Perspective

Perspective: Identity and the search for a common human purpose

In Brief: 
  • The resolution of the problems now engulfing the planet demands a more expansive sense of human identity
  • The idea that we are members of one human family is powerful and capable of fostering global identity
  • An inherent aspect of such a universal identity is recognition of the spiritual reality that animates our inner selves

At the heart of human experience lies an essential yearning for self-definition and self-understanding. Developing a conception of who we are, for what purpose we exist, and how we should live our lives is a basic impulse of human consciousness.

Today, as the sheer intensity and velocity of change challenge our assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality, a set of vital questions confront us. These include: What is the source of our identity? Where should our attachments and loyalties lie? And what is the nature of the bonds that bring us together?

The direction of human affairs is inextricably connected to the evolution of our identity. For it is from our identity that intention, action, and social development flow. Identity determines how we see ourselves and conceive our position in the world, how others see or classify us, and how we choose to engage with those around us.

The sources of identification which animate and ground human beings are immensely diverse. But which identity or identities are most important? Can divergent identities be reconciled? And do these identities enhance or limit our understanding of, and engagement with, the world? Each of us on a daily basis, both consciously and unconsciously, draws upon, expresses, and mediates between our multiple senses of identity. And as our sphere of social interaction expands, we tend to subsume portions of how we define ourselves and seek to integrate into a wider domain of human experience. This often requires us to scrutinize and even resist particular interpretations of allegiance that may have a claim on us.

Modernity has transformed identity in such a way that we must view ourselves as being not only in a condition of dependence or independence but also interdependence. Our connections to others now transcend traditional bounds of culture, nation, and community. The unprecedented nature of these connections is radically reshaping human organization and the scale and impact of human exchange.

Clearly, the perceptions that human beings hold of each other matter. In a world convulsed by contention and conflict, conceptions of identity that feed the forces of prejudice and mistrust must be closely examined. Assertions that certain populations can be neatly partitioned into oppositional categories of affiliation deserve particular scrutiny.

"A tenable global ethics," Kwame Anthony Appiah observes, "has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices." Existing mores, practices, and institutions can inform, validate, and even ennoble the human condition, but cannot or should not foreclose new moral or social directions for individuals and communities. Indeed, collective learning and adjustment are defining characteristics of social evolution. Because our perceptions and experiences change, our understanding of reality necessarily undergoes change. So too, then, do our identities change.

The prevalent stance that identity is about difference is untenable. Perceiving identity through the relativistic lens of separation or cultural preservation ignores compelling evidence of our common humanity and can only aggravate the forces of discord now so pervasive in the world. The only alternative to this path of fragmentation and disunity is to nurture affective relationships across lines of ethnicity, creed, territory, and color - relationships that can serve as the warp and woof of a new social framework of universal solidarity and mutual respect. A one-dimensional understanding of human beings must be rejected.

As Amartya Sen underscores, "The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division." The resolution of the problems now engulfing the planet demands a more expansive sense of human identity. As articulated by Bahá'u'lláh more than a century ago: "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens."

From a Bahá'í perspective, a universal identity is a vital precursor to action that is universal in its effects - to the "emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture." In emphasizing our global identity, Bahá'u'lláh presents a conception of life that insists upon a redefinition of all human relationships - between individuals, between human society and the natural world, between the individual and the community, and between individual citizens and their governing institutions.

The world's religions can be seen to be one in their nature and purpose with each being a wellspring of knowledge, energy, and inspiration. They each have served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society - a process that has impelled the human race toward moral and spiritual maturity.

In the Bahá'í view, social origin, position, or rank are of no account in the sight of God. As Bahá'u'lláh avers, "man's glory lieth in his knowledge, his upright conduct, his praiseworthy character, his wisdom, and not in his nationality or rank."

The watchword of the Bahá'í community is "unity in diversity." More than creating a culture of tolerance, the notion of unity in diversity entails vanquishing corrosive divisions along lines of race, class, gender, nationality, and belief, and erecting a dynamic and cooperative social ethos that reflects the oneness of human nature.

The ideology of difference so ubiquitous in contemporary discourse militates against the possibility of social progress. It provides no basis whereby communities defined by specific backgrounds, customs, or creeds can bridge their divergent perspectives and resolve social tensions. The value of variety and difference cannot be minimized, and neither can the necessity for coexistence, order, and mutual effort.

To foster a global identity, to affirm that we are members of one human family, is a deceptively simple but powerful idea. While traditional loyalties and identities must be appreciated, they are inadequate for addressing the predicament of modernity, and consequently, a higher loyalty, one that speaks to the common destiny of all the earth's inhabitants, is necessary.

An inherent aspect of such a universal identity is recognition of the spiritual reality that animates our inner selves. To be sure, a global identity grounded in awareness of our common humanness marks a great step forward from where humanity has been, but a strictly secular or material formulation of global identity is unlikely to provide a sufficient motivational basis for overcoming historic prejudices and engendering universal moral action. Establishing a global milieu of peace, prosperity, and justice is ultimately a matter of the heart; it involves a change in basic attitudes and values that can only come from recognizing the normative and spiritual nature of the challenges before us.

Our quest for spiritual identity is what ultimately informs personal and shared social meaning, and therefore our social arrangements. From perceiving that we are all sheltered under the love of the same God, comes both humility and the means for true social cohesion.

Our different senses of identity consequently become fully realized through the development of our spiritual identity; they each provide a means for achieving our basic existential purpose - the discovery and refinement of the spiritual capacities latent within us.

In this respect, the world's religions can be seen to be one in their nature and purpose with each being a wellspring of knowledge, energy, and inspiration. They each have served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society - a process that has impelled the human race toward moral and spiritual maturity.

Realizing a common understanding of human purpose and action, especially in a complex world of pluralistic identities and rapidly shifting cultural and moral boundaries, depends on the recognition and expression of a spiritual conception of life.

By redefining identity in terms of the totality of human experience, the Bahá'í teachings anticipate the moral reconstruction of all human practices. When an emerging global society draws upon the spiritual mainspring of human identity and purpose, truly constructive avenues of social change can be pursued.

[Editor's note: The following Perspective has been adapted from a longer piece, written by Matthew Weinberg, in the 2005-2006 edition of The Bahá'í World.]

Share