The answers to the questions “Who am I?” and “Where did everything come from?” inform answers to the more experientially relevant questions like “What is my purpose?” and “What should my priorities in life be?” Let us consider now some implications of identity and origins doctrines from different worldviews.
New Age pantheism
If individuality is an illusion, and self-consciousness delusional, then people do not exist for a unique purpose to fulfill, and the concept of the dignity and rights of individuals is meaningless. If God is everything and everything is God, human beings are essentially no different than anything else in the created world. Similarly, if creation is accidental, if inhabiting discrete, material bodies, is not “the way thing were supposed to be,” then we were not made for a good purpose and the finite, material world we inhabit is not good.
It is not a historical accident that societies in the East, which have been shaped by pantheism, have not established cultures that emphasize and human dignity and protect individual rights for all people. One is does not find fulfillment in such collectivist cultures by being oneself and following one’s dreams, but by receiving one’s role in society and dutifully fulfilling it for the common good.
The way pantheism looks and is practice in the West must look very different as the structure of Western culture is more shaped by Christianity and secular liberalism. It tends to promote a spirituality of escapism whereby we aim to free our minds the illusion of individuality and extinguish desires from our hearts.
In contrast to the pantheistic ‘self-as-illusion,’ in secular liberalism the individual self is ultimate. But you do not inherit a self and a purpose from a Creator, rather you create your self and determine your own purpose. In Rousseau’s vision of mankind’s original “state of nature,” the human is a gentle, peaceful, and happy beast, without an essential nature, but unlike other beasts, somehow possesses the freedom and power to create one’s own self. Humans alone “have the distinctive ability to develop and transform themselves.”
In secular liberalism, one then finds satisfaction by choosing one’s purpose and fulfilling it. Your goals in life are established around ‘following your dreams’ and ‘being true to yourself’ (the self you created – but if YOU created the self, then who is the YOU that created it!). Life is about achievement and consumption; relationships are voluntarily chosen and use to fulfill your dreams.
In contrast with pantheism, individuals are real and they matter. Man is created in the image of God for a purpose: to be God’s embodied representative in creation, achieved through the work of multiplication and dominion, and to commune with God in friendship.
So like in secular liberalism, human dignity and individual rights matter, but unlike in secular liberalism, the individual is not ultimate, God is, and relationship are not voluntary, we were made for them. The self is real, but derived from God. Thus, we are not free to create ourselves of course, but we inherit a self from God.
In this view, one’s purpose is given by God, and fulfillment is found by being true to this purpose. Priority is given to relationship over the accumulation of possessions and accolades. Faithfulness to one’s promises trumps faithfulness to one’s desires and ambitions.