Volo, Ergo Sum (“I Want, Therefore I Am”)

A problem with identity politics is that Christians are supposed to find our most fundamental identity in the unchanging Christ, not in entirely contingent circumstances of our personal desires and wills.

Yet every last one of us has been shaped all of our lives by our culture of consumption, which is based on the assumption that all desires – even ones created in us by incessant advertising for things we neither need nor are going to be reasonably enriched by – are good and just do deserve to be satisfied as such.

Why should we not be able to get a hot, juicy hamburger just the way we personally want it at practically any time of day or night? ‘”The customer is always right,” we readily chant when something we want seems obstructed by a factor or force outside ourselves. Do we ever stop to wonder whether such utterly self-centered reasoning might not be incompatible with natural human virtue, let alone with Christian ethics?

A result of being incessantly formed by the culture of consumption is that even though we are Christians we just are oriented toward defining ourselves in terms of our desires rather than in terms of Christ and His Gospel. Moreover, even though we are Christians we just are already disposed toward taking the aggregate of our desires as our “identity.” And our “identity,” being too inwardly-curved and jaded a thing to realize that self-satisfaction is not a good per se, at all moments strives to order our social and political and even our religious thoughts and actions in directions most calculated to avoid deprivation of our wants.

Ironically, then, given so much of the superficial “Christian worldview” talk that is the bread-and-butter of purported thought leaders among us, it seems that identity politics isn’t just something “Liberals” do. An obsession with “identity” and the disordered political thought that follows in its wake goes right down deep into the bone marrow of every self-styled “Conservative,” too. Why doesn’t this give us pause?

Because we’re so unreflective about desire itself, especially in terms of its relationship to human nature and hierarchy of goods, it all seems pretty harmless when we’re standing in the coffee shop line anticipating ordering in just such a way that the drink will be just super satisfying in the half-dozen highly-refined ways we’ve come to expect as if it were some divine birthright.

Which of us goes to the store philosophically wondering why we just ought to be able to obtain a pen that is super comfortable for our very own unique hand to hold and use? (And which of us philosophically wonders, when we can’t find that exactly right pen why we’re actually irked by the store’s failure to provide use with immediate and acceptably affordable satisfaction?)

And of course, there is our “need” to have a phone of just the right style, color, and make that we won’t ever ask ourselves why it is that we pick it up 85 times a day or why we even “needed” a doohickey that incorporates the function of 50 devices into 1, instead of a lesser model that only replaces only 32 devices – a horror of a deficiency that would make our lives so much less convenient.

But with all of our very selves already unconsciously defined in a thousand ways by the expectation that the world owes us the satisfaction of our desires, however trivial or important, it can then look pretty normal to church-hop in pursuit of just that right kind of service that will “meet my needs.”

It can look pretty unobjectionable for parents to break a financial contract with a Christian school because, while in a fit of self-centered pious introspection of the deliciously comfortable (and just obviously right) insides of their own “consciences” they decide that, well, darn it and I’m sorry, but the curriculum “just doesn’t work for our family.”

The problem with all of this seems to be less that we don’t know the Bible – because the Bible is pretty clear about our duty to cultivate virtues like self-denial and contentment with what has been provided for us. The problem, rather, seems to be that we have for too long failed to cultivate the proper kind of conceptual apparatus and language to talk meaningfully and persuasively about fundamental issues of our loves and their accompanying desires.

Thus, even when we are speaking to other Christians whom we find disagree with us on such matters as the ones mentioned (and many others, including education), we are already fighting an uphill battle of persuasion because neither they nor we ourselves have a habit of thinking about desire itself in terms of the fixity of human nature and a corresponding hierarchy of goods that to varying degrees either cause that nature to flourish or weaken.

The bitter truth of the matter is that we all have “identities” that we have personally, privately constructed for ourselves on the basis of reasoning which might be described in Latin as volo, ergo sum – “I want, therefore I am.” Any arguments we make for or against ideas – theological, political, economic, educational, whatever – are automatically perceived by others in just the same manner as assertions about whether Burger King is better than Arby’s or Apple than Microsoft or the original Star Wars movies than the prequels.

This is an enormous problem precisely because while everyone else evaluates our ideas as “opinions,” we invariably take our ideas as simple “facts.” One result of the superficial dichotomy turns out to be that even the perpetual Conservative appeal to “Objective Truth” has not escaped a much more fundamental subjectivizing that is extremely difficult to spot, let alone to combat. Everyone likes to quote Weaver’s phrase, “Ideas have consequences,” but few of us attain to the realization that ideas are already intrinsically wrapped up in loves and accompanying wants that, since we’re all consumers at heart, we don’t readily expose to rigorous self-critique.

Think about that the next time you hear a “classical” educator opining that something he grandiosely titles “The Christian Worldview” must be absolutely opposed to tattoos, skinny jeans, particular modes of taxation, public schools per se, “weird” dietary principles, political and economic theories that don’t elevate individual rights to a maximally comfortable level, or any other issues that, upon close inspection, belong not to any intelligible concept of adaptable human nature but only to a particularly narrow concept of nurture.

Volo, ergo sum in such cases transmogrifies itself into the very ugly, and very unclassical confusion of tribal identity with cosmopolis – the very thing the entire great philosophical tradition of the West almost constantly warns us of – the constancy of the warning being required because each generation seems to start all over again with the same obtuse hearing trouble as the one before.

Thanks to our culture of consumption having formed us all into mostly uncritical pursuers of desires we take to be good simply because they are ours, we are all fundamentally subjectivists in a way that ought to alarm us and drive us out of ourselves and back into the texts of our great tradition, determined to read them and meditate on them anew with fresh eyes and minds willing to consider whether or not things we take as absolutely fundamental to our “identities” actually do inflect truth well or merely blind us with sophistry and illusion.

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