If am sick with a mild virus, then "I have a cold." If my shoulder is sore, "I have a sore shoulder."
But suppose I have grown up in America. What will I say then? Any chance I'll say "I have an American upbringing"? Not very great. Most likely it will be this: "I am an American."
Suppose my good friend views me as a neurotic person. Will he say of me, "he has a neurosis" or will he say "he is a neurotic"? Either is possible. Suppose I have a conservative point of view. Will my friend say, "he has conservative views" or will he say "he is a conservative"? Who knows? Each is possible.
Suppose I attend my local Presbyterian church. Will my friend say, "he has Christian views" or will he say "he is a Christian." He could say either one.
Suppose I own waterfront property. Once a forested area sat between me and the bay. When it rained, the forest filtered the rainfall and prevented torrents of sediment from gushing into the bay. Now I raze the forest. I replace it with a tennis court and a lawn. Today's rainfalls are no longer filtered as they used to be. Will it be said that "I practice polluting behaviors"? Or that "I am a polluter"?
Who am I? Am I my illness? Am I my neurosis? Am I my political views? Am I my church membership? Am I my behaviors? (mis)behaviors as a homeowner? Am I my virtues? Am I my vices?
At a recent wedding, the father of the groom offered a toast. Not to the bride and groom. To himself. And to his wealth, his power, and his pride. What shall we say of the father? Is arrogance "something he has" or is arrogance "who he is"?
Aristotle took this on. Human beings are naturally creatures of passion. Some passions are beneficial, some are damaging. Civilization depends on its members developing a sense of character. We develop virtues so that we can hold our damaging passions in check. We develop virtues so that our civilization can rest on a foundation of good character, not on a foundation of perpetual vice. In Aristotle's view, "I am my sense of virtue," and sometimes "I am gripped by passions that violate my character." Who I am, what I have - it's a vital distinction.
Religious faith has a similar potential. Religion can teach us respect for ourselves, for our families and neighbors, and for distant brothers and sisters in faith whom we have never met. It can teach us compassion toward total strangers, regardless of their faith. It can create a sense of faith-based character that keeps us in touch with the divine and in touch with our own capacities for virtue.
"American character." Is it something one has? Or is it central to who one is? And if it is central to who we are, is it a source of vice? Or is it a source of integrity?
Aristotle's teachings were wise. Religious faith lifts our sights. As Americans, yes, we have many vices. But who are we? What lies at the heart of our identity as Americans?
Steven Howard Johnson