by William Abbott, May 19, 2016: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Identity is innate. All living things come to be bearing identity. The Latin root idem means “same”; the word is cognate with “identical.” Mankind reproduces mankind, and each species reproduces itself. Reproduction – procreation, if you will – is essentially involuntary, although the human imagination can impose itself on the process and interfere with it. The ancient, universal rhythm of sons and daughters in turn becoming fathers and mothers and reproducing themselves remains biologically unaltered from prehistoric times. This is our shared general identity.
Human consciousness and self-awareness make man aware that others perceive him. The mind of an infant is sophisticated enough to realize that his wants, needs and desires accord him status with his mother and family. From the very beginning he has at least dim expectations his status will be acknowledged. Status is derived from the general identity and constitutes what might be called our individual identity. This individual identity is not self-created but is imposed on us just like general identity. The infant’s cries are his expectations. The response they draw out of his mother and caregivers is his status. Others’ perceptions of us are the only source of status and individual identity – we have no individual identity apart from our status derived from relationships, and it is derived and comprehended through the medium of how others perceive us. We survive and secure our status and sameness through imitation. Infants do not decide to imitate their parents and siblings. Imitation is innate, instinctive, and mostly unconscious behavior.
Status is not merely a human characteristic; it is shared with a very wide spectrum of animals. The competition, sometimes bewilderingly savage competition, between individual animals for status in the pack, pride, herd, or flock, is well-nigh universal. Even in the termite colony, something like individual status exists in the differentiations between larvae, nymphs, reproductives, workers and soldiers within the colony and intruders and aliens from without. Terms such as “top dog,” “pecking order” and “alpha-male” were created to explain animal status behavior but were quickly anthropomorphized because they helped explain human status so well.
Like an onion, the human child develops layers and layers of status relationships. Beginning with parents/caregivers and siblings and extending to teachers but even to animals and inanimate objects such as toys, these status relationships are inherently unequal. An intricate web of relationships where authority is either exercised over the child or the child exercises authority over others forms identity. Identity develops out of the complexity of subordinate and subordinating status relationships within the tribe. The individual as he matures understands his identity from within the context of his tribal/familial identity. The modern imagination imagines identity arises out of the uniqueness of the individual – a fundamentally untrue idea. Character and personality are not the precursors of identity; just the opposite. Everyone is given an identity, what he gives back is the personality and character he has made out of his identity.
The uniqueness and autonomy each individual possesses is not the source of his identity. Human autonomy is imagination. Autonomy is the prism through which we view our identity, but it is not identity. Our procreated nature is the true source of identity. Because we can never “know” how others perceive us, we are left to our imaginations when it comes to possessing status. This leads to all sorts of perverse behavior in the pursuit of power/status through relationships.
Remembering and imitating is how we learn. As we remember, we discriminate between the likenesses and similarities observed. We imagine that this sound, object, action or circumstance is similar to something we remember. Experience (experiments) and repetition refine and confirm our memories and form the basis of learning/knowing what is true. Experience uncoupled from remembering is merely sensation.
History is the art of collective remembering. Remembering something we did not experience but we imagine through a story. In the same way identity derives from status. History derives from the story. Story is indivisible from the storyteller. History is tribal remembering. Myths are also tribal remembering. Myths and History cease when the storyteller is not believed. Unbelief turns Myth and History into fiction, mere stories, untrue stories. Fairy tales are unbelievable unless you believe in fairies, or at a minimum, the possibility of fairies. So tribal identity arises out of belief. Belief that the stories about your tribe, and other tribes, are true is the only way a man can identify with his tribe or any tribe. You cannot relate to your biological father as your biological father if you do not believe he is, in fact, your biological father.
Law, like history, is a constraint on imagination. But unlike history, law is not a matter of remembering, but rather a matter of obedience. Remember the story and obey the rules. But just as there can be no history without a believable storyteller, there can be no rules without “authority.” The law-abiding are in a subordinate and unequal relationship with the law-giver.
The will is the organ that says “no.” In the garden the woman imagined that she could say “no” to God. She first imagined that she would not believe God; then in unbelief she disobeyed God. She exercised her imagination and believed that her identity was autonomous and separate from God and husband Adam. She exercised her will coveting the status of autonomous identity. God is autonomous; His identity originates in His uniqueness. God is totally free. Man is free, but not autonomous; his identity is bound up in his created nature and the created nature of his fathers.
Free will is a negative. Free will is truly possessed by man, but it is used to say “no” to God. Free will is used to choose death. The will believes the imagination when we imagine equality with God is a thing to be grasped, and equality, not subordination, is coveted. Cain’s imagination was animated by covetousness, as was Eve’s. What he most coveted was the status of equality.
Ruth the Moabitess identified with Naomi. Derived from her previous status as the wife of Mahlon she remained the daughter-in-law of Naomi. Naomi, herself now a widow, considered her low status as an alien in the land of Moab and decided to return to Bethlehem in Israel, where her status would be higher. She was returning to her family and told her daughters-in-law to do the same, for the same reason. The three widows needed to return to their respective father’s houses for the most basic status need of security. Naomi could do nothing to protect or provide for her daughters-in-law. She had no status worth anything to bestow on them.
But Ruth will not leave Naomi: “And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.’”
Ruth clings to her identity as Naomi’s daughter-in-law. Her identity as the daughter of Moab is despised. Her identity as the widow of Mahlon and by extension the daughter-in-law of Naomi has become the pearl of great price. Love alone, not some lesser status, motivates Ruth and she will not abandon her new identity by abandoning her mother-in-law. Ruth regards her status of loving and being loved by Naomi as more valuable than any other possible status. She rejects changing her identity. She has totally identified with Naomi, her people and her God. Life itself is less precious than her identity and she will risk everything for the status of Naomi’s love. Loving someone is a fiercely possessive action.
How different from Eden: Man chose autonomy and is separated from God. He chose unbelief and death coveting the status of equality, “and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
Jesus of Nazareth: “‘But whom say ye that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” If… Then…? Our response to Jesus Christ must be nothing less than Ruth’s response to Naomi. We must “die” to all our worldly status and exchange it for the status of belonging to Jesus. His history becomes our history. His people become our people. His Father becomes our Father. “…if ought but death part thee and me” becomes the mystery and the miracle of the resurrection and the new birth. Our lot is totally cast with Him. His Jewishness, His history, His suffering, His death. We renounce equality and cling to Him in our degraded status as sinners. If He will have us, if we believe He is who He is, the King of the Jews, then we will pledge our allegiance to Him and His cause with our very life, and henceforth identify with Jesus of Bethlehem and His tribe.
We know, through His death, that He has loved us fiercely. He will possess us at any cost.