Towards the end of Book 2 of his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo wrote that one of the fruits of original sin is multiplicity.
This statement segues in a peculiar – and controversial – way into discussions arising from studies in migration concerning the necessary multiplicity of their identities. In the face of the seeming economic and social implosion of many liberal democratic and multicultural societies in the West, an oft-heard thread in our sociopolitical discourse is the ability of migrants (whether certain groups specifically or as a general category) to “assimilate” into what is considered “normal” society. This is played out in a limited way by the need for a publicly funded television station in Australia to release another season of the controversial television series Go Back to Where You Came From.
In addition, the data coming out of migration studies suggests that migrants will almost always sit in tension with what is considered the norm in any given host country, precisely because their identities are often fragmented, consisting of elements from their cultures of origin. Such fragmentation becomes more acute when migrants feel a desire to act on a sense of nostalgia for their countries of origin. Liberation from such tensions comes to the migrant insofar as they forget their prior belongings and adopt the template of identity set by the host nation. This is most succinctly put in the catch cries once used by politicians such as “don’t forget where you come from, but remember where you are now”, or the call that it be indispensable that all migrants to “accept our values”.
An interesting theological question some might raise is whether the identity of migrants, because of their multiplicity in identity and resultant tensions, can be a sign of the hold sin has on them. Some may suggest that the migrants’ experience of such tensions and fragmentations in their identity can be attributed to to be higher levels of sin in migrants than in native born citizens.
This line of thinking might, and should, appear to readers as utterly ridiculous. However, a counterpoint that might be presented to this standpoint might be Romans 3:23, where “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. While this may be true, it unfortunately sidesteps the salience of multiplicity identified by Augustine. What to make of the multiplicity in identity that is so often apparent in migrants? It might be more helpful to view the theological input that migrants make to the Church in general on the very issue identity. Whilst migrants may appear to be the only persons that experience tensions in identity, they actually act as a critique to the rest of us in the Body of Christ, and our own pretense to be integrated, whole and unitary.
Since all have sinned, as Paul reminds us, we are for all our lives marked by a division in love – of God on the one hand and of self on another. And so long as this division in love persists, our acting on these divided loves will also result in a divided self. The multiplication of the ways in which we can love ourselves in consumer culture will only serve to exacerbate this fundamental division, further fragmenting us in the process.
Whilst the 19th century anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach was right in saying that this division in ourselves requires to be healed, he was wrong in thinking that this could only be done by getting rid of God. Augustine reminds us that only the love of God as the highest good can give any sense of cohesion to the self.