The Search for Identity and the Church
Latest posts by Greg Goebel (see all)
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The search for identity is the assignment that our society puts upon us from our earliest days. Who am I? What am I?
Cultural messages from commercial, activist, governmental, family and other sources seek to shape our identity every day, and yet they usually include the message “you are whatever you want to be.” And yet we can’t find out who we are without reference to the context in which we are thrust through birth and the accidents of life. We have duties and responsibilities, and unchangeable aspects of our selves, and yet are supposedly free to be anything we want to be. So how do we define our selves and find our identity within this environment of contradiction?
In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre discusses this modern identity crisis,
…the self is now thought of as lacking any necessary social identity, because the kind of social identity that it once enjoyed is no longer available… In many pre-modern, traditional societies, it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. (p. 33)
As he points out in this book, this is not only a modern phenomenon. Ancient, Pre-modern dealt with the human experience of confusion about identity too, but they were surrounded by rigid roles, class structures, racial divisions, and had little or no sense of the individual self. This was also a time of identity crisis, but instead of radical individualism, there problems were radical traditionalism, racism, and sexism.
The Confessions of St. Augustine began to change this, as Augustine looks into his own individual soul and mind, and reflects as one human person, rather than as a role or mouthpiece for others. It took a long time for this sense of personal identity and dignity to grow into a worldwide awareness of the self.
But for the past five or six centuries we’ve been slowly moving toward a radical individualism that causes an even more acute identity crisis. We’ve untethered the search for self from any notion of a past, a history, or a social community.
There is a great contradiction in the fact that I come from parents, with a history and a family. I’m born into a nation, I’m biologically male or female. I may have been born into particular faith, or none. I have biological family members to whom I am in some way responsible. I have a society to which I am supposed to – in some undefined way – serve the common good. I didn’t choose most of these things, but they surround me and define me to some extent, even if I reject them or try to distance myself from them.
And yet in this matrix of relationships and history, I’m also told that I am whatever I choose to be. I am not defined in any way by my parents, my history, anything outside of myself.
Macintyre sums up our current crisis this way:
“from the standpoint of individualism I am what I choose to be.” yet “…the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity.” (p. 220/1)
Gender confusion is only one manifestation of this crisis. Everyone is affected by it. When I was young, we were often told, “you can be anything you want to be.” This was usually career advice, but it was seldom tempered with “as long as what you want to be is good, within your powers, and answers to your personal responsibilities to family and society.” There was no balance.
And people meant well. But I’ve talked to a lot of other people my age, many of whom agree that eventually we all had a crisis. No, I can’t literally be anything I want to be. I have to choose something to put my effort into. I have only so many talents. I can’t dunk a basketball… And beyond that, I have responsibilities.
This crisis comes because we no longer know the reference points to define ourselves both with and against. Individualism isn’t working, yet neither does traditionalism.
A Universal Human Problem
And this crisis not only a “secular” problem. In The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah, an Asian-American, writes:
The American church, in taking its cues from Western, white culture, has placed at the center of its theology and ecclesiology the primacy of the individual. The cultural captivity of the church has meant that the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in scripture…
…It is important …to make the distinction between the negative impact of excessive individualism found in Western culture verses the healthy role of individuation. (p. 22)
We inhabit this same time period as others who are outside of the Church. We experience the same pull toward individualism. We know the crisis firsthand.
The Church and Identity
So does the Church of Jesus Christ have a response to this crisis? Can a sense of personal identity that is grounded in external reality be found within our communities?
In Desiring the Kingdom, James KA Smith writes,
…there is a deep sense in which the church is a people called to resist the presentism embedded in the tyranny of the contemporary. We are called to be a people of memory, who are shaped by a tradition that is millennia older than the last Billboard chart. And we are also people of expectation, praying for and looking forward to a coming kingdom that will break in upon our present as a thief in the night.”
Smith envisions the Church as a community of identity. A community with a history and with a matrix of beliefs that shapes who we are, even tells us who we are. And yet this community does not destroy our individual selves. Instead, it helps us find our selves with the larger context of a People. The Church, then is an embodied sacrament of narrative.
Community: Embodied Sacrament of Narrative
Our worship, our reading of Scripture, and our communal visioning of the narrative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides the possibility of a centered self. This sense of identity is not enforced through boundaries and laws, although they may help define self-destructive directions. Instead, our identities are centered in Christ.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey, inThe Gospel and the Catholic Church, centers his theology of the Church and its mission and purpose upon the power of the Gospel to shape us:
the relevance of the Church of the Apostles consisted not in the provision of outward peace for nations, nor in the direct removal of social distress, nor yet in any outward beauty of the Church itself, but in pointing to the death of Jesus the Messiah, and to the deeper issues of sin and judgment – sin in which Christians had shared, judgment under which they stood together with the rest of mankind. In all this the church was scandalous and unintelligible to men, but by all this and by nothing else it was relevant to their deepest needs. (p.4)
Ramsey says that the Church must always remember what it is and to whom it points. What it is is a human community. Fallen, imperfect. And yet together it points to Christ. And in always centering everything we say and do, and are, on the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we are finding out who we are.
We find out that we are loved as a person, but also that we are a part of a People.
Reading the Story
If the Church is to be a community of narrative which shapes our identities, we have to be reading the Biblical narrative. Out loud, alone, as families. We have to be enacting the Gospel narrative in our worship through symbol, liturgy, art, rite, calendar, music and actions. We must sit in silence at the foot of crosses, and shout with joy on Easter Day. We must not merely passively listen, we must enter into the Story as participants.
In this way, human authorities are not taking over the project of identifying each of us according to their own personal needs or any engulfing and limited human traditions. And at the same time, individuals are being drawn into a shared identity, rather than an isolated identity.
Jesus said that we must lose our life to find it. Living within the Gospel story allows us to live out this paradox.
The Story at the Center
Yet many churches are no longer founded on a focus on the Gospel cycle with its constant return to the cross and the resurrection.
Kenneth A. Briggs, religion reporter, travelled the country to see if the story of the Bible was still being told. If it was still a part of people’s consciousness. You can already predict that it isn’t much a part of the public square anymore.
But what surprised Briggs was its absence in many churches:
Most of our [pre-reformation] history has been a rather Bible-less Christianity that was dictated or defined mostly by the hierarchical church, not by people who read the Bible. … We gained the freedom to approach it, and then in the current age, we have ceded that exploration to media, to entertainment forms, to prepackaged interpretations that are delivered in video, audio and pulpit forms so that there’s a substitute Bible that isn’t the Bible, per se, at the same time that people aren’t reading.
This is not just a “guilt trip” for people not reading the Bible. This is his report from the front lines of churches.
Its not that we don’t refer to the Bible. Its that we give pre-packaged “life principles” delivered via media rather than providing the Story of Gospel around and in all of these things, and then live this out together.
Many have abandoned the Church Year and lectionary. Yet this cycle roots us in the Gospel.
A Community of Memory
Instead, we are to be a community that reads Scripture together. That tells the Story again and again. A community that connects each of us to our history and that shows us our identity in Christ. That gives us meaning and makes sense of our lives and our world, and helps us to find our own selves and our place in the larger Story. The liturgy is designed to do this very thing.
If we aren’t a community that provides identity and meaning in the Gospel, then the principles we are sharing are just temporary fixes. They will feed into individualism or traditionalism, and fail to free people to find out who they are within the Story of God, his people, and humanity itself.
You can hear the power of our Story in the testimonies of those who have found a sense of identity and meaning through the Gospel.
Recently NIH Directory Dr. Francis Collins revealed his newfound Christian faith in an interview at Bloomberg,
“And after many considerations of various faith traditions, ultimately the person of Jesus appealed to me in a remarkable way, as a historical figure, not a myth, who had answers to questions that I really needed answers for, and whose life and death and resurrection seemed to be remarkably well documented”
The person of Jesus Christ, his history, and his life, death, and resurrection gave this famous scientist answers to the questions he really needed answers for. And he is not alone.
Social Good and Ultimate Good
As churches, we live out the actions of a community…eating, praying, talking, laughing, sharing. We do this in order to achieve a desired social result. We try to strengthen marriages, and move toward non-violence. We try to protect and advocate for the vulnerable. And it does good.
But without the Story, without the narrative of the incarnate Christ, we aren’t living out the actions of a community of meaning.
Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “The Death and life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources, rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from the outside, in God’s Word to him.” (22).
We have the Story. We have a history. We are a People and we are people. Now is the time for us to return to the center of our identity as the Church: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is only in this way that we, and all who follow Jesus, can find out who we are.
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