A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay on life and death in light of the Atonement. It ended thus:
We are now a hard kernel of wheat, dead but with infinite potential. Face to face with the breadth of charity, charity greater than love, we pause in trepidation. Yet there need be no fear in the consecration of ourselves to God, nor in the metamorphosis from a selfish creature to a child of God. Far less of our ego than we suspect is truly who we are, and far more of our potential.
Identity has been rolling around in my head for a long time now. What is identity? Who am I, or, at least, who will I be? Those are deeper questions, perhaps, than we can expect answers to in this life, but I’d still like to explore it, especially as embodied in the last phrase I wrote above. “Far less of our ego than we suspect is truly who we are, and far more of our potential.”
“Far less of our ego…” What did I mean? I’m still trying to catch that elusive thought, hanging like gossamer in my mind. Certainly my selfish interests and habits will be burned away as chaff; I have to wondered how literally consciousness of myself will die, and to what resurrection. I don’t believe that we will become the nameless, faceless, identityless ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ of which I’ve heard some evangelical Christians speak, not for an instant. God didn’t create human identity in his children only to destroy it mere decades later, as in that conception. Furthermore, we do know that there was self-identification before this life, as evidenced by the agency exhibited in the war in heaven. Joseph Smith preached,
I have another subject to dwell upon…, associated with the subject of the resurrection of the dead,—namely, the soul—the mind of man—the immortal spirit. Where did it come from? All learned men and doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning; but it is not so: the very idea lessens man in my estimation… .
The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is [co-eternal] with God himself.
–Joseph Smith (King Follett Discourse)
This is a marvelously deep and important doctrine in Mormonism, and we’ve hardly scratched the surface of its implications in the nearly two centuries since its revelation. We are self-existent beings, beings of cohesive identity, beings which are self-determining as uncreated.
Mere reflection cannot give us too much insight into our identity, although it can be useful. Ultimately, we can never strike too close to the quick of existence, because we are a sort of recursive observer-observing-him or her-self, condemned to perceive ourselves only as phenomena, as Kant pointed out in The Critique of Pure Reason.
Neal A. Maxwell wrote, in what is the kernel of this post, that, “What we now defensively regard as constituting individuality is likely to be significantly refined” (The Inexhaustible Gospel, 200). Furthermore, George MacDonald reminded us, “This love of our neighbour is the only door out of the dungeon of self” (Love Thy Neighbor). And so we must leave that dungeon of self, and venture forth into the wild and windy universe.
“…and far more of our potential.” Venturing forth, we now enter upon the reasons for this life, the motivation for a crucible. As children of God, destined to inherit his glory and enter into the mysteries of Godliness, it is our potential that defines our future identity. The genius of linear thought, as we are forced to have, is that every single thought determines which direction we are headed, which of the two ways we follow. There is no neutrality in divine war.
“For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.”
As our own ego dies, our own potential lives. We become more effective in the inherently social world into which the Lord placed us, more effective at reflecting or transmitting the light of Christ within us, more effective at filling the same potential.
I spoke of linear thought, the chain of combinatorial logic in which we are enmeshed irrevocably. Hugh Nibley refers to this linearity extensively in his famous essay, Zeal Without Knowledge:
But why this crippling limitation on our thoughts if we are God’s children? It is precisely this limitation which is the essence of our mortal existence. If every choice I make expresses a preference; if the world I build up is the world I really love and want, then with every choice I am judging myself, proclaiming all the day long to God, angels and my fellowmen where my real values lie, where my treasure is, the things to which I give supreme importance. Hence, in this life every moment provides a perfect and foolproof test of your real character, making this life a time of testing and probation. …
Sin is waste. It is doing one thing when you should be doing other and better things for which you have the capacity.
Or, in my immediate terms, sin is the waste of our potential on our ego. It’s back to the question of how we deal with our cognitive surplus.
On another note, we are reminded by C. S. Lewis that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. How do we reconcile this? By performing every action authentically, in Sartre’s term, or ethically, in Kant’s, or infinitely, in Kierkegaard’s. It is not a question so much of “intention”, as we may easily deceive ourselves in self-justification of our meddling. It’s a question of conviction–is what we are doing the deep action that we can will all others to perform, is it according to the Golden Rule, is it consistent with the deepest feelings and inspirations of our heart? That is the feather of Ma’at against which our heart will be weighed, and thus the canon we must bear in mind as we seek to become.
Refining away the chaff–I say this so cavalierly, but I know no way to say it that could give the terror of existence its full due–refining away the chaff, we have only gold left. And yet, not only gold left, but emphatically gold, to be poured into the divine mold. To recoin my phrase, far less of our chaff than we suspect is who we truly are, and far more of our gold.