Some people seem to find that peculiar or irrational or just plain incomprehensible. But how peculiar is it really, when one considers all of the things we humans attach our identity to: jobs, professions, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnic origins, place of birth, place of residence, political persuasion or party affiliation, educational level or intellectual accomplishments, physical appearance, even the sports teams we follow or what foods we eat (or refuse to eat). We seldom, I think, sit down and contemplate how central these things really are to who we are or perceive ourselves to be.
I self-identify as a believer in God—specifically, a Bahá’í. Because I’m a Bahá’í, my identity and what I build it around is exactly the sort of thing I’m encouraged to contemplate. I also self-identify as a mother, wife, writer, and musician—specifically, as a singer, and a filker. Each of these things forms a greater or lesser part of my identity from moment to moment. Some are “containers” of more minutely defined bits of identity.
But what connects them all in one way or another is the first—my identity as a believer.
Why? Because it’s contributory to the other areas. I wrote in an earlier episode of Why Religion that religion, in the scriptures of the Baha’i Faith, is a target—a set of goals. Of those goals I wrote:
“It’s the bullseye at the center of the human being that we strive to hit. Could I have come to appreciate these qualities were I an atheist? Maybe, but I doubt that I would have seen it as part of my identity as a human being to work day in and day out to acquire them. I doubt I would be conscious of their effect on every facet of my life, or concern myself with how I should apply them to every situation I encounter.”
Hence, my faith or religion or spiritual orientation, if you will, is what gives me both the incentive and the tools with which to strive consciously to progress in all of the other areas—to be a better mother, wife, writer, musician. The conscious aspect, I think, is important. The scriptures of religion make a point about self-knowledge and self-awareness. Buddha remarks that:
“Nirvana comes to thee when thou understandest thoroughly and livest according to that understanding, that all things are of one Essence and that there is but one law.”
The Bahá’í writings frequently refer to the human heart as a mirror and note that the purer and more polished the mirror, the greater its reflective powers. They also state what should be obvious on a moment of—heh—reflection: a mirror reflects whatever the individual chooses to turn it toward. ‘Nuff said.
I freely admit to bias in this area. I derive a great deal of joy from my faith, but in part that’s because it satisfies and challenges on so many different levels. I can think of no negatives to having an identity that is grounded in a process of conscious transformation. For one thing that process is infinite. You never use it up, it doesn’t fade with age, you don’t lose it if the stock market crashes, or if you lose your job, or if your marriage crumbles, or if the Muse deserts you—the words won’t come and the music won’t play. In fact, you may be even more aware of the process in the throes of some difficulty.
Well, I can think of one negative of the above. It’s work. It’s a lot like being a student. What I am studying is being human.
One of my favorite passages of Bahá’í scripture, is one in which Bahá’u’lláh warns of basing identity on the wrong things—things that perish, things that may even be harmful. He concludes:
“For every one of you his paramount duty is to choose for himself that on which no other may infringe and none usurp from him. Such a thing—and to this the Almighty is My witness—is the love of God, could ye but perceive it. Build ye for yourselves such houses as the rain and floods can never destroy, which shall protect you from the changes and chances of this life.” — Gleanings CXXIII
It goes hand-in-hand with Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortation to “translate that which hath been written into reality and action….”
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
This is not easy advice to follow. It’s perilously easy to become attached to the things and people around us such that they begin to define who we are. Many people are attached to their political parties or to particular politicians whose identities (at least publicly) seem to mirror their own in some way. Even in the realm of faith, it’s easy to identify with outward forms, rituals, and doctrines—and I think this is what secularists quite rightfully decry when they see it in the religious sphere. Those outward forms change, and if we attach our identities to them rather than to the process of transformation that the Revealers of religion have universally encouraged, then we may find ourselves in a constant battle to maintain those forms.
If we look at those outward forms and trappings of religion as if they were religion, itself, then it’s no wonder our secular friends may wonder what possible benefits we can derive from our faith.
Next time: Religion as a source of awe.