By Paul. D Miller
Let me tell you a story. There was once a young man who had a comfortable, loving home. But one day his home was attacked, and everything he held dear was threatened. He was forced to go on a perilous journey into the dangerous unknown, unsure of himself and doubting who he was in this new world.
And so as he ventured forth, he also ventured within. He delved inside himself to learn who he was and what he was called to be. As he did so, he discovered something remarkable.
As he found out who he was, he also discovered a new power. Just in time too: with his newfound power, he faced down the dangers of the world, made his home safe, and returned older, wiser, and more powerful to order to his world.
With minor variations, I have just told you the plot to every superhero movie ever made. It is the myth of our time. Our civilization is fixated on stories about the journey to discover our identity, and how the discovery of our identity is the key to unleashing our inner power and mastering our world. The two quests overlap: discover ourselves, and save the world. We face a moral and practical imperative: discover who you are so that you are empowered to face the world. The Identity Quest is the Hero’s Journey. The emphasis on identity is what distinguishes the modern version of this fairy tale from its premodern predecessors: Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf, and Roland did not worry about discovering their identities, but about fulfilling their duties. In our age, identity is our duty and our destiny.
I want to talk today about this myth. First I want to share a little of where it comes from, historically but also spiritually. Next, I want to tease out its political implications and show how it gives rise to both identity politics and to the current wave of nationalism sweeping much of the world. I also want to note the effect of this myth on how we teach the humanities and what kind of education we get in colleges and universities. The thesis of this first half of my talk is that, while demands for identity recognition are understandable, they raise serious social, political, and cultural problems without any corresponding solutions. We are awash today with the problems of the myth of identity.
And so in the second half of my talk, I’d like to propose answers to the questions of identity. Looking first at the cultural aspect, I call for a renewal of the humanities, understood as the study of universal human experience rather than the particulars of differing identities. Second, I look at the political situation. I call for a renewal of classical liberalism, federalism, and the devolution of power as answers to identity politics, nationalism, and the centrifugal forces of tribalism that threaten to tear our polities apart. Finally, I conclude with a note on the spiritual roots of this problem. I suggest where our need for identity and recognition come from, and what the answer might ultimately be.
The Spiritual Problem: Recognition and Megalothymia
Where does the quest for identity come from? Why do we feel so driven to discover who we are? And why are we so convinced that our true self is a source of power? Francis Fukuyama has written probably the defining book of the era: Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Fukuyama traces our identity quest to three things. First, there is a perennial psychological or spiritual yearning for others to know and affirm us. It is not enough that I have a sense of my own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it or, worse yet if they denigrate me or don’t acknowledge my existence. Self-esteem arises out of esteem by others.
But this is a perennial feature of human nature. Identity politics only arose more recently. What social and cultural circumstances changed the way our unchanging spiritual nature expressed itself? Fukuyama argues that two other things helped turn our natural spiritual yearning for recognition into modern identity politics. The Protestant Reformation helped create a notion of an “inner” self opposed to an “outer” self, and that the inner self was the locus of our true being. Martin Luther helped elevate the conscience and spoke movingly of his inward struggles to fight sin.
Second, the Romantic movement argued that the inner self was naturally good and authentic, while the outer self was a shell forced on us by the artifices of society. Where Luther fought his inner being, Rousseau sought to set it free. As Fukuyama says, “The modern concept of identity places a supreme value on authenticity, on the validation of that inner being that is not being allowed to express itself.” Frederick Nietzsche, similarly, spoke powerfully about our need, in an era in which God is dead, to fashion ourselves and our identities like a work of art, to create something new and beautiful for the world to esteem.
This is the myth of identity. We deserve recognition and dignity; we have an inner self; it is naturally good and the source of our authentic being; it is suppressed by society; and thus we have to fight to unearth, express, and receive recognition for our identities.
The Political Problem: Identity politics and nationalism
Fukuyama argues these are the psychological roots behind identity politics, nationalism, Islamism, and more. These psychological dynamics clearly have political implications. First, when we delve inward in search of our identities, we usually find things that we hold in common with others: our gender, our ethnicity or race, our religion, our language and culture. When we seek to express these things, we find solidarity with others expressing similar identities. That is why identity movements are movements of the group, not the individual. Very few of us are truly, completely unique. The irony is strong: no movements are more homogenous and conformist than movements to express who we authentically are.
Second, our drive for recognition is not limited to relationships among the family or tribe. We take it into the public square. As Fukuyama says:
Because human beings naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics, in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth.
We express identity and look for recognition and validation in the public square. In our day, this drive takes many forms. When minority groups do this, we call it identity politics. When majority groups do the same thing, we call it nationalism. Nationalism is the identity politics of the majority tribe. Identity politics is the nationalism of small groups. In each case, groups of people defined by some shared identity trait look to the public square for validation and affirmation.
Nationalism and identity politics feed off of one another. As identities splinter and various minority groups demand recognition, majorities feel threatened that their polity is disintegrating. That makes majorities more keen to reaffirm their sense of identity as an antidote to the perceived fragmentation around them. As Fukuyama says, “This crisis of identity leads…to the search for a common identity that will rebind the individual to a social group and reestablish a clear moral horizon. This psychological fact lays the groundwork for nationalism.” Nationalism is “based on an intense nostalgia for an imagined past of strong community in which the division and confusions of a pluralist modern society did not exist.”
But in our contemporary pluralistic societies, the more the large group advances nationalism based on their identity, the more small groups will feel left out and feel the need to double down on their demand for recognition for their group. In this way, the more each group advances their identity claims, the more the other feels threatened and responds in kind. Rival identity claims take the form of an arms race or a spiraling conflict.
We call this clash of identities the culture war. The culture war in the United States stems from Americans’ felt need to seek validation and affirmation of their identities from the public square. Culture war is only possible when Americans look to their government to establish a certain cultural template for the nation, but disagree about what that template should look like.
Another way of putting it: culture war is the natural consequence of nationalism because people will inevitably fight over the definition of the “nation,” especially over who counts as a member of the nation. It is also the natural consequence of identity politics because as soon as the government starts recognizing one identity, everyone will want to have their own identity recognized for fear of being left out and disadvantaged.
When one group gets control of the government and starts to institutionalize one cultural template that privileges one kind of identity, anyone who dissents—or even anyone who is not sufficiently zealous in their nationalism or who feels left out—is not simply an unbeliever or an unengaged citizen. They are potentially threats and possibly traitors. And so those others, in turn, realize that the best strategy is to seize the government, redefine the nation, and turn the state’s power to affirm their identity instead. There is a reason why every culture war witch-hunt in the past seven decades has been dubbed a new form of “McCarthyism.” Joseph McCarthy was the first culture warrior.
The Cultural Problem: Identity Studies
Our intractable political conflicts are not the only consequence of our proliferating identity claims. We also see the effects of our identity claims in how we think about and study what it means to be a human being. We see it in the modern university.
Western education from the time of Greece and Rome focused on the study of the meaning of human experience as preparation for citizenship. Education was a process of civic and moral formation—a process in which reflection on what it means to be human was understood to be essential. Education consisted of philosophy and theology, along with the classic trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric—the tools needed to study and argue about the higher things. These were call the humanities.
The Humanities. Consider that phrase. It is the study of human things. The study of the experience of being human. The humanities are “the study of how people process and document the human experience,” according to the Stanford Humanities Center. It is the study of our felt experience; of the meanings we construct and imbue into our lives and cultures; simply, and grandly, it is the study of what it means to be human.
Note the definite article. Key to the intelligibility of the humanities is that there is a singular and universal thing called “the” human experience. There must be some stratum of human life, some fundament beneath our variety and diversity, that is universal if we are to find meaning in the poetry, literature, and art in civilizations at far remove from our own. Ben Johnson praised Shakespeare that “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Johnson’s praise is only intelligible if a poet or philosopher or artist might, though he arise from within his particular context, yet transcend it to give expression to something timeless, trans-cultural, and universal. The humanities were to be the study of those works that approached such timeless truth, beauty, and wonder.
The modern secular university has largely given up on the humanities. Instead, we have identity studies. In keeping with our modern myth of identity, we go to college to study, not the humanities, but the identities. Universities offer an ever-proliferating menu of programs, degrees, and certificates in ethnic studies, gender studies, and sexuality studies. The University of California at Los Angeles has one Department for African American Studies, another for African Studies, others for American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, Disability Studies, Gender Studies, LGBT Studies, and Indo-European Studies. Naturally, some universities are now offering courses and programs in “whiteness studies” (though no degrees and departments yet, to my knowledge). My point is not that these are bad things. My point is that their separation into different departments reflects the fragmentation of the humanities into the identities.
The proliferation of specialties has led to abuse. Some identity studies have deteriorated into rigid ideological programs cloaked with impenetrable academic jargon. Recently, three scholars from within these disciplines perpetrated a hoax designed to show the shallowness and incomprehensibility of what they called “grievance studies.” They wrote 20 bogus papers that were complete fabrications and successfully got seven of them accepted for publication in reputable peer-reviewed academic journals. In their words, “we have come to call these fields ‘grievance studies’ in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity….Because open, good-faith conversation around topics of identity such as gender, race, and sexuality (and the scholarship that works with them) is nearly impossible, our aim has been to reboot these conversations.”
The collapse of the humanities and the rise of identity studies is both cause and consequence of our political paralysis. Our politics are marked by intractable clashes between rival identity claims with little to no attempt to find or establish common ground for all citizens. In the same way, our higher education has increasingly focused on the study of fragmented identities, teaching us that these particular identities are the primary locus of meaning, purpose, and morality with little to no effort to find or discover the common elements of universal human experience.
How to Meet the Challenge of Identity
The modern myth of identity has brought us to a political and cultural impasse. What do we do about it? Let me work my way back out in reverse order, first addressing the crisis in the university, then our political life, and then the deeper spiritual issue of our search for identity.
The Cultural Solution: The Recovery of the Humanities
It would be easy to say that the solution to the problem of the university is simply to shut down all the departments of various identity studies and revive the old departments of the humanities. Some schools have gone that route, trying to make themselves exclusively into “Great Books” or classical texts programs, like St. John’s College, Patrick Henry College, New Saint Andrews in Idaho, or Thomas Aquinas College. That might be practicable at a small or brand-new institution, though I do worry about how those colleges are preparing their graduates for the job market.
But for larger or older institutions, this solution is impractical. There is no way to close the Pandora’s Box of identity studies, no way to put this genie back in the bottle. For those universities that have already gone far down the path of identity studies, trying to shut them down would provoke an irresistible backlash and possibly a loss of funding.
Second, I’m not convinced that it is desirable either. I’m not trying to tell a simplistic story in which identity studies and identity politics are the villain. Rather, I acknowledge why we got here—because of deep and unchanging features of human nature plus the nature of electoral democracy and progressive ideology—and I’m trying to highlight some of its downsides and dangers. Identity studies have some upsides. As they have rightly pointed out, too much of what used to pass for the humanities was the study of the humanity of white men cloaked in universalistic language. As we seek to recover the study of the universal human experience, we need to broaden the aperture to take in a wider picture of that experience.
The problem with identity studies is that they have oftentimes been indiscriminate in rejecting the past. In rightly recognizing the racial and gender bias of traditional humanities, they have gone too far and denied the possibility of a universal human experience altogether. In deconstructing the old canon of Western literature, they threw out the idea of a canon itself. Brown University, a member of the Ivy League, infamously has no core curriculum. Students show up, dabble in whatever subjects they feel like for four years, and leave, giving students no integrated view of the world and employers no idea whatsoever of what a Brown alumnus can be expected to know.
We need to reaffirm the possibility of a universal human nature and thus a meaningful study of universal human experience, even while accepting the permanent place identity studies have carved out at the modern university. What might this look like? If I were president of a university—or, really, if I were the majority of a faculty senate, who have the real power over a university’s curriculum—I would consider forming a School of Identity Studies to house all the departments and programs like those I listed earlier at UCLA, giving them a dedicated and defined home. And then I would fight hard to keep them there; to prevent them from infiltrating and colonizing other disciplines.
At the same time, I would revive the traditional humanities in their old homes, in departments of English, History, Philosophy, and more. Classes in the English Department would actually teach English literature, like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Dickens. History Departments would teach political, military, and diplomatic history courses, starting with Western civilization—not because the West is the hero of history, but because it is where we are and it is the birthplace of the United States and the ideals of the American experiment. Baylor University’s BA in Great Texts of the Western Tradition, Gordon College’s Jerusalem and Athens Forum, or the University of Texas at Austin’s certificate in core texts and ideas have started to recover something like a classical education in this sense.
And with that revival, I would reaffirm a structured, detailed, and rigorous core curriculum with an emphasis on the traditional humanities and liberal arts. Places like Hillsdale College, King’s College New York, and Georgetown University have maintained exemplary core curricula.
This, the combination of identity studies with a revival of traditional humanities, is the way forward for universities to educate a citizenry to think about both diversity and unity, a citizenry dedicated to the ideal of e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”
The Political Solution: The Revival of Classical Liberalism
What about our political crisis? If the problem afflicting our public square is that identity groups are competing with one another for recognition and validation, the solution is that the state should a) recognize all citizens equally, regardless of their identity and b) extend special recognition to none. Another way of putting it is that we need to recover the ideal of the classical liberal state, neutral between competing cultures, ideas, group, or conceptions of the good life.
The idea that the state has the responsibility to recognize, affirm, and validate your identity is a novel political theory, one that would sound frankly bizarre to premodern political theorists. Since Augustine, political philosophers in the Western tradition had comparably humbler aspirations for the state. They expected the state to maintain order, execute justice, and (maybe) guard liberty. That’s about it.
That doesn’t mean the quest for identity never entered the public sphere. Rather, older philosophers had a different answer for it. Hegel argued in the early 19th century that liberal democracy was the system best suited to meet identity demands because it was the system in which all citizens received equal recognition. By treating citizens equally, the state removed the grievances that so often motivated the underclass, the powerless, the disadvantaged citizen from revolting against the system. Older polities, resting on officially-enforced hierarchies of class, wealth, race, piety, or privilege, never lasted because they always left someone out. The genius of democracy was supposed to be its resolution to this never-ending conflict through equality for all.
The story of how democracy devolved into a never-ending fight between warring tribes is a complex one. Part of what happened is that democracies professed liberal neutrality but in practice governed in the interest of the majority tribe. Just like the humanities claimed to mine the deep well of universal humanity but actually dwelt overlong on the lived experience of white men, so democracy in America claimed to represent all people equally but actually empowered white men for much of American history. Minority groups justifiably demanded that America live up to its creed and give them equal treatment.
But in the process of rectifying historical wrongs, we have introduced new pathologies into our body politic. As we discussed earlier, identity politics can have a corrosive or centrifugal force on the culture of democracy. As Fukuyama argued, “The rise of identity politics in modern liberal democracies is one of the chief threats that they face, and unless we can work our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict.” Identity politics undermine democracy by fragmenting the electorate, eroding a sense of shared citizenship, and pitting groups against one another in a competition for prestige rather than a pursuit of equal justice for all.
Lest you think that I am just another conservative white man bashing progressive minority groups, let me be clear: while I do disagree with identity politics on the left, I am even more alarmed by the identity politics of the right—which is to say, by the rise of nationalism. I am a patriot and a veteran of the armed forces and I love this country. But American nationalism is not mere love of country. Nationalism, in Orwell’s phrase, is the pursuit of “competitive prestige,” it is a demand for recognition of our national identity—and that national identity almost always gets defined by the majority tribe. That is why American nationalism is almost entirely a phenomenon of white Christians. I’m not saying American nationalism is always and necessarily white nationalism. Sometimes it takes the form of Protestant nationalism, as when Christians insist that America is or should be a “Christian nation.” But regardless of its particular content, American nationalism has a long and troubling history of attracting fellow-travelers who most certainly are belligerent, xenophobic, sectarian, and racist. And if you cannot recognize that, you are blind and willfully ignorant to the realities of American history. Go ask your closest non-white friend about American history, and if you don’t have one, you are almost certainly part of the problem.
When we are all looking out for our own tribe, no one is left to think of the common good. Entering the public square to advocate for one’s own group is, in a sense, an abandonment of any effort to persuade the other side. It accepts politics as a simple contest for power and spoils rather than a common pursuit of justice–of human flourishing for all–pitting tribe against tribe to see who can win more from the public coffer.
Even apart from the danger of fragmentation, there is another problem of identity politics. Instead of pursuing equal justice for all, we now have institutionalized the idea that politics is about identity-validation. As Alan Noble writes, “Our focus shifts away from practicing our beliefs to signaling our beliefs to ourselves and others.” Politics is a game of identity posturing. Citizens speak up about, say, refugees not so much because they care about refugees as because they want to be known as a person who cares about refugees. So much of our public square is taken up by citizens and celebrities signaling their tribal affiliations rather than actually working for sound public policy. Our quest for identity is taking up all the bandwidth, sucking up all the oxygen in the public square. It is occupying the time and attention that should be spent on securing the common good.
How do we get out of this cycle? First, we should return to some idea of a shared American identity common to all, shorn of its older racist and sexist trappings. The nationalist impulse rightly sees the need for a common identity, but usually veers too close to a narrow or exclusivist understanding of what that identity should be. American identity should be founded first and foremost on the ideals of the American experiment, which mean teaching American civics is crucial for solving our political crisis. If you do not know or agree with the basic ideas embedded in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, in an important sense you are not truly or fully American. It is to these ideals to which immigrants can be asked to assimilate (not to European culture or Protestant Christianity). The ideas of of the Constitution and Declaration are the bedrock, the fundament of any possible working definition of what it means to be an American.
On top of that, I’d add a working knowledge of American history and a willingness to find your story within it. It is hard to have a shared sense of who “we” are unless we have a shared story. Our understanding of that story will differ greatly depending on our social location, especially our racial or ethnic backgrounds. That’s fine: I do not think we need a common agreement on our national story, but at least a common knowledge about it is an important starting point. And if there is one final element to a common national identity we might embrace, it might be recognizing English as our national language. I am personally torn about this, but I suggest a national language not as a way to smuggle European culture into the definition of American identity, but to recognize that the ability to speak to one another and communicate in the public square is an important prerequisite to a shared political endeavor.
What else can we do to escape the culture war? I can sketch a picture of what a classically liberal neutral state might look like, but it is much harder to imagine how we get there. Fukuyama argued that in classical liberalism “the government ‘recognized’ its citizens by granting them individual rights, but the state was not seen as responsible for making each individual feel better about himself or herself. Under the therapeutic model, however, an individual’s happiness depends on his or her self-esteem, and self-esteem is a by-product of public recognition.”
So the political solution is for us to stop treating the state as if it were responsible for policing or validating identities. The progressive left has vastly inflated the state’s role by insisting that everything is a matter of civil rights, of protecting individual autonomy. They turn every policy issue into a stark contest between progressive rights fighting backwater bigots. This is an unhelpful way to frame a policy dispute. But the nationalist right does the same when it views policy, like immigration or trade, not through the boring lens of what makes the most sense or what is effective, but what protects American identity or makes America great.
Let’s take a few examples. Right now the government polices identity most invasively in how it interprets and applies anti-discrimination laws and how it frames affirmative action programs. To be clear, I am in favor of both anti-discrimination laws and certain kinds of affirmative action. But, to give you an example of what I am talking about, I would be much more comfortable with an affirmative action program geared towards a person’s level of income, an actual material capability, than to their demography, their identity categories.
There is a very good case for preferential treatment for the poor—the poor of any race or ethnicity, including poor white people. But when in the name of affirmative action the state treats people differently according to their race or ethnicity, that is precisely the opposite of what the neutral liberal state is supposed to do, and it directly contributes to the social balkanization and fragmentation we’ve been talking about. President Obama often said that he did not believe that his daughters—children of wealthy, educated, powerful parents—should receive preferential treatment or affirmative action. I agree.
Finally, I think we need to recognize that we will inevitably find some forms of each other’s identities to be disagreeable, even offensive. Our identities will not always be compatible; they will conflict. And when they do, the state should largely stay out of those disputes. It should emphatically not start making calls about whose identity is valid and whose is invalid. We need to get away from the notion that we have a civil right to have our identities validated and affirmed by every other citizen in every circumstance.
We see this in the ongoing dispute over wedding cakes for gay couples. Masterpiece Cake Shop owner Jack Phillips, who is a Christian, declined to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding. It is important to note that Phillips did not impose a blanket restriction on all commerce against all gays and lesbians as a category, which would obviously be a form of bigotry. (To the extent the mooted Equality Act is an answer to this possibility, it is entirely justified, though Christians might reasonably mistrust how it would be interpreted and applied by the federal courts). Rather, he did not want to use his artistic expression to celebrate an event that was against his beliefs. The Supreme Court sided with Phillips on narrow grounds and it seems certain his case will end up back before the Court soon.
Turn the example around. If the cake shop owner was gay and the customer was a fundamentalist Christian who wanted a cake that proclaimed the evils of gay sex or gay marriage—if, for example, they wanted a cake that proclaimed the Westboro Baptist “Church’s” hateful slogan—should the state force the baker to bake that cake? If the owner was Jewish and the customer was a white nationalist or a neo-Nazi who wanted a cake celebrating the Holocaust and displaying a swastika in frosting, should the owner be forced to bake that cake?
I think the answer is no—and obviously so. I think Phillips has the right approach and I hope the Court sees it that way. He did not refuse all commercial transactions with a category of people, which, if allowed, would literally take us back to the days of Jim Crow. Rather, Phillips’ shop was open to all, regardless of identity, but he, because of his identity, does have the freedom and the right to withhold service from specific actions or events, not people, that violate his beliefs. The principle at stake is this: if you believe that all people have a right to have their identities validated and affirmed in public, then you are driving out of the public square anyone whose convictions do not allow them to extend such recognition to all people at all times. More concisely, you are gutting the First Amendment and turning a whole class of people into second class citizens whose beliefs are incompatible with others identities.
This demands more maturity from all citizens. It means we’ll have to grow comfortable not being validated and recognized. It means we have to grow up. But it also means our society will have more diversity. We will have more freedom to believe things and express things that will truly reflect the cultural, religious, and ideological diversity of this great nation. Chances are you are going to be offended by quite a lot of it and I hope the government will do nothing at all to stop you from being offended.
The Spiritual Solution: The Jedi Are Selfless
How realistic is this solution? After all, I argued that the forces driving us towards identity politics are, partly, endemic to human nature. We crave recognition. We want to be known. So long as that is true, how realistic is it that we will voluntarily give up our quest for special political recognition?
I am a Christian, so I have a particular answer to this question. I understand if not everyone will agree with this, but because this issue gets to fundamental questions of human nature and the meaning of life, I don’t know of any other way to answer. I think there is a danger to the modern myth of identity. The idea that you have an interior space known only to you; that it is the source of your identity; that you are morally compelled to delve within yourself to find out who you are; and that this interior identity is a source of power for you to confront the world’s challenges.
St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition, or possibly any tradition, argued that we are defined most fundamentally by what or whom we love. If you want to know who I am, study what I love, or what I worship. You always get a sense for who people are by the tone of their voice when they talk about stuff. When they perk up and start talking with passion, you’ve found the thing they love, and thus the thing most important to them. You’ve found what defines them.
In Augustine’s framework, we are defined less by what we feel than what we love; less by our sense of felt identity than by whom we serve. By Augustine’s definition, then, the modern self is defined, ironically, by its love for itself. We love ourselves and we serve ourselves in our endless quest for identity expression and validation. The myth of identity is spiritual onanism.
Alan Noble writes in another book for our times, A Disruptive Witness,
There is no static, ideal self hidden within that we are morally obligated to discover and express to give our lives meaning and justification. In fact, the quest for the authentic self can cause great harm. We may discover what we want to discover. In this way, we find the “best” of ourselves, or the self that most supports our desires, which is the exact opposite of the kind of self-knowledge that Calvin says we need in order to know God. Alternatively, we may drive ourselves mad searching for something that never existed in the first place. And we move from one identity and passion to the next, trying desperately to find the meaning that will make us complete and whole.
I don’t know how else to say this: your identity is much less important and far less interesting than you think it is. Elevating your inner self to the point that discovering, expressing, and receiving validation for it is a moral duty, the locus of moral meaning in your life, is selfish, solipsistic, and self-obsessed. We need to hear this important corrective to our inflated sense of self-worth: we are not actually that important.
Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6–7). Jesus Christ, the one person who actually would be justified to worship himself, refrained from doing so. He emptied himself in his love for us and for His Father. His love for the Father was so overwhelming that Jesus allowed it to define himself and he oriented his actions according to that love, not according to his identity.
We who follow Jesus are called to emulate his example. “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:22–24. We are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Jesus, to put off the old self, even “put to death” our old natures (Colossians 5:5) and redefine ourselves in the image of Jesus, who emptied himself for the love of God and the service of mankind.
This is not a call to lose ourselves or deny our particular identities. We look forward to when people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” worship before the throne of God (Revelation 5:9), a time when we will enjoy a perfect unity in diversity. But we are never called to make our tribe or language or nation central to our identities or the primary focus of our love. Jesus merits that central place in our loyalty and our love. When we love something else in his place, that’s called idolatry.
In Christ, our identities are made new, and our citizenship in His Kingdom supersedes old tribal loyalties. “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:9–11)
Let me conclude with where I started: superhero movies. The first and still the greatest superhero movie was and will always remain, of course, Star Wars. The myth I shared with you at the beginning is Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” Star Wars, famously, is a modern retelling of the old hero myth, dressed up in space opera garb. Star Wars is a superhero movie in which the heroes are space monks with laser swords who have special powers including telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and more.
But there is a key difference between Star Wars and the contemporary superhero movies. When Iron Man or Captain Marvel journey within, they find one particular identity that powers a couple specific and defined superpowers. In that way, they are the perfect pop culture embodiment of the myth of identity. We journey within and we find something unique, something particular, something specific that needs expression. In the newest Avengers adventure, Thor’s mother delivers the great moral lesson: “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be… The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.” We are all superheroes for embracing who we are.
The Jedi are not so. The Jedi are called to journey within, not in search of a unique identity or of who they are, but in search of the Force—the universal, transcendent, timeless and eternal power that “surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” That is what makes Star Wars different; it turned Star Wars from just another fairy tale to a grand and timeless myth with appeal across the generations and across cultures. That is why the Avengers inspire admiration, but Star Wars inspires religious fervor. In Episode III, as Chancellor Palpatine tempts Anakin to consider the Dark Side of the Force, Anakin pushes back. “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength,” he explains, “They think inward, only about themselves. The Jedi are selfless. They only care about others.”
Selfless. Self less. Jesus emptied himself. He was self-less. He did not make the discovery, expression, or validation of his identity central to his life or his mission. Rather, it was his love of the Father and his service to humanity that called him forward. Yes, journey within, undertake the Hero’s journey, but seek not yourself: seek the transcendent, seek the universal, seek the face of God—for in Him is the power to serve, not yourself, but serve the mission of God and the good of mankind.
Paul D. Miller is a professor at Georgetown University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. This article is adapted from a talk delivered at the Faith and Law Forum in Washington, D.C., on April 26, 2019.