I remember a night at Sechelt—one so quiet that if a dry leaf had dropped I think I would have heard it. When waves from a boat that passed by over in the channel swashed along our beach, it was as if someone’s boots were tramping and scuffling through the gravel. Up in the storage cabin Kay was already asleep there beside me. Her pain pills were working.
In the dusk that evening she had missed her footing on one of our cedar round steps, severely turning her ankle. By boat and car we had taken her to the emergency ward of the hospital in at the village. An X ray showed she had broken a bone in her foot, so they put a plaster cast on it and sent her back with some pain pills. I was glad that the big ache had finally let up enough for her to drop off to sleep.
But my own mind was still reviewing the evening’s events. At the hospital nobody had known us and we were not the patients of a local doctor. For purposes of hospital insurance I had had to give the names and addresses of people who could testify that we had lived in the province for more than six months. Half asleep I was recollecting having given Herb Carson’s name as a reference. Although the lady at the desk probably didn’t know Herb any better than she knew us, she hadn’t asked me for the names of people who would vouch for this “Carson” whom I said could vouch for us.
This business of identifying people could get really complicated, I thought whimsically. Anyone who identified our identifiers would also in turn have to be identified. If the insurance people refused to pay until who Kay was had been established beyond a wisp of doubt, the whole human race might have to be consulted, all being required to identify one another!
Since I had been thinking about retiring soon, I had recently been inquiring about how to apply for government pensions. They gave me the application forms. Along with a lot of other information I would have to supply them with our birth certificates. More identification!
In my drowsy reverie, I began to picture some lady reading my little plastic birth certificate. How could she tell that I, the applicant, was actually the person whom the card said had been born at that time and place to those people? Even if my baby picture had appeared on the card, it would be hard for her to recognize me from that early a portrait. Perhaps the card was forged. What if I had really been somebody else’s child and had been given to my mother by mistake, while the real me had been handed over to some other mother? “Oh, NURSE! People keep wanting to know who I am! Tell me, please, who am I? WHO?”
At that point my wandering thoughts ended abruptly. A contralto voice over by Pedersens’ had suddenly sung my make-believe plea out into the silent night for everybody to hear? “Who? Whoo-hoo?” Immediately I was wide awake. A great horned owl! Then from the big cedar right above the cabin its mate’s resonant tenor also echoed my query, “WHO? WHOO-HOO?”
At first I was merely startled. Then the ridiculousness of that crazy coincidence broke over me. My internal earthquake of muffled laughter shook our bed. I was glad that it didn’t waken Kay. How would I have explained?
But even in full daylight the question about who somebody is is worth reflecting upon. Think about it for a while. When someone asks you who you are, what are you likely to say?
Your name? But you are very much more than a mere name. A person’s name is only a sound or a symbol that stands for that person. It isn’t the actual person. A name is not a “who” but a “what.” Perhaps you would say something about your job, your work or profession, including a little information about your responsibilities and official rank? But surely who you are is much more than what you do for a living. To some people you might mention the names of your parents or brothers or sisters. But naming your relatives is not really telling who you are. The name of a place you came from won’t help much either. In my opinion “whats” are never quite satisfactory as answers to “who?” questions.
Nevertheless many, many “whats” have gone into the making of my “who”! While I was yet in my mother’s womb, foodstuffs grown in local soil or imported from lands afar were nourishing my mother and me. Since I was born, hundreds of cows have provided me with an untold number of gallons of milk. Countless bushels of vegetables have given up their lives that I might continue to live. How many chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle and fish have died to feed me?
My mental development too was shaped by swarms of other “whats.” I have written of those catch-all cupboards and hideaway closets in my childhood home—and the workshop, the woodshed and the barn. In my memory I can still walk down a tree-lined road and along a winding creek to woods full of white trilliums. That whole wonderful countryside is still part of me. Roller skates, bicycle, motorbike, cars, trains, boats and airplanes helped me to move ever farther into more distant parts of the world. Classrooms, libraries, laboratories, microscopes and telescopes opened up vistas for me that I might never have otherwise experienced. Movies, radio and television introduced me to parts of the world I will never visit. They also played out for my eyes and ears mentacosmic events that had never really happened anywhere out there in the actual world. Beautiful and important things were stored up in museums, art galleries and recordings, ready to awaken my wonder and appreciation.
Time has obviously been a major constituent of my development. Whether small or great, everything that I see, touch or use has come to me out of a long history. Every mineral particle in every plot of ground that grew my food was a product of forces that through the ages broke down ancient rock. Interspersed with those fragments of stone were not only living microorganisms but the remains of myriads of other creatures which, though dead, were yet providing nourishment for roots. Directly or indirectly the life-force of living things is derived from the nuclear furnaces of the sun—and through them so is mine.
The reflecting mirror of a great telescope receives light from a vast spread of the night sky and focuses it all down within a frame of photographic film or upon the retina of a human eye. How amazing that a concentrated image of so much of the universe could appear within the space of my eye! The light from some of those stars took thousands of years to reach me. But starlight is a “come lately” compared with the universal forces which the first spark of creation unleashed. Those primal forces are still thrusting and tugging at me. Other cosmic features which originated during the first moments of time are still sustaining my living substance, making it what it is.
Currents of unknown influence swirl around me from all directions. Cosmic history is always homing in on me. I am a rendezvous of radiance, a meeting of messages, a crossroads of creation.
The same kinds of “whats” that have been so important in my own development contributed also to the makeup of all other “whos,” so many of whom have also been indispensable to me. If I were to do a quick scan of my life, a rapid replay of its turning points and its ordinary routines, floods of faces would pour through my consciousness.
Through different systems an uncountable host of people have invested something of themselves in my life, whether they knew me or not. Contributions have come from artists, bakers, colleagues, doctors, engineers, farmers, grocers, historians, inventors, journalists, kinfolk, laborers, ministers, naturalists, officials, pharmacists, queens, researchers, secretaries, truckers, ushers, veterans, writers, X-ray technicians, youngsters, zookeepers and another whole alphabet’s worth (and more) of helpful people. Who or what would I have been without them? The very language in which I am writing was passed on to me by others.
Who am / then? By what right do I dare even to use the word “I”? I am a pool in which the waters of many streams have mingled. If I were ever to say, “My life is my own,” I would not be telling the truth.
The answer to the question “What is that?” depends on the context in which the “that” is being perceived. A “circle” penciled on paper may be variously interpreted as carbon on carbon, a geometrical diagram, a zero, a vowel, a hole, a disk, a wheel, a hoop, a halo or a symbol standing for eternity. At any given time, what the circle means to me depends upon the surrounding system of which I conceive it to be a part. The circle may not mean to you what it means to me unless I include with the line drawing some clues that suggest the context which I have in mind.
Things and people have several kinds of contexts. They of course always have their contemporary spatial surroundings. They also have “neighbors in time”: their states in other previous times during the various phases of their historical development. Moreover at every moment each entity participates in systems on several levels: e.g., subatomic, atomic, molecular, structural, functional, social, etc. Relationships on each of these levels may run out in many directions.
Which of these contexts—space, time or level—an observer singles out for special attention will depend upon the interests of the particular observer. We must never forget that the observer is also a part of the context of whatever is being observed.
The answer to the question about who I am likewise depends largely upon which of my systemic contexts happens to interest the inquirer. To a doctor I am an organism in some state of health. To a merchant I’m a customer with money in my pocket. During my lifetime I have “worn many hats.” Some people therefore think of me in my role as a teacher. Others remember me as a minister, or as a theologian, a philosopher, a demi-engineer or a writer. For my children the parental role probably predominates. My wife has her own special names for me. No doubt lots of other people have referred to me by names I’ve rather not know about.
My birth and baptismal certificates, my school records, my graduation diplomas, my marriage certificate, driver’s licenses, insurance claim records, income tax returns, credit rating and health records—all of these are links in a steadily lengthening paper chain which has been accompanying me through all my years like a social shadow. For official purposes I am the living body that corresponds to a file with my name on it! All in all, I’m identified with the splashing I made as I swam through the history of my times.
In the movies just about anything can happen. On the screen the extraordinary and the impossible become temporarily believable because we saw it happen with our own eyes… at least we thought we did.
At any one time the camera can “see” only a limited field of view. Anything that is off-camera, outside the frame, will not appear on film. When the camera is focused on something at a certain distance, neither what is closer than that nor what is farther away can be seen clearly. Since so much information about a given subject’s surroundings is always missing or blurred, the moviemaker is free to suggest imagined contexts by feeding us misinformation—clues intended to trick us into believing that we saw amazing events that never actually occurred.
The camera in a street far below draws our attention to a man who is clinging to a window ledge up on a high building. A close-up shows us that his white-knuckled fingers are slipping ever closer to the edge. He glances down grimly and we are shown the traffic down there on the street. Just when we know we’re going to scream we seem to move back and—will you look at that!—the actor is actually hanging from a mock-up window ledge, with his feet not far from the ground! We laugh with relief. Moving still farther back we are shown the camera crew which is taking the footage. We have been watching a movie made to show amateur moviemakers how films are made!
Each time the camera takes up a different viewpoint or zooms in or out, the actor (or a look-alike dummy or a stuntman) is put into a different context. With each major move the meaning of his predicament changes radically.
Of course if we had watched the producer arranging the movie set before they rolled the cameras, the successive zooming shots wouldn’t have given us the same surprise and sense of progressive revelation. Tracing the development of an event through a temporal succession of its former contexts gives us a satisfied feeling of understanding.
To attain a complete understanding of any one particular thing, we would have to follow it back and back through all the contexts which contributed something to its development with time. It would likely be found to have emerged from a coalition of other things whose ancestry theoretically could likewise be traced back to the beginning of time. The past of every thing that had affected it during the whole of its development would also have to be followed back through history. Eventually in order to discover “what” anything really is, the whole past of the entire world would have to be brought into the picture. Such an investigation is of course impossible. If we were ever seeking really seriously to know everything about “who” somebody is, we would find that task to be equally impossible.
Since the whole universe past and present is involved with every tiny detail of everything that is in a certain way the so-called finite individual turns out to be “practically infinite.” Each finite entity, whether thing, person or system, is a complex intersection of innumerable overlapping systems, a bewildering knot where countless strands from diverse origins are inextricably intertwined. The question “who am I?” is exceedingly difficult to answer, for a person’s full significance is tied up with a context which is the entire universe.
From birth the human mind is a pusher and a fence-climber. The warm, watery context of the womb is left behind for bassinet and bath. Crib and playpen will confine the toddler only as long as their sides remain unclimbed. Inside the house no reachable hole or cranny, however tiny or well-concealed, will long remain unexplored by little fingers. When the craze for wheels sets in, the house becomes too small, and the self-propelled junior expansionist heads out into whatever open spaces there may be. One by one various vehicles are abandoned as others appear which promise to open up more distant territory. At last the whole planet Earth becomes too small and the far reaches of space are heard singing their siren songs.
What container will hold this human creature? Fences, walls, and sky-high mountains are only challenges. Each is merely something to be surpassed or surmounted. What are we explorers up to? Are we pressing toward the limits of what we can do in order to find out who in the world we actually are?
When one context has been explored, the context of that context is always out there beckoning. And after that, the context of the context of the context of… How far can this outward-bound, limit-passing policy-pattern go? Will there eventually be an edge, an ultimate rim beyond which… nothing at all? We’re not sure yet. But give us a few more years. I’ll never be able to go personally and see. Beyond our little playground obstacle course of a solar system lies what is for me a perimeter prison—the dark and deadly cold of outer space. Out there probably it’s mostly nothingness.
In the opposite direction, how far can we probe down into the depths of matter? The electrons which occupy atomic orbitals patrol a realm which appears to be mostly a vast emptiness. Flights of neutrinos can zip right through matter as if it weren’t even there. Every subatomic particle thus exists in an environment of nothingness which is continuous with that nothingness which seems to be the context of the entire universe. Is nothingness then our ultimate context in every direction?
Physicists no longer think of “empty space” as an abstract, mathematically measurable, cosmic container within which material objects may be situated and radiation may travel. No more is space considered to be sheer nothingness. In itself it is thought to possess untold expansive energy. This potential power is manifested by its curvature, as well as by the energy which is required to overcome gravitational attraction. Because there is so much energy in “empty space,” many physical theorists now believe that “the vacuum” can decay into particles with mass. In modern cosmological physics the vacuum now comes in several modes. It has even been credited with the ability to create the whole universe. (My! How times have changed!)
Although nothingness is no longer entirely negligible, it is still a mystery—our newly discovered frontier. But beyond nothingness… ?
In order to be movable every dynamic system needs a little nothingness between its components. When the parts of a mechanical system are being machined, clearance space must always be provided for between all moving, close-fitting surfaces. If a bearing fitted exactly, the shaft could not turn. Mechanical systems therefore always incorporate a certain amount of looseness in the form of slack or free play. The enabling presence of nothingness within the joints of dynamic systems should be seen as a local and temporary victory of the Creator over the perpetual antagonist of his creation.
Nevertheless the free play which is always incorporated in dynamic systems also means that no system can be completely controlled to the point of being absolutely determined. The position and motion of every part can never be predicted precisely for all time. When a machine is running, its parts not only move as planned but, within the clearance spaces which surround them, the mechanical parts am free to make their own moves. The situation is much the same as that of animals in a zoo. Although the creatures are confined within cages, inside those cages they are free to do their own thing. The components of all dynamic systems have degrees of freedom.
Creaturely freedom is a reality in this world. Most basic beings, whether living or nonliving, seem to be able to initiate change by themselves. After being perturbed an atom can readjust its electrons in their orbitals. Radioactive particles seem to make their own decisions as to when they will radiate energy and as to which configuration of particles they will take as their way of decaying. In a chemical “soup” of different substances, molecules interacting with other molecules may make and break several liaisons before they settle down, each stably linked to its partners. Sperm cells may be swarming all over an unfertilized egg cell, but the egg allows only a certain one of them to enter it and begin the development of a new organism. A permanent magnet can line up bits of iron in its vicinity. Gravitation could be considered as the way in which a mass rearranges its surroundings as, for example, the sun exerts control over the orbiting planets of the solar system.
If and when anything is not under constraints imposed by its context, it becomes free to do anything it is capable of doing.
According to the worldview upheld in this book, God creates and recreates his creatures moment by moment. With every new creative pulse the Creator offers each of his creatures at every level across the world a fresh set of alternative possible moves. Though he must take account of the whole world-scene of contextual constraints, at any given time the moves that are actually possible to an entity are largely prescribed by the most recent moves of its neighbors. What is open for doing may be done. The big question is one of constraints—”Why not?” Each individual entity must decide just what, if anything, should be done. Each thing or person gets its chance within limits to exercise some degree of freedom.
The Creator pays heed to these creaturely decisions and honors them in his future creative acts. All feasible desires are, in effect, petitionary or intercessory prayers which are answered as circumstances permit. Thus what is both possible and desired will often turn into reality.
Many things are possible which in the long run prove not to have been very desirable. Because so many factors form the context of decision situations, just why a person made a particular choice is sometimes hard for others to comprehend. Why the Creator went along with wishes that appear silly, stupid or downright wicked is sometimes even harder to understand.
In every direction people are hurting badly because of atrocious de-cisons. Perhaps we would feel a little better about the way the Creator has been managing historical developments if we recall that to date the human race, despite its outrageous cruelty and destructiveness, has at least not yet entirely destroyed itself.
Systems are cagey
Whatever takes off on its own will sooner or later come into conflict or collision with neighbors. Where there is freedom there will be strained relationships and clashes. Creaturely freedom may thus be seen as another source of evil in the world.
In this world of systems however a wild, reckless, devil-may-care career cannot last very long. Even the trajectories of high-speed physical particles are soon modified and terminated by magnetic fields in the vicinity. The hottest, most violent physical phenomena are not exempt from the influence of other things. Pressures, temperatures, gravitation, friction and major impacts will eventually bring the most wayward maverick under the obvious control of some systemic context.
Without control over threatening events within its domain no system can long continue to exist. This is true not only for physical systems but also for social systems.
At the beginning of this century automobiles began to appear on the roads. They generated many new traffic problems for rural and urban society. If people were to arrive safely and expeditiously at their destinations, a whole new set of rules had to be devised sad enforced. There came to be rules about who might drive a car, and about where, when and how fast it might be driven. Who had “the right of way” in special circumstances had to be thoroughly understood. Traffic signals and road signs had to be invented.
Where there is a smallish body of water which powerboaters, water-skiers, sailboaters, canoeists and swimmers want to use at the same time in different ways, a similar set of traffic problems has to be dealt with.
At the Exodus, when the Israelites came out from under Egyptian domination, Moses was faced with the horrendous problems of leading a mob of inexperienced, newly freed slaves into a kind of life they had never known. Talk about trouble! The Law which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai came into that tumultuous situation as good news, a veritable gospel. Historical experience confirmed that the Law must indeed have been given by God, for covenanted loyalty to that Law turned a rabble of former slaves into a formidable and successful people.
Upon careful examination, every effective system can be seen to be governed by a generalized version of the famous Ten Commandments.1 Some supreme value, expressed in terms of a given system’s goal and purpose, will always occupy the place held by “You shall have no other gods before me.” The component members of the system are expected to take their membership seriously and to work loyally to attain the goals of the system. This is another way of saying, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Every dynamic system will set up some kind of rhythmic time schedule for its activities and rest periods. This is the counterpart of “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy…. In it you shall not do any work.” In order to carry out their appointed functions, the system’s subcenters of authority must also have their special status protected. The analogy to “Honor your father and your mother” is obvious. The integrity of other component members of the system must also be preserved, as in: “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The component members of a system can never be equal in all respects. Each of them must perform an allotted role without encroaching upon the roles of the others. “You shall not covet.”
Because systemic controls are automatically applied to runaway events, checking, balancing and restraining things and people, this world is characterized by a great deal of orderliness and regularity. People with a “wildcat” mentality, however, resent being “caged in” by these systemic constraints. For individuals who don’t want to be pressured into conforming, “system” is a bad word and a systemic world is an evil world. They want to have a name and they want to make it for themselves.
Others however feel that they actually gain their identity from belonging to or linking themselves with some system: a winning team, an organization with a “good” cause, a proud minority or nationality. Those who realize that their best interests are being protected by their system’s regulatory arrangements are generally grateful for the blessings which systems contribute to the world.
I wonder how the Creator could make a world that would be sure to please everybody?
“Freedom lovers” tend to be proud people who aim to be as self-sufficient as possible. They resent being caged in by the systems in which they must participate. But since they are finite beings, they don’t possess in themselves everything there is in the world. In order to secure what they lack, they must look to other things and people. They can never realize their ambition to become self-sufficient. Like it or not, we human beings are dependents. Since one lifetime is not enough for anyone to rediscover all that the human race has learned through the centuries, we must learn from others and use what others have already invented and manufactured.
Far from being self-sufficient, we are rather components participating in a world of systems. Each component of a system must depend upon its fellow components and upon the whole system of which it is a part. The whole system in turn must depend not only upon its own components but also upon adjacent systems on higher levels. Interdependence is an essential characteristic of any system.
All sorts of problems can arise out of interdependence. To have to depend on something or someone else is the very essence of riskiness and insecurity. Just when support is needed most, sources of help may fail to provide it. The dependent person is at the mercy of the moods and whims of others and is subject to whatever conditions may be imposed by them. Legitimate requests may be arbitrarily refused. Efforts to persuade may be unsuccessful. To be dependent is to be vulnerable. Competent people with initiative resent being controlled by others, especially when those others seem incompetent. To have to take orders rubs people’s noses in their own powerlessness. They ace perpetually being reminded that they have been deprived of the resources and dignity which they believe they deserve.
The people who give orders to others also have their problems. They must be very careful about what they say and about their attitude towards those whose activities they seek to manage. If they do things the wrong way they will arouse resistance or rebellion among those who work with or for them.
Interdependence also means that other people expect us to contribute something to the systems from which they and we benefit. We must pay our taxes, make donations, pay for services, and in general behave acceptably in our context. Some people find such systemic demands and responsibilities very annoying.
As an inescapable aspect of everyone’s systemic context, interdependence is involved in much of human malaise: irritation, frustration, suspicion, fear, conflicting claims, injustice and resentment. But while it is a factor in many of the world’s evils, without interdependence no great good can be provided. Without it there would be no needs, no work to meet those needs, no gratitude, and no “team ties” between people who can achieve their goals only with the help of each other’s cooperative efforts.
Surrounded by other systems, any given system exists in a context that is potentially dangerous. The resources upon which it depends may be taken over or cut off by competing systems. The behavior of other systems must always therefore be vigilantly watched and counteracted if necessary. All entryways into the system must be under surveillance and the system’s own internal health must be constantly monitored.
A system must therefore possess enough sensitivity to detect intruders and the onset of dangerous conditions. Various mechanical devices such as burglar alarms and thermostats are commonly used for purposes of detection, protection and control. Even physical systems such as atoms, molecules and crystals are affected by the approach of other physical entities.
Organisms normally come equipped with sensory organs which alert them to potential trouble as it approaches or arises from within. When something dangerous is happening to one of our inner human subsystems, our autonomic nervous system gives out the alarm which we call pain. Few people manage to be grateful for their pain. They forget that it drew attention to a physiological malfunction early enough for something to be done about it.
The disease of leprosy places its victims in a terrible predicament. It attacks and destroys the leprous person’s pain-alarm system. When a leper, for example, walks barefoot, the feet may be lacerated, infected and worn away all unnoticed. Hands may be terribly scalded or burned because the heat failed to produce the usual quick withdrawal. Many other diseases such as cancer, hypertension and AIDS go quietly about their insidious work for far too long before sudden pain stridently calls attention to their deadly development. Here the lack of pain might seem as evil as its presence in other cases.
The long-term, nagging misery of chronic pain, however, is neither simple to understand nor easy to eradicate. The pain-stricken person usually regards any prolongation of her/his torment as an entirely unnecessary evil. Relatives and friends also wish most fervently they could turn off that persistent pain alarm.
There are several theories which attempt to account for chronic pain, but at this time little is known about it with certainty. People who object to the continuance of their pain long after it has raised its alarm should remember, however, that human beings in general are notoriously poor at attending to threatening conditions, even when they have been given several urgent warnings. See how long it takes for people to give up habits that can kill them.
When “The Problem of Evil” is up for discussion, pain is sure to be among the first few “evils” cited. Many people, however, have never thought of pain as one of the many subsystems which together enable us to become aware both of our inner states and of our outer environment. If we were ever to lose our systemic sensitivity, we would be cut off, not only from pain but also from all communication whatsoever. Warnings of impending dangers would, of course, be eliminated, but so also would be all incoming information about things that are useful, pleasant and beautiful. If no messages could be received from anything or anyone, helpful and cooperative relatings between components or systems would become impossible. If sensitivity were banished from the world in order to take away pain, the price we would have to pay for that boon would be far too great.
As long as our context in every direction is made up of systems, we shall have to endure the “evils” which come with them: inequality, incompleteness, limitation, dependence and sensitivity. Nevertheless all the good things which we enjoy also come to us via some system. Systems certainly don’t deserve to be given a totally bad name. We may have difficulties in living with them, but we certainly can’t live well without them. And since we ourselves are very complex systems, without systems we could not live at all!
Toward the answer
The evils we find in systems should also be found in ourselves, for we too are systems. Why is it then that the parts of our bodily systems normally work harmoniously together while the social systems, which relate individual persons to each other, are so difficult to create and maintain without conflict?
Part of the reason may be found in what lies behind the very question “Who am I?” That question betrays a supreme interest in a single person, concentrating attention upon “I,” the person who asks the question. All attempts to answer this question, however, lead to what lies beyond the person who asks it—to parents, family, job, position, address, education, social organizations, and in fact to the entire universe. All these means of explaining who “I” am are systems which in turn are components of other systems.
If the question “Who am I?” were phrased instead as “Who are WE?” it would correspond better with the way the world is. The word “I” should never be uttered without a clear understanding that none of us is an isolated, separate, absolute individual.
To switch one’s attitude from the self-centered “I” to the system-conscious “we” can make a considerable difference in how the problem of evil is perceived. My objections to creaturely limitations, incompleteness and inequalities largely arise out of my longing to be more than I am and to have more than I have. From this root grow jealousy, envy, greed, injustice and that whole family of evils. When “I” insist on being free to do what I want to do when I want to do it, this means that I will try to restrict the freedom of other people and things if they get in the way of my personal interests. If “I” believe that I am entitled to a self-sufficient, independent existence, I will naturally resent the dependence thrust upon me by having to participate in systems.
From our earliest days in home and school we should continually be made aware of the systemic interrelations that hold us and our context together. If we understood from the beginning that we must live in and with systems, the conflict between our private ambitions and the inevitable common systems would not be so galling. Our lives are not our own. We cannot achieve most of our personal goals without the assistance of both the subhuman and the social systems. Who we are is tied up with the realities of our systemic context.
When I ask “Who am I?” to whom am I directing the question? If I am talking to my “inner self,” my deeper or deepest self, who is asking whom, and who is it that is expected to answer? Because I as a human being am self-conscious, I can step back and look at myself and make a judgment about what I am thinking or doing. By introspection and self-reflection I may thus discover that I am nothing at all, or that the world consists entirely of my own thoughts, or that I am really God! But the inward look will never reveal who it is that asks whom about my identity. A source of light never shines upon itself. A mirror cannot “see itself” without relationship to another mirror.
In order to understand most phenomena we ordinarily seek out the circumstances of their origin and the influences that shaped their development with time. Should I too then be treated as a sequence of historical events? Am I my life story? I remember some of the incidents in my story fairly clearly. Other people seem to take a delight in telling the details about unusual things which they claim I did somewhere years ago. Do I trust their memories more than my own? I certainly can’t remember a bed collapsing under me when I once stayed overnight in somebody’s home! If I am a story, my past cannot be totally recalled or completely told. If anyone ever did attempt to tell it, the story would consist of a mere selection of happenings—the specific selection being biased of course by the interests of the teller.
Besides, my story is still being lived. Since it hasn’t come to any final end, it cannot be totally told. I don’t believe that it will ever end. If my life story is a sequence of events somewhat like a string of beads, some of the beads are easy enough to see, but where is the string that holds them all together? When I ask “Who am I?” perhaps I am asking for the string.
If who I am is to be answered by what I did, it is always hard to find out what one has actually done. Spontaneous words and acts may later turn out to have entailed very important consequences for someone else. Who could have predicted what would result from the tinkering which unleashed radio and television? World War I was a terrible and complex struggle. Its effects have been afflicting the world ever since. The whole subsequent tragedy was touched off by a shot fired at one man at Sarajevo. No doubt the ripples started by something that I can’t remember saying or doing are still being felt in someone’s life. Who can yet say what I have really done during my lifetime?
In any case, my past doings will describe only who I was. An answer might be easier to come by if I concentrated my search on what I am doing right now. But from time to time I engage in a great variety of activities. If you first saw me excavating stone, all sweaty, dirty and shirtless, you’d never guess that tomorrow I might be found standing gowned in some church’s pulpit or teaching in a university classroom. Which of all my possible “present” doings would best represent “the real me”? Does anybody else understand “the real me”? Do I? Does anybody ever actually understand anybody?
Perhaps the answer to “Who am I?” lies in a knowledge of my dearest hopes, plans and purposes. Somehow this approach seems more personal, closer to me in my uniqueness as an individual. Unfortunately however what I hope to become is only “the one I would like to be.” I would certainly like my name to be identified with the “who” I hope someday to become, rather than with the elusive “who” that today can only hope for a better image. The “who” that I wish to become when I have “made a name for myself” always lies just a little beyond where I am right now, so I can’t show anybody yet who really I am. And what if I fail to reach my goal?
Probably in the first place I should have known better than to ask “Who am I?” and then try to answer the question myself. After all everybody knows that I am not an unbiased, unprejudiced observer of myself. My judgment about me is always subject to a “conflict of interests.” It appears then that if I am ever to learn who I truly am, I must ask someone else somewhere “outside” myself.
My predicament reminds me of that old party game which is sometimes used to help guests meet each other. A famous name is pinned on the back of each guest. Their task is then to guess what name is on their back by questioning other guests. I have my own name on my back. Could I recognize myself from what others would say?
Since my existence has been so markedly shaped by the systems in which I have been and am involved, perhaps I should inquire about myself within those systems. But I would probably ask only a few carefully chosen, friendly individuals for their opinion. After all, this is a delicate matter. My self-esteem may be .at stake.
In any case asking individuals who belong to a system is not really asking the system. A system as a whole can’t reply anyway or answer anyone’s questions. Even if a particular system could actually speak, its answer to my question would be only in terms of that system’s specialized function, and its reply would relate only to that segment of my life which will gear into that particular system.
Systems commonly compete with each other, often issuing rival claims upon the attention, time and resources of a shared component. As a married man with a family, I had to divide myself between the claims of my wife, my children, my job, the school, the church and community organizations. Each of those systems made a different demand upon my life and sometimes it was hard to reconcile those competing claims. Which of those rival systems would have been qualified to say who I am?
Perhaps I should inquire within systems of which I am not a component? Neutral systems could at least be “objective” about me. But they might not want to be bothered by me and my silly questions unless I gave them some “motivation.” The line between motivation and bribery is sometimes very thin. Solicited “neutral” judgments are always open to suspicion.
The only systems left to consult would be those which are antagonistic to the systems to which I belong. Somehow I don’t think I could trust the observations of hostile organizations. Social systems can be as self-centered in their aims and sentiments as the most blatant individualists ever were.
Where else can I turn to find out who I am? No use turning to the purely physical world. Things on that level aren’t very articulate and I doubt whether they would understand the question “Who am I?” What I need is someone who knows me more deeply than I know myself and who knows me in all my relationships and systemic contexts. I’m sure that no answer will be satisfactory if it comes from a source which is less than personal. I believe that it would take a “who” to understand another “who.”
The only ultimate answer to the question “Who am I?” would have to be given by an Ultimate Person. All along I have assumed the Creator of the world to be our ultimate context, one with personhood. The question “Who am I?” is therefore at bottom a religious question. It can only be satisfied by an answer which comes out of a religious context.
No doubt there are some people who will argue that my question is a meaningless one, since they can see no immediate way of finding a definitive answer for it. Although I don’t quite know yet what the question means, everything in me cries out that it is a meaningful question. I am an incomplete being straining toward completion. In other words I am a question searching for the answer to my personal mystery. This kind of searching, seeking, desiring, yearning and questing for the meaning of one’s life is found universally among human beings. I have no doubt that I am a meaningful question.
As a person who lived within this world and its history, Jesus of Nazareth was very interested in who people thought he was. As might have been expected, many opinions about his identity were expressed. For one so young his understanding of human life was remarkably incisive and wise. His comprehension of the physical world and its powers was such that in his presence “natural” processes speeded up to become “miracles.” He taught that the world has been created by God with loving good will toward all, and that all creatures have their place in the Creator’s overarching purpose.
In that faith he lived and loved until, through the plotting of his enemies, he was put to death on a cross. The judgment which they expressed about Jesus was that he was thoroughly human, a blaspheming impostor and a rebellious troublemaker. But despite a sealed and well-guarded tomb, Jesus rose from the dead and associated freely once more with his disciples. His empty tomb, the absence of his corpse, and the spiritual transformation of his jubilant followers, convinced many others that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead. They took this as a divine declaration that Jesus was a person in a unique relationship with God.
Many people came to believe unshakably that the risen Jesus had been and was supremely important for all time to come, one around whom a new worldview and a new way of life should be built. If Jesus was to be forever alive in the near presence of God, he who knew so well the will and purpose of God would undoubtedly know the meaning of human lives better than anyone else.
Like those early Christians, I perceive that in Jesus we have identified that sought-after, Ultimate Person who best understands this world and humanity. When all our life stories have come to their endings, he will know who we have been and he could tell us.
John of the Book of the Revelation reported that he had received a divine promise: “To him who overcomes… I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.”2 The risen and ascended Jesus will be able to call us by our real names—i.e., what we have been in the sight of God and what we have been in relation to himself and his purposes.
As there is food which corresponds to my inner hunger, there is an answer which corresponds to me as a question. According to the New Testament, God came specially in Jesus to seek us out. The answer came in search of the question!
Furthermore the New Testament teaches that the Word and Spirit of Jesus are still right here with us and can be in us. Thus the working of Jesus continues to transform self-centered persons into “we” people, whose concern and compassion include every class, race, culture and nation. The result of this kind of inner transformation was in the mind of the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. “3 Knowing Jesus, Paul knew his answer to his own question, “Who am I?”
Inner transformation by the word and spirit of Jesus may prevent people from injecting some unnecessary evils into God’s world in the future, but often that doesn’t deliver them from feeling guilty about past trouble which they caused, nor does it make them feel good about their day-to-day failures. They need hope that there is a way of transforming these past deeds, now that they have been done and are beyond their further control.
We must remember that God is the Creator and that he has all the wisdom there is. His ingenious imagination is able to transform a great deal of evil into good. An artist can sometimes take an unfortunate blotch of paint on a canvas, blend in a few touches of another color, reshape the whole patch and, by devising an appropriate background, turn it into an unexpectedly useful portion of a worthwhile painting. When sunlight plays over a wave-splashed rock, that dull and ugly chunk of stone can shine with the glory of the sun.
God is similarly able to create new contexts for our sins and mistakes, working them up into some new and higher pattern of good. Do you remember Jacob’s despicable craftiness as he robbed his brother, and deceived both his father and his father-in-law? Nevertheless God was able to incorporate these morally shameful acts into his plans for the creation of a “holy people. “4 Joseph suffered many things because of his brothers’ treachery, yet he was eventually able to tell them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order… to preserve many people alive.”5 The cross of Jesus was a monstrous crime yet, wonder of wonders, Christians today sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory.” The apostle Paul wrote, “All things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”6
God can take our disharmonies and, by working them into a progression with other sounds, he can turn them into beauty. Love can make beautiful a child whom others think to be ugly. The disproportioned, roughly fashioned artifact which a child sometimes makes as a love gift for a parent can be seen as something admirable. Jesus said that God can clothe a wayside weed with a glory surpassing that of Solomon.7 Christians believe that when God looks at them he sees Jesus.
Having thus considered the contextual transformation of personal evils, we must not forget how much the attitudes and behavior of each individual depend upon the systems in which they participate. While one system may transform an individual toward “good,” another system’s contextual transformation may produce an “evil” result. People who are entangled in systems that degrade, deride and destroy what is best in human living will find it very hard to break loose into better ways.
Systems can be dreadfully self-serving, undermining existing satisfactory arrangements and even aggressively perpetrating injustice and downright wickedness. For the sake of widespread social good these overweaning systems also need radical transformation. By means of the organization of the Christian church (if the church were what it could become) a great deal of influence could be brought to bear upon other organizations, thus encouraging a beneficent contextual transformation of social systems. Where else is there much hope?
Christians have yet to learn how God has incorporated and will yet incorporate the contextual presence of the physical world, other faiths, and other histories into his plans for his world.
A healing, repairing, salvaging, adjusting, redeeming, reconciling, creative activity of God is undoubtedly at large in this world, able to absorb whatever happens and go on to new positive, constructive achievements. Evil may be evil, but by contextual transformation it can be defeated. Someone can always take it up into another (and perhaps higher) system where it can be used in creating new good. When we know God and Jesus are our ultimate context, we have abundant reason for hope, despite all that we have been and done.
Christians should therefore be able to plunge with confidence into morally ambiguous situations, doing whatever constructive and helpful things they can. When they respond in good faith to real need, although what they offer may be somewhat mistaken and less than perfect, it can somehow eventually be reworked (if necessary) by the Creator into a more pleasing contextual pattern. For what was actually given, a helpful transformation of it can be given later. Thus instead of bearing an ever-increasing load of failure and guilt, Christians can rejoice that there is hope of such “for-giveness.” Knowing that one can be wrong sometimes without creating a totally terminal, permanent disaster is perhaps the most freeing of all freedoms.
1. Exodus 20:2-17 (RSV).
2. Revelation 2:17.
3. Galatians 2:20.
4. Genesis 27, 30, 31.
5. Genesis 50:20.
6. Romans 8:28.
7. Luke 12:27.