Our universe is not just a temporal-spatial dimension. On the contrary, for human beings the universe is not only physical, but also and primarily metaphysical. Ironically, even the most staunch positivist is entirely immersed in his own metaphysical matrix, even from which he draws his highest and most sacred, secular ideals. Hence, human beings are beings of religious considerations first. Anything called “reason,” “science,” or “rationale” remain only subsets of Religion, with a capital “R,” or that is to say, the metaphysical universe which always concerns itself with positions and questions of values, ethics, and relationships. (Admittedly, these definitions will upset or be denied by a great many people.)
The big “R” questions are the great and terrible questions. These are the questions which plague every thinking mind almost constantly. They require so much effort and suffering to answer that most people refuse to entertain even the questions, let alone attempts at the answers. Of course, at the top of the terrible questions is the ultimate inquisition: Who am I? This is the question of questions. It has been asked since the dawn of conscious time.
This question is not about a cultural, personal identity, but about the a priori self, the self before the material-social milieu fabricated the counterfeit of the You and I. As Harold Bloom writes in his introduction to Henry Corbin’s Alone with the Alone, “Acquaintance with your own deepest self will not come often or easily, but it is unmistakable when (and if) it comes. […] To be acquainted with what is best and oldest in yourself, is to know yourself as you were, before the world was made, before you emerged into time” (x). Such knowledge is true gnosis and involves understanding the metaphorical and metaphysical relationships between the nature of self and the nature of all things.
Parenthetically, an associated terrible question is “Is this all there is?” The topic of life, death, and especially life after material death is unavoidable and has always been essential in the gnostic traditions, but while religion seeks to answer this question it is but a subset of the original and fundamental idea of the nature of things, of the categorical tropos of man and his relationship to transcendent nature.
History books which declare that homo sapiens living in the “pre-historical” era could not engage in science or philosophy because they spent all their time obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, have essentially missed the point and nature of consciousness. For the question Who am I? is not only at the foundation of science and philosophy, but principally exists as the foundation of consciousness. Thus the question remains the central, terrible question as far back as one can go. Consciousness makes all men philosophers; though most check out before engaging in the examined life. Really, whether living in a glacial cave or in a New York City penthouse, the question of Who am I? never changes. It is the essence of this question that unites all humanity in every era. If there is a Heaven, then access to it cannot be restricted by temporal concerns. If a caveman and a stock broker were to meet at the judgement bar, neither could accuse God of favoritism based off the era in which they lived. Each person is equally positioned either to answer or deny the question of being, regardless of their material or cultural accouterments.
How does one encounter the authentic self, in the words of Bloom, the self “before you emerged into time?” Carl Jung would say that the eternal self is rooted in the unconscious. That is, consciousness is not just waking conscious thoughts, but eternal unconscious processes. In other words, consciousness is just the occasional manifestation of the unconscious. In this view, Jung’s collective unconscious is the source of true being in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Descartes’s declaration “I think therefore I am” has a compliment in Jung’s confession that might be phrased “I am therefore I dream.” The confrontation with the self, therefore, must be considered within the framework of all of one’s being, including one’s unconscious anxieties and especially one’s own psychological shadow.
How does one answer the question Who am I? Certainly one’s name does not describe the essence of an individual; nor does one’s skin color, social class, economic status, or religious views. All these things are identifiers describing external forms, but they do not necessarily describe internal being. In this case, modernity has vexed the question of being with colossal webs of obfuscation. Modern multiculturalism has become the politicization of the self. As a result, culturally and institutionally, the question of conscience has been replaced with the quizzing of covetousness, What do I deserve?
One of the best commentaries I have ever heard on this question of self identity comes from the operetta Les Miserables. As Jean Valjean finds a comfortable existence in the autumn of his life, his arch nemesis Javert enters his town and falsely arrests an innocent man whom he thinks is Valjean. Valjean is confronted with a terrible situation: do I confess my true identity and get sent back to torture and prison for the rest of my life? Or do I let this innocent man take the fall? Truly, the words are worth listening to and reading:
[Jean Valjean sees a man taken in his place]
He thinks that man is me!
He knew him at a glance.
This stranger he has found,
This man could be my chance.
Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong?
When I have come so far,
And struggled for so long?
If I speak, I am condemned…
If I stay silent, I am damned.
I am the master of hundreds of workers,
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them, how would they live if I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned…
If I stay silent, I am damned!
Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery?
Pretend I do not feel his agony,
This innocent who wears my face,
Who goes to judgement in my place.
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago,
He gave me hope,
When hope was gone.
He gave me strength to journey on!
[He steps in front of the court]
Who am I?
Who am I?
I’m Jean Valjean!
[He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the number
tattooed on his chest]
And so, Javert, you see it’s true,
That man bears no more guilt than you.
Who am I?
The ultimate question Jean Valjean asks is only possible because he is able to frame the correct relationships involved. He states, “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.” Questions of being always center around one’s relationships with the other. As it is, a great many people, denying the nature of the true self, would never frame the relationship in the way Valjean frames it. One might say, “If I speak, I am condemned, but if I stay silent than someone else will unjustly go to prison just like I did and that is only fair.” Even more telling, another might say, “If I speak, I am condemned, but if I stay silent, than all the people who depend upon me in town will be saved, and their children will have food on the table. Therefore, for the sake of God and conscience, I must not speak, for my silence is the greater good.”
There are always “religious” reasons to deny understanding the self. Indeed, religion is often used just for this purpose. The Priest and the Levite who pass by the broken man in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37) are the very people who should render aid, but they do not. They are made to look like hypocrites, and they are. What is not said, however, is their easy justifications for doing what they do. One could hear either say “If I touch this man than I will be ritually unclean, and being that I am going to the temple to aid god and his people I therefore cannot touch this man.” The religious justification to avoid the moral good is often used because it allows one to escape the traumatic call to self-hood robed within the dress of righteous zeal. Nothing soothes a pained conscience better than a self-glorified one.