Who am I? – Some thoughts on Christmas

In the German Catholic hymn book for the service there is a song that is often sung to accompany the confession of faith. The first verse is:

I believe in the Father, the Creator of this world, who in his love holds us in his hands. He created life out of nothing, man as woman and man, the crown of his creation. I believe.“

Strictly speaking, only the confession to God the Father, the Creator, is required by the confession of faith. The reference to „omnipotence“ is omitted in the song. The half-sentence „he created out of nothing“ is also dogmatically correct, but not just „life“, but „heaven and earth“, or „the visible and the invisible world“, i.e. the entire „cosmos“. Instead, the song leads the creative act of God directly to the creation of man. And here begins the line that will probably cause the strongest objection today. That man is the “crown of creation” is traditionally claimed, but has long since been questioned by the ecology movement of our day, since man is increasingly perceived as the “destroyer of creation”. Man’s supremacy over the rest of creation can at least be questioned. However, the biblical comment that man was created male and female is now even more critically questioned. In the course of the current gender discourse, even the Catholic Church in Germany has changed its “wording”. The new standard translation includes the corresponding quotation from the Bible from Gen 1:27: „Male and female he created them.“ The theologian Eberhard Schockenhoff explains that the adjectives translated here from Hebrew refer to the sexual dimension of man (and all living things ) allude, i.e. do not want to prejudice „social roles“. In more far-reaching interpretations of Genesis 1:27, the connotation of male/female is seen as circumscribing two poles between which human sexuality moves, so that the creation account would also be open to the common assumption of diverse sexualities.

The interpretation of the Bible thus finds itself in the midst of the current discourses on gender and identity. The paper on sexual morality presented on the German „Synodal Path“ showed the willingness to follow these discourses and adopted a contemporary concept of freedom, according to which people can also determine who or what they want to be beyond their biological constitution. Consequently, politically correct is best spoken of „people“ or „persons“ in general, to avoid gender attributions.

This article is not intended to be a discussion of identity discourses. It is about the question of how human freedom is to be understood. In the contemporary understanding, “identity” easily becomes a variable that can be chosen freely. According to the promise, I can emancipate myself from the circumstances in which I was born and live. Ultimately, my gender, my cultural and social affiliation are changeable. My „I“ is not created by external influences, but by the power of my own inner convictions. It is a radical act of emancipation. In a certain way, I discard the „role ideas“ that my environment imposes on me and find my way back to myself. Critically, on the other hand, one can ask whether this is simply possible, or whether my „search for myself“ does not ultimately end in a role play, which my „I“ rather shadows than brings to the fore.

This question deals with a somewhat forgotten piece of world literature. The Norwegian poet Henrik Ibsen created a surprisingly modern character with the eponymous protagonist in his 1867 text „Peer Gynt“, a mixture of poem and drama. It shows Peer Gynt, a simple young man from a small village struggling to find his identity. Ibsen uses this literary figure to describe the possibilities, temptations and dangers of modern man.

Peer Gynt is a dreamer. In his imagination he lays out all sorts of adventures and roles that he would like to slip into. The village laughes at him, and his mother despaired of him. Peer loves a girl who, for reasons of reason, wants to marry a „solid“ other man. He kidnaps her into the mountains, lets himself be seduced by a troll woman and fathers a son who is half human and half troll. The trolls take him to their kingdom and make him king. This fulfills one of Peer’s dreams of being a king, albeit in a very unpleasant way. He meets another girl, Solveig, a quiet and steady person who is willing to marry Peer. However, after the death of his mother, Peer flees the village. The fourth act of the play shows him as an adult. Peer continues the role play. He starts out as a businessman who got rich through the slave trade, gets caught up in the war. He is welcomed in a Bedouin colony as the returning prophet Mohammed, assumes the role of a researcher in Egypt, then ends up in a madhouse, where he is made into a mastermind and philosopher. So Peer Gynt plays all sorts of roles: husband, father, king, religious leader, business boss, scientist, philosopher. All of these roles have something weird and unfulfilled about them. Peer cannot be at home. At the end of the play, old Peer Gynt returns to his homeland and realizes that, unlike the old villagers, he no longer has a home here either. „There must be something“ – With this desperate hope, the old peer is still chasing the hope of his own self. He manages to escape death several times with all sorts of excuses. Time is running out. Peer wants to confess, put his life in order, but even that fails. Ibsen presented death as a „button foundryman“, i.e. as a craftsman who collects old metal buttons, melts them down and forms new ones from them. Peer cannot come to terms with the „button-like“ nature of his life. Why should he be more than just a human being among other human beings.

In a famous scene, Peer tries to uncover the secret of himself. He takes an onion and peels it. He gives each skin of the onion a role in his life that he has discarded. All life an onion of self-design. Peer asks while peeling:
„It doesn’t stop! Always layer after layer! / Isn’t the core finally coming to light? To the innermost core – look at me! – / Just skins – just getting smaller and smaller. / Nature is funny! Damned brooding! / If one goes into thought, it gets nauseous. / Well, I can’t lose my composure; / Because I’m lying on all fours. / This hustle and bustle of the world seems strange to me! / Life, as they say, has a fox behind its ear. / But if someone grabs it, the scoundrel goes away, / and you catch something else – or empty air.”

Life as a breath of fresh air remains without purpose for Peer. He cannot say who he is himself. After peeling the onion, he arrives at Solveig’s hut. He remembers the faithful girl from back then who has been waiting for him here all his life. Hearing Solveig’s singing from the shack, Peer turns „deathly pale,“ as the stage directions say, and says: „One who stayed true – and one who forgot. / One who gambled away a life – and one who sat waiting. / Oh serious! And this is never reversed! / Oh, fear! – Here was my empire.”

The insight is too late. There is no more „happy ending“. Dying, Solveig sings to Peer:
„Go to sleep, my dearest boy! / I rock you and I wake up. / My boy joked on my lap, / his mother hugged him all his life. / My boy rested on his mother’s breast / God bless you for the rest of his life, my only good! / On my heart first was his place, / the day of his life. He’s so tired now, sweetheart. / Sleep then, my dearest boy! / I rock you and I watch.”

At the end there is the mother’s lullaby. Peer has returned to his origins, to the status before his adventures, before his role-playing games. Ultimately, he cannot escape his origins. He overestimated his ego. Instead of fulfilment, he only caught wind. How should one interpret this ending? Ibsen is very critical. He dissects modern man’s promises of salvation, sees man as onions without a core of their own. Who am I supposed to be other than who I am? Place, time, origin, human community, all this is not so easy to „conquer“. I’ve obviously been given more than I’d like. The fulfillment does not lie in the unlimited exercise of my freedom. On the contrary, there are limits in which I live and in which I have to find myself. Conventions and social guidelines are suspect in Ibsen’s works. They offer the „I“ only limited support. This „I“ can get lost in its roles instead of expressing itself in them. Ibsen is pessimistic and emancipatory at the same time. In the last one, almost all of his characters fail because of the requirements imposed on them. Their tragedy is that the desperate search for an escape only leads to new difficulties. Ultimately, the “finding myself” cannot be found outself of me.

In this way, Ibsen is astonishingly modern, both open to today’s concepts of identity and to their opponent. On the one hand, the search for identity must not simply adapt to the given conditions, but on the other hand it must not take refuge in role-playing games. The „Myself“ lies in an intermediate space between reality and transcendence (i.e. the ability to go beyond the given).

At this point we can now focus the Christmas message. Theologically it essentially consists of the idea of “incarnation”. God became man, or as the Gospel of John says, „The Word became flesh“. This message has sparked endless debates throughout history about the true „Self“ of Jesus. Exactly this „between“ of his existence is difficult to grasp. On the one hand there is the “reality principle” of the man Jesus, who was born into a certain time, into a certain environment, into a certain religion. On the other hand, there is the „divine“ aspect of his existence, which repeatedly exceeds this reality. The old creeds therefore formulate: „Born of the Holy Spirit from Mary the Virgin“ or also: „Jesus, the Son of God […] God from God, […] who came down from heaven for the sake of us humans and for the sake of our salvation, Incarnate and made man perfect from the Blessed Virgin Mary and by the Holy Spirit…“ . Or it says: “[The Son] was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and of Mary the virgin, took on flesh, soul, and mind, that is, the perfect man; neither did he lose what he was [his divinty], but began to be what he was not; so is he, though perfect in his own, yet also true in ours…” The creed of 325, which is prayed to this day, finally says: “[The Son], who came down for the sake of us men and for our salvation and became flesh and became human…” .

The early creeds struggle to articulate equally the divinity of Jesus as they do to emphasize the true humanity. They struggled to give a clear answer to the question of the „true“ identity. However, this is still given today. In popular non-fiction books about Jesus, Jesus appeares oftenly as a pure human being who, as a Pharisee, social reformer or revolutionary, accidentally got caught up in the mills of Greek thought and was later erroneously “divinized”. On the other hand, from the earliest days of Christianity we faced opinions that did not fully recognize the humanity of Jesus. The docetists approved of the divinity of Christ (which, according to the Platonic doctrine of earthly things, has to remain “unspotted”) at most an apparent body and thus denied Christ’s ability to suffer on the cross. Jesus detaches himself from the „reality-principle“ of his own historicity and corporeality and becomes pure transcendence. Nineteenth-century German idealism abounds with philosophical approaches in which Christ becomes something more like an ideal figure, an idea of humanity as a whole. Jesus is therefore to be detached from his real historical constitution. Such thinking favored the idea of a Jesus without Judaism, even an „Aryan“ Jesus who was able to stand out from the context of his earthly life in a manner completely removed from history. The identity of Jesus thus becomes “pure transcendence”. It is difficult to say which of the early church heresies and their modern revivals were more pernicious: those that merely emphasized the reality principle or those that merely emphasized the transcendent principle. However, the latter variant seems to be the dominant one again today.

Today’s identity discourses can certainly be understood as a negation of the principle of incarnation. The human being, who can be stripped of all his earthly, biological, social and cultural specifications, becomes an ethereal „Self“ that sheds his supposedly given roles and looks for his own into which he can slip. But what if the “principle of reality” first made it possible for people to be down-to-earth and to find themselves, as “Peer Gynt” claims?

The Christological dogma of the incarnation wants to preserve both dimensions, the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Jesus is a true human being, so he is shaped by his time, by his family, by the Jewish religion, by the political circumstances. He is a man, a Jew, suffering on the cross. These „dates“ of his life are not mere coincidence but real, formative conditions of his life and therefore cannot be ignored when understanding Jesus. Jesus is firmly rooted in the Jewish faith. His belief in God is that of the Jewish tradition. He is an interpreter of the law. He does not speak general, eternally valid sentences but he speaks to the concrete people of his time. The fact that there is something lasting and valid in his words does not simply dissolve the concrete, time-related thing, but rather challenges a deeper understanding. There is no Jesus beyond his time-related earthly condition. Even the risen Christ still bears the marks of his earthly life on his body with the wounds. The evangelists want to show that the incarnation of God is really serious, that Jesus‘ life on earth was not a play by an untouchable, otherworldly God. Born into the poverty of the stable as a small child, he is as human as only a human can be. At the same time, his life always points beyond himself, becomes transparent for the divine dimension, in the power of healing and the forgiveness of sins, the driving out of demons, the transfiguration, the miracles and finally in the resurrection. The norm-breaking power of Jesus lies precisely in the tension between reality and transcendence, who reinterprets and changes the old conventions by virtue of divine authority, who already carries the kingdom of God within himself as a world-changing power and goal. Only those who perceive all these dimensions will get a complete picture of Jesus.

I suspect that we humans too (in a rather different way than Jesus, of course) are given the task of “incarnation”, the successful connection between reality and transcendence. The „Self“ does not fit into existing conventions. At the same time, it cannot develop if it denies the real conditions of existence and, like the “onion man”, engages in sheer role play. I am more than my body and more than my social conditioning, but I will have to work and live with these basic constants as a living being that is never just „pure spirit“. In this way, Christmas reminds us of the reality of life in which it must find expression and hopefully find fullness.

For the text references please look at the German version






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