Social misconduct in the 1980’s—such as a man walking away from his marriage—was often linked to the notion of identity, as in “he’s having an identity crisis.”
I’m not sure what light the label of ‘identity crisis’ actually shed on the man’s decision except to lift the onus a bit.
“Not much to be done,” they seemed to be saying, “his shaky identity explains it all. It’s so sad.”
That’s not to say the expression has disappeared altogether, but I don’t hear it so much these days. That may reflect a shift away from seeing an identity as an impersonal force that controls us, or allows others to control us. Maybe because a comedian made the point seem silly by excusing every sort of sin with a tag line, “the devil made me do it!”
We should remember that it takes a combination of some element of truth mixed with nonsense to make a lie work. In this posting I want to reflect on how we humans certainly do live on the basis of having an identity but not in the manner suggested so far. In particular I want to consider how our status as ‘individuals’ both fits and then doesn’t fit with the identity we have as authentic Christians.
In the Bible Paul talked about turning away from the “flesh” by now setting our minds on the Spirit [see Romans 8]. And of getting rid of the “old man” by replacing it with the “new”. The narrow point I’d like to draw from such texts is that sin has somehow shaped—or, given Adam’s fall—reshaped our personhood. We would be very different people if sin had not captured the world through Adam. And now salvation takes us to a new place. But what constitutes this new place? How does a ‘new’ status in Christ relate to our popular notions of identity?
To answer we need to start with God. Or, more precisely, with the nature of God’s being. And, for that, I need to dive into a fair amount of history—so please be patient!
In some parts of the world, both in the past and present, we find people speaking of ‘gods’ rather than of God. What sets the Western world apart from that approach is her heritage of monotheism. In the 4th century BCE the classical Greek philosophers crystallized a growing sense that the notion of god’s, plural, pointed back to a singular source—to an ultimate deity who moves everything else but who is himself unmoved. That coincided nicely with the Jewish version of God as “one” and only one. Islam came on the scene in the 8th century and blended the notions of Judaism and Aristotle in their expositions of Allah as the one true God.
The question of how Christians fit within this growing consensus of God’s necessary singularity was and still is huge! It was what set off the debate in the 4th century over the place of Christ in relation to God the Father. If God is “one” then Jesus either needed somehow to be merged within God, or to be seen as separate from God and in some sense subsidiary to him. Never mind asking how the Spirit fits in! Suffice it to say that the so-called ecumenical councils of the early church (e.g. at Nicaea and Cappadocia) worked to clarify teachings in the Bible as in Christ’s statement to Phillip, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” [John 14:9-10].
The answer of the collective Church was that God’s being is triune—that God exists as One whose being is manifold. They were careful not allow any form of tri-theism to be affirmed, as if three god’s met to form a divine council called God. Nor did they accept Arian claims (now held with slight variation by Jehovah’s Witnesses) that just one true God exists with two lesser offspring emerging as his first-created extensions—i.e. the Son and Spirit.
There’s much more to be said here, but I’ll leave it to the curious to do their own homework by chasing down works such as J.N.D. Kelly’s text on Early Christian Doctrines. Another historical figure will launch the balance of our consideration: Augustine, the 4th-5th century bishop of Hippo.
Augustine wrote a monumental work on the Trinity. In the main he was fully aligned with what the earlier ecumenical councils had concluded. He also expressed those convictions in terms his own people could grasp. One picture that emerges from him is that God’s being is One in love: the Father loves, the Son is beloved, and the Spirit communicates that love between the Father and the Son. This was a relational understanding of God rather than a physical image. That is, Augustine understood that the Arians were certainly correct in rejecting the Trinity if by “three Persons” Christians meant that God exists in a committee of three. So he turned to the notion that the ‘relation-between’ persons is the basis for understanding how God exists. That is, God’s being is the “I-and-you” reality of relationship in the Godhead, and not an “I, then you” pairing.
That may boggle our minds at first, but think about it for a moment. First, we need to recall that God—as Father and Son, bonded by the Spirit—existed eternally without any “physical” being of the sort we now presume to be crucial to personhood. So, given our present “identity” as those who live in localized bodies, we tend to think in numerical terms: “me, and you, and them” i.e. as “one, and two, and many other numbers”.
Augustine, on the other hand, understood the Trinity to be truly “one”. Which takes us to the question of what it means to be created in God’s image. I attended a wedding recently in which the preacher spoke of both the man and the women as separate representatives of the trinity. That is, the preacher presumably assumed that we exist as representative ‘segments’ of God’s image—by sharing some of his communicated qualities (his ‘attributes’).
But where did that assumption come from? We can’t be sure, but a number of arrows point to the promiscuous presence of classical Greek notions of a singular God sneaking back into Christianity.
One connection is Boethius, a 5th century scholar who specialized in Aristotle’s works. He famously defined persons as “thinking-choosing individuals”. That is, a person is defined by independent operations of mind and will. Then in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas, with others, rediscovered Aristotle and then merged much of the Greek philosopher’s notions with Christianity in order to have a “sum of all truth” to teach his students. The problem he faced was in merging the singular, monadic God of Aristotle with the triune God of faith. The outcome was an awkward affirmation of the Trinity that began with extensive discussions about the core qualities of God—his attributes—that were shared by each person of the godhead. But the outcome arguably left students with a sense that God, the Father, is the real “source” of God’s essences and the Son and Spirit are subsidiary recipients.
Here’s the big point: any focus on the relations between the Father-Son-Spirit was lost as the explanation of God’s being. Instead God’s shared qualities, seen as emerging from the Father, came to be the focus instead. And Aristotle would have lived with the list of those essential qualities, because, in fact, he articulated the basis for many of them in his writings on Ethics and Metaphysics.
There were also the Platonic Christians who through a 3rd century non-Christian writer, Plotinus, embraced Plato’s version of God as one. This came to both the Greek Orthodox church and to the Catholic mystical tradition by way of Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite who was taken to be Paul’s convert in Athens, but was actually an unidentifiable 6th century figure. Then, as now, that tradition features God as the “one” from whom the Son and Spirit emerge only as emanations. Given this basis of divinity the ambitions of such mysticism is to purge, illumine, and then unite with God as the “one”. The fruit of that tradition is a very modest interest in Scriptures and an interest in the Son and Spirit as mere instruments to achieve an ineffable experience of union with the non-communicative One.
But enough of history. I offer all this background in overly broad strokes only to ask the question of our identity with an awareness that history helps to reinforce different views of identity. Let me wrap up by suggesting that Christians are facing an identity crisis, with one identity bearing the weight of a God who operates on the basis of contracts; another who is an unknown end; and yet another identity centered on a God whose ultimate contract is a marriage covenant reflecting his eternal spreading goodness.
Option one: If we view ourselves as Godlike individuals—that is, as individuals who are “one” in the Aristotelian-Christian version of a capacity-defined God—our tendency is to treat other individuals as godlike centers of thinking and choosing, with each measured by personal capacities. With this identity the secret of success is to grow our personal capacities in order to be as ‘great’, i.e. as godlike, as possible. How? By setting up contracts or covenants with others that allow for the exchange of goods and services. If, for instance, a professor has a PhD in academic capacities, and a student has a BA level of capacity, the latter pays money to gain more academic capacities in order to gain higher degrees. So, too, a covenant relationship with God is mainly pragmatic—gaining his benefits by offering whatever we have that he might want from us, e.g. glory and obedience.
Option two: If we take on the quietist themes of Platonic mysticism and pursue an identity based on an impersonal merger with God’s being—a ‘pure experience’—we will spend our lives increasingly purging our contacts with others, seeking illuminations not through conversations with God—since encountering God’s being is not word-based—in order to achieve a self-absorbed-and-God-absorbed union. The call to be “in the world but not of the world” and the warnings against ascetic spirituality in Colossians will be displaced by an ambition to achieve the ultimate autonomy that this ultimately non-relational version of God offers.
Option three: If we see ourselves as relationally defined—as in “let us make man in our image . . . male and female he created them”—our tendency is to see ourselves as parts of an organic whole. The only sense in which we are individual-like is in identifying our distinct roles of participation, as serving “in the body”—as in the analogy of feet, hands, eyes—in order to make the whole body effective. We take verses that tell us we are “in Christ” to be speaking of our true union with him as his eternal, collective bride, as we are his “body” and his “beloved”. This is accomplished by the Spirit’s union with our spirit (as in 1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5). We take on the vine and branch imagery of John 15 as crucial: “for apart from me you can do nothing”. That is, our identity as Christians is defined by our repentance from being individuals so that our new union with Christ displaces old visions of life. We realize that “eternal life” is a reality that God alone “is” and “has”—so that our own entry into eternity comes only by our being “sons of God” and “known” by God in the intimate terms of biblical love.
So, to wrap up this reflection, we have three identities before us. One exists in a state of semi-autonomy, with God offering us resources we need and want for our own security and success. The second seeks the relative independence of inner self-absorption. The third exists in a state of full devotion to a speaking God who becomes our beloved companion. We love him because he first loved us and sent the Son to embrace us in the Spirit’s ministry of poured out love. The third option gets my vote . . . because of a new identity in Christ that he alone offers.