As we explore a biblical sense of human identity, it might be helpful to consider at the outset a broader perspective on the possible foundations for our identity. The three foundations I will suggest do not originate with me, although they may reflect some distinctive elements. It should also become obvious that these three typically overlap and intertwine.
Many of us have experienced the dilemma, especially in adolescence, of desperately desiring to fit in with our peers while at the same time longing to stand out due to our looks, athletic skill, intelligence, fashion, humor, or some other trait that would heighten our status with a particular group. Ultimately, we are seeking to discover or construct an identity that marks us as special and thus worthy of acceptance and importance.
We should note that through much of human history (as well as many places today) this luxury of “self-actualization” did not exist to any significant extent. One classification for cultures involves their place on a continuum from collectivist to individualist. Cultures like the U.S. fall near the individualist end of the continuum, but many others throughout history have depended on cooperation for survival so strongly that they occupy the other end.
In a more individualistic culture, one’s personal identity matters more than that of the group, whereas in more collectivist cultures the identity (and welfare) of the group takes precedence.
The language of a continuum suggests that no culture can survive through absolute individualism or collectivism. The same applies to a single person. As with the dilemma above, I find my individual identity to some extent in relation to “my” peers or “my” tribe or “my” team or “my” country.
The Benefits and Dangers of Individual/Group Identity
Both the individual and group dimensions of our identity provide us with a framework to make sense of life and find our place within it. At the same time, both dimensions also cultivate and reinforce prejudices and competing interests that lead to conflict with other individuals and groups.
Each person inevitably finds his or her identity on both an individual and a group level. The Bible interacts with humanity on both levels as well. It addresses us as individuals and also calls us into community (Israel, the church).
Such a “religious” identity, however, frequently intensifies the divisions of humanity over issues such as land, resources, race, power, and past injustices. Individuals and groups can claim divine sanction for their grievances with the “other” (even when the other shares the same basic religious beliefs, as in the current conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims).
Some critics attempt to blame religion for many of the world’s conflicts, and a superficial scanning of the headlines would seem to lend credence to this claim. On closer examination, however, I believe this charge loses much of its steam (its adherents also conveniently ignore the huge positive contributions to humanity from religions and religious people).
More often, self-serving demagogues play on people’s fears and either seduce or coerce religious leaders to support them (as Hitler did with the majority of the church in Germany). The real driving force continues to be individual and group interests, and religion becomes co-opted for those ends. In another common scenario, religious leaders who grow powerful often twist religion to serve and maintain their power.
I have deliberately spoken of religion in a generic sense so far in terms of its abuse, but now I shift back to speaking of the Bible and the Christian faith. One distinctive feature of the Bible is its honesty with the failures to rise above personal or group interest by those who profess to believe in God. The Bible’s recurrent call to rise above these interests explains what I mean by a transcendent identity.
As we explore further a biblical sense of human identity, I think we will find a message that ultimately expands our vision beyond the self-interest that lies at the heart of human conflict. In fact, it aims to call us into God’s work to reconcile such conflict. The Bible affirms a high calling for humanity that does not serve selfish interests but submits itself to God’s universal concern for the wellbeing of his creation. To realize this calling, however, we must do battle with the inevitable individualistic and collectivist interests that tend to become deeply ingrained within us.
In Falling Upward (pp. 82-84), Richard Rohr refers to Jesus’ shockingly strong words about separation from family to address the challenge of truly following Jesus.
What passes for morality or spirituality in the vast majority of people’s lives is the way everybody they grew up with thinks. Some would call it conditioning or even imprinting. Without very real inner work, most folks never move beyond it. . . . To move beyond family-of-origin stuff, local church stuff, cultural stuff, flag-and-country stuff is a path that few of us follow positively and with integrity.
Rohr goes on to note that the “guilt, shame, and self-doubt” accompanying such a break with our conditioning is so powerful that it “feels like the very voice of God.” How ironic that the pull of our lesser individual and group identity can feel more like the voice of God than the true voice of God that calls us to a transcendent identity:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. –Philippians 2:3-4