'Who do I say that I am?'
November 26, 2014
"Be holy, for I am holy" ~ 1 Peter 1:16
One of the most difficult things to do is tell the truth...about ourselves. The church prides itself on being a bastion of truth in a world of lies, yet her members often forget that they cannot preserve the truth unless they first preserve it about themselves. One of the ways we can discern whether we are preserving the truth about ourselves is by taking note of our verbal habits, those patterns of speech we adopt that describe who we are - especially in relation to God and each other. These patterns of speech about ourselves reveal our hearts and whether we are primarily seeking affirmation of where we are - by others and by God - or whether we are seeking to become more like God.
I took note of these patterns of speech in a video that recently received a lot of attention on the internet called "We are the Church" (watch here: http://vimeo.com/109153388). It was noteworthy for many because it deals with those professing to be 'the Church' who self-identify as 'gay', 'queer', and 'trans'. Those combinations alone will always stir discussion. But beyond the self-applied labels drawn from our current sexual lexicon, the way the individuals in the video described (rather than labeled) themselves, in relation to God and others, is reflective of certain verbal tics that many church-goers - whether liberal or conservative - have adopted.
If you watch the video you will note the tenor of the descriptions: "I am received"; "I experience grace and community"; "I am loved"; "I am fed"; "I am...the Church." These are good things, of course, but can become toxic when not held together with other, equally good things. Noticeably absent are Christian notions of sacrifice, repentance and hope for change. In fact, in the tone of these men and women is a tinge of 'I dare you' to consider it even appropriate to talk about change and what that might entail, other than change from societal and ecclesiastical constraints that we can smirk at in light of the "freedom" of the Gospel.
The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has been keen to point out the shrinking frames of reference we employ to understand and articulate our identity. Having abandoned more universal notions of "human nature", we seem satisfied to describe ourselves only in terms of ourselves and our chosen tribe (see his Sources of the Self). Taylor calls this "the flattening of modern consciousness". The modern self is the expressed self, Taylor says, where we describe ourselves based upon what we find significant. This is usually done by a personal disentanglement from the sticky webs of birth and historic communities, and a conscious re-entanglement with like-minded souls who will accept and affirm us as we express ourselves. I would suggest we often do the same while speaking with a Christian accent.
Accordingly, the Gospel becomes about receiving forgiveness for all the ways society, the church, and I beat myself up, so that I can better live my authentic self in community with other authentic selves in the name of Christ. Or, the Gospel becomes about a "hamster wheel" of personal sin and forgiveness that never draws us out into considering what life might be like "in Christ", where we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to crucify our "fleshly selves" (Galatians 5:24) and sacrifice an immediate sense of personal meaningfulness for the greater goal of strengthening the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).
The tragedy of layering over our expressive self with Christianese is we cut ourselves off from the hope for change we find in God. Hope can only be found when we talk about ourselves in light of God.
The ability to speak the truth about ourselves is fundamental to our ability to worship God. This is the wisdom behind frontloading a worship liturgy with confession of sin, because before we lift high the name of God we must hold low the name of our self. In the presence of God we must forsake our self-imposed expressions of who we think we are, and let Scripture 'read' us and define our state. When the Spirit presses the Word on our hearts, we are led to genuine repentance of our sin where we are able to consider the good news of the Gospel and our exclusive identity in Christ.
Calvin famously wrote that the knowledge of self and knowledge of God are intertwined to the point that sometimes we do not know where the one begins and the other ends. Knowing ourselves to be sinners opens us up to knowing the grace of God that rushes into our sin, even flowing down into and softening the hardened trenches dug deep in our hearts by the force of sexual habit. Knowing God to be a forgiving God encourages us to know ourselves as sinners - yet with hope. The intertwined knowledge of which Calvin speaks is an ever deepening knowledge that, rather than leaving us in a state of complacency or despair, charges us with hope in the midst of our sin - hope that the same grace which announces our forgiveness will change us into the image of the Holy One we worship.
As we learn to tell the truth about ourselves as Christians we need to infuse our words with such knowledge. When we do so together, as the Church, we become a place of truth as well as hope. Instead of affirming ourselves into a standstill, our descriptions become doorways through which the work of the Holy Spirit draws us up to God through Christ.
Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame