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Our Modern Identity Crisis

By Joshua D. Chatraw - January 30th, 2017

"Who am I?"

As a middle-schooler I found myself asking this question quite often. So it goes when you grow up in a south Georgia culture wearing off-brand shoes, preferring fútbol to football, and electing not to spend Saturday mornings in a deer stand. But when my 16 year-old eighth-grade classmate—sporting a fishhook in his cap and his newly issued driver’s license (quite the cultural capital for my middle school)—inflicted his customary teasing on me, little did I know he was provoking me to ask myself one of the fundamental questions of our age.

Biology is certainly part of who we are, but as humans, we cannot be reduced simply to our physical bodies. If the question “Who am I?” is read strictly through the lens of genetics, I can give an obvious answer: “I am a male. I have white skin.” Despite recent cries against the obvious, sex and race are determined biologically. I knew this as a middle-schooler. But it was not this aspect of the question that I was concerned about. 


"Our identities are made up of our allegiances and assumptions, and they give us a framework for deciding what we should do, how we should live, what is valuable, what we should support, and what we should stand against."


Race and sex, among other things that we can describe genetically, take on meanings based on social and historical circumstances. For example, science tells us what it means biologically to be a particular sex; other sources and frameworks tell us what it means sociologically to live life as a “woman” or a “man.” In this issue of Faith and the Academy, Gary Isaacs’ essay will help us navigate some of the biological issues in regards to the question of identity. But as my example from middle school illustrates, a basic description of genetics is not what is likely to come to mind if someone asks you, “Who are you?” Given this, much of our focus in this volume is on the question of identity beyond the limits of genetics, on identity—as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it—in the sense of “knowing where I stand.” Our identities are made up of our allegiances and assumptions, and they give us a framework for deciding what we should do, how we should live, what is valuable, what we should support, and what we should stand against. 

 

The Insecurity of Identity in Late-Modernity 

Many today feel apprehensive and even disoriented about where they stand, about who they are. Eighth grade is the new normal. 

Robert Bellah and his co-authors have described what they labeled as expressive individualism: the belief “that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” Taylor adds that according to expressive individualism, individuality must be lived out in a contrarian fashion, “against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside.” Thus, accordingly, human flourishing occurs when we look within ourselves and cast off external norms to find our authentic identity. Look no further than my daughter’s favorite Disney princess to be serenaded with the anthem of our day: 

"It's time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I'm free! . . . Let it go, let it go. And I'll rise like the break of dawn. Let it go, let it go. That perfect girl is gone. Here I stand."

It seems that Elsa is simply singing along with the liturgy of our age. Expressive individualism results in personal choice being seen as the highest good. This is unprecedented within human history. And despite the promises to the contrary, it offers no stable place to stand.

This instability is felt in numerous areas. Expressive individualism corrodes interpersonal relationships. Neighbors, friends and marriages are viewed instrumentally, quickly abandoned if they cease to serve as a means for self-actualization. Recent writers such as Andrew Delbanco in The Real American Dream and Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, both in their own ways drawing upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, have made the point that the individualism the culture has embraced fails to provide a unifying vision for a cohesive society or a productive political system. As one commentator wrote recently, “The great challenge of our moment is the crisis of isolation and fragmentation, the need to rebind the fabric of a society that has been torn by selfishness, cynicism, distrust and autonomy.”

And in regards to religion, once a culture makes individual choice and independence from external norms the ultimate good, Christianity, with its call to repent and conform to the image of Christ—is not just boring, it is evil. It’s de-humanizing. Such traditional frameworks for understanding identity are viewed as dangerously suppressing individuals’ self-discovery of their “true self.” As the Pastor Tim Keller has noted, “That is why for many today religious faith seems so unimaginable as to be crazy.”


"In regards to religion, once a culture makes individual choice and independence from external norms the ultimate good, Christianity, with its call to repent and conform to the image of Christ—is not just boring, it is evil."


Other recent works support Smith’s study. For example, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons cite a recent survey finding that 91% of Americans agree that “to find yourself, look within yourself.” 76% of Christians also agreed with this statement.Apparently it’s not just “the culture” that is suffering from an identity crisis. 

Significant Sources of Identity: Communities, Stories, and Gods

One of the cracks within this modern search for identity is that no one simply looks “within themselves” to find their authentic self. It is impossible. Instead we are all looking to those around us to learn what we should value and how we should legitimize our own worth. As Taylor puts it, “No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own.” We are always defining our personal identity in dialogue with our community as, for example, our communities and traditions tell us “hero” stories and we embrace these narratives, seeking to live them out. And both, the communities we live in and stories we tell, are indelibly linked to our propensity as humans to worship. 

No matter how irreligious, we are all seeking what the Jewish anthropologist Ernest Becker describes as the universal search for “cosmic significance.” We each look to something or someone for identity and worth that we venerate. Money, beauty, power, intellect, and self, are some of the more obvious deities, but we could go on cataloging the contemporary sources for “cosmic significance.”

And despite the promises for freedom, whatever we look to for significance and affirmation will, in the end, enslave us. As Jesus taught, everyone has a master. And the cruelty of the modern gods, in always promising but never delivering, further contributes to the modern identity crisis. 

Without sources that have emerged from the transcendent, the pubescent question remains: 

“Who am I?”

Despite this crisis, neither panic, nor fear, nor resentment—each representative of my eighth grade responses to personal insecurity and bullying—should be the Christian reaction. Middle school need not be our new normal; we have a stable place to stand. 

Join us in this issue as we reflect not only on our own lives and the life of our institution but also as we consider how to engage the modern identity crisis of our age. In the articles that follow you will see the three aforementioned sources of identity—stories, communities, and gods—continue to emerge as significant. Christianity offers sources in each area that are thicker, more coherent, and more stable than their modern rivals. These Christian sources have persisted through the many crises of the past 2,000 years; these are the sources that will be standing long past the modern identity crisis of today. 


Originally published in Faith and the Academy Volume 1, Issue 2

See the full journal here.

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