‘Who am I?’ This question more than any other is at the centre of the human existence. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is much the same question. The sense of my purpose or meaning and the sense of my identity are virtually inseparable.
We find our identity in identifying with someone or something. Here is the paradox: I cannot define ‘my’ identity apart from differentiating myself from other people and from other things. To have a sense of myself requires being aware of the ‘other’ – other people and other things. AND, to have a sense or perception of the ‘other’, ‘I’ must have a sense of myself.
In some worldviews, whether they are called religious or philosophical, the self – the ‘I’, ‘ME’ – is said to be illusion. For example, the dominant philosophical stream of Hinduism called Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism), teaches that one achieves spiritual realization by losing oneself in the great, ineffable ONENESS, and that any particularity or distinction is just illusion (Maya). Your sense of being an individual, or a person is illusion. A story story told, with many variations, about one of the greatest teachers of Advaita Vedanta. Shankara, 8th Century BC, was teaching a Rajah that all things are illusion. The Rajah set a test for his teacher (yogi). The king cleared the roads and set a mad elephant loose as the monk was approaching the palace. Shankara fled for his life in a panic, screaming, ‘O King, save me,’ much to the derision of the watching courtiers. The king’s men rescue the yogi. The king then asks the teacher, ‘How about that elephant? Was it an illusion.’
Shankara replies, ‘Yes, it was an illusion. And so were my screams and my running from the elephant.’ In one version, the monk says, ‘Sometimes the illusion is very strong.’
Surprisingly, Western philosophical Idealism runs into similar difficulties by positing that reality is fundamentally a construct of the mind and nothing more. Ironically, Idealism posits the reality of the self and underrates the importance of the other, with the result that you can know nothing except what is in your mind, and thus what you know is in effect illusion.
Advaita Vedanta, often called Eastern mysticism, denies both the reality of the self and the reality of the other in favour of the reality of the NOTHING. Eastern mysticism has manifested this pessimism of knowing the things of this life in its history of disregard for the welfare of the individual, and by withdrawal from the world, glorifying escapist meditation, in which the ideal is to ‘empty one’s mind’ to ‘become ONE with the universe’. Western idealism expresses pessimism about the possibility of knowing anything outside of one’s own mind in skepticism about reality and truth.
Some will object that I have missed the subtleties that make such views cogent, or perhaps that I have misrepresented them altogether. It is my hope that I have stated the basic views well enough, even if there is disagreement over an assessment of their fundamental weakness. This is not to say that there is no truth in Advaita Vedanta, or Idealism. It is just that one element of reality has been overplayed at the expense of other important elements. To summarize, both schools in effect are saying, ‘It’s all in your head.’ And this is not sufficient.
There are immense problems with holding a view like Advaita Vedanta: We can deny everything, but we cannot deny the one who is denying. This is really the point that Descartes was making, ‘I think, therefore I am’ – cogito ergo sum. And Descartes would have trouble with the Idealist view: We can deny that we can know anything truly, but we cannot deny the reality of the one who is doing the knowing. We cannot know anything apart from our knowing (our minds), but this cannot mean that there is nothing to know and that nothing is knowable. Following the logic of Idealism devolves into the same mindless illusion as Advaita Vedanta.
Thankfully reality breaks into the world of eastern mystic and western idealism to shout there is something more. Francis Schaeffer tells of the experience of a visit from an eastern philosopher who argued that all is illusion. The makings of tea were brought. Schaeffer held the hot water over the philosopher’s head. The visitor became alarmed and stopped his philosophizing. Shades of Shankara -- sometimes the illusion is very strong. Or, maybe it is not an illusion. It is impossible for it to be just in my head. It is impossible for it to be just an illusion or beyond knowing. We may not know all things exhaustively or comprehensively but we can know sufficiently and we can make ourselves understood sufficiently.
The ‘I’ who thinks, who sees, who touches, who tastes, etc. must exist. Otherwise, there is no philosophy to teach, no teacher to teach, and no student to be taught, and there is nothing to affirm or deny. I might teach that what we experience in this life is all illusion but then it means that my teaching is illusion. It is as farcical as the statement, that there are absolutely no absolutes – which is an absolute statement.
What has this to do with identity? ‘Who am I?’ cannot be satisfactorily answered unless we accept there is both I/Me and the Other. Let’s ground this in reality by going back to babyhood. Long before I became aware of my self, my parents loved me, my mother nursed me. My older brother talked to me. Long before I thought to ask the question, ‘Who am I?’, I was given a name, I was fed, I was changed, I was held, I was loved. Long before I could adopt strange ideas such as ‘reality is an illusion,’ or, ‘there is a reality you cannot know’ etc, my personal identity was being formed by others – my parents, sibling, etc. – and by other things – the climate, the food, the infections, etc. Long before I learned to say silly things about existence and about knowing, I was taught to speak, to read, to mind my manners, to do math, to eat, to sleep, to love others. I had a sense of right and wrong, a sense that I lived in a world where there were higher things – things right and good and noble. These and much besides went into affirming a reality in which there is both the ‘I/Me’ and the ‘Other’. Neither the eastern mystic nor the western idealist is able to live life without bumping up hard against this reality.
I would like to have a philosophy, a view of the world that made sense of all these things – a view of the world that values me and that embraces that there is a world in which we live that is beyond the ‘me’, and a world where it matters how I treat others and how others treat me. A view of the world, that doesn’t just pat me on the head and say, ‘do whatever you want; it doesn’t matter; it’s all the same.’ I want a view of the world that calls me to better and higher things and calls me up short when I am out of line. Is there a view that makes sense of it all?
Yes; it is called the Way of Jesus. The Way of Jesus finds it integration point not in an ideology but in a Person – Jesus, the Incarnate Son God. I identify with Him and find in Him the affirmation of the existence of ‘Me’ and the confirmation of the reality of the Other – other people, other things. He makes sense of the world in which I live and He shows me the way. I want to follow Him.