What Am I?

The very fact that we are alive leads each of us upon a quest for meaning. Each of us tries to “make sense” out of life — our own personal life and the world in which we live.We seek some understanding of life so we can have an overall framework through which we can evaluate our life experiences and respond in some appropriate way.

The “ups and downs” in life — in our own personal life and in the world around us — can cause feelings of uncertainty. Without some overall view of “what life is all about,” we have no way of dealing with our experiences, especially those sad and tragic experiences we see all around us every day and which occasionally occur to us as individuals.

Without some overall framework or “world view” to help us deal with our experiences and observations in life, we may feel like a little boat, on a large ocean, without a compass to give us a sense of direction.

One day, I watched my five-year-old grandson put a jigsaw puzzle together. First, he found the pieces that went around the edges of the puzzle, forming a frame on four sides. Then he used the frame to help him put the other pieces in their proper places until finally the whole picture emerged.

I believe that a person’s religion or “philosophy of life” is something like a frame that helps a person put the “pieces” of life together in some meaningful way.

In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School. Emerson challenged the young ministers to help people find the answers to two questions: “What am I?” and “What is?”

Emerson’s first question, “What am I?” deals with the very essence of individual existence. Emerson’s second question, “What is?” deals with the meaning of the overall reality in which we exist or “what we are a part of.” The answer that we accept to the second question (that is, how we view the meaning of “what we are a part of”) depends on how we answer the first question, “What am I?”

For example, some people believe that a human being is only a physical organism which originates accidentally and ceases to exist at the time of physical death. If this is the answer that a person accepts to the question “What am I?” then the answer to the second question “What is the meaning of the overall reality of which we are a part?” is simple. There is no meaning.

If the world and human life were never intended to exist, then there is no loss if people destroy each other and destroy the world in which we live. It would not matter how a person lives his or her own life.

Fortunately, most of us realize that we, as individuals, are more than a physical organism. As individuals, we are aware of an “inner self” or “personal consciousness” that exists in our physical body. This is what we refer to when we say “I” or “me.”

This “inner self” or “personal consciousness” has been given many different names. Emerson called it the “infinite soul.” Ancient Greek philosophers called it the “logos” (the literal meaning of “logos” is “word” but Greek philosophers used the term “logos” to mean “mind”). In the New Testament, the Greek word “pneuma” (spirit) is used. Whatever you call it — soul, spirit, or mind — the reality of one’s own personal essence can be perceived or recognized by oneself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson told the young divinity students, in 1838, that churches were failing to help people recognize that the answer to the question “What am I?” is “an infinite soul.” Emerson asked, “In how many churches, and by how many prophets (preachers), tell me, is man made sensible (aware) that he is an infinite soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; and that he is drinking forever the soul of God?”

Jesus, too, had an awareness that the spirit within himself and all human beings is of divine origin. One day, Jesus made the statement, “I and the Father (God) are one” (John 10:30) so the people picked up stones to kill Jesus “because (they said) you being a man make yourself God.” But Jesus replied, “Is it not written in your law (religious scriptures), ‘I said, You are gods’?” Here, Jesus was referring to Psalms 82:6, “I say, ‘You are gods, all of you are sons of the Most High’.” Jesus believed that his spirit came from God in the same way that the spirit comes to everyone. Jesus said, “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “it is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).

Jesus prayed that his disciples “may be one; even as Thou, Father, are in me, and I in Thee, that they may be in us (John 17:22-23).” Whatever unity Jesus had with God, we can have with God and each other, according to Jesus. When we recognize that the spirit that comes from God gives life to everyone, we have a basis for living in unity, or harmony, with each other. Jesus called this unity — “love.”

Recognition of our “oneness” with each other enables us to overcome whatever divides us, whether race, nationality, religion, customs, economics, or anything else. The yearning for a “better world in which to live” seems to be universal among humankind. As a Jew in his day, Jesus believed that this better world, which he called the “kingdom of God,” was “at hand” and becomes a reality wherever God’s law of love reigns in individuals and in human society.

It is important to recognize that the answer to the question “What am I?” is “an infinite soul.” It is the spirit that gives life to everyone and the spirit comes from God.

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