Someone on the Internet once said something to the effect of: “I’m not a writer; I write.” Writing, for example, is something you do, but it’s not who you are. You might really love writing and consider it integral to your life, but it isn’t your very essence–at least, it shouldn’t be.
I’m re-reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section about the social consequences of sin, Keller argues that when societies and individuals cling too strongly to any belief or entity other than God, that ultimately broken belief will become the essence of their identity and will let them down. He quotes Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue, which argues that a human society fragments when anything but God is its highest love: “If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness,” Keller summarizes Edwards, “then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.”
The question then becomes: What is your summum bonum? What is your utmost identity? Our recently endured presidential election season provided ample proof that many people cling so tightly to their political views that it basically becomes who they are instead of merely what they believe. When that happens, civil discourse becomes impossible and anything approaching compromise is deemed impure and even cowardly. Keller sees the problem with this: “If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition.”
I think it’s especially easy for religious people to fall into this trap, despite good intentions. It understandably becomes hard not to transfer the ardent passion attached to a deep-seeded belief in God or whomever onto other less divine issues. But as Stephen Colbert said, the road connecting politics and religion runs both ways; if we insist on forcing our religious identity into our politics, our muddied and corrupt politics will come right back into our religion.
Walt Whitman was right: I contain multitudes. I act as a son, brother, friend, significant other; I study, I write, I read, I work, I create… I identify with all of these roles, but any one of them doesn’t define me because I don’t rely on one to give my life meaning. I can argue with people who disagree with my views on politics or music or religion because my views aren’t me. They’re just the tools I use to try to make sense of life. They can be beautiful, inspiring, enraging, or intriguing–but they can’t be everything.