Identity is a big deal these days. The question ‘who am I?’ has never been so urgent.
Many have seen themselves having an authentic inner self. To discover themselves they peel back the restrictions of society; the mass of rules, relationships, injunctions, institutions and customs which supposedly hold back human happiness. To truly find out who they are this inner identity then needs to be publicly recognised by the outer world: their true identity should not be invisible to others.
Our modern world intensifies this expressive individualism. A global, pluralistic society means constant change and disruption, and the opening-up of choices that did not exist before. It is mobile, fluid and complex; and driven into hyperdrive by technology. So today a person can choose to be a Hindu or a Buddhist or decide that one’s true identity lies in a different gender than from the one they were born into. This is all part of the massive subjective turn to the self.
However, this freedom and choice can leave people unhappy and disconnected from their fellow human beings. They find themselves nostalgic for the community and structured life they think they have lost. The authentic identities they are seeking are ones that bind them to other people. They will not leave behind their hometown, friends and family; to be caught up in the mobility of global capital. Here too people feel invisible, marginalised by the zeitgeist, with lost status as the left behind of the world. So, in the face of fracturing identities there is the assertion of traditional values, corporate identity and pride in history: nationalism is rising around the world from Brexit to India. And an extreme version of this is the radical Islamism driven by the need for a clear identity, meaning and sense of pride.
There is a lot of confusion in our modern world about identity. Yet the gospel speaks into our world, challenging and affirming.
The gospel affirms the need for an identity that is bigger than the individual. We are bound to others and we need the structures of society. However, the gospel challenges basing this sense of society upon ethnicity, nationality or even religion. For we are taught that these markers of identity do not bring us any closer to God (Romans 2-3), and that the cross demolishes the dividing walls and that the new creation is filled with people of every tribe and tongue.
Similarly, the gospel challenges the idea that we have an authentic inner self that needs to be freed. Rather we are taught that inside we are a mass of writhing, overlapping, opposed desires. We are not a whole self but a divided self, pulled this way and that. We cannot say which of our desires is our ‘authentic self,’ and the new baptismal identity in Christ which God gives is from outside, alien to us. At the same time as this the gospel affirms that a society based upon rules and restrictions and ‘traditional moralism’ will not bring flourishing. We need God’s grace.
‘Who am I?’ No matter who we are, the Bible tells us that we are – together – made in God’s image; and that we all have turned aside from him without exception. These are the great levellers, for the creation and fall of humanity bind us all together: dignity and dross in one heady mix. Our modern quest for identity can only succeed when we return to and recognise our common humanity.