Feb 29, 2008

Cleavage and The Grounds of Being – An Exploration of Personal Identity

It’s a basic understanding of one’s self-awareness – all of us will find a ‘Ground of Being’ in something. The German Existentialist Theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), speaks of a Ground of Being as being anchored in the Infinite; by which he means God – for the Christian. In less Existentialist terms; a loci of self-awareness generally finds a foothold, in terms of it expressing itself, in ways sometimes obvious – other times not. Bikers are targets of accusations of this expression; especially those more immature ones who do find self-expression in the rebellious “f-you” attitudes of leather and loud bike exhausts. The age-old adage – ‘they’re compensating for a lack of lengths elsewhere’ probably rarely actually holds true. There are certainly avid bikers who are fully self-confident, but the self-confidence that they do have inheres in something that is merely expressed in a different way – different but still potentially expressible in vivid or innocuous ways. A Christian’s “Ground of Being” is supposed to be in Christ and His Work and Identity. In our culture, Christianity is increasingly becoming a cultural expression, rather then a soteriological assertion. Rather then it saving our souls – it is just something we do for fun – or – because we feel like it is just something we are supposed to; probably because we are Americans – ‘and that makes me a Christian – right?’ But even if we are cultural Christians or not Christians at all – we still experience a desire to create and assert a Ground of Being in who we are to ourselves and how that is expressed to other people. Sometimes we allow our Ground of Being to shift from Christ and for it to become something else. Sometimes, that shift takes place and we begin to see our self-worth in our body. A woman who places a picture of herself with clearly delineated cleavage as her main myspace account pic, may potentially be trying to elicit a tacit response of appreciation on your part. Others rely on their intelligence to get your attention – and show off their prowess in such regards, though potentially via much more subtle ways and means; though just because you carry a Mensa membership card around in your pocket, does not mean that you won’t do something shallow or outright stupid – sometimes, it’s the most brilliant among us who do the darkest things.

The idea that the girls out here in Myspace, who are both beautiful. intelligent, and mature, may not even show you an initial picture of themselves, is a potential affirmation that such a woman may in fact find their own worth in other things beside how large their breasts are and how many tens of thousands of fawning, prepubescent boys will send them comments that say “OMG! babz ur hotz tx me!! MILF!!!”

A Ground of Being based on one’s self worth may be more sophisticated in it’s outward appearance if it is based on dynamics that default to a more noble apprehension of themselves – such as one’s intelligence; vs. the juvenile and shallowness of the physical – but what we must realize is that both the “high things” and the “low things” are both ultimately worthless and trivial in light of Christ and Eternity.

The tension that a mature Christian walks in, is enjoying being potentially good looking, being smart, and living well – yet knowing that ultimately all of these things; however much enjoyed; are ill-suited for foundations. For all our time spent enjoying, nurturing, and ‘being’ them – they will all fade away and be eventually useless. If they are the center of who and what defines who we are and how we feel about ourselves: our “Ground of Being” – then when that foundation cracks and ultimately tumbles, everything that placed it’s weight upon it will not just be shaken, but it will be broken if not destroyed.

It is for this reason that as a Christian, we must work daily to make sure that we do not build our lives on lies – both overt and those subtle; those inadvertent and those purposeful. There are certainly Christians whose title would properly be redesignated and appended to “Cultural Christians;” who would value their “hotness” and desirability far more then how they have been used by God in any given situation recently. This certainly does not preclude a desire to fix oneself up for a potential mate; to work out, lose a few extra pounds and whiten your teeth or something (all such activities I have been doing my own self recently). But the issue is one that is quite simple: how much weight in terms of the concern that you have not just for yourself but also the summation your existence have you placed upon such behavior? I’ve slimmed down from 250 to 205 over the last couple of years by drinking fewer cokes and getting out and enjoying my mountain bike. But if I got sick and all gained it all back and all my slowly-getting-whiter teeth somehow just fell out; I know that it would not change my position with those who really love me for the right reason, and I certainly – beyond the shadow of a doubt – know it would not change my position in Christ. But if those things became the things that gave me my identity- then my identity would come from somewhere else then how I feel and consider myself ‘in Christ’ – because I would be more worried about what other people think of me then ‘if I have produced Glory before God today.’ Ultimately – my ultimate purpose above all is not to have a six pack and a megawatt smile; but to – quite simply – give Glory to God. Anything and everything that distracts from that is an intolerable distraction in light of the eternal consequences of such a decision.

To be fair and reasonable – if not practical and applicative in my assertions, it would be totally unfair to characterize the desire to be with someone who is physically attractive as baseless and illusory. We were created to enjoy beauty and are given the knowledge and capability to, in some degree, attain, maintain. share and enjoy physical beauty; within proper contexts and in the more explicit forms of such enjoyment – the covenant of marriage – enjoy deep and profound moments of beauty, passion and desire. And so, understanding that whatever ‘floats your boat’ or ‘turns your lights on’ when it comes to someone of the opposite sex is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certifiably an abuseable thing. If we are to remember that it is our purpose under heaven to produce Glory for God and that these preceding realties are legal within scriptural constraints of life in a physical universe; how are we to then translate these physical dynamics into spiritual concepts worthy of emulating and striving for? I believe the secret is Surrender. Anyone who has ever been a part of the dating scene, has probably felt the pain of falling in love with someone – only to watch what was seemingly given as an incredible blessing, suddenly and seemingly permanently be removed. Giving all of what you are to God and then finding not just your purpose, but also your identity, is key to not being destroyed by a gift – or an ability – or something that you potentially worked hard to attain. Identity in Christ is not a posit of information that details who you are – like a Chemical Data Sheet would list the innate and reactive properties of a chemical in a laboratory somewhere – rather, it is an awareness: it is a knowledge that you were created – for Glory. And your husband and or respective wife may in fact glory in some physical aspect of you, from behind the bedroom doors of your marriage – but to place those values outside of those boundaries, potentially issues the summons for a perpetual distraction of not wholesale destruction of both you and everything you love and care about.

While the concept of an understanding of what it means to find your identity in Christ and not in a blessing given by Him, is perhaps one of the hardest things for a Christian to shift from mind knowledge to heart knowledge and from intellectual appropriation to physical manifestation, perhaps one the most clear illustrations of the necessity for such an act and its affirmation is the harsh story of Abraham and Isaac. God gave Isaac to Abraham as part of a promise; and the exact story of how Isaac came to be his son is a good story and well worth both reading and studying; but I will resist the temptation to explore it and detail it for the sake of brevity. What is relevant to the present discussion is that Isaac represented not just Gods promise and His blessing to Abraham, but he also represented Abrahams future and all of his hope in it’s entirety. When God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he was essentially instructing Abraham to take everything wonderful and precious and beloved that God had pretty much given him in recent memory and completely and irrevocably destroy it. This story is often interpreted from the perspective of faith and trust – but the true and most meaningful fact to be gleaned from this harsh story is not that Abraham somehow had faith that he would really not have to kill Isaac; because that is genuinely a mistranslation and therefore misrepresentation of the Abraham/Isaac story, but that as he began the downward stroke of his knife to take the life of his son, his hand was stopped – by the hand of an angel. In the moment of that extenuative grasp, there was an affirmation that spoke to an issue much larger and more significant then the reality that Isaac would be spared. It was that Abraham had radically and clearly delineated his Blessing from his Identity. Isaac was a wonderful blessing that Abraham would keep and one which would bring him great reward and joy – but Abrahams identity would remain firmly grounded in that which had provided the blessing: God.

Few people enter the “dating scene” and emerge with a husband or wife and never have to experience the pain of falling in love with some only to watch the favor for them in the other person’s eyes fade into nonexistence. The emotional pain of being utterly helpless to change and get back the absolutely unattainable love of another person strikes at the most sensitive and tender part of a person’s heart. Often you hear of someone committing suicide because of a failed relationship and you ask yourself – how could they do that? And then you recall the pain and loneliness of losing someone that you loved deeply; and wonder how much blacker and intense such despair could become for you or anyone else. When we place our Identity, and it’s composite attribute; Self-Worth, upon the foundation of relationships or any other thing for that matter – the structural loss of strength in the foundation of such can and often does lead to intense pain and even the chaos and madness of both emotional and sometimes even physical self-immolation. No one goes about creating a situation, the potential outcome of which would be pain so intense that suicide might seem the only solution; but the road to hell is genuinely paved with Good Intentions, and the ways and means wherein one might have found or find in the future, false foundations for an ultimately invalid and therefore tenuous Ground of Being/Identity, are as numerous as the grains of sand of any beach. Though many would deplore such a dogmatic, unbending assertion such I would seek to make here; let there be no confusion on the issue: there are a million ways to go to Hell both here and in the afterworld, but there is only one name wherein one might ever hope to find peace: Jesus Christ. Ultimately both theologically and practically – if you make an effort to find your identity in Christ and to find Him in the scriptures in some whole sense of who he is and not some isolated and therefore marred image of him (such as that he is only all about Love and not Justice, or He rather all about Judgment and not Grace) then everything else is just details. Know his character, as revealed in the Scriptures, and that He died so that your sin would be forgiven – and it follows that if you make even a child-like assertion and faith act: that He is the center of your all and everything, then when the shadow of Adulthood encroaches – with all of it’s pitfalls and insecurities and it’s rewards and blessings – then you cannot be destroyed – either by the hurt or the pleasure, – neither the wounds nor the blessings.

In conclusion, no one is immune to these hard truths, neither the student nor the teacher – the reader nor the writer. In the past few weeks, I have counseled an associate to see a lost love as an Isaac; that they needed to be prepared to let die, and I have seen my own blessing unfold and steeled myself that I too might have to make it my own Isaac. This much I can speak to you in absolute honesty and truth. That regardless of the pain and anguish of not just offering up an Isaac but also watching that Isaac die and knowing that you are walking down the mountainside of your own Mnt .Moriah absent the Promise and the Blessing that you were so sure that God had given you – there is not, nor will there ever be a reassurance as strong, nor a peace as calming as knowing that God is still in as much control when He takes a blessing away as He was when He granted it. And He that gave and took may give and probably will give again. And that regardless of the giving and the taking, the blessing or the pain; the gift will never equal the giver – nor will the strength or summation of the blessing be greater then He who gave it. It is in this knowledge that one can find a true anchor that will hold through even the most vile and monstrous storms that this life can hold us hostage to; an anchor strong enough, so that when at last you do pass ‘neath the waves of this life into the next – you will know that naked you came and naked you are returning – but he who gave everything here, is standing to Clothe and Bless you in ways that are but a fraction of anything that you could usefully or improperly define, ground yourself in, understand your self by, identify with or by – or ever, ever, even hope for.

“Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.”

-Paul Tillich

If you’d like to read more on Tillich, here are a few links:

http://www.escapefromwatchtower.com/tilground.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tillich
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/p/paul_tillich.html
http://www.theology.ie/theologians/tillich.htm