The question of identity has been washing around in my thoughts for a while. First, identity is critical to the entire nature of what it is to be a human being. I think we could best understand all of the troubles human beings have psychologically, emotionally, spiritually in terms of identity. Even our relation to physical ailments and the natural world is bound up with this question of identity. Our troubles with anxiety, depression, and so on are ultimate questions about identity, because identity is the space in which we relate to ourselves and to all others.
Second, this question of identity is critical to what it is to be a Christian. When Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live,” in Galatians 2: 20, he is addressing identity. When he writes in Romans 6:11 to reckon (as the KJV has it) yourself dead to sin and alive to God, he is addressing identity.
It seems that a great deal of what is taking place the instructions and commands and promises and comforts is the purposeful construction of an identity. If sin comes from the heart, then the solution for sin is trying to not do or think some X. The solution is to have a heart which does not produce such things. This is a question of identity.
And so for instance, on the question of mortification, it can be I should mortify that; which is true, but perhaps the manner is more the question of be someone in whom that does not grow. Rather than being “me” and not doing “that,” it is being someone whose identity does not produce that. This seems to be the point of passages such as 2 Corinthians 3:18.
So then what do I mean by “identity.” And, I am not pontificating but imagining and trying to think this through. And if anyone is kind enough to read this and have an opinion, a question, a modification, it would be appreciated.
Imagine someone who awakens in a strange place without the faintest memory of the moment before. No one else knows this person, no one can “identify” this person. This person is a cypher. At the moment he (it’s easier with a pronoun) wakes, he has a very thin identity: He means nothing to himself, beyond perhaps, “Who am I?” And until he comes into contact with another, he means nothing to anyone else.
But even the question of “Who am I” presupposes some relational aspect. This character’s relationship to his own body is in place: I am here, I am hot or cold, hungry or full and so on. But to ask “Who am I” actually implicitly entails another question, “Who I am in relationship to other human beings?
If he searches for his name, his name is what other people call him. He does not need a name to think to himself. He can observe the sun and sleep and eat all without a name; but to interact with other human beings is to have a name. A name is the way other people select me from a potential group. My name begins to situate me with respect to other people.
So if our amnesiac tries to situate himself in the world, he is seeking to situate himself to other people. If he thinks, “What is my name?” He is thinking what to do other people call me?
This then creates his own relationship to this name. Before he has a name and before he is in relationship to others, his identity is potentiality: but there is very little identity there to be had.
We can consider this in a different manner: What if he thinks to himself, the entire world has been destroyed and I alone am alive. I am in relation to no one else. Would he have an identity which is premised upon other people? Yes. He would be someone whose identity is to have no relationship to other people.
But even in this there would be a relational identity, It would be the relationship of how he thinks about himself: almost as if there were two, the man himself, and the man’s relationship to himself.
An identity, at least tentatively, is a sort of social relationship; it is this thing which presents and is presented to others. As such it is a creation of that relationship(s).