Friday, February 17, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Collect Yourself

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: How much Jordan Peterson have you been watching lately, IC?

Immanuel Can: A fair bit, actually. The guy’s an interesting cat.

Tom: Good. I was afraid I’d have to come up with something original. :) Have you seen him express his thoughts on identity politics?

IC: Yes. It seems to me he’s very strong on the view that one should sort oneself and one’s own life and relationships out first, before getting involved in any sort of collective. So he’s saying to our generation of young people, Don’t focus on complaining about how unfair the world is, or on mobilizing others to do likewise, unless you’re also prepared to address the obvious areas of need for improvement in your own life. Makes sense.

Tom: It does. I’m pretty sure he gets that from the Sermon on the Mount: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” To do otherwise is hypocrisy.

A Bigger Unity

But it’s this idea of a collective identity that I’d like to explore a bit with you. See, there are ways in which we ought to act individually in the world, and that is right and proper. Then there are also ways in which any correctly-functioning individual ought to view him- or herself as part of some bigger unity or “collective”. That’s actually not optional. The question is not IF you have one or more collectives with which you should identify — you do — but whether you correctly understand the loyalties and responsibilities you owe those collectives.

And it might be even more important to understand which of the highly-touted modern collective identities on offer are chimerical and worthless, because you really owe these figments nothing at all.

IC: I think the first issue is government. We are told in scripture to respect our authorities and fulfill our duties to them. But that’s not quite what the people who look to our governments today are doing, is it?

Tom: Well, I think government certainly factors into the collective identity issue in a major way, but not perhaps in the way some people might think. So maybe we could approach this like we’re looking at the structure of an onion layer by layer from the inside out, weighing the biblical legitimacy of various possible collective identities.

From the Inside Out

From that angle, the smallest possible legitimate collective would be family. I’m thinking of verses like “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” or “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them.”

So whether you’re a man or a woman, there are identity-based expectations and obligations packed into your family life just because you’re a Laakonen or a MacLeod or an Agarwal. Your extended family may not be made up of world’s most wonderful people, but to refuse to acknowledge where you have come from is to repudiate a basic fact of your own existence. I mean, you didn’t get here on your own steam.

So tell me, are there biblical limitations to the family collective identity and the responsibilities that come with it?

IC: Well, yes. The only identity that is primary and solid is the identity of the individual himself or herself, standing before God. So if family interferes with that, then even family is not sacred.

Tom: Right. All our earthly collective identities have these sorts of limitations. But apart from where they may potentially come into conflict with our personal relationship with God, they are valid and necessary parts of life, and if we give them a pass, we’re missing out on the joys, responsibilities and protections that come with them.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

IC: So then, traditionally, the step up from family is local community; but that’s not how we roll today. These days, people tend to clan up by a variety of markers other than local habitation — friends, culture, race, gender, education level, politics, online groups, and even just hobbies are more powerful to most people than is local community. What do you think about that, Tom?

Tom: That’s a big question with many parts to it. Well, loving your neighbor as yourself is another very basic scriptural principle, and the Lord made clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan that your neighbor is the guy you encounter as you move through life in the ordinary course of business, even if he’s not kin and not your type at all. Being a true “neighbor” means doing good as you have opportunity. So we do have a duty of care to the communities in which we move and the people we encounter in our daily lives; that’s a legitimate one.

The Identity Buffet

Of the other ones you list, it’s hard to see how identifying with hobbyists, online groups, fellow highbrows or policy wonks you happen to agree with comes from the teaching of the Bible. You might seek to reach those people for Christ, but I cannot see any scriptural justification for defining yourself on that basis. And some of the others can be quite toxic.

IC: Quite so. We’re not free to decide the basis of our own identity or collectivity, are we? Those things are defined by what God created us to be, and are limited to the level of obligation he has spelled out for us. To go beyond that, and to regard oneself as more a part of a collective than God has said you are, is simply to delude yourself. And as you say, that can be quite toxic.

Tom: Well, when you stack these things up alongside each other, you can see how bankrupt these false identities really are. We rightly look at the forty-something father of three who suddenly decides that his “sexual identity” trumps his family responsibilities as a brazen cad or, if we’re charitable, someone who’s temporarily lost his moorings. He’s distorted his preferences of the moment into a little god, and made the world bow before it. That’s warped.

The Citizen of the World

Here’s another one to consider: the “citizen of the world”. That’s how many millennials think of themselves. All other loyalties are subservient to what they believe is “good for humanity”. But what does that even mean? These people are identifying themselves with an abstraction they don’t even come close to comprehending.

IC: That’s an old human delusion, isn’t it? It’s the religion upon which the Tower of Babel was built … the aspiration to a universal, human unity that its proponents dream will make possible power that rivals that of God himself. But it’s not a dream that’s worked out well in past, nor will it work out well in the end times, it would seem.

Tom: Precisely. And scripture tells us declaring loyalty to a higher good at the expense of the lower good is phony baloney: “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” This is exactly what we are seeing. The globalist says he loves the world, but to show his commitment to his true love, he is prepared to sacrifice family and neighbors. There is no such thing as a true “citizen of the world”. There’s only a man or woman who has lost all sense of their real responsibilities. If you can’t recognize the value of real people in front of you, how can we believe you comprehend the value of humanity in the abstract?

Would-Be Humanitarianism

IC: You remind me again of that quotation a biographer made to sum up the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet and (would-be) humanitarian: “He loved humanity in general but was often cruel to human beings in particular. He burned with a fierce love but it was an abstract flame and the poor mortals who came near it were often scorched. He put ideas before people, and his life is a testament to how heartless ideas can be.”

Globalism is heartless and cruel idea toward the real neighbor, the one actually in your sphere of influence, and that in response to nothing more substantial than the abstract flame of utopian idealism. Those who support it often preen themselves as humanitarian and broad-minded, and tell themselves that they are rich in compassion; but all the while, they’re pushing for the immolation of all the real people most immediate to them — their family, friends and fellow citizens — in the fiery blaze of their self-love, on the altar of their arrogance.

Baptized Into One Body

Tom: You know, there is one collective identity we haven’t explored yet, and that’s the Church. In the Church, we have a collective identity established and authenticated by the triune God himself — “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” It’s an identity we did not choose, and it continues to exist whether or not we behave consistently with it. And yet it seems to me that each successive generation possesses less and less of this important truth. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that there is a greater tendency within the Body of Christ today to think of ourselves as individuals in relation to God than at any time since Pentecost.

IC: Yes. And that, I think, is a product of our me-centered existence in the practical and communal realm. Modern life is essentially individualistic, being cocooned in suburban isolation. Nothing in it encourages an experience of local connectedness or resonates with the idea of communal bonding. Maybe we put that on the “Right” side of the equation: it’s largely a product of capitalism, consumerism, modern transportation and communication … and so on. However, the contemporary Left has made this worse, not better; for ironically, while campaigning for globalization of everything, the Leftists haven’t helped us one bit to see our “neighbor” in focus or, as you say, to conceive of ourselves as an essential part of a community. So on both the Left and Right, the idea of church is highly countercultural today.

At the Core

Tom: Are there any limits to our commitment to our identity as members of the Body of Christ? Should there be?

IC: Well, our personal loyalty to Christ is primary, of course (Revelation 3:20 illustrates this, for example). Even the Church cannot supersede that. And as you’ve said already, certain sorts of behavior in the family realm are grounds for censure or disqualification from church fellowship as well. But after God and family, church is your next “onion layer”: it takes precedence over things like government and career, and even over gender, social status and cultural community. So it’s really core to our identity and well-being as the people God made us to be. We need to see that.

Tom: Absolutely. But tell me, does government really form any sort of legitimate collective identity? I mean, unless you’re a communist or a worshiper of the Nanny State.

Wait ... I may have just answered my own question.

IC: No. But if you don’t believe there’s a God, what can you believe in? You have to believe that human collectives will solve the world’s problems. You can’t think anything else, because you cannot escape your own smallness and finitude. So you are forced to place your faith in collectives, in the hope that they will deliver to you what you cannot yourself obtain … meaning, purpose, value, significance, connectedness, love, and ultimately, immortality.

And you think being a Christian takes faith …

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