Posted by: gcarkner | January 22, 2019

Our Existential Identity Crisis

An Investigation into Our Existential Identity Crisis

Dr. Gordon Carkner

In speaking with a PhD Biology student recently, we began to dig a deep into a personal problem among students today (Millennials in general). Yes, we want to know whether the universe has a beginning, how time relates to eternity, whether science and theology are in conflict, the difference between the ideology of scientism and science per se. We are in awe when we hear about a universe that is 13.7 billion light years in age. We want to know how quantum gravity relates to General Relativity–no one has discovered this yet. We are deeply curious about the many-splendored world of the human brain and the profound power of DNA to shape our potential future. We are fascinated by the potential of nanotechnology. We wonder where Artificial Intelligence will take us, whether machines will replace humans on a large scale, making embodied humans inferior and perhaps redundant. Note the musings of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus.

And yet there is something else weighing on our minds and hearts more heavily in our quieter, reflective moments.  It is the crisis of identity. Who am I really and why am I even here? Am I a complete fraud? Where do I find love, support and common cause with other human beings in this journey? What gives bigger purpose to my life? What does it mean to be a good person? Where are the sources for my self, my identity, my agency? Is there an Order of Being or is this all one big accident, a chance occurrence, or something we make up as we go along in life? Do I have to invent all this meaning by myself, map my own future, mark out my own path like a great explorer on a quest across the Pacific? What does freedom, choice and morality really mean? Why do I feel so alone and lonely, even though I am connected with so many on five social media platforms and live in a sea of people every day? These thoughts can rock the soul, making us deeply anxious at a subterranean level. It would be wrong to ignore them and hope they will somehow go away. They are like molten lava at the heart of a volcano, ready to erupt. We want purpose, impact and personal challenge, but struggle with despair, hopelessness, anxiety, fear and anger. Amidst all our brilliant technology and knowledge, we struggle with a serious identity crisis in the West–a knowledge of self. It is possibly one of the most serious problems to which we need to pay attention, says American Clinical Psychologist Gregg Heinrichs.

Heinrichs notes wisely that, “The conflict between notions that humans society constructs human psychology versus the idea that our societies reflect our psychological natures, is one of the deepest disputes in the academy today.” Our culture is going through an identity crisis. He suggests that a healthy identity would allow for dialectical tension between extremes, have a clear value-based narrative, have identified problematic extremes and built a strong, stable system that promotes liberty and equality, allowing competing values/goods to co-exist and inform the other, finds a balance between individual and collective identities.

Let’s begin by diagnosing some of the possible reasons for such  Millennial angst.

  • Scientific (exclusive) humanism is found wanting. We have been running this program for some two hundred years and it is showing definite cracks. Intellectual John Milbank from the UK diagnoses the problem: science, he says, was never equipped to provide a worldview, a structure of meaning, or a way of life. If we give up on God, the transcendent and religion in general, we will have nihilism, not humanism. So many of our atheistic humanist experiments have turned out very badly. There was a con built into the heart of them. Science cannot and will not provide our need for meaning and purpose. The ideology of scientism that partners with exclusive humanism is the enemy of meaning. Science is wonderfully designed to help us understand limited aspects of the physical world, but it will not satiate our existential thirst. See David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God; or Miraslov Volf’s important work Flourishing. The death of God in culture, wrote Michel Foucault (Nietzsche before him) presciently, would result in the death of man as well.
  • Many today suffer from personal trauma, relational confusion and hurt. They are broken, have lost trust in people and institutions. They may be cynical, seething with anger at the world, or the opposite sex, or burdened by self-loathing. We are cool and competent on the outside, get top grades, make the team, but just underneath our skin, we are in emotional chaos, crying ourselves to sleep. We need a skilled listening ear to sort things out and get perspective. Facing the truth about ourselves, and our mixed motives, can be one of the toughest challenges life has to offer. It is no shame to admit that we need healing.

  • Others struggle with suffering itself, often that of those closest to them. How do we find meaning in suffering? It seems absurd, disruptive, offensive, inappropriate. The worst type is suffering of the innocents at the hands of malevolent leadership. We automatically ask why?, but are often left without immediate answers. The crucible of suffering is inescapable, something we all share in common. Where can we turn to find a meaningful road map through our suffering, to grow through it? Happiness cannot be our sole goal in life; this makes us far too shallow. Psychologist Victor Frankl claimed that suffering can be a way to moral and spiritual growth; we can survive the crucible through tragic optimism. What does he mean by this? Perhaps there is some help among those in the Positive Psychology community.
  • Lack of Moral Grounding and Conflicted Mentoring: On one hand, we are raised on moral subjectivism, radical tolerance and ethical relativism, told to listen to our feelings first, follow our bliss or our desires. On the other, we are taught the hard absolutes of political correctness (certain types of behaviour are just wrong, if not evil). Here we have a complete contradiction to such subjectivism and relativism. That’s confusing, to say the least. Is it true that all we have left of our Western moral heritage is a negative moral sentiment, based on what offends or disgusts us? We seem to be very wary of any claim to a positive good because it may lead us back into destructive ideology, writes French philosopher Chantal Delsol in chapter five of Icarus Fallen. To say that we are morally conflicted is a great understatement. To lose our moral language, our discourse, robust moral interlocutors, is to lose part of our soul, our humanity. Matthew Crawford in his fine book, The World Outside Your Head, notes that it makes us quite vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. This is a weighty matter.
  • Lack of a Story/Narrative to Make Sense of our Lives:  Presently, we are suffering from a serious cultural amnesia. Great stories (meta-narratives), including the biblical stories, have become the enemy, but we need such stories to find meaning in life, to make sense of its complexities and our place in the larger scheme of things. Dr. Alistair Smith, professor at University of Toronto, believes that some recovery can happen for lost youth through an engagement with Shakespeare, a great story teller if ever there was. Brilliant French philosopher Paul Ricoeur speaks much of the importance of narrative, the need to reckon with our narrative (past, present and future), for the health of the self. We ignore this at our peril. With all the talk of re-inventing ourselves these days, perhaps we still need to reconcile with our past, or suffer existential self-harm. The recovery of the great stories can help us in this task as we wrestle with being all too human.
  •  The Crisis of Affirmation: Philosopher Charles Taylor, later in The Sources of the Self, speaks of the twin horns of a dilemma that we face in Western culture, between self-hatred and spiritual lobotomy. If we believe in moral norms/standards of conduct, we may feel depressed that we cannot seem to live up to even our own standards–this leads to guilt, shame and self-loathing. We face the moral gap between our ideals and our personal moral capacity. On the other hand, we can do serious self-damage by cynically giving up on morality altogether–a spiritual lobotomy that leads to cynicism and ultimately nihilism. Taylor wisely claims that morality, spirituality and identity are inter-twined. Nihilism, the loss of meaning (Jean Paul Sartre’s empty bubble on the sea of nothingness), is not healthy for anyone–it is an enormous emotional black hole. How can we love the world and love ourselves in the midst of the world’s (and our own) brokenness and imperfections? If there is no appeal to grace within this dilemma, we are painfully, existentially stuck. That is a terrifying fate indeed. Perhaps a transcendent turn to agape love offers a way out, suggests Taylor.
  • Addiction to Technology, and easy access entertainment. Are we entertaining ourselves to death as sociologist Neil Postman claimed years ago? We are currently developing a human attachment problem and  attention deficit syndrome from our obsessive engagement with our smart phones, video games and Netflix. We are dis-engaged from other persons and this is definitely hurting us in so many ways. Simon Sinek has a brilliant, viral YouTube video on ‘Millennials and the Workplace’, adding some humour to a serious problem. . He points out a sense of entitlement which makes young Millennials vulnerable to disappointment and discouragement. See also Craig Gay’s fine 2018 book Modern Technology and the Human Future: a Christian Appraisal for a great overview the issues under this subject, or consult the famous American philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann. We should pay attention to the dark side of our wonderful technology.
  • Nihilism, (soft and hard) results from the ideologies of scientism, moral relativism, late Capitalist hyper-consumerism. In today’s secular culture, there is is a tragic loss of transcendence, an implosion into the self, and thereby a trivialization of self. Many students today are self-proclaimed soft ontological antirealists, epistemological sceptics, perspectivalists, constructivists and moral intuitionists, notes top Notre Dame sociology scholar Christian Smith in Souls in Transition. Others have a therapeutic concept of a deity which is quite reductionistic. These are the ingredients of a self-concept of nihilism; it will make us numb. What and who can we trust?
  • Performance Anxiety results from loss of a strong moral identity and a lack of good moral interlocutors. School and future work becomes a substitute, filling the vacuum,  through the university and the corporate bottom line–the agenda is quantitative performance. It is all about marks and work productivity. We are objectified. Matthew Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) notes that this can create huge anxiety and even depression. There is a loss of being valued for who I am uniquely, for my character, my aspirations, my personhood, or my sense of humour. This is a good reason to figure oneself out before taking that first job. Otherwise slavery might be your lot. We objectify reality far too much, and thereby we also become reduced to objects.
  • Wounded Male Soul/Self: Research shows that boys are growing up with a load of guilt for all that they as a sex have supposedly done wrong. In the age of feminism and # Me Too, there is a lingering self-doubt and shame that they carry, in combination with a lack of self-discipline and relational health/emotional intelligence. They need help working through all this, in order to come out healthy on the other side. See Gordon Dalbey, Healing the Masculine Soul.
  • Tribalism: Given the challenge of these Big Life Existential Questions, we often settle for a dumbed-down ideological or tribalistic answers. Who do we hate today?  It is all too much to think through these identity questions, we don’t feel we have the time or energy, so we let someone else do the thinking for us and join a group, a tribe or a cult. This is very unhealthy and potentially very damaging to our human wellbeing, especially when we join an extreme group. We choose a side in the culture wars or choose a reality bubble and fight on. This can entail loss of one’s own critical faculties and individual self. This toxic approach will not answer the crisis of identity, but exacerbate its intensity, and cause huge hurt and divisiveness in the process.
  • A Skewed Understanding of Freedom. There are numerous stories of freedom fighters in the news and in pop culture. We seem to know what we want to be free from (negative freedom), but not necessarily what we are being freed to (positive freedom). Isaiah Berlin recognized this problem. A radical kind of freedom dominates Western culture at the moment, freedom of autonomous individual choice as an absolute. It is a self-constitutional freedom as an ideal of self-definition and self-interpretation. I see this articulated powerfully in Michel Foucault’s third project. But it lacks substantial content of the good, or a concept of love of one’s neighbour, responsibility for the other (Lévinas). His concept of freedom is self-reflexive. He focuses on constructive freedom as part of aesthetic/artistic self-invention, creative self-expression, self-stylization, self-legislation and self-justification. It is all about me and my choices, not about building community, or healing relationships. “I will be whom I choose to be” is the creed, a form of will-to-power. And it is highly toxic towards law, constitutions, institutions, the church and traditional morality, in fact any morality of the common good. I spent ten years thinking critically about this problem for my PhD. This kind of freedom is not sufficient for a healthy society and often leads to harmful greed, entitlement, narcissism or even violence. It lacks a sense of responsibility for the world, society, the corporate whole. Thus, it has led and continues to lead us into all sorts of personal, moral, business and political corruption. In the West, we lack a substantial vision of the good, of character and virtues that we can be freed into. Perhaps Jim Wallis has something to start off our thinking in his important work The (Un)Common Good; or we could check in with eminent philosopher Charles Taylor’s recovery of the language of the good in The Sources of the Self; or Augustine’s Confessions on the complexity and frailty of the human will. David Brooks’ work on character is important here: The Road to Character. 
  • We are Lonely for God: Albert Camus, the famous French atheist existentialist from mid-twentieth century, claimed that he missed God. He himself wanted to, but could not seem to believe in God. The destructive mayhem of two world wars was just too much for him and many other existential humanists. Nevertheless, he was profoundly aware of the grave loss to Western culture that came with the death of God. Camus missed God, wished that he did exist, as did many others since his time. Thomas Nagel is a contemporary atheist philosopher who has the same experience. In his Mind and Cosmos, he states that it is extremely difficult to make sense of human consciousness, purpose and morality without God. Materialistic naturalism just doesn’t cut it, it does not have the explanatory range. A piece of the puzzle is missing, it doesn’t fit well in the big picture. Nagel is searching, at the moment left with a nagging God-complex. We are in the in-between-age of Anatheism,writes philosopher Richard Kearney from Boston College, where the longing for God, the search for God, transcendence or higher meaning has grown stronger. We are still living after the death of God, in the age of nihilism, but today many are open to epiphany, a word or revelation from God. Something deep within the human condition longs for something more. French philosopher Chantal Delsol affirms this for Europeans in Icarus Fallen: they have lived long enough without God to miss him at a deep existential level. Former notable atheist Antony Flew is another example, having moved to theism. We are living into the age after atheism—the theme of another David Caley program on CBC Ideas. That age of ambivalence is not easy to cope with for Millennials.

Along with this musing, I am also reading Psalm 103 with a few grad students, a beautiful poem of King David in ancient Israel. It is a powerful statement of existential hope. It speaks deeply to the human condition, the crisis of identity, recovering the language of transcendence, the importance of story, offering a source for moral agency as well as personal healing. Unfortunately, many students do not avail themselves of such profound grace and insight into the self. They fear to lean into such a generous God. Another conversation with a UBC undergraduate who is fervent in her faith revealed three important things about her student peers: 1. Many Christians on campus are not taking their faith seriously and are sliding away from the divine fire that  provides existential light, meaning and warmth. 2. Some students would like to move forward with confession, but they are stuck in shame, feel unworthy to come to a good God of love and ask for forgiveness. 3. In her social justice classes, she notes that there is such a strong bias against the church. Mistakes have been made, and bad things have been done in the name of God, but this is an extremely negative view that Christians have only done evil. We should raise questions about this kind of scholarship.

It seems so unfair that these social justice professors don’t also read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies; or Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism; Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity; or Timothy Jackson’s Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy to see how much Christianity has contributed to progress in Western culture in a positive, life-affirming, human rights, democratic calculus. Agape love and compassion (I Corinthians 13; I John) is the core value of Christianity, the virtue of all virtues, but this is often missed in the fray of debates on campus.

The Apostle Paul Contributes to a Moral Revolution: notes from Larry Siedentop, The Invention of the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. (2015)

At the core of the ancient world, there is the assumption of inequality. Whether in the domestic sphere, in public life or when contemplating the cosmos, Greeks and Romans did not see anything like a level playing field. Rather, they instinctively saw a hierarchy or pyramid…. Reason or logos provided the key to both social and natural order. It was an aristocratic model, rule by the citizen class.

Jesus followers very soon perceived his crucifixion as a moral earthquake. And the aftershocks of that earthquake continue into our own time. Followers of Jesus began to claim that his sacrificial life and death amounted to a dramatic intervention in history, a new revolution of God’s will. Understanding that revelation would, in due course, provide crucial underpinning for what we understand as the nature and claims of the individual. It provided the individual with a hold on reality. (58)

Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality…. Paul spoke of the Christ as offering salvation to all humanity. ‘The Christ’ stood for the presence of God in the world…. Paul felt he had discovered something crucial–the supreme moral fact about humans–which provided the basis for reconstructing human identity, opening the way to what he called ‘a new creation’…. In Paul’s eyes, the Christ reveals God acting through human agency and redeeming it. (58-9)

Through an act of faith in the Christ, human agency can become the medium of God’s love–which Paul sometimes calls ‘faith acting through love’. The faith accepting that love amounted to an inner crucifixion, from which could emerge a transformed will, embodied in the person of Jesus. For Paul it was a personal transaction, the creation of another, better self…. It is an invitation to see a deeper self, an inner union with God. It offers to give reason itself a new depth. Rationality loses its aristocratic connotations. It is associated not with status and pride but with a humility which liberates.  (59, 60)

Paul wagers on human equality. It is a wager that turns on transparency, that we can and should see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. It reveals the universal availability of a God-given foundation for human action, the free action of love…. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus amounted to the discovery of human freedom–of a moral agency potentially available to each individual. (60)

Paul grafts a new abstractness onto Jewish thought. It is an abstractness that would foster Christian understanding of community as the free association of the wills of morally equal agents,… the ‘body of Christ’. The metaphor conjures up a mystical union which moralizes individual wills by relating them to the source of their being. (61)

What Paul did, in effect, was to combine the abstracting potential of later Hellenistic philosophy–its speculations about a universal or ‘human’ nature–with Judaism’s preoccupation with conformity with a higher or divine will. In order to do so, Paul ceases to think of that will as an external, coercive agency. For him, the death of Christ provides the symbol and the means of an inner crucifixion, of leaving behind the life of ‘the flesh’ for the life of ‘the spirit’, that is, leaving behind inclinations and desires that will die with the flesh…. Paul overturns the assumption of natural inequality by creating an inner link between the divine will and human agency…. That fusion marks the birth of a ‘truly’ individual will, through the creation of conscience. (61)

Paul claims to have found this standard and force for individual agency. Now the identity of individuals is no longer exhausted by the social roles they happen to occupy. The gap marks the advent of the new freedom, freedom of conscience. But it also introduces moral obligations that follow from recognizing that all humans are children of God…. Paul creates a new basis for human association, a voluntary basis–joining humans through loving wills guided by an equal belief. In his eyes, the motivating power of love is the touch of divinity within each of us….Love creates what Paul calls the mystical union in the body of Christ. (62)

Paul thus attaches to the historical figure of Jesus a crucial moment in the development of human self-consciousness…. Paul’s Christ carries a revolutionary moral message. The Christ is a God-given challenge to humans to transform their concept of themselves and reach for moral universality. Through faith, they can achieve a moral rebirth…. It provided an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’, through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group…. The self can and must be reconstructed…. It called for human relationships in which charity overcomes all other motives. (63)

Since the time of Paul, Christian thought had been directed to the status and claims of humans as such, quite apart from the roles that they might occupy in a particular society. It is hardly too much to say that Paul’s conception of deity provided the individual with a freehold in reality. It laid a normative foundation for individual conscience and its claims. (152)

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