I once took part in a thought-provoking exercise introducing a workshop on adult education. We were divided into pairs, asked to sit facing each other and take turns in listening for three minutes at a time to the answers each gave to the question: ‘Who are you?’ The speaker could start at any point, and say whatever they wanted about themselves. The listener could not ask for any clarification nor give any response apart from saying: 'Yes, but who are you?' Try this with a partner and you’ll find what a wealth of answers are possible.
I can start by saying that I am from South Wales, married to Clare. I am an ordained Anglican priest, father of Katherine, Rachel, Owain and adoptive father to Amanda. I am a Chemistry graduate, and a trained teacher. I am quite mobile, having lived in England, Switzerland and France, as well as Wales, and having visited seven countries of the European community, four of the Middle East, travelled as far west as Jamaica, as far east as Mongolia. I am a lover of human diversity, for my life's work has been mainly in multi-cultural and ecumenical situations. All this offers some indications, but is hardly a recognisable picture of who I really am.
You can speak of who you are in terms of family and ancestry, you can speak about your work, your achievements, your qualifications. You can speak about your strengths and weaknesses, your temperament, your attitude to life, your problems or your convictions. But, no matter how much detail is given, the answer is incomplete.
The passage of time changes how I understand and how I describe myself, even though the general features remain the same. The story I tell is influenced by what happens around me at home, in the communities and culture I am part of, and in the wider world picture. I may not be fully aware of influences on my self-understanding until external events oblige me to step back and take a good look at myself. Unemployment, bereavement, a failure in relationships, an illness - all invoke again the question : ‘Who am I?’
How different our age is from that of our grandparents. Until fairly recently in human history, most people lived, worked and died in the same vicinity. Though born elsewhere, my parents spent their entire married life in the same mining village, and died there. Less people now live, work or die where they were born. To date, I have lived and worked in ten different places since leaving my birthplace. I used to be able to walk to church from home, now churchgoing can involve a journey by car or bus. Different aspects of my life do not always connect. I live in several worlds, not one.
In the past, relatively few people went far afield to trade, conquer or make political alliances. Even the world's nomads mostly travelled within bounded territories. Large scale movements of population for social or economic reasons took generations. Nowadays this can happen in a matter of months. Advances in transport link remote parts of our planet and enable large numbers to move quickly across countries and continents. Leisure, trade, diplomacy, education, even war and crime can now be pursued in different places from day to day. For many mobility has become a necessity
Today our planet can be viewed from above. Thanks to modern technology we have masses of information about the world as a complete entity. Industrialisation and urbanisation have changed the lives of the majority of earth's inhabitants. Population growth has accelerated to the point that some places can no longer support all who are born there. Though billions benefit from the success of medicine and technology, the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority continues to widen. Global communications make it possible for rich and poor alike to be well informed about each other's condition, yet the chasm between their worlds remains unbridgeable. This is a recipe for catastrophe. Knowing this does not foster a sense of security.
The experience of varying degrees of dis-integration of displacement, of insecurity about the future is shared by more and more. With this comes a loss of certainty about who we are and where we are going in life. Mobility exposes us to cultures, life-styles, beliefs, assumptions and values different from those we were raised with. We are challenged to explain ourselves to people who do not understand or describe the world as we do.
We need to learn a different language if we are to communicate outside the realm of familiar associates. Even monoglot people must learn how to translate ideas and values across cultural and generation divides, as the same language is used differently by different age and social groups. The challenge of communicating and interpreting ourselves to each other causes us to examine and question things we usually take for granted. This can be an unsettling experience which we are reluctant to welcome. It evokes two extreme reactions.
One the one hand, it arouses a tendency to ethno-centric conservatism, on the other, an accommodating relativism of values. In the former case, beliefs are not adaptable to change and must be lived out in the closed circle of those who agree with each other. In the latter case, adaptability to circumstances dictates that no boundary or belief is fixed, only survival is imperative. Between the extremes lies a rainbow of responses where I like to think my reactions normally lie. But, if I'm honest, any challenge to my identity pushes me toward one extreme or the other. If people are sufficiently pressurised by political or economic circumstances, inter-racial or inter-religious conflict follows. The deep fear of losing identity, power or liberty awakens a compelling sense of injustice, which must be dealt with. How often do we hear ourselves saying: ‘It's not fair!’ Not only well-being, but our whole identity is threatened by injustice.
What perplexes me when I think about conflicts across the world is how often religious believers seem to use repression, terror and bloodshed to defend their way of life. The need for land in the face of over-population is often a driving force. Yet, what is really being fought for, at the sacrifice of countless lives and economic well-being, is the sense of identity that goes with territory. Fear attacks our sense of being and well-being. We either flee to avoid it, or we stand and confront it. The so-called flight-fight reaction, a basic animal instinct, is still vital to our survival, despite the sophistication of human evolution in other ways.
The idea that injustice and evil can be redressed only through violent conflict is part of popular belief around the world. It is embodied in the almost universal mythological figure of the avenging warrior hero. Yet, it is also part of human experience that violence begets violence, and retribution perpetuates a futile cycle of destruction. The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates this in a most tragic way, representing the refusal by both sides to learn the bitter lessons of a long history of unresolved problems of co-existence. The myth of salvation by violence devours its devotees.
Struggles between Hutu and Tutsi in Central Africa; Muslim, Croat and Serb in Bosnia; Jew and Arab in Palestine; Republican and Unionist in Northern Ireland originate in the resistance of these communities to share land and resources, so precious for securing their identity. Despite this, some people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have learned to live together in those places. They have also intermarried, shared land and worked together. Many of those who have succeeded, have benefited from education, travel, improved living standards and technology. Yet, material benefits and modern knowledge on their own have proved inadequate to eliminate ancient habits of communal prejudice and mistrust, and this has earned them retribution and violence in times of difficulty. Old conflicts have been buried under modernity, but not eliminated by it.
Fascism and Nazism emerged and flourished in societies with centuries of Christian history and culture behind them. They prevailed in the face of acquiescence by the majority of a Christian population. Within a quarter of a century of the Jewish holocaust and vows that this should never happen again, new genocidal wars have erupted and proved hard to stop, and now we see neo-Nazism emerging in stable democratic societies. Political Zionists have adopted policies of repression and retribution against Arabs similar to those used by the Nazi persecutors of their forefathers, also in the name of security. Religious ideals of equality are too soon forgotten when resources are scarce. It is hardly surprising if people reject religion as part of ‘who they are’ out of moral repugnance towards the way some ‘believers’ behave.
Can people really learn from past errors, and change their basic behaviour? Does religion aid and abet their refusal to learn? Is moral recidivism to be explained simply as a matter of primitive instincts overwhelming rational ordered minds? Is so-called civilised behaviour nothing more than a cosmetic veneer?
Economic and political forces masquerading as racial or religious problems may well generate conflict, but this does not explain all that happens. The cold blooded use of genocidal force by one group against another reveals a calculating ill-will at work. This is the same, no matter how ‘primitive’ or ‘sophisticated' the parties in conflict. Conventions and codes for right treatment of all caught up in war have evolved over centuries. The twentieth century invention of International War Crimes Tribunals brought to justice those responsible for war-time actions regarded as morally repugnant and unjustifiable. While exposing the motives of powerful evil-doers can raise more questions than answers, understanding the mechanisms of ill-will and evil, and how this affects others is important for healing the wounds of war. It testifies to the ultimate futility of all violence and crime, though the lesson is still not easy for everyone to learn.
We have abundant evidence that the exercise of good-will, is vital and beneficial in building community, helping us to share resources, co-operate to overcome problems, and build together. All networks of trade, travel and communication rely on harmonious collaboration and good will for their success. The advance of society and sharing the benefits of development with people around the world, all depend upon good-will. Ironically, war-time technological innovations, like radar, rocketry, jet engines, synthesis of new materials, have proved beneficial far beyond military use. Successful civilian application is a result of a broad exercise of good-will and co-operation. It is not ill-will, but good-will that put a man on the moon, communications satellites, space stations and telescopes into orbit, and catalysed giant leaps forward in all aspects of knowledge.
Yet, despite achievements founded on good-will, ill-will seems to have an uncontrollable life of its own wherever it is allowed to predominate. Only a small minority of people define who they are in terms of ill-will towards others, and they are psychopaths who feed off destroying the hopes and well being of others. The effect of a negative or positive attitude on confidence and achievement is part of our experience of being human. Harbouring ill-will has a diminishing effect upon us. Asserting good-will strengthens us. Changing from ill-will to good-will transforms us. The interplay of the effects of collective good-will and ill-will, visible in the affairs of nations, can also be seen in everyday life within personal relationships, the family and the communities we belong to.
As it is in the macrocosm, so too in the microcosm. Our well-being rests on being able to build trust and have good communication with others. If this fails, our sense of who we are is challenged. How we manage the fight-flight instinct within us depends on the orientation of our will, for good or ill. The presence of love or fear is what most influences our orientation and response.
Look at your life. Is it ever free from conflicts, even of the most minor kind? How do you handle differences of priorities, of interests with friends, family, colleagues? What about disagreements over values and principles? For a true sense of well-being and health within ourselves and in our relationships, we need harmony and peace. These cannot be achieved by avoiding all conflict, or being dishonest about problems. We may buy time, but ultimately the truth must be faced. Fear of conflict can make things much worse. Facing conflict with the will to love and overcome fear is the most positive way to deal with threatening situations.
Who I say I am is expressed differently when I feel at peace, in harmony and in right relationships, than when avoiding conflict and problems takes priority in my life. Human beings can function at their best when challenged and under stress, more so when their sense of identity is strengthened by well-being and right relations with others. In our estimate of what makes life most worth living, words like peace, truth, justice, health, happiness, harmony with God, creation and others come to mind. Ancient Semitic culture had one word to express right relationships which secure who we are, individually and collectively: "Shalom" in Hebrew, "Salaam" in Arabic.
Basic animal instincts are important in promoting survival in a world which is not always benign towards us, but they are not the only forces at work in shaping our human identity. "Shalom-salaam" represents prized qualities of life, what is good for us all. Yet, the attainment of "shalom-salaam" can put us in opposition to our animal self-protective impulse. Selfishness and self-protectiveness may enhance survival potential, but do not yield lasting satisfaction.
In seeking to realising who I am, and what purpose and meaning existence has for me, I face this puzzle : neither my inherent human resources for survival, nor my cumulative experience of how best to live with conflicting demands make life fully worthwhile. Much of what I need to give life meaning and purpose is found through relationships with others. Understanding who I am only within the complex closed circuit of individual experience is not enough.
For a sense of fulfilment and participation in what "shalom-salaam" represents, I need an external perspective embracing relations with others and the universe. A current opinion that such an external ‘transcendent’ perspective is neither meaningful or attainable leaves me undeterred. Religion (the very word means 'to link up, to unite') serves to point us beyond self and others for a cohesive meaning and purpose in life. It seeks to connect us with the source of our existence, to nourish and strengthen good-will.
Nevertheless, in common experience, religion is often a divisive and destructive force, apparently feeding people stones instead of bread. How can we find what, if anything, is trustworthy about religion?