by ProfDave, ©2021
(Jan. 13, 2021) — We hear a lot about identity politics, stolen identities, LGBT identity, a Christian’s identity in Christ, the way you introduce yourself in recovery meetings. Oh my! What is your identity? Who are you? What is “identity” anyway?
I’m guessing all these “identities” have something to do with who we are. Identity politics breaks down the population according to racial and sexual stereotypes and set their assumed self-interest against each other. You may see me as an elderly white evangelical middleclass male and assume I am a privileged oppressor and hater of everybody else – Trump’s base. Wrong. But that is how post-modern politicos identify me. I am a demographic atom, part of a faceless mass. How I actually feel and think, and why I think and feel that way, is irrelevant. How I actually treat blacks, women, Jews or anyone else is irrelevant. My actual income and lifestyle are irrelevant. What my faith actually teaches me is irrelevant. Whether I even go to church or not is irrelevant. Reason is irrelevant. Individuality is irrelevant. I am either one of them or the enemy. Us vs them. Identity. We used to call it prejudice. Is that a healthy way to run a country?
In third century Rome, Christians were called atheists, “haters of mankind,” cannibals and perverts.
Political identities are the tribes into which we, in our neo-Marxist day, divide ourselves: us from them, victim from oppressor, friend from foe. They are stereotypes, often lies, based on ideology, prejudice and/or theories of political science. They may or may not bear any relationship to who we really are or how we really feel. Political/tribal identity is not who we are.
Then there is the documentary identity that we all have: birth certificates, social security cards, driver’s license, passports, credit cards, bank accounts and the associated numbers. There are social security numbers, account numbers, pin numbers, passwords and more. We use them to prove that we are ourselves, verify our age and citizenship, and our rights to drive, to enter, to access and to spend. Are they the marks of the Beast? But they are important. If they are stolen, someone else can also steal our privileges, resources, and good name. But apart from name, parents, age and sex our birth certificate is not who we really are. In fact, in some jurisdictions, you can have most of it changed! Hmmh.
How about your sexual and gender preferences? How did we get along for thousands of years without LGBT? Whole new categories of human beings have been developed in the last half-century. Before the Sexual Revolution there were only male or female, single or married. Sodomy was on the books, but only as a form of abuse, not as an identity – and so it was treated throughout history.
LGBT still has not appeared on anyone’s birth certificate. Are we born that way or does the doctor assign sex to us? Some states are allowing sex X to appear on driver’s licenses, and there is talk of multiple sexes, but no one has yet seen a third one – just males trying to be female and females trying to be male. So-called “genders” are not visible physical characteristics, but emotional and lifestyle categories – and political tribes. Is what you do in your bedroom who you are? Somehow heterosexuals and monogamists do not make the list except as the political “others” stigmatized as “haters.” “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” What you do in your bedroom is none of my business – please! To make it your tribe and identity is a sign of obsession. But our whole society has become obsessed by and addicted to sex. So you’re OK.
Seriously, sexual preferences, as distinct from marital status, are the identities of those who feel at odds with what is or ought to be. Whether by conscience or early experience or reality itself the non-conforming feel condemned even when there is no condemnation intended. The pain is great. Defiant exhibitionism and projection of tribal anger are coping mechanisms with unfortunate effects on civil discourse. The appropriate response of heterosexuals and monogamists is to turn the other cheek, clean up our own sexual obsessions and try to raise healthy, non-obsessed, children. What’s in your closet?
Who are you anyway? Your socio-political tribe is pretty impersonal. “Hi, I’m Dave. I’m a WASP.” Such an introduction would elicit a negative reaction – maybe cause a race riot – but it certainly wouldn’t tell you who I am. Try again. “Hi, I’m Dave. I’m a heterosexual male.” That would be really odd, and a very lame pick-up line, but tells you even less. On the other hand, if my ethnicity or sexuality were distinctive and central to my value system and activism it would be a different matter. They are not.
Who are you? The New Testament talks about “being in Christ.” That is a category distinctive to some kinds of Christians. It means identifying themselves with the death and resurrection of Jesus, living in relationship with Him as part of His kingdom and His church. They are urged to make “in Christ” their primary identity, thinking of themselves as His children and internalizing His character. This identity should change their attitudes and behaviors from the inside out. Sometimes it does. You might call this an aspirational identity. Is this who I really am? “Hi, I’m Dave. I’m a grateful believer in Christ.”
My license gives my name, address and number. I don’t identify myself as a white male. I took a vow back in the days when Martin Luther King was marching that I would never answer the race question. When the form says “race” I write in “human” or “other.” I don’t introduce myself as heterosexual either. That would be weird. Neither do I like to identify myself as a “Christian”- that term has lost its meaning. I am a humble “child of God” or a “Jesus-follower.”
Sitting in some circles I might say, “I’m Dave and I’m an addict.” This is the identity people claim in NA, SLAA, and AA. It confesses the sickness of behavior that they expect to struggle with for the rest of their lives. An alcoholic can never live as if he were not an alcoholic. It is important to admit our brokenness.
But that is not the way we do it in Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered 12-Step program for all hurts, addictions and compulsive behaviors. We get it. We too have weaknesses that are waiting in the wings for us to do something stupid even if we have been clean for decades. As one friend says, “only Virginia hams are cured.” But that is not who we are. “I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ struggling with” a particular addiction and its effects. For us, our identity is not our disease but our Higher Power. He gives me the power not only to abstain from my besetting sin, but to heal all sorts of wounds and character defects associated with my fallen nature – one day at a time. I’m a piece of work, but He is still working on me, changing me into His image – what I was intended to be.
Who are you? Physically, you are defined since conception by your DNA. You are what your DNA says you are. This is one reason why transgender ideology can only be aspirational. The doctor did not assign anything but the tag number – if that. She simply announced one aspect of what your DNA had been building for nine months. Your DNA built your body, with nutrients and energy from your mother, unique right down to the fingerprints. Everyone present at your birth called it a miracle – unless they were soul-dead. Your body is you and your DNA is your body.
If conception was the big bang of your creation, experience is the expansion of your universe after the first millisecond. You are what happened to you since creation. John Locke was wrong. No one is a blank slate. By the time you are born you have already been scribbled on, let alone when you get to kindergarten. Your body was modified by what happened to you in the womb. No one knows – and you don’t remember – at what point you became conscious. Politics may say something else, but science says it was very, very early in your gestation. Without question, you are a combination of your heredity with your environment.
The big question is whether you have any choice in who you are. Biological determinists and philosophical naturalists say you have none. If you were born that way, you will die that way – whatever that way is. Existentialists and Post-modernists say who you are is entirely up to you, no matter what your DNA or experience may say. You must decide your gender, sexuality, morals, values and gods. In fact, you are your own god and create your own reality. You are whatever you choose to be. Hmmmh.
Who are you – really? You are a conglomerate of heredity, environment and, within limits, your choices. More specifically, you are your DNA, what happens to you and how you deal with it. You cannot choose to fly without a plane. That choice could make you a quadriplegic. In junior high I chose to be a pitcher, but my DNA said “No way!” I didn’t have a body that could get a baseball to the plate, much less over it. I have the arm of a thinking man (Ravi Zacharias).
In another sense, you have three selves: who you portray yourself, who others think you are and who you really are – that is, who God thinks you are. Our self-images are notoriously inaccurate. Pop-psychology is busy trying to cure poor self-image. Happiness is thinking you are great, even if you keep crashing into reality. But most of us do not have that problem, instead we struggle with feelings of inadequacy. In the sixties some of us indulged in sex, drugs and rock and roll – dropped out, tuned in and turned on – seeking to find ourselves. Some of us never did. Can you just choose to be Spider Man? Who are you?
Yes, Virginia, there really is a self, a spiritual being within the physical machine. You are more than the sum of your body parts. You are not just a body: you have a body. Everything you think and do is through your body, so if you are not getting along with your body, you are in big trouble. But your identity, who you really are, is wrapped up in your mind, your will and your heart. On the one hand you are anchored to objective realities of DNA, environment, human nature, and the consequences of your choices. On the other hand, your subjective feelings and aspirations make all the difference in who you are and become.
“As a man thinketh in is heart, so is he” (Proverbs). Delusional thinking will run you in circles, but your aspirations form you. If you regard yourself as a naked ape, you will act like one. If you reject yourself, you will abuse yourself and take insane risks. If you regard yourself as a child of God – well, you’ll still be human, but you will become gradually better. Hmmh. Who does God think you are? What would you become if you agreed with Him?
In my day, the quest of youth (baby boomers mostly) was to find themselves. It was an emotional and spiritual quest, not so much a vocational one. The previous template of education, vocation and family was breaking down. One’s place in society no longer determined who one was. “Don’t tell me who I am,” they said, “I’m going to find out for myself.” Many looked in the wrong places – drugs, cults and rebellion. In our post-modern world we don’t tell young folks anything – they are being asked to tell us – even the pronouns they go by. I can only imagine how unsettling that must be.
So who is that masked kid? Where do I go to find myself? Hitchhike to San Francisco? Nepal? Trip on acid? Assume the Lotus position, recite my mantra and try to levitate? Probably all of the above is just confusing. How do I find out who I am? Look in the mirror? Take the Myers-Briggs? Buy into Ancestry.com and send in a sample? Do a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself? These may at least yield some useful information, but not a complete picture. I am more than the sum of my profile, my ancestry and my past. I am also where I am going.
Where am I going with this identity thing? I am where I’m going. What is the meaning of who I am, my life’s purpose? Does my purpose come from within or without? Is my identity realistic or delusional? Do I think I am Napoleon or a poached egg? A goat or an angel? Am I a skin disease on the surface of a worthless little ball floating in space? I don’t think so. Am I a reflection of what others see in me or what God sees in me? Do I have any choice at all in my identity?
Who I am comes down to the existential choice between acceptance or rejection of my creatureliness. Am I a creation of the Almighty Creator or of myself? Do I embrace the image of God He has put in me or do I reject it for a reality I, as my own god, attempt to fabricate for myself? Despite my grousing about my weaknesses, I choose to accept the way I was made. It is the only healthy thing to do. I recognize that God loves me just the way I am and is working on me to make me more and more like Him. In doing so, I believe He is making me more and more like my true self. He is the potter, I am the clay. I don’t have to be god and make myself after my own image – a monument to unskilled labor. I am not alone in the universe. Though I wander, I am not lost. I have a destiny. The Father knows my name.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.