“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves.”
“O God, I pray you to let me know my self.”
John Calvin famously began his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion with this incredible claim: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” In opening this way, Calvin indicated not only that knowing Christians knowing the identity as human beings is of critical importance, but also that such knowledge is indelibly bound up with God’s identity.
In pursuing a uniquely Christian understanding of human identity, there are two familiar extremes that we must avoid. On the one hand, some Christians can react against the increasing contemporary emphasis on personal identity (going back to such Western luminaries like Immanuel Kant and Alexander Pope) by labeling the entire endeavor as unspiritual, self-centered and misguided. Too much focus on self can be paralyzing for anyone. On the other hand, simply adopting our culture’s obsession with knowing ourselves can easily become navel-gazing that takes us away from God and neighbor, and even become depressive and destructive. C. S. Lewis speaks wisely of “that ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self which is the mark of hell.” Surely wisdom and balance are needed here. In keeping with Calvin’s dictum, Christians should strive to always acquire knowledge of God only in practical relation to their own quest for transformation into the image of God, and only desire the unveiling of their own identities in relation to God’s purposes and glory in the world.
There is much that can and should be said about human identity in light of the gospel. In the following, we will highlight and briefly explore only four features—for Christians, personal identity is story-shaped (not abstract), derivative (not intrinsic), other-centered (not autonomous), and incomplete (not fully available to us in the here and now). Let’s explore these claims.
“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth…I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
We are, as it turns out, story-shaped people living amongst other story-shaped people in story-shaped communities. Ancient Israel was not granted an arbitrary set of laws by an impersonal deity, according to the Hebrew Scriptures: instead, Israel’s narrative about a God who cares for the socially marginalized was to inform their identity as a nation, embedded in their laws and practices. In a milieu in which undermining and alienating the “other,” Israel received a shockingly different instruction: Care for the excluded and despised, for the orphan, for the sojourners among you. Why? Because God cared for you when you were undesirable slaves in Egypt.
Moses reminded the people that the collection of laws and practices would provoke the inquisitive nature of the children of Israel: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘what is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt […] And [the Lord] brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers” (Deut. 6:20-22). When your child asks why you do what you do, why you are who you are, you will tell her a story.
More recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton has taken up the tension in competing narratives by telling the story of the founding of our nation and the specific and bizarre account of Alexander Hamilton, “the bastard orphan son of a whore” and his brilliance, rise to recognition and tragic early death. But the narrative is complicated by Miranda’s telling, which incorporates rap and hip-hop into the Broadway musical and uses a cast almost solely comprised of people of color. The stacked-up narratives highlight the irony of our national narrative of freedom from the tyranny of England and being “self-made” even as the nation was built upon the backs of race-based slavery. The stories layer and even compete; we are constantly required to organize competing narratives to navigate the world. Much of our current racial climate in the U.S. has been exacerbated by dismissal of the narratives of other people and people groups, experiences and places.
The Christian story deeply values both the individual and collective stories. The story of the crucified Messiah takes center stage, bringing together remarkably different stories. Paul writes to a spiritually immature collection of Christians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28). Certainly he is not saying that these social, political and biological markers don’t matter on a daily basis in a world in which whether one walked through a day as a free man or a woman whose every minute was subject to the whims of her master, is he? Of course not. And yet, he is bold enough to declare that those critical identities were and are relativized by another story. It’s a radical claim indeed. If Christians want to know who they are, they must know the story of creation, Israel, Jesus and the church.
“Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.”
When we perceive that “who we are” not only distinguishes us from others, but is also grounded in our own inherent worth, intentional actions or ethnic/cultural background, we almost invariably begin to inhabit an “us vs. them” mentality in our way of being in the world. Identity, so construed as a human accomplishment, leads to alienation and estrangement, not harmony and humility.
Yet the Christian understanding of identity teaches us that who we are comes to us as a sheer gift of “grace,” not as a reward for our “works.” If it is indeed the case that we are much more valuable than anything else in creation (as Jesus repeatedly affirms; cf. Matthew 6:26, 10:31, 12:12), then it is nonetheless also true that this value is derivative and not intrinsic to our persons. Fundamental to the Christian story is the affirmation that we are created in the image of God—and with this claim comes the necessary entailment that our worth is a reflection of another’s worth. Considering the added dimensions of sin and redemption, God does not value us because we are valuable. We are valuable because our Creator and Redeemer has chosen freely in mercy to value us. We are not loved because we are lovely; we are lovely because we are loved by Him.
The internalization of this relational dynamic changes everything. If my identity and worth come as a derivative gift from a gracious Father—not the product of anything I “naturally” am in isolation or have autonomously accomplished by my efforts—then it must be psychologically impossible to look at another human being who differs from me in significant ways and to respond with a sense of arrogance and superiority. Identity in Christ, rightly understood and grasped, ought to bring people closer to those unlike them. That is the litmus test of orthodoxy on identity. The apostle asks a single searing question when he sees believers puffed up in pride against other human beings: “What do you have that you did not receive? If you then received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:6-7). Christians ride Christ’s coattails into the kingdom from beginning to end.
“Disciples find themselves only in Christ and in their brothers and sisters.”
“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”
Post-modern identity politics poses questions of solidarity and difference in an effort to discern the “other.” Lurking just beyond the questions of otherness is group identity: to what group(s) do I belong? In reference to whom have I been shaped in my internal and external expectations, ways of being in the world? Even as the Christian narrative includes all other ways of being in the world, Christians are called into a family that trumps biological families, political affiliations, and so on. The content of the narrative includes a Savior who relativizes his biological family by dismissing their (ultimate) demands and declaring about his friends and followers, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Because whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:49-50). To name God as Father and to align one’s will accordingly is to find yourself with a new team.
In my own thinking on the subject of identity, I remember the frank relief I experienced in this aspect of identity: The practices and idiosyncrasies of my biological family that I found fault with—a common enough experience for all of us, of course—were all weights I was happy to shed. A new family in Christ? Yes, please.
In recent years, however, I’ve realized the immaturity I happily grafted onto this rich theological truth. I move out into the world in a posture deeply informed by my family, as any psychology 101 class will affirm. But this new affiliation with Jesus allows me to circle back to my biological family with a different posture, somewhere between determinism and dismissal. In allowing identity to rest securely in my relationship to God in and through the people of God because of Jesus and the Spirit, I take the pressure off of my family to tell me who I am and to be my foundation. When core identity questions are not constantly at stake, I am free to receive the stories of others, even and especially those closest to me.
“The self is always on the way and is not available to us abstracted from the story of one’s life—which story is not yet complete. Only God can see us whole and entire, as we truly are. Hence, we cannot in any complete sense account for ourselves or our decisions… Caught between memory of the past and expectation of the future, embedded in a present moment, unable to say in any complete sense who we are, we exist within the tensions of this pilgrim existence.”
Much current thinking on identity not only prioritizes the “here-ness” and “now-ness” of human existence, but positively excludes the “there” and “not yet” dimensions of identity that are integral to Christian faith. We cannot possibly hope to understand who we really are by simply looking introspectively into our subjective experience or by reflecting on our past historical conditions. In the Christian story, what is still to come in the future is as crucial an ingredient in who we are—or better yet, who we will be—as anything else. As Eugene Peterson wonderfully puts it, the gospel reminds us that we are “unfinished creatures”:
“We are not intricately engineered genetic chips that when programmed correctly make the economy prosper; we are unfinished creatures, ravenously purpose-hungry, alive with possibilities. For humans the future is the most creative and the most essential aspect of time. Human life is that ‘paradoxical reality which consists in deciding what we are going to do, therefore in being what we not yet are, in starting to be the future.’ The Bible spends only a few pages establishing the conditions of our beginnings; and then several hundred pages cultivating in us a taste for the future—immersing us in a narrative in which the future is always impinging on the present, so that we live out of our beginnings and by the means that are in accordance with the reality of our ends.”
As 1 John 3:2 remarkably puts it: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet appeared. We only know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Paul says that we are not only waiting for the public appearing of Jesus—we are also waiting for the revelation of our own identity which is still to come. Presently, who we truly are is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4). A Christian’s identity, in other words, is as much the object of hope as it is anything else. Joseph Pieper put it this ways: believers are pilgrims who are still “on the way”; anticipation and hope ought to characterize a Christian’s sense of personal identity. Revelation teaches us that we will one day be given a “new name” in the new heaven and new earth—implying, clearly, that identity is not fully graspable in the here and now.
This “already but not yet” tension in relation to identity ought to produce certain tangible qualities in us. Just like kids who can’t wait to grow up to experience adulthood someday soon, Christians should be possessed of a deep yearning and excitement for who they will yet become by God’s grace. This dynamic ought to be comfort and reassurance in current struggles, failings and circumstances. The best is yet to come. Finally, followers of Jesus should be filled with a holy restlessness, never complacently satisfied with who they are now or resting on their laurels or past accomplishments. We are, at best, toward the beginning of a long adventure and journey that will continue to surprise, confound and re-humanize us in ways we can scarcely even imagine right now.
 These citations from, respectively, Nietzche and Augustine, come from the preface to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
 Consider Pope’s secular, humanistic thrust: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is Man.”
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, p. 216
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 152
 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, p. 34
 Gilbert Meilaender, “Creatures of Place and Time: Reflections on Moving”
 Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, p. 122
Teal McGarvey is a guest contributor to The Harvard Ichthus, and Nick Nowalk is an alum of The Harvard Ichthus.