How different could you be from the way you are, and still be yourself?
This is the sort of question that some students of philosophy find fascinating and that some other people find make them a little bit crazy! But think with me for a moment. List some of your identifying characteristics (from your driver’s license): hair color, eye color, height, weight. If these things about you changed, would you still be the same person? OK, what about your skin color, hair form, and other physical characteristics that we are trained to notice in order to sort the people we meet by race? Imagine yourself, but Black, Indian, Latina, White, Arab, Japanese. Is the person you are imagining still you?
Go along with me just a bit further; humor me, please. Imagine yourself with different sexual characteristics. I’m a boy (and I’ve always been identified as one), but for just a moment I’m going to imagine myself as a girl. I find myself, honestly, having difficulty thinking of the person I’m imagining as me. (Maybe your armchair-philosophical experience differs from mine; that’s OK).
Let’s try this experiment again, this time with something besides physical characteristics. I’m going to imagine what it would be like if I had chosen to major in Chemistry/Pre-Medicine instead of Philosophy when I was in college. Is the person of my imagining still recognizably me? I think so. I’m going to imagine, now, myself as a person who hates having philosophical conversations and loves playing American football. Hmm.
What conclusions can we draw from this shared thought experiment? It seems that we take some things about ourselves, compared to others, to be more basic to our identities.
Philosophers have, across history and in different civilizations, posed questions and proposed diverse answers to questions about personal identity and its persistence over time. The Indian thought represented by the Bhagavad Gita is that I am an eternal being that does not change. I was never born; I never came-to-be. I will never die or cease to exist. The parts of my experience, and of my body, that undergo change over time--growing and aging, for example--are not essential to who I am. This helps the Gita explain reincarnation. Just as my eight year-old self changed or “died”, becoming or “giving birth to” my twenty-eight year-old self, so at some point I (that is, this physical organism) will die and another physical organism will be born: my true self will survive this process, unchanged. (Many Christians believe something somewhat similar about the transition of the soul from life “within” their physical body to afterlife in Heaven, following physical death.)
Many philosophers, however—and not just in the last couple of centuries—have expressed skepticism of the existence of a soul or enduring self of this sort, and some have presented rather good arguments against this view (whether or not their arguments are ultimately persuasive I will not address here). If who I am is not an immaterial soul, some might suggest that everything about me constitutes who I am: from the name my parents gave me, to my sexual identity, right down to my decision to skip breakfast this morning, and my decision to take a walk in the park on Tuesday. But I rather think that had I eaten breakfast this morning, and even had my parents named me Jared, that I would still be me. And I don’t think this intuition demands an immaterial soul (although I might still have one).
Again, we take some things to be more basic—that is, to constitute the core of our personal identities—and other things to be more accidental (that is, less defining) to who we are. If we don’t have immortal souls, I think that means the lines we draw that separate the core of who we are from our accidental characteristics are at least for the most part artificially constructed. I may choose, or my society may choose, to regard my race, gender, or religion to be more important to defining who I am than my eye color or the second language I chose to study for my degree.
With all this in mind, let’s turn our attention to the identity of the Church: that is, of a religious community of Christians. I am a part of a community called Mennonite Church USA. And for a little while now there has been some talk within the community about what it means to be Mennonite (or Anabaptist, a word some of us also like to apply to ourselves). Perhaps there are certain things that constitute the core of our Mennonite identity, and some other things that are more accidental to our Mennonite identity. (I am talking here about the identity of the whole community, the whole Church, not of each of us, individually).
Can we engage in the same thought experiment about the Church that we did about our individual selves at the beginning of this essay? Imagine the Mennonite Church, only…we don’t read the New Testament anymore. Is this imagined Church still the same Church? Imagine the Mennonite Church, only…we’re twice as numerous. Imagine the Mennonite Church, only…we’ve been targeted by the government for persecution. Imagine the Mennonite Church only…the majority color and worship style is African-American. Perhaps this thought experiment can shed some light on what we take to be the core of our identity and what we take to be accidental. I am sure we will have different intuitions. Some of us will find it more difficult than others to recognize some of these imaginary Mennonite Churches.
I suspect that many of the things that identify us, and many of the things that we take as core vs. accidental to our identity are constructions: things that we choose, or history conspires with us to choose to make more or less essential to our sense of self. But I think there’s something important that we should keep in mind when we are philosophizing about the identity of the Church: The Church has an immaterial Spirit whose essence is our identity. (Indeed, this may be more true of the Church than it is of each of us individual human beings). The Spirit connects the disparate parts together into one Body. The Spirit animates the Body, making it alive.
Reflect with me on this for a while, please: If we take any characteristic of the Church to be essential to our identity, rather than the animating Spirit within us that connects us all together in mutual dependence, are we making a mistake?