America is going through an identity crisis. The “live for today” approach to life – or, more precisely, the “live for how I feel today” approach to life – has disconnected us from our past and from our roots. The relationships that have helped define a person’s identity (family, community, church, and nation) have far less influence today than they did a generation ago.
The question of identity affects us on all kind of levels. The continuing debate over taxes, budget, and social programs is part of a bigger debate about who we are, and who we want to be, as a nation. And since Americans don’t clearly know who they’ve been, they struggle to know who they are. Unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia, we cannot say that “We know what we are,” And if we cannot figure out what we are, we will never get a handle on “what we may be.”
This national identity crisis is particularized in the identity crises of countless individuals. Caitlyn Jenner is not a just an example of gender dysphoria, but an exemplar of identity instability. Gender was once a person’s most basic identity marker, but that is changing. Consider Bellevue College in Washington State. It now lists seven possibilities for gender identity on its application form: “Feminine,” “Masculine,” “Androgynous,” “Gender Neutral,” “Transgender,” “Other’ and “Prefer Not To Answer.” Other organizations have followed suit.
And gender is not the only identity issue in flux. Rachel Dolezal, a woman who was born white but identifies as black, has generated heated controversy over race identity. Race and gender were once the most stable planks in an individual’s identity platform. Not anymore.
Whatever one thinks about the mutability of race and gender (my own views on the subject would be considered conservative), the loss of a stable identity is worrisome. People who lack their own identity will almost certainly take on someone else’s identity – often without knowing it. As Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” One only need look at Germany in the 1930s to see where that state of affairs can lead.
The Christian faith speaks to the issue of identity in unique and profound ways. It does not begin with those traditionally stable planks of race or gender for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Christian identity does not even begin with the person himself or herself. It begins with Christ. A person’s relationship to him transcends all other relationships, and provides the Christian with his or her core identity. He or she is, on the most fundamental level, Christ’s person and God’s beloved child.
When a person believes in Jesus, he or she becomes, as St. Paul makes clear, a new creation. Race and gender do not disappear (indeed, they continue to be a cause for celebration), but they cease to be one’s primary identity markers. Christians so identify with Jesus that they share his life and participate in his death. His history becomes their history and his future their future.
But while the Christian’s identity is stable because it is fixed in Christ, his or her experience is fluid. The Bible brings this out by saying that believers in Jesus have been “made perfect forever” (their stable identity) even as they “are being made holy” (their changing experience).
Because this is true, a stable identity does not lead to a static lifestyle. Quite the opposite. Christians “grow,” “strain,” “strive,” “press,” fight,” and “pursue.” The Christian has to grow into his or her identity, to “grow up into … Christ.”
That dynamic – a strong and secure identity coupled with a vigorous and evolving experience – provides the Christian with the security of knowing who he or she is and the excitement of becoming who he or she longs to be. And so the Christian can join Soren Kierkegaard in confidently asserting: “Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/27/2015