A Christian View of Human Identity

A Christian View of Human Identity October 26, 2018

The quest for human identity is a quest to know one’s self and to be known by others. Our personal identity exists in a social matrix. We perceive ourselves and we perceives others perceiving ourselves. Our sense of identity is a mixture of who we think we are and who others tell us we are. We experience ourselves, then, as both subject and object.[1] All the “isms” and “ities” of the past two hundred years attest to a de-centered and disjointed pursuit to attain a theory of human existence, a taxonomy of identities one can belong to, and a set of human practices of which the aim is to explain human origins, human value, and human purpose.[2]

What is a Christian to say about the modern quest for identity, the proliferation of identities, and is there a Christian identity?

First, identity has become unmoored from its historic harbours. Consider this, once upon a time, who you were was defined almost exclusively by your parents, their vocation, their religion, their ethnicity, their nationality, and their village or suburb. Your identity was mostly inherited, geographically bound, stable, and fixed. There were certain add-ons, like marriage, children, or changes in social status, but usually these were just variations on a theme, with little prospect of massive changes in your identity. Not anymore. Thanks to the increasing ease of physical travel (cars and air travel), the varied nature of cyber spaces (with virtual communities), cultural diversification (exposure to and interaction with various cultural sub-groups), radical individuation rather than group cohesion (stronger value on autonomy than collective belonging), our society has become fluid and fragmented and, as a result, so have our identities. People in the twenty-first century have become cultural hybrids and eclectic egos, our identities are plastic and malleable, capable of being moulded into any number of forms and taken in any number of directions.[3] You can be whatever identity you wish to be. We are like blank slates upon which anything can be written or like Rorschach drawings to be interpreted in any way we wish. Meeting a Catholic Goth vegan libertarian is not as odd as it might once have sounded. Thus, identity then comes down to the right to declare (let the musical theatre aficionado understand!): I am what I am, totally inimitable and utterly original, my own special creation!

Second, this ability to be anyone creates existential crises, causes social conflict, and leads to contradiction. To begin with, we are confronted with the problem of what identity we should adopt. Do we define ourselves by our sex, sexual desire, religion, vocation, marriage relationship, hobby, ethnicity, or a particular set of experiences? There is angst as to who we can be, should be, or might miss out on being. The problem is the resulting anguish that is created by the freedom of the self to be any one of a number of possible identities with endless hybridities. We are no longer told who we are, so we are identitarian orphans, yearning to know ourselves and to be known, but as who? Choosing a career or spouse is stressful enough, now we have to choose to be an identity and decide at any one time which group we wish to belong. Furthermore, conflict takes place over the right to be a certain type of person and the rights of that type of person. It is not sufficient to claim an identity, but people understandably want to be treated and addressed in a way congruent with their perceived self-identity. But therein problems arise if we ask what are the limits to the types of identity one can claim. For example, can a person be transpecies and identify as a hippopotamus?[4] Or can a white woman claim black heritage and belong to the struggle of the African-American community when an African-American woman would be very unlikely to gain reciprocal acceptance as a white woman? Is racial fluidity of this order itself a feature of white privilege?[5] Fluid identities force us to wrestle with selves seeking validity, but sometimes at the price of incredulity. In addition, as some sociologists have pointed out, it is problematic to claim on the one hand that identities are tangible, situated, and grounded in human reality (e.g. black identity, womanist identity, transgender identity, etc.); but on the other hand, to regard all identities as social constructs and enmeshed in pyramids of power and privilege. So, if gender is a social construct, does that make transgenderism in some sense a social fiction?[6] In sum, debates over identity lead to personal crisis, in some instances foster incredulity, and yield inconsistency.

Third, the Christian view is that human identity is not constructed; it is given, bestowed, revealed. God tells us who we are. Christian identity is narratival and relational. We are who we are by virtue of the story we find ourselves in and by the relationships we are a part of.[7] For Christians, our identity is shaped by the biblical metanarrative and our relationship with God and with God’s people (i.e., the God of the gospel, the story of the gospel, and the community of the gospel).[8] Calvin understood this when he said that without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self.[9] It is by knowing God, or more importantly, by being known by God, that we can know who we are (see 1 Cor 8:3; 13:12; Gal 4:9).[10] As Blaise Pascal said, “Not only do we know God through Jesus Christ alone; but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. … Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, not God, nor ourselves.”[11] If that is true, then the secular quest for an autonomous and self-selected identity, made without reference to God, is, in the biblical and literal sense, serpentine.

This theological conception of Christian identity, determined by God’s story and by God-centered relationships, is that we are known by God, baptized into Christ, and made alive in the Spirit. Christians believe that God gives us our identity by knowing us, choosing us in Christ, filling us with God’s Spirit, baptizing us into a community, and placing us in the midst of a story bigger than ourselves. As Amartya Sen argues, “identities are robustly plural,”[12] so we do not cease to be other things like a female, Dutch-Chinese, Indonesian, Javanese, heterosexual, physiotherapist, Manchester United fan, mother, wife, daughter, step-sister, inhabitant of Dundee, Scotland. But whatever else we are, those things are relativized and subordinated to a Christian meta-identity, an executive self,[13] comprised of being a child of God, co-heir with Christ, and filled the Spirit, that is the essence of our being.

Importantly, sub-identities pertaining to gender, sex, ethnicity, class, vocation, or whatever, should never be means of status and superiority over others in the church (see Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). We have died to the world with its ideologies and identities in favour of a distinct Christian identity shaped by the gospel-story and a network of relationships between God and God’s church. Christians are even incorporated into the story of the cross as a thrice-crucified people: We are crucified with Christ (Gal 2:19-20), we are crucified to the flesh (Gal 5:24), and crucified to the world (Gal 6:14). Whatever and whoever else we are – and there is indeed more to our individual stories since we all partake of multiple communities and possess many sub-identities – our primary identity is shaped by our place in the divine theodrama and our relationship to God and to God’s people.

There are at least three implications to all this. First, while the maxim inscribed at Apollo’s temple in Delphi read “Know thyself,” Christian churches should be described with the words “Known by God,” because it is only by knowing God that we know ourselves. Being known by God meets our need to be recognized and acknowledged, and our identity is sustained by God’s constant love for his children.[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured this point wonderfully in his poem Who Am I? which ends with the poignant words, “Who I really am, you know me, I am yours, O God.”[15]

Second, whereas hyper-individualistic and secular ethics lives by the maxim, “To thine own self be true” or “Be true to yourself” – which is not only a misappropriation of Shakespeare,[16] but also really, really bad advice if you are a narcissist or nasty character who needs a personality readjustment – Christians in contrast believe we need to be taught how to behave. So better are the words of the Psalmist: “Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (Ps 25:5). You are not a morally autonomous self, you need a role-model, a teacher, a code to live by, someone to train your moral sensibilities. Otherwise it is always vanity over virtue, the self-justification before self-sacrifice, licentious over love, the behavior of a toddler in a grown up’s body. Our identifies require external moral formation, we need guidance on how to pursue “all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8 CEB).

Third, the many communities we belong to and the different identities we possess – be they political, racial, economic, occupational, educational, or whatevs – will pressure us to think, live, and act in certain ways. However, we must resist what is ungodly and act with the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) and a “mind governed by the Spirit” (Rom 8:6), not in self-interest or from social prejudice, but a mindset shaped by God in Christ Jesus through the Spirit (Rom 12:2; Philm 6; 1 Pet 1:14).[17] That is because the essence of our identity is that we are known by God, baptized in Christ, and made alive in the Spirit.

[1] Lints, Identity and Idolatry, 20.

[2] Watson, Text and Truth¸ 285.

[3] See Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 114-16.

[4] Florentin Félix Morin, “Ego Hippo: The Subject as Metaphor,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 22 (2017): 87-96.

[5] Ijeoma Oluo, “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black,” The Stranger. 19 April 2017. https://www.thestranger.com/features/2017/04/19/25082450/the-heart-of-whiteness-ijeoma-oluo-interviews-rachel-dolezal-the-white-woman-who-identifies-as-black. Accessed 9 August 2018.

[6] See Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, “‘Beyond Identity,’” Theory and Society 29 (2000): 1-47.

[7] Richard Bauckham, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermeneutical Ventures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 138-39.

[8] See Klyne R. Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 32.

[9] Calvin, Institutes I.1.1.

[10] See the important work in this regard by Brian S. Rosner, Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017) whom I am very indebted to on this subject. See also McGill, Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation, 100-18.

[11] Cited in Caitlin Smith Gibson, The Philosophical Question of Christ (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 70.

[12] Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (New York: Norton, 2006), 19.

[13] Patrick McNamara, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), xi-xii, 39-40, 247-48.

[14] Rosner, Known by God, 99, 111-12.

[15] Cited from Rosner, Known by God, 28.

[16] See Rosner, Known by God, 25.

[17] See Craig S. Keener, The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).


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