Michael Emerson: Are we the same persons we were?

The first of a series of posts on what change means for religious leaders.

One lazy summer day when I was 12, my father and I were out working in our backyard vegetable garden.  We got to talking about what it might be like “when I grow up.”  My father told me that there would be new technologies and, in part due to the new technologies, norms of right and wrong would probably change too.  He also said I would change. The only thing my 70-year old self and 12-year old self would have in common is the same name and some common memories.

I believed my father when he talked about new technologies.  And though I disliked the thought, I could imagine he was partially correct that even ideas of right and wrong would change. But that I would change so fundamentally that I would essentially be different people across time held together by the same name and a few memories seemed unbelievable.

I told my father so, in the over confidence that only my pre-adult self could have: “Dad, that might be your experience, but it won’t be mine.” 

I am now (significantly) older than 12.  I hate to admit it, but my father seems right on all accounts.  In the earthly sphere, change is the greatest constant I can point to.  In the next few blog posts, I will be looking at different types of change and what this means for religious leaders.

Personal change is obvious to us as adults: we are not the same people we were when we were 12.  What is less obvious is the profundity of that change, so sweeping that we can hardly grasp it. 

Let’s consider the most obvious: what we looked like when we were 12.  I was about 4’10” and weighed perhaps 100 pounds.  My dream was to one day weigh 200 pounds, because in my 12-year old mind, that was the minimum weight for a grown man. Now my dream is to weigh under 200 pounds! 

As I examine a photo of myself at that age, there are so many other changes, from facial features, hair color, to even bone structure.  Scientists tell me I am now made up of completely new cells than my 12-year old self was. 

I have had a little fun with a close-up photo from when I was 12.  I show it to people and ask if they know the person.  People look at it, look at me, look at it, look at me, and then say something like, “Is this a relative of yours?”  Physically, it is not just that I have changed.  It is that I am not the same person.

Having read thus far, are you at the point that you would agree with my father -- that you simply are not the same person as when you were 12?  I don’t mean that we have matured, I mean are simply not the same person at all?

Most people I ask don’t buy this.  They would agree with my 12-year old self that my father is off his rocker.  Most of us think our essence is the same -- perhaps our personality, our soul, our general mode of being, our DNA.  It seems we need to think there is a self there, a self that is the same over the course of our lives.

Why?  And what, if anything, is our essence?

What do answers to these questions tell us about our relationship with our Creator?  Can we even answer these questions apart from knowing our Creator?  Why were we made to change so much?  If we are made in the image of God, does this mean God changes?  Or do the things that change about us not reflect our God-likeness? Is there some essence within us that does not change?

I look forward to your responses.  And I will share them with my now 74-year old, terminally ill father, who is searching for such answers. 

Michael O. Emerson is the Cline Professor of Sociology and the C0-Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is the co-author of “Divided by Faith” and “United by Faith.”