Born This Way? Being, Becoming, Lady Gaga and the Divine

05/25/2011 12:13 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011

So I was born this way. Should I stay this way?

There are good reasons to get behind Lady Gaga's new anthem. We can always use more tributes to inclusion and self-acceptance -- especially when we are still so far from embracing all people, regardless of differences. We can always use more calls to self-empowerment when the world's problems loom so large, and we as individuals seem so powerless to address them.

As a species, however, we seem ambivalent about this message.

U.S. schools place a great deal of emphasis on building students' self-esteem. "I was born this way," one might put it, "so I should feel good about being this way." Yet the self-esteem movement has taken flak from many observers, who suggest that it fails to equip students for success as adults. They complain (with some merit) that children cannot learn the importance of achievement when, for instance, youth sports leagues discourage scorekeeping to protect the self-esteem of the "losers."

Contrast this with many Asian societies, in which parents and educators continually challenge their children to achieve. Conformity to norms and control of oneself are often touted as core values. Children are, in a sense, asked to "become this way"--the way they "should be" if they are going to become productive adults.

Children aren't the only people to chafe against the tension between "born this way" and "become this way." Consider the ongoing struggle of LGBT people to win equal status in matters of marriage and other aspects of society. In their conflicts with conservatives, they often emphasize that they were "born this way," that God makes no mistakes. The conservatives, with their belief that sexual and gender orientation are choices, want LGBT people to "become this way," conforming to prescribed orientations and expectations.

What does faith say? Is Lady Gaga right or wrong?

Whatever people of faith think of her as an artist, they can validate the impulse behind her latest message. The first creation story of the Hebrew scriptures declares that everything God makes is "very good." The central act of the Christian God -- submitting to the entire human experience, including death, to identify fully with us -- speaks to the extravagant love for humanity at God's essence. We were born this way, we are loved this way, and it is very good.

And it is half the story. Every major faith tradition calls its followers to more: to become better, more compassionate, closer to the Divine. The natural arc of life issues the same call. We may be born self-centered, as infants naturally are, but we are called to be self-giving. We may be born with little awareness of the world around us, but we are called to engage that world.

So it's a both-and. Being and becoming.

But how do we know when to be and when to become? It's a difficult question, and the answer is a moving target. A millennium ago, "born this way" could have sounded like a call to accept oppression: one was (more often than not) born a slave, a peasant or a serf. Today, advances in neuroscience, medicine and the definition of disease put a different spin on the question. For instance, some now suggest that ADHD, traditionally defined as a disorder, is rather a legitimate alternative for engaging the world. On the other hand, being "born this way" today -- especially if "this way" detracts from your quality of life -- means there might just be a pill to cure "this way" tomorrow.

To be sure, the world's faith traditions give us guidelines for wrestling with the tension between being and becoming. We can let the values of faith guide us: compassion, justice, service to the poor. We can listen in the depths of our souls -- through prayer and meditation, for instance -- for the voice of God. Ultimately, it will be for each person, in each age, to work out the right path.

Beneath these specifics, however, is one of faith's most invaluable contributions: to call us to be fully, authentically, extravagantly human, with all our differences in play -- to become our full selves and our best selves, to accept the depths of who we are and grow toward the depths of who we can be. We are born this way. We become this way. Faith, at its best, embraces both.