SO WHO AM I, AGAIN?
Are we becoming more obsessed with questions around our own identity today?
I suspect the question, who am I? has always preoccupied people for it is human nature to reflect on self-consciousness. Some periods of history generate more interest in this question than others and ours is surely one of them.
Questions about personal identity are sharpened by rapid social, economic and political change and we are experiencing all three. When people dwelt in rooted, rural communities where they were born, lived, worked and died, a dense set of relationships sustained day by day afforded people a natural identity they may not have had to think much about. This all changed with the rise of industry and the emergence of cities. The disruption of local communities and the migration of people to work in factories broke these common bonds. People knew their new neighbours less well and trusted them less surely. As we form our identity in relationship to others, the isolation of the modern world made us more self-aware – and not in a good way.
Today we are riding another wave of economic change. It’s comforting to imagine we are surfing it well but truer to say this wave is only just forming and that we have no real idea how big it will become. Already we have seen a decisive shift in the UK from manufacturing to service industry. The technology revolution has only just begun to re-shape our economy further and this is likely to be on a much bigger scale than we have seen in the last three decades. The buzz word in Silicon Valley is disruption. They mean that in a good way, but it is often not experienced as such.
In a way, technology has shortened our social horizons. We may be separated by distance, but our digital reach compensates for this via instant, increasingly visual communication. The benefits of this are obvious – and sold relentlessly to us – but the picture is less clear. The early reflection of brain science on digital communication is that it is much less effective at making us happy and secure than face to face contact. I don’t think that will surprise many, least of all those who think being made in the image of God says something very spiritual about looking into someone’s face that even Skype cannot overcome.
It is said that living and working among people who do not know you very well increases the need to sell yourself because others get only a fleeting picture of who you are. This emphasises personality over character and over-statement rather than subtlety. Social media was invented to deepen and widen our relationships but increasingly it is used as a tool of self-promotion. There is a lot of talking online but not much listening. Being properly heard by another person does wonders for our sense of self.
Our households have inevitably been affected by all these changes. Relationships have become less permanent and families form and re-form, often introducing levels of complexity into households which compels flexibility and accommodation, especially among children. The dating scene itself has become more stressful, with its left-swipe culture of rejection, making Bridget Jones’ early choices look positively binary in comparison.
Finally, there are the political changes which have emerged from the ending of imperialism and the Soviet Union and the development of supra-national bodies. In the early post-war decades, to ask the nationality of someone living on this island was to invite the answer British. Now it is much likelier to evoke the answer Welsh, Scottish and English. If our political identity is changing fast in a secure and peaceful society, imagine how much more volatile this identity feels in the world’s troubled regions.
It is usually said that vigorous social, economic and political changes lead to a renewal of religious identity, as people lower an anchor to ride out the storms. In Galatians 3, the Apostle Paul suggests this anchor should have dropped long before the storms emerged for those who trust in Christ.
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (verse 28).
The assault on personal identity that wave after wave of societal change has mounted leads us to draw crude and disrespectful divisions between one another. To judge another for what they look like, where they live, what they do, how they dress, what they own, makes us feel better about ourselves; helping us feel we are coping better with all this change than those we judge are. We may cherish living in a democracy, but there is much less equality in how we view one another.
On learning of his parentage, Justin Welby said he felt no crisis of identity because ‘I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics’. He could have gone on to say, had it been relevant: I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in how I look, where I live, what I do or how I dress. There is a radical sense of equality in this identity. No-one is more important than anyone else; everyone has the same worth in God. God’s sacrifice in Christ was not made with the sense that some deserved it more and would benefit from it more than others. All the divisions, whether real or imagined, which stratify us in this unequal world count for nothing in this body.
I think we all know we have some way to go in believing this not just of ourselves, but sadly, of others. To believe what is already true of us in Christ asks us to jettison what we think is true of us in life but is not. In God’s sight, we are simply not better than the next person; they are worth as much as we are and they are loved with the same everlasting love. Doubts creep in when our trust in Christ becomes one of only several equally important ways we identity ourselves, as if being clothed with Christ were no more significant than being clothed with our team’s football shirt.
It is not that all our other identities count for nothing, but the way we understand ourselves in Christ transcends anything we might aspire to be in this brittle, breakable world. And it changes the way we view the person sitting opposite us on the train, in front of us at the counter or walking behind us on the road. We cannot form spurious judgments where we ensure we come out better than they do; they are the person for whom Christ died. And in the ferment of all this social change, with all the anxiety it induces in us, God speaks an unimpeachable word: we are his, nothing can change this and nothing else matters by comparison.
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