– Who are you? At first glance this seems to be a rather simple question, but in the larger picture of life, we realize that at its core, this question drives deep within the heart and conflicts that millions of people grapple with each day. How many broken relationships and divorces are a result of someone who is on a quest to ‘find themselves’, or how many people lay out on a sofa in a therapist’s office and say, “I simply don’t know who I am”. How many people suffer through monotony each day at a job where they feel they have lost their identity and have become a meaningless cog in the machine? Countless men and women grapple with the question, “Who am I?”
No matter what country we are born in, or who our parents are, one of the chief issues each one of us must resolve is an answer to the question, “who am I?”
An uncle of mine was raised in foster homes during the early part of the twentieth century (my great-grandmother anonymously gave him up for adoption when he was born) and although he was eventually adopted by two loving parents, the absence of knowledge regarding his biological mother and father led him on a decades long quest to learn his heritage. While not every adoptive child seeks out his biological parents, it is rather interesting the sheer number of persons who are driven to understand the narrative of their birth. My uncle spent thousands of hours looking for the biological family he never knew; and when he finally found us (we did not even know he existed since our great-grandmother kept his birth secret) a whole new world of people and history became real to him; the more he researched his family history, the more he felt connected to that history on a deeply personal and emotional level.
As children, we learn the Socratic idiom, “know thyself”, and an important, if not vital, element in knowing oneself is knowing where you came from; knowing our history gives us insight into ourselves.
I once met with a young woman who had a long-standing form of amnesia, specifically she had no memories prior to her teenage years and because of this large missing gap in her mind she struggled with her sense of self and identity; she rarely could describe what she liked or disliked, and she struggled with many other phenomena you might expect of someone who lost out on an entire childhood of memories. Perhaps most detrimental was how impressionable she was; it was very easy for people to take advantage of her because she was missing the building blocks of memory that help protect oneself from people with bad intentions. Without a life of memories and narrative (history), an amnesiac can end up being controlled by the whims of others.
At its very core, knowing where we come from involves a narrative; the story of our family. Within the narrative of our family history, a certain identity begins to form within our mind of who we are, what we are, and where we are in relation to the world around us. When this narrative is allowed to progress through our childhood uninterrupted and organically, our identity is shaped positively and gives us a well rounded perspective on many aspects of life.
In the old world, religion provided the narrative necessary to shape the lives of humans giving them a sense of belonging, and a sense of permanence on the earth; religion was a positive function to communicate to people where they came from and who they were, and it did so through the use of symbols, traditions, festivals, historical narrative, and more.
Every religion contained an origin story. Like the opening of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” the origin story gave men and women a sense of connection; without the origin story the people would be like the amnesiac, they would feel stranded in a foreign place. With no understanding of where we come from, we feel lost, broken, disconnected and isolated.
In the old world, where you came from held great importance, so much so that the name of your city often became a part of your name; Jesus being born in the town of Nazareth was aptly called “Jesus of Nazareth”.
Growing up in Nazareth meant something particular to ancient Israelite’s, just as in our day when someone is from Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. Knowing where we are from contributes to the way we think about ourselves, as well as the way others think about us. Nazareth was a particularly lowly city in old Israel, and when Jesus rose to national prominence, people from the more affluent cities were astounded that someone so wise in stature could have come from such a modest place as Nazareth.
While knowing the city or region we are from helps us to understand ourselves and those around us better, it is inadequate at creating deeply rooted meaning to our lives. For all of human history, religion was the means of giving the people the necessary narrative to bind the people together harmoniously as well as to bind them together, to things of a higher more heavenly nature.
The earliest archaeological evidence of humans demonstrates these embedded religious characteristics to human culture all across the spectrum of history. We see origin stories in all of the ancient peoples, we find symbols of their religion in the manner of their idols, drawings on ruins, and in their writings in all of the various religions of the past. Whether we look to ancient South America or across the ocean to ancient Africa or Asia; the various components of religion manifest itself in the same way from one people group to the next.
We also see in history a clear ruination of culture and country when religious symbols and the religion of the people begins to decline; without a clear origin story, symbols and religious hierarchy, the general spirit of the society lends itself to decline and eventual ruin. Men and women need these various phenomena of religion in order to feel connected to both each other and to the land they occupy. As religion dissipates in a culture, the correlating response is cultural decline.
Ultimately, only true religion can correct cultural decline, and heal cultural morass. We live in a cycle of history when true religion has been displaced by competing forms of religion that are sadly deficient at bring coherence to the human experience. Fortunately, the best is yet to come.
Stock image Samuel Dixon unsplash.com