Introduction to the Conversation
The question ‘Who am I?’ is deceptively simple. On the surface, we think we can immediately answer the question, but upon further reflection we discover we actually need a tremendous amount of help to understand our ‘selves.’ We need each other. Not just in order for our communities to function well, but we need others to make sense of our existence, our calling, and our very being. This need of others, as we will explore here, includes ‘others’ with insights from academic disciplines beyond purely biblical and theological studies.
Ideas never happen in a vacuum. Conversations grow and ideas develop across academic disciplines. In this way, certain intellectual ‘furniture’ is created or assumed in different historical periods. Attempts are then made to organize that furniture to make the space most habitable. Sometimes conversations between disciplines can help us organize a room in such a way it becomes livable. At other times, roommates are hard to find’unexpected opposition or tensions arise, making it almost impossible for us to share the same space. Each person questions the layout or even the furniture that the other suggests, believing the other’s arrangements undermine the integrity of the room.
The following is a conversation with a theologian, a biologist, and a sociologist, answering various questions posed to each of them. But we can easily imagine how we could benefit from many more conversation partners, such as a psychologist, historian, linguist, and so forth. Human beings are far more complicated and beautiful than most of us tend to recognize at first glance. To understand humanity in general, and the self in particular, we need one another.
- Kelly M. Kapic: Theology
- Tim Morris: Biology
- Matthew S. Vos: Sociology
Question: How does your discipline have a kind of authority when it comes to understanding the ‘self’ or ‘identity’? Why should we listen to a theologian on these questions?
Kapic: Theologians inhabit a bit of a challenging role in such conversations. Although this is somewhat oversimplified, there is a real sense in which theologians often speak into these conversations with an emphasis on prescription, whereas other disciplines highlight description. Chemists try to describe the structure and properties of substances and the various changes that take place. Historians attempt to describe as faithfully as possible what happened, seeking to make sense of how one action or event may have led to another.
Christian theologians face the challenge of feeling compelled not merely to describe what is, but also to prescribe, based on the authority of divine revelation. Such revelation, however, invites us into the complex biblical dynamics of creation and fall, sin and sanctification, the now and not yet. Here, there is description and prescription, interpretation and application. All of this matters when we turn our attention to the ‘self.’ The question ‘Who am I?’ requires us to be honest about the brokenness of our bodies, our minds, our very selves. But, as Christians, it also means we look beyond what is to what was or will be, and for this we look to Scripture.
A Christian theological view of the self needs to be ‘creational,’ in the sense that it looks back to the goodness of God’s original designs, even as it is also ‘eschatological,’ looking forward to the renewal of all things in Christ. Such a twofold conception should drive us to be genuinely holistic, seeking to avoid reductionism in which we isolate and highlight one aspect of being human while neglecting others. In this way, theologians should always be on the alert against efforts to pit the body against the soul, the mind against the heart, the will against the affections.
The word of God is our authority. Yet, we must have the courage to recognize that we are not called to approach the Bible arrogantly or blindly. We can be genuinely thankful to God for the common grace he has given many who have studied his creation, including the human creature. To better understand the self both descriptively and prescriptively, we are well served to do this in an interdisciplinary way: neither neglecting theology, nor allowing it to silence what others have discovered about God’s creation. Put differently, the theologian cannot simply have the first, final, and only word.
Morris: The issue of authority is a little more complicated these days than it used to be. In the conservative Christian subculture, there is quite a bit of angst and suspicion regarding the authority of the discipline stemming from origins disputes and the ‘culture wars.’ In addition, in these post-Kuhnian times in the philosophy of science, it is difficult to sustain claims that the authority of a scientific discipline ultimately rests on its uniquely reliable methodology. (Thomas Kuhn developed the idea that science itself is a social product that advances with the assent of a community rather than just a preponderance of the facts.)
I’ve become convinced that the best way to proceed in the authority discussion is to assert that whatever real authority the discipline of biology has ultimately comes from God’that acknowledgement must be our starting point. (Of course, this assertion is not the same thing as an assertion that biology somehow speaks for God). Though Scripture doesn’t address the authority of academic disciplines directly, I think a fairly strong case can be made for its authority if a kind of analogy between?governmental authority (a nonchurch-related authority explicitly addressed in Scripture) and academic disciplinary authority is allowed.? Governing authorities are raised up and held accountable by God himself, according to his purposes in history. God’s people are enjoined to respect them and honor their authority unless that authority is misused, in which case God’s people ‘must obey God rather than men.’
Here is one further point to follow up on Kelly’s comments regarding the need for the expertise of multiple disciplines to adequately address something as complex as the ‘self.’ The conversation will go much better if all participants recognize up front that?the authority of each discipline is strongest at its ‘center’ and gets more tentative near its ‘edges.’ For example, the discipline of molecular biology has greater authority to speak about DNA replication than it does about, say, human social behavior. The complexity of reality and the varied gradations of disciplinary authority invariably lead to tensions concerning which discipline might rightly take the lead in a particular case, where prescriptive and descriptive responsibilities fall, and where the borders of disciplines rightly lie. These tensions can be productive tensions if everyone in the conversation remains humble and teachable. And when I think of humble and teachable, I think of sociologists! So, turning to Matt’¦
Vos: In one of my undergraduate classes, I tell my students that the interdisciplinary major is the only honest major in the entire institution. This facetious comment is designed to help students see that disciplinary boundaries are constructed and artificial, and that it is through our disciplines together that we begin to see more clearly’on the shoulders of collective giants! This, of course, resonates with what both Kelly and Tim said about the partial perspectives provided by particular disciplines combining for a fuller understanding’much like the 1 Corinthians 12:12 explanation of how the different parts of the body combine into a whole, and one part cannot do without the others.
Sociology is, in a way, a reactionary discipline. We have our own domain(s), but we are mostly like to comment on all of the other disciplines (something I’m certain my colleagues love about me!). Our discipline provides an angle from which to view quite a number of disciplines, and the authority it brings to a given area, problem, or topic is centered in its group-oriented perspective. I appreciate what Kelly said about his discipline, theology, needing to listen to others. I find that my best ideas happen when I’m open to listening to the discoveries of others’such as Kelly and Tim’which can breathe new life into my work, giving it greater depth and complexity.
Turning then to the specific question ‘What is the self?’ is foundational and central in sociology’a staple in introductory sociology texts. There are a number of perspectives, and sociology has some remarkable insights into the ‘nature’ of the self. In one book I teach from, social psychologist Kenneth Gergen writes, ‘In the beginning was the relationship.’ His point is that everything that is derives from relationship. (This is something I point out that is consistent with the Genesis account of the creation of humankind. How did Adam know who he was? How did he possess a ‘self’? He came into the relational world of God. He was never alone.)
The point: Outside of relationship, we cannot locate the self. The self is both conceived of in relationship and sustained in relationship’an idea with theological underpinnings. In developing this idea more foundationally, Chicago philosopher-turned-sociologist George Herbert Mead writes about the stages through which one proceeds to acquire a self. According to Mead (and echoing John Locke’s tabula rasa), we are born as blank slates and society writes its rules upon us’a process easily observed in the loving interactions between, say, a mother and her newborn infant. Furthermore, the self is reflexive’to ‘get’ a self, one must get outside oneself. We do this by role taking, imagining ourselves as others see us. It is through role taking that society is possible at all. In the end, the self is dialectically related to the collective. ‘Who am I?’ is perhaps our most burning post-Fall question.
One can argue that sociological ideas about the self resonate with biblical concerns. For example, we are given instruction that as people of faith we are not to ‘forsake meeting together’ and to be found in fellowship with one another. Our selves exist only in dialectical relationship with God and with others. Accordingly, I know only myself and I have a self only because there are others who form and sustain me. Fellowship is not just something nice to have over coffee after church. It is, in fact, the basis for identity itself. To be made in the image of God is to be made in relationship.
Question: How has the discussion about what it means to be human changed in the last generation or one hundred years? How is each discipline potentially helpful in this discussion?
Kapic: When it comes to thinking about being human, theological anthropology has been influenced in various ways by the work of others. At its best, this has always been part of the Christian tradition that grows out of our doctrine of creation, but sometimes this emphasis appears to have been muted or lost its significance.
For example, in debates with early Gnostics, leaders such as Irenaeus were quick to highlight the goodness not merely of the original creation but also of the continuing value of human bodies. He and theologians such as Tertullian did this, for instance, by drawing attention not merely to God’s original creative act, but by concentrating on the truth of the incarnation. There is nothing that highlights more strongly God’s delight in his material creation than the fact that the Son of God became man’real flesh and bones. He became like us in all ways, except that he was free from sin. That means our bodies deeply matter to God.
Nevertheless, one can understand how it would be tempting for a Christian living during the Enlightenment to displace this holistic emphasis, concentrating almost exclusively on human rationality. When this kind of skewed focus is unknowingly passed on, it can even sound as if Christians belittle the body. And this has unquestionably happened at times. That is why recent biblical scholars, for example, have warned about misreading Paul’s intensions when he pits ‘flesh’ against the ‘spirit.’ The apostle is not meaning to pit the physical against the nonphysical, as if the former were negative and the latter positive. Instead, he is talking about two ways of existing: the flesh representing hostility toward God’s lordship, while the spirit signifies life freely lived under the reign of God’s Spirit. The point was never to demean our physical bodies.
While I would not necessarily want to argue that contemporary theology’s concern for the physical is something new, I would say there has been an overall renewed appreciation for a holistic approach to being human. This includes not merely a greater appreciation for human physicality, but also for a willingness to see the human person as a complex web of mind, will, affections, relationships, and so on. Concerns have rightly been raised about theological presentations of the self that concentrate so much on certain aspects of mental cognition that they risk underappreciating the complexity of the human agent.
Growing out of this holistic concern is also the greater recognition that humans are relational creatures. Our relationship to God and neighbor is pivotal in understanding what it means to be human. We can therefore easily imagine how the Fall not only affects our minds, wills, and affections, but how it also consequently fosters relational disruption.
Put simply, modern theology has called for greater attention to a holistic conception of the human person, giving special attention to embodiment, the complexity of the human self, and relationality. I think all of these, when rightly understood within biblical assumptions, proves truly helpful to us. We are well served to fight against reductionist accounts of the self or the human person. Humans must be appreciated in their distinctive, unique fullness, made in God’s image and called to love the Creator and his creation. Similarly, sin in us is properly understood only when applied to a holistic anthropology, because sin affects us in our entirety’that is really what is behind the idea of ‘total depravity.’ There is no part of us not affected by sin’that assumes a holistic anthropology.
Vos: Early sociological efforts envisioned the person as a consequence of things outside of himself or herself. For example, in the work of Emile Durkheim (1858’1917), considered the father of scientific sociology, the social clearly takes priority over the individual. For Durkheim, people are not free to do as they choose; rather, human agency is quite limited as society imposes a coercive framework over the individual. For example, try not using the language, currency, or common manners of the groups around you and watch what happens! In sum, the social always predates the individual, and the social is primary.
German sociologist Max Weber (1864’1920) saw the individual as constrained and worn down by what he called the iron cage of rationality, a by-product of Enlightenment thinking. Though humans are free to make choices, Weber saw the individual as increasingly worn down and ‘disenchanted’ by the rationalized forces of modernity with their emphasis on progress, means-ends calculations, and bureaucracy. Weber was pessimistic about the promise modernity held for the individual, and he lamented the way in which people were increasingly bound by the very things that promised them freedom. His prime example was bureaucracy’a social form that has given birth to much of the modern world, but which brings with it a scripted and disenchanted existence (with its emphasis on the person serving the system). For Weber, hope lay in the great charismatic political and religious leaders who could inspire people to move out of the iron cage.
These early sociological perspectives on the self and personhood manifest a strong emphasis on the ways in which group memberships influence people and convey privilege or suppress potential. In these and in other strains of sociological theory, we see concern with oppression’in fact, sociologists sometimes see themselves as society’s prophets. Accordingly, sociology pays special attention to the ways in which social location can fragment or detract from what it means to be human. In this, the primary focus falls on class, gender, and race. Work in each of these areas unearths ways in which ‘humanness’ is distorted because of the ways in which dominant groups label, constrain, and oppress subordinate groups.
Our postmodern era raises new concerns for sociologists. Postmodernism is characterized by fragmentation and a loss of coherence and wholeness (this is not to say that all features of postmodern society are undesirable). Accordingly, the reality in which we find ourselves’the social on which the self is constructed’is an imaginary reality comprising false images. This is no reality at all, but increasingly the only one to which we have access (think of our attachment to the ‘unreal’ relationships we form with television characters we binge-watch on Netflix). The predominance of simulacra (false images or ‘idols’) is of increasing concern to contemporary sociologists’a concern that, albeit in secular fashion, more than hints at the notions of goodness (creation), distortion (fall), and the hope of wholeness (redemption).
At present, the work of well-known and enormously influential Christian sociologist Christian Smith focuses greater attention on the spiritual dimension of personhood, with recent books such as Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture and What Is a Person: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.
Morris: First, it is clear that in biology the pendulum has swung pretty strongly away from instinctive reductionism and genetic determinism. It wasn’t that long ago that Richard Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ concept (the idea that bodies and organismal behaviors are generated by genes to ensure the propagation of genes) was considered a cutting-edge idea. Now, only a few decades later, there is broad recognition that such reductive ‘gene-centric’ thinking can significantly distort the understanding of biology.
Chapters in general biology textbooks dealing with holistic ‘systems biology’ topics are now ubiquitous, and discussion of nonreducible ’emergent properties’ at various levels of biological organization are commonplace. Everywhere you look in biology, the emphasis is on the complexity of interconnected wholes in which everything is connected to everything else in interactive webs’from gene regulation to cellular signaling to organs, organisms, populations of organisms, and ecosystems. Discussions in biology in general are now decidedly more holistic and multifaceted, and this has certainly led to richer discussions about what being human entails.
Humans/human bodies are increasingly seen as relational wholes’that is, as composed of a variety of irreducible interactive relationships between cells, organs, and organ systems. This discussion is now beginning to expand even beyond our bodies as traditionally envisioned. For example, recent work details the deep relationship we have with the microbes that live in and on us. They outnumber ‘us’ ten to one (in terms of cell counts), and these minute fellow travelers include genetic information one hundred fifty times greater than our ‘own.’ Further, it appears these microbes can impact our physiology in a variety of ways and may even influence our mental health. This is all adding momentum to the idea that discussions of ‘what we are’ should include the facts of our ’embeddedness’ in vast webs of relationships with a variety of fellow creatures. All of this would suggest that human ‘identity’ could be fruitfully explored in biological terms as a nexus of relationships; considerations of self and identity that primarily seem to reference abstract disembodied ‘mind’ states would seem to be pretty impoverished.
Question: What potential cautions might you offer regarding your discipline when it comes to these discussions? What are some of the hot topics on identity coming out of your discipline?
Kapic: Some of the hot topics in theological anthropology include not merely the obvious discussions about human origins, but also how people’s particular history and social location affects them. We can talk about what it means to be ‘human,’ but if we stay at that level it can too easily become overly abstract and theoretical. In truth, each human is a particular person, in a specific place, from a unique set of parents, living through a distinctive set of experiences. These peculiarities are genuinely significant as they help shape our view of ourselves, of God, of one another, and of the world in general. We often don’t realize this, because we just think we ‘see’ things as they are, until we start to recognize that some of what we assumed was universal was in fact an unconscious sociocultural assumption.
Wrestling with these kinds of questions has not always been easy for theologians, but we must recognize that they are more important than we have sometimes admitted. We may be uncomfortable talking about race, sex, or socioeconomics, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore these topics. A person comes from a particular tribe, tongue, and nation. The book of Revelation anticipates a great day when we will join together singing God’s great praise. All of our differences and distinctions will not be lost or flattened out, but instead brought together for the glory of God: unity amid distinction. Our voices and experiences are blended together, and out of our particularity comes a gospel harmony of praise.
We need to resist the urge to immediately flatten out ‘humanity’ in an effort to say we are all the same. Our distinctions matter to us, as humans. Even if our identity is in Christ, that doesn’t mean our identity is not also expressed through our cultural, historical, and socioeconomic experiences. Our goal is not to escape our particularity, but to fight against the sins that distort our perspectives. Sin is the problem, not the color of your skin or the language you speak or the food you eat. The goal is not bland sameness, but the freedom of the gospel enjoyed by male and female, young and old, Jew and Gentile. Paul’s vision for the church is consistently multiracial, multiethnic, and multiclass.
We also can’t have a conception of human beings that so focuses on particularity that we forget we are still all human creatures, united even amid our differences. We are all created in the image of God; we were made good, but we have all also been affected by sin. We each need the grace and forgiveness that only the Triune God can offer. And as we receive God’s love, we are drawn into the beautiful diversity of God’s people. Our goal is to learn to celebrate rather than deny such diversity under the Lordship of Christ. In doing this, we better discover our own identify as part of the family of God, as children of the living God.
Vos: A great deal of sociology focuses on the ways in which human life is wasted or squandered, as well as the ways in which human identity and personhood is misconceived and anchored in the wrong things. We see the same pitfall in politics, in rabid nationalism, where the assumption is ‘If only we could.’ But, as sociologist Russ Heddendorf reflects,
We are deluded if we believe the social world to be real or that it consists of ‘facts.’ If we do, we confuse ‘facts’ with truth and allow ourselves to be controlled by them. Such a belief [Jacques] Ellul refers to as ‘the religion of the established fact, the religion on which depend the lesser religions of the dollar, race, or the proletariat.’ The Christian is also to realize that the world is dying because of human sinfulness. Since this trend cannot be reversed [through some social scheme], Christians need to help preserve the world for the return of Christ, who alone can deal with the problem.
Nowhere is such advice more needed than in matters of human identity and personhood. No scheme of mental culture or social program will overcome the pervasive effects of the Fall, the most pernicious of which infiltrate us at the level of identity. Who we are, whose we are, and for what we were made are not questions that can ultimately be answered by the sociologist alone or by a methodology devised by sociologists.
Kelly and I recently wrote an article titled ‘Those Who Mourn.’ I presented this to our students as an example of the posture that we, the community of believers, might take toward the broken world around us. In this example, our ‘action’ is that we refuse to simply ‘party on a sinking ship.’ Rather, we mourn what should be different, and what will one day be put right. One facet of sociology that can be especially difficult for undergraduate students is that it’s much better at identifying and analyzing problems than with recommending concrete action that might help resolve them (the aforementioned prophetic mode). Of course, a Christian approach to sociology acknowledges the importance of faith, trust in God, and the anticipation and hope of Christ’s return. He alone solves our problems and brings coherence and meaning to our identities. Sociology without the gospel is limited in that it fails to recognize the importance of the unseen, placing all of its emphasis on the seen.
Morris: A caution that comes to mind has to do with the kinds of explanations regarding human nature and human behavior that emerge from a natural science discipline such as biology. My concern has to do with the way these explanations are developed in the discipline and then how these explanations are received and used or abused.
I can illustrate the concern in relation to a contemporary explanation of religion developed by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson in his book Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson proposes that religious belief systems such as Christianity have biological ‘cash value,’ in that religious belief systems help to solve the ‘fundamental problem of social life.’ This ‘fundamental problem’ can be simply posed: Groups that contain individuals that engage in cooperative and pro-social behaviors are likely to do better than groups that contain individuals that engage in antisocial behaviors. On an individual level, however, to make sacrifices for the benefit of another individual is a disadvantage in terms of one’s own reproductive success, such that individual pro-social behavior will not be evolutionarily sustainable. Religious belief and practice can solve this problem, Wilson posits, by reducing the individual costs of in-group altruism so that cooperative pro-social behavior will be maintained within the group, and thus the selective advantage of groups of altruists over groups of nonaltruists is able to get evolutionary traction. Thus, in his view, religious belief in general and a variety of peculiarities of specific religious systems can be explained in terms of their biological, adaptive function.
Though his explanation is pretty straightforward, things get more complicated from there. For example, Wilson, who believes that the natural, material world is ultimate (he’s a metaphysical naturalist), sees his explanation as ‘explaining away’ the common human belief in the existence of deity. In his view, there are no deities, so his explanation shows why humans have so commonly ‘made them up.’ Wilson seems to assume that his metaphysical naturalism is just a part of his being a scientist. On the other hand, some Christians quickly embraced Wilson’s ideas, minus the metaphysical naturalism, as a validation for religious belief, unwittingly ceding ultimate authority in these issues to science (in the form of Wilson’s explanation). Then other Christians quickly rejected any validity for Wilson’s explanation because in their view, if legitimized, biological explanations would indeed ‘explain away’ religious belief.
The upshot is that I would counsel caution in handling biological explanations related to human identity and behavior’but not a caution borne of suspicion or fear. I believe that the biological disciplines have much of value to add to these discussions and by God’s grace can provide genuine insights into the ways God may work in his world and among his creatures. But explanations and the plausibility attached to them always come to us in a broader context of disciplinary methodologies and practices that may be filtered in various ways by the preferences and convictions of groups or individuals.
Question: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844’1900) said that ‘truth’ is something we make, not discover. Would many of our neighbors today say the same about the self? And are these related?
Vos: For the Christian sociologist, this question’about truth, relativism, and the self’has a cautious both/and answer. In the circles I inhabit, Christians are fond of talking about ‘absolute’ truth’a sort of antidote to this Nietzschean relativism. Though I understand and resonate with the intent in voicing such concepts, the notion of absolute truth has always seemed a bit sterile or cold to me. It seems to locate truth in a set of propositions that exist apart from relationships. For me, the truth found in God is inherently relational.
Like philosophy, sociology spans a broad range of possible positions on truth or (as we might call it) reality. At one extreme’where we would locate Durkheim and positivism’we find the idea that there is truth and it is revealed through the proper use of the scientific method. Truth is outside the person. Naturalism, a paradigm utilized in qualitative methodology, provides an example of this take on truth or reality. A researcher looking at some particular facet of the social world’say, an immigrant community’would describe things as they are and, given sound methodology, could reliably proclaim that they had discovered the truth. One problem with this approach is that the immigrants themselves might read the researcher’s account of their lives and say, ‘That’s not true at all.’ Accordingly, naturalism, as a paradigm, has become suspect in sociological and anthropological research because it fails to account for the dynamic, relational character of people in communities. Truth in describing social reality doesn’t stand still.
At the other extreme, we find the phenomenological tradition in sociology. This tradition, in contrast with the positivism of Durkheim, acknowledges no truth or reality apart from the social. From this perspective, all that exists are notions of truth sustained by communities through ‘commonsense’ practices. Rather than searching for truth, the phenomenologist searches for the ‘essence’ of some social practice. Thus all truth is nothing more than human interpretations and conventionality, which sounds more than a bit hopeless.
On its own, neither position is the safe one. Taken together, these extremes’positivism in contrast with phenomenology’are quite helpful to the student of truth. Positivism and the objectivist tradition remind us there is a reality outside of us’one that shapes, molds, and influences who we are and what we are becoming. The phenomenological tradition, with its murky relativism, reminds us that we must be cautious about reifying’about treating as real and immutable’that which is merely conventional. For example, Westerners must be cautious about taking their understanding of truth as universal and imposing their ‘conventional’ standards of morality and ethics, suffused with an unparalleled individualism, on non-Western people groups. Scripture provides compelling examples of Jesus breaching social convention to expose the self-serving conventionality of those who held to the so-called truth of their traditions. In speaking to the woman at the well, in touching the woman with the issue of blood, in affirming his disciples’ practice of picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus de-reified social practice and tradition, exposing them for what they were, and inviting people into a new, better, and truer understanding’or put differently, inviting them into relationship with himself, into a truth inseparable from his person.
Morris: It is fascinating to me to see how discussions in the academic disciplines filter out (usually with a significant lag period) into the general cultural mind-sets of our neighbors in our regular lives. It seems that a variety of disciplines have now worked through radical relativist proposals about how they operate, and come out on the other side with a richer view that I believe comports pretty well with a Christian understanding of humans as divine image-bearers yet genuinely creaturely. Understanding these developments in various disciplines can be quite helpful in shaping discussions of these issues with our neighbors. The discussion in sociology, as Matt helpfully describes it, resonates with similar conversations over time in the philosophy of science community, with a similar ‘both/and’ consensus emerging. Interestingly, most ‘working scientists’ would instinctively defend the ‘It’s all just straightforward discovery’ as they push back vigorously against the relativist ‘Truth is something we make’ sentiment. Perhaps this explains why science is increasingly viewed with suspicion in pop culture. These researchers are typically not much more reflective in a philosophical sense than our neighbors might be, and they would also benefit from the both/and discussion.
Vos: This conversation about truth shares many features with our conversation about identity and selves. On the one hand, a Christian understanding of the self includes an ‘in-Christ’ identity conveyed by the Creator that transcends the will, efforts, and imagination of its bearer. On the other hand, we should not take our identity for granted. What we do in the subjective world of human relationships matters. We are always found in dialectical relationship to others; the individual self is inseparable from the relational confluence in which it exists.
My wife and I have three foreign adopted children, all from disenfranchised and difficult circumstances. As we look back on their adoptions, we so clearly see that God held their lives and directed their paths. Their selves were known to God from eternity, and by faith we embrace their entrance into our family as something oddly inevitable’something planned by God from the foundations. But we also are conscious of how profoundly their identities and selves are shaped by the relationships they encounter in our family. In a way, they are who they are’their likes, dislikes, goals, language, culture, fears, hopes, and dreams’because they are shaped by the relationships in and around our family. To be adopted was a critical piece in the construction of my children’s selves. To leave them in impoverished circumstances would have likely destroyed much of who they could become. The truth of my children and of their selves and identities rests in the relationships that form, nurture, sustain, and shape their young lives. The truth that is Kate, Rose, and Alec is a relational truth’one objectively anchored in and sustained by the God of the Scriptures and nurtured in the intersubjective world of people.
Morris: I agree with Matt on the connection between the fairly common pop-culture notion that we each construct our own ‘truths’ the best we can, and cultural notions about the plasticity of our identities. In both cases, the mistake is to latch on to only one aspect of a larger, more dynamic picture. In many ways, it seems we humans (certainly me included) tend to default to ‘one sidedness.’ As my dad always says, ‘Humans are natural born extremists.’
The way I often remind myself to combat ‘one-sidedness’ on issues like this is to recall my own experience with Philippians 2:12. When I was growing up, I remember often hearing the last phrase of Philippians 2:12”Work out your salvation in fear and trembling’’usually quoted to me (I guess) as an incentive to avoid being lazy before a God who will judge my actions. This made me fearful that maybe I wasn’t trying or working hard enough. Maybe I wasn’t listening carefully to those teaching me, but it wasn’t until much later that I connected this phrase to what immediately follows in verse 13: ‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ So the ‘fear and trembling’ in verse 12 is not the ‘Wait until your father gets home’ kind of fear. This fear is more akin to awe at the power of God to work in and through his creatures as they work in their creaturely ways. Let me paraphrase a bit: ‘Work out your scientific knowledge in fear and trembling, because it is the God who made all the objects of your study who works in you, the creature (that is in your senses, your rational capacities, your scientific colleagues, your disciplinary paradigms) to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ Or paraphrasing freely again: ‘Work out your creaturely selves in fear and trembling, for it is the God who made you and calls you by name who works in you, his embodied, temporal image-bearer (that is, in your heart, in your DNA, your cellular functions, your organs, your hormones, your brain, the time of your birth, the places of your life, your mind, your gifts, your family, your hopes and dreams, your upbringing, your education, your friends, your work, and your energy) to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ Simply put, it’s all of him using all of you. A pretty amazing both/and to live into in our knowing and being.
Question: We talk about a Christian view of the self, but how is Christ more than a mere means to an end when we talk about our identity? What does it mean to have our identity in Christ? You have spoken of potential dangers with the preaching about identity in Christ. Can you explain what potential misunderstandings might arise?
Kapic: I believe that union with Christ is the centerpiece for rightly understanding how to think about a Christian view of the self; however, there are some potential misunderstandings or dangers that can arise when this is emphasized without clear understanding. On the one hand, we who were dead in our sins are now made alive with Christ. We are new creatures, declared holy because we have received the Holy Spirit who unites us to the crucified and risen Christ. We do not become holy, but in Christ we are holy even now. One of the great contributions of the Protestant Reformation was to declare all believers ‘saints.’ This was not a special category reserved merely for the super-spiritual, but a reality for all who are found in Christ by his Spirit. Thus Paul can write to ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus’ who are at Philippi, or in Ephesus or Colossae. Christ is the center of their new life, their new identity, their new existence.
When we talk about being ‘hidden’ in Christ, or united to him so that when the Father sees us he ‘sees the Son,’ we don’t mean that we become obliterated or unseen by God. We don’t mean that God hates you, that he can’t stand to look at you.
Let me express my fear a bit differently. I sometimes hear the gospel proclaimed in such a way that it sounds like the Father is full of wrath, and when he looks at you he is full of anger, but thankfully the Son steps in the way so that the Father no longer sees you but instead only his Son. That, we are told, is ‘good news.’ Well, I have to say, while it has elements of the good news, that kind of presentation makes me nervous for a number of reasons. While I could address some theological misunderstandings (for example, pitting the Father and Son against each other, losing sight that it is out of the Father’s love that the Son is sent, and so on), let me focus on the problems related to our identity.
It may sound great that God doesn’t see you, because that way he doesn’t see your sin. But at some point it will hit you and you will begin to wonder: Does God love me? Does God know me? Or does he just know the Son and love the Son, and since he can’t ‘see’ me I escape judgment? This can manifest itself in Reformed circles when our congregations are much more convinced that they are sinners than that they are beloved by our Lord.
We need to be clear on this. The Christian hope is not that we will disappear, but that we will be renewed in Christ. This is crucial to our identity. Paul tells us here, using the emphatic pronoun ‘I’ (ego), that we are called to die: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live’ (Gal. 2: 20). But what does it mean for us to ‘die’? I worry that with this language we can easily take it in morbid and counterproductive ways.
Paul not only says we were crucified with Christ, but also that ‘Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live’ (Gal. 2:20). I (ego) am still living. We died with Christ; we rose with Christ. So what does this mean to your life? When Paul tells us that we have been crucified with Christ and ‘it is no longer I who live,’ he doesn’t mean you actually need to cease being you. Each of us is different. Some are extroverts; some introverts. Some of us are publically animated, others more reserved. Some seek adventure; others enjoy quiet. Some are quick to reflect; others are quick to action. Some find energy as they are with people; being alone refreshes others. Some deal with stress through humor; others through increased focus. Which personality trait reflects true Christian identity in Christ? Does the call to be a faithful Christian mean that ‘you’ actually have to stop being you?
Listen carefully. You cannot escape you! Stop running from yourself. Christ living in you is still you. He does not obliterate, deform, or deaden you. Who made you? When God made you, did he make a mistake? The Father of life created each of us in our particularity, and he delights in his creation. We are not trying to run from ourselves here; we are trying to be freed from the entanglements of sin that so ruin and deform his image in us. Run from your sin, yes, but don’t imagine that to be a serious Christian you need to have a different personality.
God’s goal is not for us all to end up looking, sounding, and being the same. Do you see how we confuse ‘sameness’ with godliness? ‘Christ lives in me.’ God’s goal for you and me is not our death but our life. Yet that life can now, in light of sin, be understood and experienced only as we are united to the risen Christ. He makes us alive and glorious. When the Spirit enters my life, I am still me. Yet I am not ‘me,’ for I am new in Christ. And there is the tension.