Monday, 22 September 2008

I am ...

The fall equinox occurs today at 15:44. As the sun sits in balance, straight above the equator, I give you a post about balance, about thinking of the other side. About including others with you and including yourself with others.

Derek at Disonanz Cognitif has a post that just begs to become a blog meme. (Thanks to Mike Clawson at Friendly Atheist for pointing me to Derek's post.) Here are three of his "I am" statements (go read his blog for the rest):
I live in a world of people, animals, places, things, ideas, time, space, matter, energy, forces, galaxies, quasars, mesons, and bosons. I live in a universe that seems self-sustaining and acts a whole lot like there's no God in it. I am an Atheist.

I believe I have not yet sufficiently investigated the myriad of religious, spiritual experiences others claim to have had, and that there are too many well-educated, intelligent people who claim religious belief without a hint of shame, to discount the existence of an otherworld completely. I am an Agnostic.

I believe the teachings of Christ regarding positive social change and mercy to the oppressed are just a bit too clear a message of the gospel to be swept up as a minor sub-plot to securing an eternal country club membership for oneself. I am a Christian.
Derek explicitly avoids labelling himself in general (at the end of his post, he says "I am a person who has made a conscious choice to make no overt profession of faith or disbelief"), so it's quite a bold thing for him to make such a list as this. If you read through the comments on the Friendly Atheist post, you can see that some people don't even try to take the statements in the spirit they're intended. It seems obvious to me that Derek is trying to point out bridges. Some commenters just want to nitpick and try to impose their own definitions of terms on Derek.

Going through his list, I could echo "me too" to every one of his declarations. More importantly, I think this is a great way to crack through some of the divisive oppositions in our society, if people can bother to listen.

And I think I could add a couple of entries to the list myself. Here goes ...


I delight in solving puzzles and probing mysteries. I love to discover things which can be discovered and to know things which can be known. I am determined to learn about the reality that lies beyond my subjective, biased human perceptions. I am a scientist.

I savour the taste of a good, unsolved mystery. I enjoy the potential that lies in the unknown. I could lie for hours looking up at the sky, contemplating the fact that I will never know most of what there is to be known in the universe. I am a mystic.

I refuse to let people's reproductive anatomy dictate how I treat them, except when I expect to interact directly with their reproductive anatomy. I resist sexist behaviour in myself and in others. I am a feminist.

I value the lives of all sentient animals, and cause them as little suffering as possible. I enjoy a variety of foods, but do my best to eat things whose production does not involve the deaths of feeling beings. I am a vegetarian.

I think the best hope for human well-being and betterment lies in treating one another with compassion and reason in this life, the only one we can be sure we have. I value human life above non-human life. I am a humanist.


So there it is. I invite you to add your own items, either in the comments here or, of course, on your own blog.

I know that many people will disagree with the connections I'm making between characteristics and labels. But remember, this is an exercise in seeking connections. There may be an element of exaggeration in some or all of the items, but there is also an element of truth. It is that truth, that seed of inclusiveness, of universality, that is (in my mind) the point of the whole exercise.

I think I'll close this post as Derek closes his, with a line of hope and openness.

"And yet, the spiritual journey continues."


  1. Great post! (I’ve made a number of friends aware of it.)
    Still, I’m afraid that your own “I am”’s didn’t live up to Derek’s example. While he truly included sides usually considered irreconcilable, your statements all came from the humanist tradition. For true integration (at least in the eyes of yours truly), you might have wanted to try something like juxtaposing a pacifist and a militarist, e.g.

    I hurt whenever a fellow human being is hurt. I do not see how war ever contributes to the well-being of people. I see that there are numerous other ways of dealing with conflict than using weapons. I am a pacifist.

    I get angry when those in position of leadership abuse their power, espcially where it concerns entire ethnic communities or nations. I observe that some aggression is only stopped by counter-aggression. I have heard good arguments for the justification of war from morally upright people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am a militarist.

    On a different note: You may be aware that “I am …” statements hark back to the self-revelation of the Judaeo-Christian God, e.g. in Exodus 3:14, John 18:6 (which some take as evidence that Jesus claimed divinity for himself), or Revelation 21:6. Which may, at least in certain circles, only reinforce the accusation that humanists try to play God. Which you may (or may not?) want to avoid ;-)

    Greetings from Nairobi.

  2. You are quite right, Oliver - I am acutely aware that my own additions are a pale reflection of Derek's originals.

    However, I would argue that at least my first pair - scientist/mystic - are commonly seen as irreconcilable (both in some humanist circles and in some critiques of naturalist worldviews). My expression may not live up to Derek's eloquence, but I think the thought behind it fits with his theme.

    Thankyou for the pacifist/militarist examples - an excellent addition to the set.

    I am conscious of the "I am" theme in biblical language ascribed to God and to Jesus. And while the title of Derek's post (and Mike's and mine) may recall that language, I think the content is sufficiently different to deflect accusations of playing God.

    From your examples (I'm using NRSV for the translation): In Exodus, God says, "I am that I am." In John, Jesus says to the soldiers looking for Jesus of Nazareth, "I am he." In Revelation, God says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." The Exodus and Revelation passages show God declaring his eternal qualities. The passage from John reflect's Jesus' simple humility: he is simply identifying himself.

    I wonder if any of my non-Christian readers picked up on that parallel when reading the post?

  3. Thanks, Tim, for your kind reply to my comments. Especially with the purported perception which critics might have about humanists playing God, I was writing tongue-in-cheek and with a teasing attitude, hopefully not overstepping the bounds – in which case my apologies. Of course, I would not accuse you of mistaking yourself for God – you may be a mystic scientist but you don’t strike me as a megalomaniac ;-) (quite to the contrary actually).

    My only excuse for not having noticed the opposition between scientists and mystics in your original post is that there are plenty of historical examples which combined scientific study and mystic contemplation. (Btw, it’s contemplation which is the hallmark of the mystic – meditation is more a tool for the rational mind, at least in certain Christian traditions). Just recently, I’ve read a biography of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century saint who was definitely both scientist (in a medieval sense) and mystic. Your wording “I delight in […] probing mysteries” strikes me to be an accurate description of both scientists and mystics.

    Expanding on “I am”-statements: What exactly happened at Jesus’ arrest (which is what the quote from John’s gospel is all about) we may never know short of using a time machine. Several Biblical scholars have interpreted the soldiers falling down at Jesus’ response to indicate that Jesus’ statement “I am he” was much more than a simple self-identification. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as claiming the mere power of Jesus’ words overwhelmed the soldiers but quite possibly, they shrank back from the blasphemy (as which law-abiding Jews must have taken it if it really used the original “I am”-words from Exodus, in Hebrew of course, and not in the New Testament’s Greek; and these were no Roman soldiers but the Jewish temple guard).
    Also, the passage from Revelation is ambiguous whether it is God speaking or Jesus speaking (the writer of the book of Revelation actually doesn’t distinguish very clearly between the two, obviously emphasizing the divinity of Jesus). Not that it makes a difference to our discussion here …

    To what extent non-Christians are aware of this probably depends on the extent to which they’ve come in contact with Christian thought and writing – or singing for that matter: there’s a hymn in which God is called “the Great I Am”. How early this divine attribute was applied to Jesus (i.e. already during his life-time or only thereafter), we cannot be absolutely sure but the past 2000 years of Christian history has definitely seen plenty of examples.

    Enough of this historical/exegetical excursion. Hopefully, it helped in giving you a glimpse into the thinking of at least some Christian circles.

    Greetings from Nairobi,

  4. Just to add - miles away from the original post as it is - I'm glad Oliver picked up on that interpretation of the words of Jesus 'I am' in John 18. Much more than simple self-identification.

    Anybody else find the recent "I am" advertising campaign by Orange irksome on several levels?

  5. Trying to get this again closer to the original post: How far would you go, Tim, with your ‘I am’-statements? Would you include something like the following?

    I have been in situations before where someone hurt me (or even worse, someone whom I love) so deeply that I could have killed him. If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that, given the right (or rather “wrong”) circumstances and frame of mind, I have it in me to end someone else’s life. As there are more ways than just physical to put someone down, I have to own up to words or manipulations which I have used which diminished someone else’s life. I am a murderer.

    Self-identification and –examination probably only benefits us if we can take the bad together with the good. So: Any more takers on the evil nature of mankind?

    Greetings from Nairobi,

  6. Wow, what a challenge!

    My first reaction - and a valid one I think - is that Derek's original post is more of a celebration of the positive things we share. In that vein, I would resist bringing in things that are unequivocally negative, such as your "murderer" example.

    Is this a cop-out? Self-examination is valuable, and should include the negative with the positive. I am, in the sense you describe, a "murderer" - I have it in me to diminish others' lives; I have done so; I have wished others grievous ill in the heat of the moment. There are many other grievous failings that, with very little rhetorical license, I could link to my own character and actions.

    However, that seems to me to stray rather far from the point of the original exercise - a celebration of the connections between humans, in terms of what we value.

  7. Admittedly, I had replied more to your “post about balance” than to Derek’s “celebration of human connections”. Celebration is fine when the livin’ is easy and the invitees gladly come to the party. To be honest, I doubt that this is the most successful way to “crack through some of the divisive oppositions in our society” (to quote another of your hopes). If people are on good terms with each other, they can celebrate. However, across divisions, we might need something else first, e.g. a recognition that I have failed in my dealings with others, that I am not “better” (often quite to the contrary), and that I need to become vulnerable in front of the other so that reconciliation will be possible.

    What I have observed in human conflict – be it firsthand, both here in Kenya and in Germany, be it from other witnesses, some only historical -, focusing on the common ground often results in minimal connection, in surface recognition, even in mere lip-service while underneath, old animosities, prejudices and even hatred continue (what erupted here in Kenya in January is an old enmity which has survived decades of seemingly peaceful cooperation). By contrast, where one faces their own dark side, balances it with the good façade which we normally show our fellow human beings, and subsequently opens up and allows the other an honest glimpse into the abyss of their inner being, simultaneously confessing prejudices and offenses, asking foregiveness and promising (where possible and appropriate) restitution, that’s where contact at a much deeper level becomes possible. This is then contact not between humans who are similar in their views and life styles anyway, but between humans whose differences in social, economic, ethnic or religious background do not favour true understanding, especially where those connections have been marred by atrocities in the past.
    My wife is currently reading Philip Yancey’s “What’s so amazing about grace?”, and some of its real-life examples, both present and historical, simply blow my mind for what is possible when people truly forgive (and there is none on this planet who has no reason to both ask for and grant forgiveness).

    Okay, these glorious visions of worldwide understanding between old enemies are probably too far-fetched for this topic. It remains my conviction, nonetheless, that the process described above, however painful it may be, and nothing less will be the foundation stone of peace on earth, if it is to be attained at all.

  8. I am a humanist because I value human life, but I'm also a killer, because I'm not afraid to take a life when defending my own or when I need to eat. In the end it is through death that we create life.. Without death there would not be life. When I take a fruit from a tree I in effect kill a new specimen that would have been born from the seed of the fruit. The same applies when I eat an animal. All life is of equal value, be it plant or animal life. Choosing one over the other makes me nothing but a hypocrite on my journey of survival.

    I'm a individualist because I believe freedom of Self expression and self identity fuels diversity which in turns leads to great leaps of self discovery and awareness. These great personal achievements improves the welfare of an entire group.

    I am an atheist because I'm against ideologies that forbids speaking against it, and whether there is a god or not, when my flame on earth runs out it would not matter either way.

    I am a scientist, because our senses and hearts can not be trusted when it comes to matters of truth. I am comfortable with ambiguity, open to change and consider myself to have a self-deprecating sense of humour

  9. Excellent idea, excellently executed.

    @Oliver/Tim, I agree the "murderer" idea, while being valuable, strays from the original intent. The original intent, to me, is to find things you can label yourself and *live out*. Bridge-building.

    Confessions of our flawed nature (called our "sinful nature" in Christian theological terms) is not the kind of thing we should label ourselves and then *live out*. A "confession of sin" is thus a different kind of confession than a "confession of similarity to The Other". Which Other would you be comparing to with the murderer example?

    Identify the outcast, The Other, that you tend to shun, find your similarities, discover you're not that different after all. In terms of US Politics, I'd encourage finding bridges for "I'm a liberal, I'm a conservative".

  10. @Hugo - thanks for a thoughtful continuation of this old thread.

    Re: bridge-building, does that include all people? If yes, then we may need to identify the murderer within ourselves in order to build bridges to those who have already crossed that line and "lived it out". Of course, I'm not advocating living out everything or anything within us. However, we might want to bring the murderer back into community (unless you support the ideology "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life" which removes the need to build bridges to murderers). So, is there a place to investigate "I am a terrorist"?

    With regard to liberal/conservative, I leave that to better suited people than this East Africa based German.

  11. A contribution triggered by

    I feel an urge to transcend the limits of the rational part of my mind. I am also drawn towards those symbolic forms of philosophy beyond science, like myth, music and art. I have decided to put some of my trust into relationships and certainties which cannot be rationally proven. I base part of my way of life on a spirituality related to a higher being which in certain contexts is called ‘God’. I am a believer.

    I am uncomfortable with statements which seem to be based entirely on conjecture. I find it difficult to accept information at face value without questioning its origin and/or the motives of its messenger. I am convinced that any certainty, belief or otherwise strong-held view should be rigorously tested. I am a doubter.

    Repeating a quote from Paul Tillich (given by a commenter on above blogpost):
    “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”


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