Identity and Religion: The War Against the Spirit

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    Who are you? What is your identity? Are you your name, your family, your car, your bank account, the language you speak or the accent with which you speak it?

    Are you that body by which people identify you? Your face, your hair, your stature, the color of your skin? Religions in the most general sense – excluding notably Buddhism, which many term a philosophy rather than a religion – see mankind as related to a Higher Power, an entity much more than the flesh or clay of the mortal body.

    Something not of the universe of flesh, which survives death. And even Buddhism – which denies the existence of an immutable spiritual self – looks at beings as transitioning from lifetime to lifetime in a process called reincarnation.

    At the risk of oversimplification, each religion addresses the question of the human essence as something other than, and far superior to, flesh and bone.

    The orthodox schools of Hinduism, for example, believe that there is Ātman (soul, self) in every being; called Jiva in Jainism. In Islam, Allah’s spirit was breathed into Adam (Qur’an 15:29). Likewise in the Catholic Catechism: “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual.

    The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’”

    And in Christianity, humans are generally seen as being comprised of body, spirit and soul. And yet in this corporeal world, where science elbows aside other answers to the questions of the universe, it can seem as if religion has been consigned to the dustbin, stuck in a past in which religion is relegated to – as the Chinese Communists have termed Tibetan Buddhism – “barbaric superstition.”

    And in such a rigid orthodoxy, science has decreed mankind to be merely physical entities – body, brain and conditioned responses brought about by environmental interaction. Photo by Mikhail Rakityanskiy So in spite of a multitude of religious differences, there are a number of “family resemblances” among people of faith.

    And existence as a spiritual being is one of those similarities. But identity is a complex subject, and if we are not certain of who we are, others are eager to step in and define us, as science is more than willing to do. For example, Joel Osteen of the Lakewood megachurch in Houston, Texas, discussed the importance of identity in a sermon titled “Change Your Name.”

    Osteen cited the biblical story of Benjamin, whose mother, in the pain of childbirth, named her son Benoni, or “Son of Sorrow.” Jacob, the boy’s father, renamed him “Benjamin,” or “Son of Strength,” and Benjamin became a great leader.

    “The good news,” said Osteen, “is that what God names you, overrides what people name you.” Osteen exhorts Christians to always look at themselves in the positive. “Don’t let the negative things people have spoken over you – how you were raised, what you didn’t get – determine your destiny.” Those negatives – “average, unqualified, too many mistakes” – can get on the inside, said Osteen, and limit and defeat one.

    “You have to do your part, and get rid of the old names … When you learn to change your name back to who you were created to be, all the forces of darkness cannot stop you.” He went on, saying “You are not what people call you, you are what you answer to.”

    In the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna was depressed and overwhelmed with negative thoughts. “Krishna reminded him that we are all eternal souls” and cooperating with the Supreme Self brings happiness.

    And so it seems that a knowledge of and connection to our spiritual nature, to our concepts of a Supreme Being, are guide stars to our true selves in an ocean of uncertainties, the gales of contrary wind and wave, the tempests of life in a universe that is oblivious to the spirit and the true nature of humankind.