Who are you?

The tension between culture and gospel and where identity is found.

The relationship between the church and surrounding culture is a complicated one. Many questions arise as we relate to the world. What good can we affirm in the wider culture? What is potentially dehumanizing about our society? Are we entangled with our culture in unhelpful ways? What has our culture gotten right about human flourishing that we have missed?
These are complicated questions, and questions we often approach with insufficient care.

Shifts in identity

Over the past few months I have been thinking about a particular cultural question: the idea that each person is the foremost authority on their identity. This seems to be a commonplace conviction within our culture, that I am the only one who can speak the truth of who I am. No one else has the right to tell me who I am or to define my life and identity.

A long series of developments in philosophy, theology and culture brought us to this moment and to these convictions. Which is also to say that there is nothing inevitable about the idea that individuals are the best placed to define their own lives or identities. Importantly, there are also communal and religious traditions, past and present, that resist this idea.

We can perhaps appreciate that this insistence on self-definition provides a kind of protection. It can protect against certain dysfunctional ways that we humans relate to each other – we love to tell others who they are! History tells the dark tale of what has happened in many circumstances where those with power got in on the act of defining others.

Navigating tension

Yet there remains a significant tension here for those who hold to the gospel. The good news is that a gracious and loving God has created and redeemed us through his beloved Son, Jesus. Among other things, this good news means that we have been set free from our death-dealing ways and set free for joy and service together. We are those who find fulfillment in and with a first century Jewish man, crucified, risen and ascended.

It is just here that we come up against the cultural challenge I’ve mentioned. On one side is our society, insisting that each person shall define their own life, identity and purpose. On the other side is the treasure of the gospel, which declares: the most important thing about you is that you have been created and redeemed in Christ; that living into this reality with others is your calling.

These two claims are in tension: only I can define my true identity vs. the gospel proclaims your true identity. How does a Christian live with this tension in relation to those around us? Perhaps with this succession of thoughts or attitudes:

With a realization that not all relationships may be able to bear the weight of this cultural tension. With the knowledge that conversations about our identity can only unfold within relationships of trust, where there is genuine care for one another. With confidence we can still love one another when we hold different ideas about human identity. With an awareness that I betray my true identity daily. With a certainty that Christ, by his grace and in his time, is bringing our world to a deep and abiding knowledge that our identity is in him – and it’s not on me to bring anyone to this realization

It’s safe to say that this column is an instance of sinning boldly. In half a page I’m offering an account of a complex cultural question. I trust I have done so with more than a modicum of care!


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