“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” – St. Augustine, Confessions
“All of you who were baptized into Christ have put on the family likeness of Christ. Gone is the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female – you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – St. Paul, Galatians 3:26-28 (J.B. Phillips translation)
I want to start a series of posts about identity, and it’s something I’ve avoided doing for quite some time.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts flow through my mind, and as is often the case, I know those thoughts aren’t going to translate to this written page as eloquently as they sound inside my head, which is one of the frustrations of writing. And this topic deserves all the precision and nuance I can muster as it’s incredibly sensitive and prone to unintentionally offending many people.
But it’s not anything I haven’t tackled in this blog before. In fact, if one had to pick a central, overarching theme for everything I’ve written over the last eight years – including my as-yet-unpublished book – “identity” is the first place I’d go. I keep trying to come at it from different angles because, among other reasons, I think it’s at the root of what’s tearing us apart in this culture, which is something I’ll address in a future post.
I’ve provocatively titled this piece “The idolatry and slavery of identity,” which needs some unpacking to understand, starting with defining what I mean by those words.
When I’m talking about identity, what I’m trying to describe is how each of us understands ourselves – how we answer the question, “Who am I?” basically. And there are a whole lot of layers to that, because you and I can go in a variety of directions answering that question – we can answer it by our ethnicity, by our gender, by our sexuality, by our religion, by our nationality, by our personal histories, by pretty much any kind of category in which we can place ourselves.
I want to underline, though, that, just because you or I may belong within a particular category, that doesn’t mean that we have chosen to identify ourselves by that category – sounds confusing, and it kind of is. For each of us, our self-understanding of our identity comes down to which kinds of categories we define ourselves by and want other people to define us by.
Let me give a personal example to try to explain what I mean. There are several categories that I can be placed in because they each represent facts about me: white, male, heterosexual, Christian, American to name a handful. But for me, the only category I would define myself by listed above is Christian – while it’s true that I could be placed in the other categories, too, they aren’t comparatively that important to me. So the heart of what I’m trying to get at when I refer to identity is: those facts about ourselves which we choose to make important in defining who we are both to ourselves and other people and how we understand who we are.
Before going further, let me make clear several things I am not saying: I’m not saying that understanding ourselves is as simple as placing ourselves in category boxes, and I’m also not saying that there is no importance to those aspects of ourselves that we have each chosen to more or less ignore in each of our self-understandings. If we dive down into it, we do indeed see that each of us experience these categories differently, which blurs the lines and complicates defining each of these simply – there are degrees, so to speak, of experiencing “being male,” or “being heterosexual,” and just labeling ourselves as such without further explanation very much oversimplifies complicated truths. Likewise, there’s a whole lot of baggage with the label of “Christian” that I don’t like but nonetheless can be placed on me by others when I identify as Christian without further elaboration.
I do believe strongly in exploring the depths of ourselves, in trying to understand the ways in which we are different from each other, which I hope is evident to anyone who has followed this blog and my self-dissections over the years. So I am in no way trying to make light of those of us who are struggling to both understand and accept ourselves.
Which brings me to what I want to suggest by the terms “idolatry” and “slavery” in connection with identity. Idolatry is a phrase from Christian scripture, and it meant literally worshipping a man-made kind of statue (an idol) as a god. That literal ancient practice applies metaphorically, too, to us, whenever we worship (i.e., devote ourselves or lift something up as more important than it is supposed to be) something other than God. And we all do this, so there’s no finger pointing here.
I want to lovingly suggest that many of us have made an idol out of trying to understand who we are and also out of those things we have chosen to accept as our identity. We are worshipping the different ways in which we express our identity, and we have become slaves to those expressions. We’ve become obsessed with the different kinds of labels we can apply to ourselves.
If you’re secular – meaning, if you don’t have a religion such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, etc. – that makes sense, because to be completely secular means that you don’t believe in god(s), and where there is no God, ultimately, our reality is whatever each of us wants to make it. But if you aren’t secular, this could be viewed in some sense as a betrayal of what we claim to believe. As a Christian, I’ll speak to other Christians.
To note St. Augustine’s quote at the top of this post, we should expect that restlessness and constant searching are aspects of a life lived disconnected from God, including for Christians who are not actively united with the Trinity in love, rest, and relationship. I can testify to this myself, as I’m frequently prone to losing touch with God and ignoring our connection, at which point extreme restlessness without fail sets in. It’s very possible to find that we’ve distanced ourselves from God even in the very middle of remaining very involved with things we started doing for God – anything, including ministries, church activities, or advocacy for others, can very subtly take God’s place as our primary focus and subconsciously become our object of true worship and devotion.
What I really want to emphasize, though, is St. Paul’s quote from his letter to the churches in Galatia. Here he clearly and radically lays out for the Christian that our truest and deepest identity is always, only, and ever found as children of God, united together as the new version of humanity that is breaking through in Christ. “Gone is the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female – you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Quite literally, in other words, “you no longer identify by your ethnicity, your social status, or your gender – you identify as a new creation in Christ.”
And that, for the Christian, is truly the only thing that matters to our foundational understanding of who we are. It does not mean that there is zero meaning or importance to the other aspects of ourselves from ethnicity to gender to sexuality to nationality or anything else, but that none of these things are supposed to, ultimately, be the final arbiter in who we are or how we understand ourselves. Every Christian in this way shares the same primary identity: a new creation, a new human, in Christ Jesus, united in fellowship with the Trinity and with each other, and purposed with bringing about the healing and restoration of all people and all creation in the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth.