A place where psychology and theology (and for that matter philosophy) overlap is in the definition of humanness and why human beings are as they are. It is as hard to disentangle the workings of those fields as it is the understanding of the individual human as opposed to the human in relationship, if such there can be. After all, the word psyche, from which the term psychology comes, means soul, than which there is no more theological a word. Probably such disentangling cannot be done, but I would like to at least try to discover what really makes the individual human.
I seldom watch television. This is not a boast but a complaint, because there is much worth watching. I am pleased that one of the few episodes I have ever seen of Star Trek: the Second Generation was so valuable that I still think about it years later. I didn’t see the beginning of it, but I think I got the gist of the problem. Data, the android, is a marvelous creation, and an expert in robotics wanted to take him apart and do experiments on him in order to make it possible to create more androids like him. After the experiments, he — it — would no longer be Data. Even if something existed in the same material form, the program would have been wiped out, and whatever was put in its place could not be the same. The memories would be gone. There was objection to this both from Data and from the other crewmembers, but it all hinged on the question of whether Data was a machine, and thus the property of Star Fleet, or was a person with the rights and privileges of a sentient being. If he was a machine, he was available for experiment, but if he was a person he was not, unless he, himself, was willing to undergo it, which he was not, of course. There was a hearing in which a definition was advanced of a sentient being. I thought it was a good one, and it might even have implications for the animal rights controversies that we sometimes find ourselves in and even perhaps the issues of abortion and the right to die. They suggested that a sentient being must have three characteristics: intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. They didn’t get into consciousness much. I suspect that that was because it is difficult to separate that from self-awareness. In the past when I have tried to define what makes a person, I have used the words "a consciousness of one’s separate personal existence". It comes to the same thing. To be human, you have to be aware of yourself as a separate human being. To be sentient, there must be recognition of oneself as an individual.
On consideration, it occurs to me that individuality may not be necessary. I can conceive of, though so far as I know there isn’t one, of a group intelligence that has no self-awareness within the component parts, but as a whole, to be considered sentient, it would need to be aware of its personhood, and through that, its boundaries.
Discussions of the development of children deal with their progress toward a sense of their own identity. When a child is born, psychologists say, it has no sense of itself as separate from its environment. The development of awareness is the development of recognition of the self as a separate being with separate space and separate needs. Observers can watch this happening in infancy. It continues with refinements throughout one’s life. It is, I would say, the basic human need. Other needs such as food, warmth and the means of reproduction are the needs of any organism, plant or animal. To be fully human — to be, in effect, sentient beings — we need to find ways to define ourselves in our humanity. To fulfill our human task is to experience wholeness within that definition.
Socrates said that the first step toward wisdom is to "know thyself". There seems to be a progression in self-knowledge with certain times of our lives needing to deal with various aspects of it. In infancy we need to discover our individuality. In adolescence we need to learn how that best fits into the world we live in. In middle age we try to discover the meaning and purpose of our selfhood.
When I was in college, the time when "identity crises" are rife — that is when we’re finally deciding just where we belong in the world and in human society in its adolescent phase — there was a game that some people found vastly significant. They would ask "Who are you?" and be dissatisfied with the answers, continuing to ask who you are and getting, they hoped or believed, more relevant answers until the end of the game. I can’t remember whether there was supposed to be a right answer, or whether the end of it was supposed to be the admission that you didn’t really know for certain. That, of course, must be the right answer. Even when we have struggled with the question for many years, any answer we find has to be within the particular structure of meaning that we have discovered or built for ourselves. If there is a transcendent meaning our understanding of it must be an act of belief rather than incontrovertible knowledge.
There is no humanness except within relationship. How do we learn that we are human beings and what it means to be a human being? We could not do it if we were brought up in utter isolation, which, in fact, we cannot be. Babies cannot survive infancy without human contact, although there are ancient and varied myths of people brought up by animals, and periodic new ones, but if they could survive, they would not have the characteristics we call human. Without some contact with something or somebody, we could not even know that there are other things and people that are not us. We can only know that we are human by comparing ourselves with other humans. We can only define the quality of our humanness in relation to others.
Am I a child? Am I an adult? We define that in relation to others. Am I intelligent? Am I stupid? How do I know, except that I see it in others? Am I pretty? Am I ugly? Those are defined by the way others react to what we look like. Am I loving? Am I uncaring? We love others or we don’t care for others. Am I competent? Am I a klutz? The tasks set for us are within our human system. Am I good? Am I evil? We can only be good or evil in how we treat those others with whom we have a relationship. Am I sociable? Am I a hermit? Those definitions have to do with how we relate to others. There is no humanness except within relationship.
However, and here is the crux of the problem, we hold as of high value self-reliance, individuality, personal integrity, autonomy. Part of the springboard of the women’s movement was the sense of the loss of their own identity as individuals. They were someone’s wife or daughter or sister, not just themselves. It is very difficult though, to define ourselves on our own terms. We perceive ourselves through our work, through our marriages, through our families. We find ourselves admirable as others admire us, lovable as others love us, competent as others see us as competent, unworthy when others call us unworthy. When others’ reactions to us are mixed, our own self-image is mixed. When they are negative to us, we are negative to ourselves. When our sense of self is defined by our relationships to other people, when those end or alter, we are no longer sure who we are. If it is defined by our relationship to our work, we consider ourselves successful and worthy if we hold jobs we like or think are valuable and are good at them, unworthy if we need to take low-paying, low-prestige jobs or fail in their execution. And if we are not working, who are we? Who are you? A minister. A chemist. A doctor. An electrician.
One of my friends used to get very upset if he was asked what his job was. He said that that was not who he was, and to ask him that implied that he had no other identity, that that was what the person who asked thought would define him. Of course, he was over-reacting, perhaps because he felt that his job not only didn’t define but didn’t reflect his identity, but of course it often does. The question is usually just a conversational gambit, but in reality, although a job mayn’t (and I would say shouldn’t) define us, it can give an insight into someone’s real identity, when we know what they choose to do for a living.
I hope that clarifies a bit what I meant by my former statement, but I want to say a little more about the source of that feeling of personal identity. It is not essentially, it seems to me, formed, though it may be discovered, by your relationships with family or friends, by your job, your age, your sex, your race, your intelligence level, by your interests, or even by your personality. I knew someone who became chronically mentally ill. Over the 15 years that I knew him in that state his abilities, his motivations, his personality, even the way he looked, almost completely changed. It would be very difficult to say in what ways he was the same person. And yet, as he said in discussing it, "I’m still me inside." Somehow circumstance, change, even such consuming tragedy as this person’s illness cannot touch or distort whatever it is that is one’s essential self. It is inviolable.
However, I think it can be lost or distorted, not by circumstance or tragedy — it is invulnerable to these — but if you allow it to be. It seems to me that this is the point of the search for identity that we go through. It is also an indication that although we can only define it within relationships, we must not define ourselves through them. You can lose it when you give it up to others. You can distort it when you define it by others’ terms rather than your own. You can even reject it yourself by denying what you truly are. To maintain it, perhaps I should say to allow it to exist, is to have personal integrity.
Perhaps this is what traditional religions mean by the soul. Clearly in their theology, as long as life remains the soul cannot be taken from you by any outside force, but it can be lost. In the stories even the devil can’t take it. He has to buy it from you or lead you away from it. In the story of Faust, Mephistopheles paid an incredibly high price for Faust’s soul, but he had to keep working on it to keep the bargain alive. Faust kept trying to get it back again. It was only as his integrity was warped by the satisfaction of his greed that the devil could be thought to have won. No matter how high the price paid for it by the devil, Faust had finally to give up his soul himself.
Traditional theology, too, says that what happens when we die is that the soul leaves us Although generally speaking, I do not care for the display of the cosmetized body at a funeral, it seems to me that it does have one very useful consequence, and that is the realization when you look at the body that it is not the person you knew. The body has recognizable features if the embalmer and the cosmeticians did a good job, but what made it the person who was important to you is gone. The essential self is missing. Only the wrapper is left. What has happened to that self is then what traditional religions have tended to concentrate on, but that is a speculation that I find interesting but unprofitable.
What is profitable is the self-awareness that values the self. There was an interesting study some years ago by a man named Rokeach in which he asked people to rank two lists of terminal and instrumental values. One of the terminal values was salvation and is defined as "saved, eternal life". I don’t think anyone I know ranked it anywhere but last. Some people don’t want to rank it at all. That is the one thing that Unitarian Universalists do completely differently in that exercise from the members of most other religions. It is clearly an essential part of our religious identity. However, defined differently, I think salvation really could be the most important terminal value even for UUs. If the essential self is the soul, its fulfillment in relation to what is of ultimate value would be of absolute importance.