Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Relentless Pursuit of Identity

I think one of the most common desires shared by all people is the desire for identity. We want simultaneously to have self-identity and to be a part of something larger than ourselves, in other words a group identity.

This can take innumerable forms, as you can have a career identity, a belief system identity, a political identity, a sexual identity, a religious identity, etc. The stronger the position, the more we are drawn to it because we feel it will satisfy our need for identity.

It is rarely sufficient for someone to be in the middle of the road on everything, because if you don’t take strong positions on something, then it feels like you have a sort of wishy-washy (and therefore fake) identity. It’s possible that this attitude is most strongly reflected on university campuses where there are several groups for just about everything. You don’t exactly see groups whose main goal is to get together and talk about nothing in particular and not come to a conclusion about anything. That simply wouldn’t get people to join the group. What you do see are groups which have t-shirts which say things like “Equal rights for all! LGBT” or “Discard myth! Skeptic Society.” etc.

In essence we take the position of Batman in the movie “Batman Begins” when he says “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.” This is a very interesting position to take, and is actually on a lot shakier ground than we would like to believe.

For example, if a man places his identity in his job, say a contractor, what happens when he either retires or gets injured in such a way that he cannot do his job anymore? Suddenly you realize that your identity was only temporary, and that you are back to square one trying to figure out who you are.

This has come about from a couple different things; a philosophical system, and a corruption of an innate desire. The philosophical system could be broadly categorized as being humanism and can be approached from a couple different perspectives. First, we have the scientific or biological perspective which states that we are essentially evolved and biologically, genetically, or chemically predetermined. What that means is that we are simply part of the system; the universe is a machine and man is part of that machine, no different from anything else. Secondly, we have the philosophical two-stories system. This means that we realize that man is simply part of the machine, so on the bottom story we have all that exists and all that is logical and rational, and then on the top story we have things which hold meaning and are ideological in nature. There can be a number of things people place in either story, but some more common ones are formulated below:

Top Story: Meaning, Purpose, Freedom, Rights, God, Karma, Personality, Ideology


Bottom Story: Man, Nature, Space, Mechanics, Matter, Logic, Reason, Science

In the modern system, there is no continuity between the two stories, so in order for man to have access to the upper story, he must take an illogical, mystical leap of “faith.” The other way in which man tries to access the upper story is by attempting to use strong language to identify with something on the bottom story. For example, it is not strong enough to be an atheist, it is advocated (by Richard Dawkins, for example) that one be a militant atheist. The hope is that if we take a strong enough position in something, anything, that our desire for identity will be fulfilled.

An interesting thing to note is that there are two phases, generally speaking, to identity searching. First, we are looking for autonomous, self identity, in which we say “I am ____” and eventually we realize that this doesn’t fulfill our desire and so we move on to group identity, in which we say “I am a part of _____ group/movement/tradition.” This second phase seems like a better way to go, but it is essentially the same as the first, only masked because more people are trying the same thing.

Think of it like this, if one person cannot access the upper story of meaning because there is no connection between them, then it doesn’t matter how many people are trying to do it at the same time. The issue is not one of effort, but of substance. An issue also arises when suddenly the group changes or the direction changes or for some reason they take a stance you are opposed to, personally. The issue with the group identity is essentially the same as the issue with the self-identity, its temporality. For a further treatment of the issues of two-story living and how man came to that point, I would strongly suggest reading any/all of the Francis Schaeffer “Trilogy” (Google it). Interestingly, the solution to this is also the reason we have the desire for identity in the first place.

In order to escape the issue(s) of temporality, we must appeal to something which is transcendent. However, man is not transcendent, so he cannot reach up and access the transcendent on his own; on that point Kant was correct. However, where Kant and others were wrong is that there can be, and in fact was, direction the other way. Scripture teaches several things that are important to both understanding our dilemma as well as solving it.

First, we see that God created everything, and that He was involved directly in both creating and interacting with His people. God’s direct involvement with His people is found all throughout the Old Testament, but is perhaps most starkly brought into view in the New Testament in the person of Jesus. Here we have God becoming man so that man can have a connection to God. It is more than that however, since Jesus actually saves all those whom God gave to Him through His death and resurrection.

What does this have to do with anything? Man was made in the image of God, and as such he was made to have communion with God, that is, to be in relationship with Him. We read in Genesis that God walked the garden of Eden and had a relationship with Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3:8) One of the effects of the fall is that our close relationship to God was severed, but that does not mean that we still do not desire a relationship with our Creator.

Elsewhere in the Bible, we read that we are like clay and God is like the Potter. (Isaiah 64:8) We often quote that analogy and agree with it, but rarely do we understand what that actually means in practical, day to day living. Or what that means in relation to our desire for identity. To extend the analogy a bit further, this is like several lumps of clay shouting “I am ____” or “I am a part of ____” and then triumphantly claiming they have found their purpose and identity, all while they are still lumps of clay. In reality, it is God, the Potter, who gives us our purpose and identity. In Romans, Paul drives the point home when he writes “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:21) (The NIV uses “special” and “common” instead of honorable and dishonorable, so don’t let the wording throw you.)

As Christians, and indeed as people made in the image of God, the only satisfying source for our desire for identity is in Christ. God’s will for us is that we be made into the image of Christ. How do we gain identity in Christ? Search the Scriptures. Here is a blog which is a great starting point for study, as it lists a ton of references throughout the Bible.