utterly and conclusively that the Second Adam is stronger than the first, that Christ is stronger than sin, death, etc.

    The life of the Church, made manifest in that struggling little band of believers, whose faults we likely know so well (as if they were our won), united in the participation of Christ’s Body and Blood, is the union in Christ’s new life and is God’s single plan for the healing and salvation of us all.

    It is such a humble thing – but it is life from the dead. And, in that context it is possible to slowly realize the commonality of our life and become, in St. Sophrony’s language, “hypostatic beings” (which is never merely a self or alone).

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Augustine is an Orthodox saint, though his theology does require an asterisk or two. Much that he gets blamed for comes as a result of being too-influential in the Latin-speaking West. Had the West had equal access to the great Eastern Fathers, it would have offered a balance that was needed.

    Some credite Augustine with writing the first autobiography. I suspect we read him that way because we read ourselves that way (focus on the self). It should be remembered that he called his work “The Confessions.” He did not see it as biography – or about Augustine – but about God and how he himself came to a saving knowledge.

    Many Protestants love Augustine and champion his writing. But they ignore things like his account of miracles wrought in his Cathedral by the relics of St. Stephen the Protomartyr. He was thoroughly Orthodox and sought to defend the Orthodox faith (a little too hard, perhaps). Nevertheless, he helped defeat the error of the Pelagians.

    It is the focus on the self (as though it were an object) that creates errors within us. Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. When they sinned, they becase self-aware – saw that they were naked and sought to hide.

    Michael was right earlier when he described “identity” as a problem, including the late development of the word.

  48. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you all for this interesting — I might say fascinating — conversation. Of the many things I see in the world around me I do see a great search for identity. But when we speak of groups and communions, I also see that as a pattern of what can be mistaken. People look for identity in a “tribe,” or in their “group,” in a political party, in social movements, in all kinds of places and ways that it seems to me are destructive. We can also seek a union in the wrong place, that is not going to give us the identity that is true. (Sorry, I don’t know if I’m using that word properly.) It seems that a search for self and a search for God are inseparable, for if God is the true consuming fire, then what St Paul calls the “things that fall away” are in God’s purview. In other words, God seems to show me, at least, who I am not — and both who I am not and who I am continue to surprise me. (I hope that makes sense to someone out there.) Maybe that just has to do with the particular things I needed to unlearn, and the things in front of me that I still need to discover. But it seems to me that is the journey. And it takes us “out of the world” as well as throws us back in. Maybe Christianity needs to constantly discover what this means for a new day and the present world that greets us.

  49. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I take some exception to the characterization of identity building as something that is selfish.

    It is not selfish. It is an attempt to do for oneself what a community composed of families and extended families should have done for you. The problem for people isn’t identity per se. It is the absence of identity. The modern world has atomized the individual and placed persons outside of the types of communities I just described. In the situation, what alternative do people have except try to construct for oneself those things that should have been deposited at birth. It isn’t selfish. It is an effort to be human in a dehumanizing world. Given the other comments I doubt this will be well received. But I offer it as a perspective that maybe…MAYBE…worth considering.

    I have been outside the Church. I have been the guy who has taken the one-way walk to the woods and only returned out of cowardice. I can remember a February when it was 20 some odd degrees. The sky was crystal clear from the absence of lights and humidity. I remember thinking how indifferent everything seemed to me. Even the stars–as beautiful as I could see that they were–were indifferent to whatever I might decide to do next. People are skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.

    To see them as selfish overlooks how God-forsaken everything can be.

    I am one of the few “lucky” few who have survived and have the tale to tell.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    I’m cautious at the expression, “Maybe Christianity needs to constantly discover what this means for a new day and the present world that greets us.” There are tons of people out there who would love to constantly tinker with and fix Christianity. What I find in Orthodoxy is not something that needs to change – the agent of change, if you will, is the inner content of the mystery itself. GK Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

    To my mind, the most disastrous decisions in modern Christianity have been the decisions to become modern. It has been a complete failure, succeeding only in doing what many centuries of persecutions and challenge did not: emptied Christianity of any significant content.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Yes, we struggle alone, much of the time. And yet, we’re never purely doing it alone. There’s a community (even when it’s only the invisible community) that is participating in some manner.

    But, your point – not to despise the struggle is spot on.

  52. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Hi Father, thank you once more for your reply.

    Yes, I agree the expression unfortunately can be construed to mean just what worried you about it. What I meant to say is that we, for example, live in a world filled with technology that didn’t exist 2,000 years ago and came into existence fairly recently. So, as Christians, we have to figure out how the faith received from the beginning would meet this new world. I don’t mean the faith itself changes, I mean where once we faced the Roman Empire and certain types of persecutions or conflicts like idol worship, we now face the worship of technology or the cult of Apple. I agree with your worries, and I have seen the outcome of what you are talking about up close and center, and have rejected it for myself as the wrong way.

    Having said that, I see what is worrisome about the phrasing and the context in which you write.

  53. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Just to continue to try to explain, let me say that as a cradle Orthodox, I had to search far and wide as an adult only to be brought back home. In so doing, I “found” what was already there but that I had missed in my reception of it as a child. Such treasure was always there. In that sense, I mean whatever “new” ways the world looks today, the treasure of the faith must reveal how it’s meant to be met. The treasure is there, but it’s always meant to be mined. Just like the constant search toward the God who is a consuming fire.
    Hebrews 12:
    25 See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, 26 whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” 27 Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.

    And today, “yet once more” it seems that things are being shaken, and the faith must again meet where “things which cannot be shaken” will remain. My confidence is in Christ, albeit not perfect 🙂

  54. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    My point more specifically is how the search for ‘sources of the self’ should be understood. Again, what other options do people have except to do the work themselves? It isn’t a circumstance that anyone chose for themselves. If people are getting everything backwards can they really be blamed?

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, there is a significant part of my personhood (I am discovering) that is contrarian in nature. Therefore, I embrace your comment with both laughter and joy. I am not being either facetious or sarcastic either.

    Identity building can only adequately be done in a community of faith submitting to the Life filled interrelationships. such a community expresses.

    That includes sitting down together on a quiet afternoon with a beer or a hot cup of tea with lemon juice and honey allowing one’s uniqueness to gently be seen by one’s self and whomever one is with.

    Occasionally expressing one’s joy and sorrow to on robust outbursts followed by a round or two of cachination for which there is no outward reason.

  56. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon
    knowing someone too-familiar with what you describe (regarding how God-forsaken everything can be), who has been extremely lucky to come back from that hell and find, perhaps, the best ‘expert’ to consult (leaving out all details here for the sake of brevity), although I realise how that horror perpetually looms around the corner for weak, fallen man, the Spiritual expert’s holy advice stands.
    One could condense this advise wisely to various aphorisms (as has been done before) like:
    “not my will, but thine, be done”, or
    “keep thy mind in hell and despair not” or
    “glory to God for all things”.
    May God give us the secret grace to continuously redirect our attention to His almighty, unfailing love for us, (forgetting ourselves and trusting God), most especially when He is like deaf and blind to us, even when drowning in the dark hell of utter forsakenness. It might take years to build this Ark of private hope that weathers very great storms, but let us build now, as much as we can, while there’s some sunshine out, and our hope in God’s good providence will not be tested beyond what we can bare, but the test itself will be mixed with sweet, divine consolation so that we “despair not”.
    Our heart’s predisposition to continuously redirect our being (gratefully/trustfully) Godwards, humbly/bravely wanting to place ourselves under His loving gaze
    [as opposed to needily demanding the sweetness of His loving gaze over ourself], as much as we can muster this, is what attracts this divine consolation unflinchingly.

  57. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Thank you Fr Stephen and thank you Simon. I agree that the individual human person is often left to “search for sources of the self” on their own and I know of one 14 year old who has attempted to end the life God has given them specifically because of this “search” and although the person is an Orthodox Christian, anger with God is constant now. The parents and family are trying to get professional help and we pray. I know this child is not alone. Lord have Mercy on all Your Children.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Margaret,
    May God indeed have mercy. The world does not stretch before us with easy selections to choose between. The world is a historical mess. I can think of any number of reasons why the non-Orthodox would take one look at Orthodoxy and walk away. I can think of plenty of reasons why many would see the whole of Christianity and walk away. Oftentimes the rejection of the faith is not based in selfish reasons – but very “Christian” reasons. Sometimes leadership in the Church behaves in an un-Christian manner. I left the Church in which I was Baptized after being scandalized by lies told by Church leadership (including the pastor) over a matter in Church-league basketball (as if it was worth it). I left the next Church, at age 13, over blatant racist teaching from the leadership (that was 1966). I was unchurched for a couple of years – and it’s a work of providence that ever brought me back.

    By comparison to the present, times were simple then. Nothing is simple today. Our own propensity to judge is ill-placed. It would be far more accurate (and like the saints) to take full responsibility for the failings of others. The Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov said, “Each man is guilty of the sins of all…” And he taught this, not as a way of condemning, but of recognizing the nature of the whole Adam. If someone is “needily demanding” something of God – then it is my poor life and sins that have failed. I’ll not lay it at his doorstep. I take that to be the greater wisdom in such a question.

  59. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. thank you for pointing that out.

    Dostoevsky possessed a profound understanding of the human condition.

  60. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon
    It is indeed monastic wisdom and always only applied to self, as Father seems to allude, never another. One who has tasted such unbearable despair and then sought advice, such as explained earlier, only wants all others to be spared such predicaments. But having also tasted the truth of the advice, would want all to have access to it in case they need it.

  61. Tressa Fakiris Avatar
    Tressa Fakiris

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this beautiful article. You contribute so much to my faith with your timely writings. I look forward to your next.
    Sincerely,
    Tressa Fakiris

  62. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, forgive me for my lack of clarity. I am the contrarian. Not you
    Now I do owe you a beverage of your choice, at least…

  63. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael, please, note that comment has been removed.

    I would love to have a drink with you….at Eighth Day books and spend the entire day pilfering around! We should do THAT!

  64. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I keep looking at and reflecting on the picture of your grandson. In my heart, he is absolutely expressing his personhood deeply himself. even though there is nothing around him that bespeaks his “identity” in the modern sense yet there is a deep interconnection between him and the ship. Still each has an integrity which disallows any confusion between them

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon,
    Thur. 2PM?

  66. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Father, in all this discussion of seeking one’s identity, a question occurs to me. How is this connected to St. Paul’s description of emptying himself of himself so he may be filled with Christ? It seems to me that this pursuit, which I take as immersing oneself in the life of the Church, would alleviate many of the desperate struggles (for identity) that we see in people today. But I have not considered it further than that. Would you provide some comment on these things?

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, et.al
    The foundation in modernity for identity, I believe. Six weeks ago, I suffered a small frontal lobe stroke. One night in the hospital.

    As mild as it was, some limitations and changes came with it, not all easy to welcome. Indeed some very frustrating as my dear wife knows.

    Today though, I began to deal with Orthodox ontology vs modern identity from a different perspective. A perspective that is a joyful one for me.

    In A. D. 1637 Rene Descartes published the blasphemous, but foundational doctrine of modernity (along with a Treatise) “I think, therefore, I am.”

    Today, I had a moment of recognition, it occurred to me “I am, therefore I think.”
    is a much better ontological foundation.

    God, tells us: “I am!,” referring to Himself He also says that each of us is made in His ,”image and likeness.” “Male and Female created He them.” ….and many other specifics

    The initial thanksgiving that came in contemplation was that no matter what mental faculties I have lost or had changed because of my stroke: I am still me. Even unto death and beyond. (Somehow fasting is in there)

    The second realization was that my “I am” is a nearly infinite sea. Yet I have a small open dinghy and Jesus is with me as I cast out on that ocean.
    f
    “Identity” appears as the unnecessary and sinful proposition that it is.
    Many more connections possible.
    God forgive me.

    “I am in Christ, therefore I suffer, love and think.”

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