Here’s a startling revelation: I’m not a stray cat.
Sure that sounds like the sort of thing I shouldn’t need to remind anyone, but it’s actually an important thought if you spend some time pondering what it means. It’s actually part of a stark contrast between Christianity and a lot of the other religions in the world. (And between orthodox Christianity and some of the heresies that have plagued it since the beginning.)
Of course, if someone were to come up to a person and declare, “I’m a stray cat,” we’d probably suspect some sort of mental illness. The usual construction is a bit more subtle though, a bit more mystical, and a bit more sublime, at least in appearance. People might talk about “becoming one with Nature” or how “the Universe has a plan,” for example. Branches of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism talk about a single underlying reality in everything, which is hidden but pursued. New Age religions tend to be saturated with the idea of interconnected identity. The point is that ultimately, after the illusions are abandoned, everything is One. I’m the cat, the tree, you, the earth.
The fancy term for this is Pantheism. The “One” can be called the “Life Force” or “Nature” or “Brahman” or the “Universal Spirit.” (And probably a hundred other things.) In each case individuality is somewhere between an illusion entirely and a merely temporary state. Reality is or will become Unity.
If you’ve seen the movie Avatar, you probably know what I mean. People may not call themselves stray cats very often, but Pantheism in general is pretty popular. It seems so poetic, spiritual, and transcendent. If you feel like testing this, you can start saying things about “Nature” and “Oneness;” I suspect that people will start to think you’re very poetic and spiritual. If you say clever things, they might even say that you’re transcendent or wise.
Christianity has the exact opposite message though. From the very beginning of the Bible, from the very first part of the very first verse, Christianity posits the willful abandonment of Oneness. “In the beginning God created….” There was God, and then he created something else which wasn’t God. The Bible begins with the idea of Otherness, of Difference, of Distinctness. There isn’t One thing, there are at least two: God and the stuff God created.
But then it goes on. In fact the first chapter of the Bible is all about differences, about setting things apart from each other: Heaven and Earth, Light and Darkness, Water and Land, Living things and Nonliving things, Plants and Animals. Even within just one of those groups–Animals–we see the process of differentiation continue. God makes some animals to live in the water, some to live in the air, some to live on the land. Then he makes a special thing called Humans. But even in Humans he makes differences, some are Male and some are Female.
The primary message of Genesis 1 is that God created everything. Tailing only slightly behind that message though is the idea that God created everything not only to be distinct from himself, but to be distinct from everything else as well.
That idea is reinforced in the New Testament. When Paul is discussing all Christians as unified in the Body of Christ–a topic where it would be easy to dabble in Pantheism–he instead talks about the diversity which still exists even within that one body. Rather than collapsing individual Christians into something generic, he says that people are united in the way that a body is united, with parts intended to be different from one another.
In Christianity, Otherness is important. Individual Identity is important. God’s goal for me is not that I should be re-absorbed into his infinite Spirit like a raindrop falling into the ocean, but that I should become fully, perfectly, and everlastingly me, always something other than himself.
As a first benefit, this knowledge is a helpful defense against the sorts of well-meaning errors popular spirituality can inspire. For example, it’s pretty common for Christians to misapply John the Baptist’s declaration: “He must increase while I must decrease.” I’ve heard it used as though the ultimate piety is having oneself entirely replaced by God, like God is a body snatcher in the old horror movie. First, that isn’t at all what John was meaning when he said it. Second and more on topic though, that ignores the value of the person who God created but then supposedly replaces.
It’s also a useful litmus test for doctrine. One of the reasons that Christianity will never embrace homosexual behavior is because homosexuality collapses the distinctness which God established. Men and Women marry each other precisely because Men and Women are different. If a man replaces a woman with a man, or a woman replaces a man with a woman, he or she is overlooking the value of the Otherness being abandoned.
Finally, it’s comforting. Who I am is important because I’m the only one of me ever. Even more, I don’t need to worry that God has designs on turning me into some sort of person I won’t recognize.
So the next time someone suggests to you that he or she is a cat, “one with nature” or transcending the illusion of individuality, you can comfortably assure them that a better option exists, one in which each person is special enough that oneness isn’t desirable.