“This is who I’m meant to be. This is me.”
Identity is both a now and a not yet. It is an unfolding narrative rather than a fixed entity. “[A] coherent, well-integrated sense of identity provides a frame of reference for dealing with questions about the meaning, purpose, and direction of one’s life.” But the question of how that identity is determined and in particular who is involved in that determination is a thread that runs through Rebecca McLaughlin’s brilliant book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. This is both a social and individual question, but the two are not so easily disentangled.
Today’s political and sometimes legal move towards a right to self-identify has blurred the lines between subjective and objective truth.The construction of personal identity narratives are necessarily dependent on social narratives, which are fluid negotiations of meaning. McLaughlin cites the ‘me too’ movement as a location where personal narratives of identity have been shaped by abuse. “[N]o one doubts that there is truth to be discovered here—truth that is personal and objective.” In these cases the objective facts are interpreted to be immoral as one individual is acting out his desires upon another. It is precisely through this site of sexual identity and autonomy that personal identity emerged. The early church invited voluntary restrictions on sexual expression as a sign of fidelity to Christ, including monogamy and celibacy. What “is now seen as Christianity’s repressive side were, in this context, actually liberating. In a society where women were defined by their reproductive role, sexual renunciation was a manifest act of individual will and constituted a powerful statement of independent dignity. Indeed, it was a subtle assertion of control over man—that a woman’s body was her own to choose what she did with it rather than simply being a receptacle for a man’s desire to breed—an assertion that could only be legitimized by a higher authority. A similar re-balancing of gender power was to be seen in the Church’s relentless emphasis that the obligations within marriage were mutual and that male adultery was as worthy of condemnation as female.” Such a move welded together the body and identity while confirming the personhood of women. This respect for ‘independent dignity’ continues to be a guide to the limits of privileging one’s own identity over another. “[W]hile the slogan that a woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body is powerful, we must all agree that a person’s right to decide what to do with his or her own body has limits when those actions implicate another person’s body.”
Michel Foucault observed that “the kind of relationship you ought to have with yourself, ‘rapport a soi’, which [he] call[s] ethics, and which determines how the individual is supposed to constitute himself as a moral subject of his own actions….the main field of morality…from the Christian point of view is desire.” The moral identity of the Christian in terms of restriction is thus located in exercising our free will to limit the expression of our desires as they manifest out of individual identities. There is also prescriptive moral identity whereby the individual willingly engages within a broader social context for mutual edification and definition. “Christianity put forward a new idea of a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives. In doing so, it helped redefine identity, which was no longer exhausted by social roles, these becoming secondary to the primary relationship with God. For the first time, humans (all humans) had a “pre-social” identity, being someone before they had some role. This provided “an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’” through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group.”The Christian perspective thus sees identity as originating in God and thus can only be properly understood through a relationship with God. To undertake a journey towards self-actualization is no longer undertaken in isolation but can only be properly taken with the Holy Spirit as guide who reveals understanding about one’s identity, providing interpretive guidance, rather than releasing an individual to ‘self-discovery.’ Further, this journey is meant to have a socio-religious context whereby the Holy Spirit can use other individuals to inform this process. Identity thus originates in the imagination of God, who places it within flesh, where it is released into context to undergo responsive remolding. It can only be understood through the Creator and yet can never be fully known as it is continually being pulled forward by the prophetic, recreating, invitation of God. “Modern Western society teaches me to prioritize discovering my authentic self, peeling back the onion layers of my identity and living out of what I find there at all costs. But from a Christian perspective, who I am in relation to God is my authentic self.” It is here that gender, sexual orientation, status as slave or free all become redefined from within as we embrace that pre-body identity which we can co-labour with Christ to express bodily for the building up of a social identity that values the inherent worth of each other enfleshed identity. McLaughlin suggests that we can demonstrate respect for others by saying“I see you as a thinking agent with the right to change their mind.” May we grant ourselves a similar position as we open ourselves to the unfinished story of who we are.
 Michael D. Berzonsky & Koen Luyckx (2008) Identity Styles, Self-Reflective Cognition, and Identity Processes: A Study of Adaptive and Maladaptive Dimensions of Self-Analysis, Identity, 8:3, 205-219, DOI: 10.1080/15283480802181818
 Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the Worlds Largest Religion (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019) loc. 4318.
 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader. Editor Paul Rabinow. (New York: Pantheon Books,1984). 352.
 Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values. (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) loc.262.
 McLaughlin Chapters 8,9 and 10.
 Rebecca McLaughlin interviewed about Confronting Christianity. https://youtu.be/QIYL7R7yaIg
4 responses to ““This is who I’m meant to be. This is me.””
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This is a powerful quote here Jenn, “Identity thus originates in the imagination of God.”
Serene Jones has challenged me often with her focus on “theological imagination.” She invites pastors to exercise theirs as often as possible – hermeneutically, pastorally, personally. But to ruminate on identity as originating in the imagination of God is so profound. Thank you for this image.
Jenn – another great post. I admit I did not read the part in the book about identity, sexuality and women’s liberation so I was grateful to read your response.
There are a few things in what you have framed here as to identity that I want to consider more and I sense an application to my own research. Mainly, the idea of a “pre-social” identity is brilliant and as you say, it grounds our ontological foundation. So before we are workers or ministers, we are already something more, deeper, truer, pre-existent. I am searching for words. I have struggled to have time to sit with why I believe it’s so critical for ministers to understand this – to see ourselves as the beloved of God before we ever have the great privilege of co-laboring with Him on earth. This reality has changed me fundamentally but I struggle to have enough resource, “proof”, etc. Would love to hear your response if you have time friend.
“Identity is both a now and a not yet. It is an unfolding narrative rather than a fixed entity.” I have never thought of this relative to one’s identity. Thanks so much for focusing on this and McLaughlin’s “But from a Christian perspective, who I am in relation to God is my authentic self.” Your insights are always thoughtful, stimulating, and well presented. Thanks so much!
Ok, so you liked the book. Great review and reflection. Identity and language are complex. In the Maori language there are no gender pronouns, not gendered language – everyone is merely a person. Complex language creates complex thoughts, and I think the writer navigates that quite well.