Created vs. Creative Identity

The problem (so to speak) with Christianity is that it places creaturely identity in the hands of the Creator rather than the creature. In other words, it holds that the identity of every human being--and, for that matter, every created thing--is fundamentally established by God, not constructed by the creature. Christianity and contemporary culture necessarily exist on a collision course on this matter since one of the defining features of our cultural moment is the perception that every individual has not only the ability but also the inalienable right to play a constructive part in determining his or her (or zir?) identity.

As Christians we acknowledge layers to the identity that we as individuals have been given by God. We are, in that sense (and hopefully few others), like onions. There is a creational layer to my God-given identity. That layer comprises, for example, my ethnicity, my age, and my gender. DNA testing might turn up surprises about my pedigree, but nothing, in the final analysis, can change the biological identity of my parents, the doctor's verdict ("It's a boy") upon my birth, or the precise time and date of my birth. There is, however, also a redemptive layer to my (and every believer's) God-given identity. On the basis of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and continuing intercession for me at his Father's right hand, I am a justified, sanctified, and adopted child of God, sealed by God's own Spirit, enjoying the rich benefits of my redemption and awaiting the full inheritance that belongs to me and my spiritual siblings.

Neither of the identity layers I have just noted lies within my own control. God is the author of both. Which is not, of course, to deny that there are aspects of my identity over which I do have creative control. The identity that I project to myself and others includes not only the created and redemptive realities just observed, but also a vocation (teaching), political convictions (I plead the fifth), a concrete nexus of relationships (wife, children, dog, etc.), specific tastes in food (Indian or Mexican), music (Americana), and film (anything by Wes Anderson or Pixar), and so on. Nevertheless, the creative and redemptive layers to my identity remain considerably more fundamental than those aspects of my identity that I myself engineer.

More to my present point, while the world may happily dismiss the redemptive layer to my identity as wishful (or needful) thinking on my part, it grows increasingly insistent on putting the created layer into my own creative control (and so effectively making me the Creator). Thus I might, if so inclined, self-identify (with this world's blessing) as a seventeen year-old Native American girl, and force others to relate to me accordingly. How dare you tell me my bathroom is over there? How dare you tell me my application for financial aid on the basis of my Native American heritage has been denied? How dare you tell me I'm actually a balding, middle-aged, white man? That's not how I self-identify. That's not, in other words, the identity that I have freely constructed for myself.

As Christians, we need not deny, nor should we trivialize, the event of individuals experiencing dissonance between their self-perception and their created (i.e., God-given) identity (whether measured in gender, ethnicity, age, or any other created facet of one's person). We must, however, insist that the world's answer to that event is, in the words of the BFG, a catasterous disastrophe. Rather than lovingly helping individuals reconcile self-perception with reality (i.e., helping individuals move towards their God-given identity), the world increasingly insists that reality conform to every individual's self-perception, thus amplifying the dissonance felt by certain individuals between self-perception and the reality of who they are (which reality invariably informs others-perception). Soaring depression and suicide rates among youth is but one fruit of such amplified dissonance. Human beings were quite clearly never meant to bear the psychological burden of establishing their own identity at the fundamental levels of gender, age, and ethnicity. The "freedom" to do so is an intolerable weight that, to all appearances, is crushing individual psyches.

As Christians, we would also do well to equip ourselves with resources for helping us and our own children understand and appreciate those aspects of identity that are God-given rather than self-engineered. A resource I've found most helpful in this regard, both in my home and in my work with middle-schoolers (where, given the age of my pupils, defense against certain cultural assumptions and agendas often takes the form of a good offense; i.e, intentional, constructive, theological training) is the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The tenth question of the shorter catechism, at least to my thinking, has particular purchase in our cultural moment. How did God create man? God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures. Quite a few assumptions and agendas of our age are, I think, undermined by that very simple description of how God made us. Thus, it constitutes exactly the kind of thinking with which I hope to arm my children/students as they step towards a mature presence in this world.

Catechesis, then, might play an important role in preparing a Christian generation to engage assumptions and agendas in this world that, quite frankly, previous generations didn't face (or, at least, didn't face so pointedly). Who knew a catechism crafted in the 1640s could have so much contemporary relevance? Catechesis can also, in my experience, be quite fun (in a way the Westminster divines, to be fair, probably didn't anticipate). In my home and school my children/students sing the Westminster catechism. There have been various efforts to put the WSC (and other catechisms) to song. The effort I like best is that by Bruce Benedict. In addition to several CDs covering large portions of the WSC, Benedict also has on offer a songbook that will allow a fairly amateurish guitar play (like me) to accompany the catechized in their singing. If the present-day relevance of a seventeenth-century catechism never ceases to amaze, neither does the pedagogical value of a beat-up guitar and the knowledge of a handful of guitar chords. Regardless, in my experience, amateurish guitar playing coupled with the proclivity of children to create motions for songs you teach them is a formula for enjoyable education and, best case scenario, robust theological understanding.

Catechesis forms a critical component both in the Bible classes I teach and in my family's worship time. In fact, it's the component that neither my students nor my children ever complain about. And it's rewarding to me. Every time my own children and my students sing, for instance, the truth that God has created us "male and female," I take satisfaction in the knowledge that they are singing, unbeknownst to them, themselves into a binary understanding of gender, and so a notion of identity as created, that will very likely set them sharply at odds with the world they encounter in a few short years. God willing, that understanding will equally equip them to speak words of genuine hope into this world, hope discovered in learning to move towards rather than away from one's created identity and, better yet, towards the identity that God offers every human being on the basis of his Son's person and work.