As Christmas Eve approaches, the usual pundits have appeared claiming that our holy day is nothing more than a repackaged pagan bacchanalia. Such assertions are, of course, easily dismissed by those willing to do a little research. But what’s more intriguing is the growing desire to rehabilitate paganism in the first place. Some want to “take back Christmas” and return it to its supposed origin, whether that be Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, or some sort of Celtic or Germanic solstice celebration (never mind the fact that none of the sects that held such feasts have survived into modernity, and so any rehabilitation would necessarily be more of an archaeological dig than a religious restoration). This trend reflects a movement in human consciousness that has been waxing the past few centuries, and perhaps is now reaching out towards its zenith: the desire to forge one’s own identity.
The evolution of the self is a primary topic of philosophical engagement. In his work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor examined the transition of self-identity from antiquity until today. Whereas in the ancient world, a person’s identity was rooted in his connection to various hierarchies of community (family, village, nation, the gods), and to his duty to achieve the good within these societal spheres, the Reformation and Enlightenment would tear down these hierarchies and place the individual—and his search for authenticity—at the center. Each person became arbiter of the good. Without an agreed-upon ethic by which to understand the world, we were left with what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “subjective emotivism”: our sentiments governing all things. And without a defined identity, we became free to define it for ourselves.
In the late twentieth century, the rise of identitarianism led to the proliferation of subcultures: greasers, beatniks, hippies, b-boys, metalheads, goths, skinheads, skaters, etc. In the 1986 movie Sid and Nancy, one of the characters, a black punkrocker from London, declares, “I ain’t gonna be a punk no more…I’m gonna be a rudeboy, like my dad.” It became common for youth to choose and switch their identity based on fashion and music, and sometimes ideology. Longing for community, they banded together in gangs: “Now the music divides us into tribes / You grew your hair / So I grew mine,” laments Win Butler of Arcade Fire in the song Suburban War. Individual identity did not nullify the desire for community, it simply made it more difficult to obtain.
Much of the neurosis of our society is rooted in the tyranny of choice. Rather than freeing us, abundant choice enslaves us and makes it more difficult to function. Yet even when this is made clear, we refuse to abandon the idol. Choice is what makes America great. Choice is what distinguishes us from the animals. Choice is what makes us better than our forebears. They could not choose their own identity, and therefore must have lived brutish, meaningless lives (we imagine). But to believe so would be to confuse identity with agency. Spartacus chose to raise up an army of fellow slaves, but never ceased to be Spartacus. I am certain he never laid awake at night wondering who he really is.
But what of the phenomenon of conversion? Simon Bar Jonah became Peter, and Saul of Tarsus became Paul. Is this not the beginning of a new way of seeing the self, of choosing a new identity? Perhaps in one sense, for those early Christians were often cut-off from their own people for choosing Christ. But their choice was not predicated upon a journey of self-discovery; and it certainly was not a reflection of their personal likes and dislikes. They encountered the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in all his glorious splendor, and could not turn back whatever the cost. It was not something hidden within them they sought to reveal, but someone beyond them they longed to commune with. Their self-perception and placement within the hierarchy of the cosmos—and their responsibility towards every sphere of society—became more salient, not less. This has nothing in common with middle-class teenagers surgically altering their bodies in response to dysmorphia.
The more we conflate identity with agency, the more we chase after complete autonomy. And the more we try to measure everything according to our personal desires, the more community breaks down. A society cannot survive without culture, and a culture cannot thrive without a common vision. Ultimately, such a world either devolves into warring tribes uneasily united by their newly-forged identities, or disintegrates into utter chaos.
Is there a solution to this dilemma? For society-at-large, unlikely. But for Orthodox Christians residing in Babylon, I believe so. The experience of the early saints must become our experience. As they flourished under the hegemony of the Roman Empire, so can we flourish here and now. We need not reject every aspect of our American identity, merely those things that oppose the Gospel. And we certainly should not forego our responsibility to others; rather, our faith should magnify our duties. Our religion is not an opportunity for Live Action Role Playing. And neither is our identity a canvas upon which we paint whatever we desire, or something we fashion based on our interests; our identity is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).