Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity
Brian Rosner is principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of several books including the Pillar commentary on 1 Corinthians (with Roy Ciampa), and Paul and the Law and Greed as Idolatry. His book, Known by God https://www.amazon.com/Known-God-Biblical-Theology-Personal/dp/0310499828 frames this interview.
The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching and interviews can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: You’ve written several other books, but this one includes some disclosure about your own personal life. Would you share the motivation behind writing Known by God?
Rosner: It’s a bit hard to write about personal identity impersonally – or so my friends and editors insisted. Most of my scholarship has been old school – pretending dispassionate neutrality, let’s say. But on this occasion, it was deeply personal. Back in the mid 1990s my life came off the rails in a big way and I was left asking the most basic of questions concerning my own personal identity: who am I really? Being a Christian I turned to the Bible for answers and looked to my relationship with God to steady the course. However, on this score, knowing God, which had always been such a big driver in my life, didn’t cut it. Instead, I found being known intimately and personally by God was a source of great comfort and reassurance.
The more I looked, the more I found the theme of being known by God to be widespread in the Scriptures and connected profoundly with other central biblical themes, including being remembered and seen by God, having your name known to God, and the doctrine of divine adoption (God knows believers as a parent knows their child). Most surprisingly for me, Jesus Christ himself had his identity as the Son of God confirmed by being known by God his Father at his baptism, transfiguration and resurrection.
My other motivation for writing the book was that in the last twenty years I’ve found that I am far from alone in feeling at sea with regard to my personal identity. Over the years I’ve had countless conversations with people of all ages in a myriad of circumstances who are wondering who they really are: people who’ve been made redundant; people whose parents have died; people whose identity online leaves them feeling like a phony; people who feel deflated by their aspirations for life not coming to fruition; people who feel diminished by consuming responsibilities for children or parents; people who feel at sea in our rapidly changing world. There are in fact good reasons to think that “identity angst,” to coin a phrase, is on the rise in the twenty-first century.
Moore: The modern notion is that we find our identity by looking within. Modern notions also include the idea that our identities can keep changing if that is what we desire. How is the biblical understanding different and better?
Rosner: It is true that in our post-modern pluralistic world we take for granted the obligation to find and define, or even invent, ourselves for ourselves. The frequently-heard advice in many contexts is: “be true to yourself,” “follow your heart,” “be yourself,” and the most recent and hippest version, “you do you.” Self-definition is the self-evident route to identity formation in our day. It is often labelled expressive individualism. Ours is a do-it-yourself self.
The problem is that this approach to identity formation is failing and faulty. It seems to produce a fragile and unstable self that cultivates unrealistic expectations for life, is ill-equipped to cope with setbacks and serious disappointments, is easily given to self-centredness, and is prone to pride and envy. Expressive individualism is faulty because we actually come to know ourselves not just by looking inwards but by being known by other people, those who are closest to us and reflect back to us who we really are. The same goes for believers and being known by God. God gifts us our identity as his precious children and that identity is confirmed by him knowing us intimately and personally.
In terms of personal identity, we are also our stories. But it is a mistake to think that our life stories are simply our own making and played out in isolation from others. The big story, or metanarrative, in which each of us lives, is often a shared story, a combination of defining moments and goals and expectations of life related to stories handed to us by our families and related to the stories of our nations, ethnicities, social classes and religious faiths. For Christians, this life-story is mapped onto the life-story of Jesus Christ – for the defining moment of our lives is dying with him, and his revelation as God’s Son on the last day will also be our defining destiny as we are revealed to be God’s children (see for e.g., Colossians 3:3-4). The choice for all of us is between striving for a starring role in our own short story, the genre of which could be a farce or a tragedy, or having a bit part in the grand story of God and the redemption of the world.
The life-story of Jesus Christ offers a stable and satisfying sense of self as a child of God united to Christ. The shared memory of dying with Christ gives meaning to our suffering and instils in us a measure of comfort and hope. We have good grounds to be humble and consider others to be more important than ourselves, in imitation of Christ, who humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. In identifying with Christ in his death we die to pure self-interest and are raised to live lives of sacrificial love.
Moore: I recently spoke to a large group of elderly people. My talk was about trusting God with suffering, but I made a quick comment about developing a “theology of aging.” People told me that night that they would like to hear much more on that topic. How does a biblical understanding of identity help us as we age?
Rosner: Aging is certainly a challenge to personal identity, especially if you invested heavily in your career and are now retired. Another problem for older people is that many of those who know them best are dying. And then there’s the challenge of dementia for some, when your own memories of yourself may be failing. For many old people it can certainly seem that their lives are diminished, and they might be tempted to think that their lives lack value and significance. A biblical theology of personal identity reminds us that our identity does not depend on our capacity, circumstances or achievements. Instead, our true self is hidden and kept safe with Christ in God and he knows us intimately as his child. If our memory is failing, and those who know us well are missing, we can rest assured that our true identities are kept safe in the memory of God.
Moore: How does appreciating that we are known by God give stability and spiritual sanity to our everyday lives?
Rosner: Speaking personally, knowing that I am known by God as his child doused a destructive pessimism that threatened to engulf me and instilled in me a sense of value when I felt worthless. Twenty years on, it continues to supply me with a stable and satisfying sense of self, along with the blessings of significance, comfort, humility and direction for living. Feedback on the book indicates that the same nourishing biblical teaching is of benefit to a wide range of people in all sorts of different circumstances.
Moore: Please share how friendships helped you gain your own sense of identity.
Rosner: There is something reassuring and beautiful about someone really knowing you. When I was going through my own difficulties, old friends, like Frank and Martin, were especially helpful. I had known them most of my life and we had kept in contact while I had lived overseas for the previous sixteen years. Martin likes to tell the story of asking me to dice an onion on our first bushwalk as teenagers. Not knowing that you had to peel it first left a lasting impression it seems. Frank was a flatmate in my early twenties and happily recalls my early attempts at cooking, which included serving up a relatively raw Chili con Carne. Back living in Sydney Frank called me every Sunday night and I went on regular overnight bushwalks with Martin. If I was having trouble remembering who I was, being known by Frank and Martin was a great reminder. It was also at this point that I found being known by God to be of great assistance. If knowing God had given my life purpose from my youth, being known by God proved to be a great comfort in a time of confusion and difficulty.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers gain by reading Known by God?
Rosner: My hope is that people will find the book helpful in considering questions of personal identity both in society and more personally. There are questions for reflection at the end of each chapter that work well individually and in small groups. And I’ve been encouraged to hear of the book being used to good effect in a variety of settings, including with young adults, seminary students, retirees and psychology majors, and in coaching and mentoring contexts.