Part I.—Identity

2101 words—8 min read

We live in an age of great cultural battles. Ideas like truth, objectivity, and tradition are being questioned in ways that could fundamentally reshape culture as we know it, while at the same time some very cogent arguments are being brought against that culture both historically and in its present state. There are many devoted, orthodox believers who fall at almost every point along the spectrum of this battle, and to the disgrace of the Church, many fight bitterly with each other.

I believe that this fight reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the place of the Church in the world which has existed for most of the Church's history. The attempt to integrate Christian values into an unregenerate world has left sinners and the Church alike with corrupted goals. A return to the biblical doctrine of separation as taught in the New Testament is necessary in order to restore the Church itself.

In order to untangle this false integration, we need to examine what it truly means to be a follower of Christ, leaving behind our cultural, historical, and existential assumptions. This examination requires an understanding both of how the world defines a person, and how Christ's definition is fundamentally different.

Over the course of this series, I will analyze the world's systems of definition, comparing and contrasting them both to themselves and to the Bible. I will then demonstrate how the integration of these systems into the Church has damaged both its people and its witness, before finally laying out what I believe to be a biblical model in light of these errors.

As human beings, it does not take us very long to begin developing ideas about how to live. Our default state is to seek pleasure and avoid pain Indeed, infants are some of the most committed hedonists I have ever encountered., but this soon ceases to satisfy us. The root issue with this hedonism is that it turns us into animals, constantly seeking after our own pleasure. Life becomes a cruel master, and we the dog who cringes when he approaches us. In other words, we are reduced to the sum of our passions—we lack an identity.

Identity is, humanly speaking, what separates us from animals. The ability to think about ourselves, to be self-aware, is what drives us to ask Why. If we exist, if we Are, then why are we? Any system for deriving identity must then offer both a definition for us to follow, and a telos, or purpose for existing.

In our contemporary western culture, we are at the intersection of three identity systems—sincerity, authenticity, and profilicity. Sincerity is the traditional method which offers to define us through our position in an established hierarchy and demands we sincerely adopt our role based on that position. Authenticity was popularized in the individualism of the 20th century and suggests that our definition can be found within ourselves. Our telos therefore is to find our definition through self-realization and then live authentically in relation to our self-definition. Finally, profilicity is a postmodern view that our definition lies in the observation of ourselves by others, and our goal is to accept and reflect this observation.

For most of history, culture was based around the traditional identity system, and it is perhaps the easiest to understand. Most of our old stories present people as belonging to a group, with their position defining their roles. Tales of knights and maidens or parents and children emphasize this role-based identity, especially because evil often befalls those who step outside of their role It is also interesting to note that in modern stories set in olden times, it is the roles themselves that are the obstacles to overcome.. In this system, we are defined by the role we play in a larger system, and our telos is to sincerely adopt this role; those who are insincere in their role or who aspire to something different are seen as improper or being a pretender.

During the Enlightenment, people began to see themselves more as individuals and identity was re-centered in institutions. The 18th century saw the rise of national identity, culminating in the American and French revolutions. People began to see themselves not primarily as basket-weavers or farmers, but as English, American, or French. The core of this ideology was still role-based, but it was applied on a much larger scale that brought a greater unity to more people.

The Enlightenment was a time of great progress for philosophy, legal theory, and the human condition. It saw many improvements in the way nations were governed and in the living conditions of many people in the western world. But unfortunately it also gave rise to a virulent nationalism that polarized many countries and eventually led to the immense slaughter of the world wars. After so much senseless slaughter, many people became disillusioned with a group identity that led to such awful ends.

The modern system of identity arose around this time in the analytic psychology of Carl Jung. In Jung's theory, a person begins life as a simple member of the collective psychology The collective unconscious of patterns all people share, and must undergo a process of individuation in order to become an individual Self. This is a process of integration, where the conscious person becomes aware of the archetypes These are underlying patterns of behavior that exist across humanity. For further reading, see the Wikipedia page on Jungian archetypes. within them seeking actualization, and integrating them into into the conscious. This integration transforms the person from a simple member of the collective psychology into an individual Self. Stated simply, individuation is about finding and accepting what lies inside you in order to become who you really are.

This is a fundamentally subjective and personal method of deriving identity, in direct opposition to the traditional view of finding your place within an established hierarchy. Furthermore, it suggests that everything about a person must be accepted into their understanding of themselves Jung believed that repressed archetypes or complexes could lead to neurosis.. To repress a part of yourself is a breakdown on the journey of self-realization. According to this system, our definition lies inside ourselves, and our telos is to become an individual, creating a unique person and then living an authentic life with regards to this self-definition.

This is a central theme in modern storytelling, especially in recent Disney films. For example, in the 2013 film Frozen, Elsa's main struggle is not with an external antagonist, but with the harmful effects of the repression of her magical ice powers. Both her initial lack of understanding and then her repression of these powers end up causing harm as she fails to accept and integrate them into her understanding of herself. In the song Let It Go, Elsa refuses to suppress her powers any longer. At the end of the film, Elsa has accepted her powers as a part of her identity, harnessing them as a force for good and bringing Spring back to the kingdom. The message is clear—in order to understand who you are, you must look inside yourself and accept all that you find. Your path to becoming an individual lies inside of you. For a much more in-depth analysis of Frozen through the lens of analytic psychology, see Let It Go: Revising 'The Princess Story' in Disney's Frozen, by Dikaia Gavala. Note that this analysis goes much deeper and draws much larger conclusions than I have chosen to.

The last method for deriving identity is what Dr. Hans-Georg Moeller refers to as profilicity For an explanation of all three historical methods of deriving identity, see Dr. Moeller's video, Identity After Authenticity: Abigail Thorn's Profile. Like the traditional method of identity, profilicity encourages us to base our identity on something external, but unlike the traditional method this external identity is not based on any formal structure. We are in some manner encouraged to curate a profile and then be true to it, and our understanding of ourselves lies in how accurately we can reflect this external profile in ourselves and our actual lives.

When we view content from others on social media, we don't simply see it for what it is, but instead through the lens of how other people have reacted to it. The number of Likes, the discussion in the comments, and perhaps even its position in your feed all influence the way you see the content. Dr. Moeller describes this as a form of second-order observation For more on Luhmann's orders of observation, see Chapter 1 of Power at Play, by Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen., where instead of observing a thing itself, we instead are primarily observing how that thing is observed by others.

With this understanding of how others observe what gets posted, we curate our own behavior with their observation in mind. This observation is crucially not the perspective of any specific person, but rather of the abstract group of Others that we see only through the aggregate reactions present when we engage with social media. This abstract Other is referred to as the general peer, and we come to think about ourselves through the eyes of this general peer rather than through our own or some specific other person's eyes. In order to validate the curated profile we have created for ourselves, we must seek and receive approval from the general peer. Therefore, in this system we are shaped and defined by how the general peer sees us, and our telos is to project a persona that is approved and then live up to it.

Each of these systems provides a different method for deriving identity, but they are all flawed. They fail precisely in the same way the Law could not bring about our salvation—we are forced to justify ourselves. In each system, there are requirements that we must follow in order to embrace that identity which are judged ultimately by other people. We spend our lives attempting to live up to the expectations each form of identity requires, and we inevitably fall short. We cannot be sincere enough, we cannot be authentic enough, we cannot live up to the picture-perfect profile we have created—we are not enough.

This is what makes the biblical model of identity so radically different. If each of these established forms of identity require us to justify ourselves to others (a horizontal relationship), the biblical model states that our identity becomes permanently established and justified when we are saved Romans 5:1; John 15:16 ESV (a vertical relationship). Our identity in Christ is not based on anything we've done, nor on some standard that we must strive to attain, but is part of our new nature Romans 6:6-8; II Corinthians 5:17 ESV.

The biblical model recognizes only two identities—those who are of the world, and those who are in Christ Romans 6:17-18 ESV. The Bible describes belonging to either of these groups as a father/son or master/slave relationship between the members of the group and its leader This can be understood in a very general way through the Hegelian concept of universals and particulars, although Kierkegaard devotes the entirety of Fear and Trembling to explaining why this cannot be taken too far.. Those who are members of the world are "the children of the devil", while those who are in Christ are "the children of God" I John 3:9-10 ESV.

As children of God, we are then placed in a relation to God through Christ—He becomes our definition. Importantly, a man can have only one definition Matthew 6:24 ESV—we cannot serve two masters. Through our definition as sons of God, we are tasked with emulating Him. The telos of this identity, then, is sanctification, the process of progressively becoming more like Christ. This emulation includes both the reflection of His passive attributes as well as active obedience to His commands II Corinthians 5:14-15; John 14:15, 21; I Peter 1:14-19 ESV.

This radical idea—that we are justified in our identity with Christ and that we're not required to maintain this identity by our own efforts—is utterly unlike all of the world's systems because it brings peace Romans 5:1 ESV. We are secure in this identity and freed from attempting to define ourselves through what we ourselves or others think about us. God has given us many promises, and we inherit all of them by being defined through Him Romans 9 ESV. Any attempt on the part of the Christian to derive their identity from the world's systems is a rejection of God as our Father Ephesians 5:8-11 ESV, and can only lead to corruption.

Published on Wednesday June 30th, 2021 by Matthew Miller

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