We don’t believe in Hell. We scarcely believe in Heaven. Life, in modern doctrine, has no orientation to anything outside of itself.
Given this, one would think we would abandon our concept of the person as a pilgrim, wayfarer, and adventurer. If life has no destination, only the deliberately sappy would call it a journey — except, perhaps, in the limited sense in which drunk-driving a suburban around a small, sad strip-mall might be designated as a road trip.
The opposite is the case. That “life is an adventure” has become one of the few unargued doctrines of our self-help books. That “life is a journey” is the go-to comfort card your ex-Catholic aunt hands you as you mourn some sickness or loss. The idea that life is ordered towards some ultimate destiny hasn’t been shirked. The removal of Heaven, Hell, and their attendant joys and grievances has not erased our primordial perception of human existence as being-for and being-towards — aimed like a two-legged arrow at a final target. The loss of a robust conception of the afterlife has left a hole in our thinking, a hole we fill with other goals, other targets — other ultimate destinies.
What, then, is the ultimate destiny of an afterlifeless modern? The desire to be saved is now fulfilled in the desire to “be ourselves.” We used to adventure to find our Maker — now we adventure to find ourselves. Identity has replaced Heaven as the goal of human life.
It works rather well. Heaven is a state of blessedness — a place for good people. Identity, similarly, is a state of blessedness. By referring to “who we really are” we almost exclusively refer to a pure, blameless core of our being — as in, “yes, I was a drunken pile of garbage last night, but that’s not the real me.” “The real me” remains “a good person” despite the habits of “not-the-real-me” at parties.
Why do we presume that our “true selves” are not cowardly, stupid meatheads, intolerable to pleasant company? Why, when we lay claim to an identity-group, do we give it an air of purity, as if its mere being-our-identity is a sufficient claim to goodness — never mind whether the black community, Christian community, steelworking community, or genderfluid community are a confederacy of dunces rather than a choir of angels. No one who travels to India to “find themselves” finds out that they’re “bad.” Only our imitation of salvation explains why we imagine digging in our inner psyche infallibly produces a saint rather than a lost soul.
Heaven transcends change and decay — in its bosom, blessed souls subsist and persist, forever and ever. Identity is likewise described. It is that core of the person that remains unaffected by change. We nod along with the self-help preachers who strip from our lives all that is contingent and changeable with the goal of revealing the value of naked, lonely selves — “You are not your car. You are not your job. You are not your body. You are not your past mistakes.” You, it seems, are the changeless ego that transcends changeable circumstances. Again, our imitation of salvation explains why we imagine that “who we really are” exists as something beyond time, beyond the sum total of our daily actions, always waiting for us to “find ourselves.”
The blessed, unchanging state of Heaven is not taken by the timid. Our forefathers ordered their lives as a sojourn through a valley of tears towards its mighty gates. Identity is a task as well. We are encouraged, almost upon the first, staggered blinks of conscious life, to “be ourselves.” We are reprimanded not to “lose ourselves” and if we do, we are to “find ourselves.” The primary vice — Hell, if you will — is to be inauthentic, a phoney and a fake. The primary virtue — our human Heaven — is to, with heroic effort, attain authenticity.
Heaven has the difficulty of only being a certainty once you get there. The transcendent goal of this life cannot be proven within this life any more than a football victory can be confirmed before the final whistle. Identity too has the damnable difficulty of being unattainable by the living. There are, after all, no objective criterion for determining whether you are “being yourself.” Even if a man gets the strong feeling that he has finally “become himself, become authentic” — give him a year. He’ll look back and cringe. He’ll disown the poser he took as his “true self.” Only death, the final fix and the great freeze of further changes renders a man what he is — the sum total of a finished life.
Orthodox Christianity practiced the knowledge of death as the only entry to Heaven, praying for a “good death” and seeking martyrdom — a death that attains salvation. Moderns, in search of their selves, appropriate these Christian practices with varying levels of success, following the pop-star commandment to live “as if today were your last day,” conscious that we “only live once.” This is not an injunction to go to repent and believe in the Gospel, but to do those things you’ve always wanted to do, to see the world, to apologize to your parents — to be who you really are before it’s too late. Only our imitation of salvation explains why we believe that the knowledge of our death will prompt us to be our true selves rather than nihilists and hedonists.
One can see a line between salvation and the self drawn within the Christian tradition. Augustine comes to mind, with his argument that God is “within,” and that a turn towards the inner life of the mind reveals Christ waiting for his beloved. But this tradition never identified finding salvation with finding the inner self. At the bottom of the well of self-reflection is not the ego, but the alter — Christ, “in whom we…have our being” and our salvation. St. Paul makes the difference explicit: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” If Christian orthodoxy makes a connection between the self and salvation it is through the sacrifice of the self, the shucking off of the psychological “me” to become — through imitation and the Father’s loving adoption of the human person into the life of the Holy Trinity — Christ. To touch the moment when our theology of identity first became possible, we’ll have to touch a historical moment in which the ego was given equal or greater significance than the divine alter.
Emmaus Academic recently release a new translation of Lutheran convert Paul Hacker’s Faith in Luther.” Hacker points out that, for Luther, man’s ultimate concern for his salvation is of no avail unless the Christian is convinced that Jesus Christ’s gift of salvation is for me. Luther shifts the focus of salvation away from the logic of the New Testament — in which Christ the Bridegroom marries his Bride the Church, making her his body, of which I am the member. He inserts an individualism that makes the “us” and “we” language of St. Paul into the mere occasion for reminding us of the “I,” and the “me” who is saved. In Luther’s Creed in his Small Catechism, we read: “I believe that Jesus Christ…is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins…in order that I may be wholly his own, and live under Him in his kingdom.” Hacker argues that “where the exposition speaks of other creatures or believers, it declares that what applies to the person professing the faith holds good of others also.” The salvation of others becomes a kind of extrapolation of the first-hand experience of the believing ego: “the holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel…even as He calls…the whole Christian Church.”
Luther’s doctrine of faith is more than a shift in emphasis from the Bride of Christ to the believing individual. He argues “if you find your heart confident that the work is agreeable to God, then it is good,” and if “the conscience does not dare to know for certain or be confident that this or that is agreeable to God then it is certain that it does not please him.” For a work to be pleasing to God, one must be inwardly confident that it is, in fact, pleasing. It is the individual’s certitude, and not simply the objective facts, that seizes salvation.
Such doctrines puzzled Luther’s inquisitor, Thomas Cajetan. Reviewing Luther’s argument that “the sacraments bring damnation to the contrite person if he does not believe he is being absolved,” he commented prophetically: “This implies building a new Church.” In Luther, human psychology becomes a guarantor of salvation. The ultimate concern of life — that one is saved — is no longer an objective state attainable by conformity with God’s gift of salvation. It is one’s own belief that saves. Heaven is attained by a turn towards the ego — not simply a turn towards God. “As a man believes, so he has,” says Luther. In one teaching, an other-directed, outward-reaching hope and trust in the gift of salvation turns into a self-directed, inward-reaching trust in the power and certitude of one’s own believing — or at least into the attempt to trust. Luther’s writings show that he found the commandment to believe in his believing an agonizingly difficult one to maintain.
Blaming Luther for one’s problems is a time-honored Catholic tradition. And admittedly, it is a long road from Luther to our current theology of identity; to the biological male who is a woman on the basis of psychological certitude; to our current, post-Christian desire to “be ourselves.” But without Luther’s elevation of psychological certitude to a necessary and sufficient condition for the salvation of our souls, our current conception of identity would be unthinkable. Reformation theology turns the Church inwards. Rinsed and washed of supernatural trappings, the post-Christian still stands marked by Martin Luther. We still turn inward, looking for a true, eternal state of blessedness, one that we seize and claim on the basis of our psychological certitude. We don’t call it salvation — we call it our self.
In this sense, we can understand the current lack of understanding between liberals and conservatives on the notion of the givens of existence as a rehashed, hurriedly-secularized version of the “faith and works” debate. For Luther, works “avail not.” Only belief (or, more specifically, belief in one’s belief) attains salvation. For the Catholic faith, following the epistle of James, “faith without works is dead” — that is, a faith that is merely psychological is not saving faith. Saving faith is the faith of the whole human person, who is more than his psyche and its convictions, who is, in fact, a unity of mind, spirit, and body and therefore only is in daily, lived, acts that manifest the person in the world. Our current debate about identity is this very same debate — we have only switched the terms. The man who argues that it does not matter how he is manifested to the world, that he is, in the certitude of inner feeling, a woman, is taking essentially Lutheran position — faith attains identity, not works. The bewildered Christian who argues that psychological data is not sufficient to make a claim about the identity of the total person — who is after all, in the world as a body, a history, a relation to a community and the member of family — he takes up the Catholic side of the debate, arguing that psychological certitude about the nature of the person is dead without a manifestation of the person as an object in the world. And so it goes, modernity as product of Christian history, detached from the God who gave reason to its debates.
It is always seemed odd that the Church, addressing the question of “identity,” essentially dodges the question of how we can determine whether one truly is a homosexual or a heterosexual — or, by extension, a transgendered or genderfluid person. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it: “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation…Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” This is a corrective to the Lutheran turn. It roots identity, not in psychological certainty or uncertainty, but in an objective, external, historical, and embodied relational reality — our relationship with God. Only in this Catholic perspective can our identity also be our salvation.