Last week, we were talking about individualism – how our world has become, continues to be, and may increasingly be highly individualistic. Related to that, as we mentioned, but not the same thing, is the concept of identity – who am I? I want to explore that a little bit more today.
Now last week, I also mentioned in passing something called the subjective turn. It might be fairly obvious, but essentially this is a term that is used to describe various aspects of (especially) postmodernism wherein human beings have turned away from objective truths to subjective experiences (once again, this is overly-simplified).
Now this is a significant movement away from modernism or Enlightenment-type thinking. During the Enlightenment (as we’ve talked about), human beings increasingly put their faith in science and rationalism – that which can be proven, that which can be seen. Human beings and societies were convinced that if we continued along that trajectory, we would fix all the problems, discover all the things, and answer all the questions. Postmodernism, then, arose in part from the realization that the enlightenment project (modernity) wasn’t working. Science and rationalism weren’t giving us the future they had promised. Science was limited, rationalism was failing, and objectivity was in doubt. More importantly, the Enlightenment project wasn’t giving answers to the questions people really wanted answered. And therefore, in part, people turned to the subjective. Though science and rationalism couldn’t be trusted, my own experiences could.
Now part and parcel with this (because of this, along with this – it’s not clear), spirituality was also changing. Remember that we talked about shifts in Christianity that essentially amounted in a movement towards a more personal spirituality. Bruce Hindmarsh, in his study of early evangelicalism, calls this the evangelicals’ search for “true Christianity.” And essentially, he notes that a key aspect was to remove spirituality from the aegis of the Church (as institution) and focus it on the individual. As we said before, faith had to be personal. So in short, culture was becoming more subjective and spirituality was becoming more subjective along with it.
Now all of that should be familiar because we’ve talked about it before. But I bring this up because all of this informs what Charles Taylor calls the “age of authenticity.” According to Taylor, these various historical forces lead to a culture (again, a particularly western culture) where the primary concern is to find and be oneself. Mottos such as “you have to be true to yourself,” “find your bliss,” and so on are expressions of this. These are fundamentally questions of identity – who am I?
Now people will have a variety of reactions when you hear things such as this. For some people, this sounds very much like the truth. For other people, it sounds like postmodern nonsense.
But if we understand some of the background – as we’ve just discussed – it makes sense how we wound up where we are. Things such as this arise out of a context. To further add to the context, let’s think about some of the things that we might associate with identity – how we understand, or make sense of who we are.
Though this is hardly comprehensive, there are several ways that people may understand identity. Or, there are several ways that people make sense of who they are.
- Roles – we understand who we are in terms of our function – what we do. This may be in terms of a job, it may be in terms of being a parent, you may think of your identity in terms of whether you are a leader or a supporter. If you frame your sense of self around your role, understanding the hierarchy (and where you stand in it) becomes quite important.
- Achievements – we understand who we are in terms of what we accomplish. These accomplishments may be in any number of fields – they may be academic, professional, social, or etc. We might think of the former high school star athlete who always mentions his four touchdowns in one game. But we might also think of it in terms of our latest promotion, or how much money we have in the bank, or how many followers we have on Instagram. All of these things can be critical parts of how we understand who we are.
- Community – by this, I mean that we understand who we are in terms of what tribe we are a part of. Last week we mentioned, in passing, the issue of tribalism. We spoke about tribalism in a critical way, but community is a pretty common, and important, way of finding a sense of identity. This is why we put a Canadian flag on our backpack when we travel. This is why we root for a particular sports team, and it may be why we vote for a particular political party.
Now I don’t mean to say that any of these things are necessarily bad. It’s important, for a variety of reasons, to have a particular role; to know that we accomplish or are capable of accomplishing things; and it’s certainly important to be a part of a community – for many people, these things (and others) contribute to our sense of who we are. But one of the things that the proponents of the age of authenticity realized is that our identity cannot be summed up by or contained in things such as these. People started to realize that we are more than just these things. And of particular note, people realized that all of these things are externally determined – something outside of oneself was defining one’s self. But authenticity requires that the self is not determined by external agents but discovered for oneself.
Now this seems to make sense – if one wants to know oneself, one has to know oneself. But the problem is that no person is a person apart from the world. And we all see the world, make sense of the world, through a particular lens. In other words, and in short, when we look at ourselves, what lens are we using to look? In yet other words, what interpretive framework are we using to decide if we are being authentic? We take it for granted that “being yourself” means not being what other people want you to be, but to what extent do we understand that “being yourself” also comes with a whole host of assumptions and preconceptions about what that even means.
So I hope that makes a modicum of sense. What I’m trying to say can actually be boiled down to a couple of things. 1) The desire to find authentic identity is a serious one and it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, we all go through that period of time (if it ever ends) trying to discover who we are. And, 2) However, the search for identity as a purely internal endeavour is, I believe, ultimately a misguided one. I believe that for a couple of reasons. One, because our interior self (so to speak) is never unaffected by our exterior reality – that is, we are all products of, or affected by, the culture (that is, the people around us, our job environment, the media, the larger world). And two – we are all sinners. None of us sees or understands perfectly, even ourselves. Therefore, how do we understand this problem? Or, how do we form a biblical sense of identity?
So again, I’m not trying to be comprehensive or definitive here. I’m simply going to share some things that I think about, that maybe you might think about, and maybe some of this can help us all think about it.
Firstly, and contrary to the ethos of the age of authenticity, I think that identity is ultimately relational. That is, I don’t believe that we are ultimately isolated, detached monads (I really wanted to use that word again). I don’t think identity is purely internal or subjective. As we discussed last week, I believe that we are all created to be in community. But I’m going beyond that a little bit to say that who we actually are is, to some extent, contained within or can only be revealed in the context of community. That is to say, our very being is relational.
I think that this is best understood by those of you who are or have been married. Now I realize that not all marriages ultimately work out like this, but let me explain. Some years ago, a friend of mine got married. He was in his mid-thirties. And he had told me how he struggled a lot with his sense of identity when he was younger, for a whole host of reasons. But when he got married, he felt free. He felt like somebody finally knew him and understood him. He felt like who he truly was, was finally revealed, released, redeemed by the presence of another who loved him completely. He had found that he could only truly be himself, know himself, in the presence of another.
In contrast, think about a desert island scenario where someone is stranded alone on an island. He or she is completely free to “be themselves.” No external forces impinge upon their identity. But without another person, without other people, if one is purely isolated and on their own, can they ever be truly and fully human?
As our first text today, I want to consider Psalm 139, one which most of us are pretty familiar with. The first few verses of Psalm 139 say:
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?Psalm 139:1-7
Where can I flee from your presence?
Now I don’t want to spend too much time here – so I’ll simply say, a significant part of who we are, I think, is being known. But to be known means to be in relationship. Again, I think that identity is ultimately relational.
Now another aspect of identity that I want to consider is that identity is holistic. And I mean that on several different levels. But as an initial consideration, I want to think about how previous generations, different cultures, have thought about the human person as being primarily mental or intellectual. Your thoughts, essentially, encompassed who you are. Obviously this became prominent during the Enlightenment, but we can actually trace the line of thinking back to the ancient Greeks. And C.S. Lewis famously said, “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul; You have a body.” And as much as I respect Lewis, and I understand what he’s getting at, I think we can easily get sidetracked. Because we also are a body – or to put it another way, we are not just a mind (or a soul?).
I bring this to your attention because one of the criticisms by postmodernism of modernism is the disregard of the physical (at least with respect to being human). A particular aspect of this is the postmodern attention, as distinct from the modern, to sensuality – and by “sensuality,” I mean relating to the senses. Rather than ignoring or escaping the senses, we need to recognize that it’s part of who we are.
Now all of this may sound a little odd, but what I’m trying to get at is the fact that we, with our bodies – or rather, as we are embodied – actually inhabit this world. We inhabit places and we inhabit time. As human beings, we are not abstract things. We are not the sum total of our ideas or even beliefs. We are situated in and participate in history.
Later in Psalm 139, we read:
13 For you created my inmost being;Psalm 139:13-16
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Now this is related to the point regarding the previous verses in that these verses also speak to being known, but it also points to the fact that God created us as embodied beings. Who we are is not just a mind, with the body being an afterthought or necessary evil. God created, and knows, the whole of us.
There’s certainly more to say about that, but I want to move on. The third thing that I think is that identity, that is authentic identity, who we truly are, is eschatological. I frequently use the language of “who we are meant to be.” And what I mean by that is our eschatological destiny. The reality of life in history – which is to say, this life on this earth – is that all human beings are under the curse of sin. None of us are who we are created to be. But the promise of Jesus Christ is that one day, sin will have completely lost its hold on us (make no mistake, we can know the reality of that now, but the fullness of that waits for Jesus’ return).
So what I’m saying is that, simply, because of sin, none of us are who we are truly meant to be. But through Jesus Christ, because of his blood and his body, given for us, we will be restored. And it’s not just a legal restoration, it’s not just the removal of punishment, it’s the fulfillment of identity. And that future reality speaks into our present reality. The eschatological reality can inform how we understand ourselves, and how we understand our place in this world, even while we look forward to His return.
Here, I want to look at 1 John 3:1-3, which says:
1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.1 John 3:1-3
Now in the previous sermons in this series, I’ve been (probably) mostly critical of the particular issue. However, I actually think that the desire and search for authentic identity arises out of something significant. And I actually think it raises some important questions for ministry. And what I’m trying to say is that the search for authenticity, the desire to truly know ourselves, to feel at home with ourselves, to discover who we are and who we are meant to be, is not just a particular cultural phenomenon, and may actually be an expression of the fundamental problem of sin. But out of that, out of this feeling of disconnect with the world, we feel this perpetual call to something more, something deeper, something real. The Enlightenment thinkers tried to solve that problem with reason, the Industrialists tried to solve it with technology, and the postmoderns are trying to figure it out with something else. But our hearts’ deepest desire is still to find our way back home, to return to that place where we are truly known.
So, in closing, the practice that I want to commend to you today is prayer. Most of us, I hope, pray somewhat regularly. And I don’t know how everyone practices prayer, and I don’t want to be overly instructive, but I’d commend to you praying through, or at least paying attention to, the Psalms. For centuries, and still for some, the Psalms have been considered the prayer book of Israel. And we’re aware that many of the Psalms are praise to God, thanksgiving to God, and worshiping God. But many of the Psalms are just David, or another Psalmist, simply laying themselves bare before God. The Psalms can teach us that we can bring ourselves, our whole selves – the good, the bad, and the ugly – before a God who is faithful, loving, and knows us better than we know ourselves.