Tag Archives: Personal identity

Some Things Cannot Be Delegated

Never has an age promised so much and delivered so little as ours. Modern culture assures us that pursuing boldly our individual tastes and preferences is the way to create our identities to our liking and escape confining social roles, customs, and prescriptive morality.  Happiness will be ours if only we refuse to conform to readymade social roles and begin to live consistently with our inner selves. And yet, we find ourselves herded into groups whose identity is rooted in ethnicity, a political cause, gender, age, and a hundred other categories. We want to be unique as long as we are surrounded and supported by others just like us. By identifying with a group that vociferously distinguishes itself from other groups, we seek to resolve the conflict between individual and social identity. We self-deceptively adopt the group’s identity as our individual identity, assuring ourselves that we’ve done our duty to “become ourselves.” Becoming a unique individual is not as easy or as pleasant as modern culture makes it sound! Nor is becoming a Christian.

Christian people find the task of becoming an individual no less difficult and subject to self-deception than do our secular contemporaries. Identifying yourself with the Christian faith, a Christian denomination, or a local Christian congregation does not make you Christian. Although becoming a Christian involves adopting an identity that is shared by others and living as a Christian requires that we live in community with other Christians, no one else can become a Christian for you or live the Christian life in your place. The institutional church cannot do it. The clergy cannot do it. Others can guide, encourage, and provide good examples, but you must step into that bright, heavenly light alone and relate directly to your God.

To live as a Christian you must believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No one else can believe for you. Repentance and confession of sin must come from your heart and your mouth. Identifying with a church where communal prayers and liturgies speak of repentance and forgiveness cannot replace your own inner contrition and secret confession to God. You have to change your own life. The two greatest commands are to love God and love your neighbor. To love God is to acknowledge his love for you, to place him on the throne of your heart, and to seek him as your highest good. No institution, no other person can do this for you. And you have to love your neighbor from your heart. You cannot delegate this task to someone else. No one else can pray your prayers, give your praise, and express your thanks. Experiencing God’s presence is not a group activity.

Living a good life and practicing virtue, while done in community, must be done by the individual. Faith, hope, and love cannot be inherited from your parents or distributed like communion wafers. No one can complete your God-given assignment. It’s not like such tasks as cooking dinner, washing the car, or taking out the trash, which you can have done for you. God gave the task to you, and your doing it is part of its nature. If you don’t complete it, it will not be done.

Human beings judge each other on superficial grounds, external appearance, church membership, group associations, social status, and professional accomplishments. God judges the heart. God knows us from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, inside and out, down to the depths of our souls. We cannot hide from God within the crowd, in the audience. To become a Christian, you and I must first give up the self-deception that the secrets of our hearts are known only to us. We must face the fact that we have been found out, that is, we must come to realize that God has always known our sins. And then, under our own names and in our own persons, we must deal with God directly.

 

 

 

Who is God? (Part 1)

Who is God? (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series entitled “Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology.” Professional theologians, of course, ask “infrequently asked” questions. That is their job. But I am not writing for them. I am writing for non theologians who are interested in theology and in reflecting on faith at a deeper level than they ordinarily do.

In asking the “who” question we are inquiring about personal identity. It makes no sense to ask, “Who is that tree?” or “Who is that boulder?” Hence even asking the question “Who is God?” presupposes that we believe God possesses personal characteristics analogous to those of human persons. At minimum, to think of an existing thing as a person is to consider it rational and free by nature. Boethius (c. 480-c. 524) defined a person as a “rational, individual substance” and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) added “incommunicability”  (i.e. ineffability and uniqueness) to this definition. Others add the phrase “in relation to other persons.” Much more could be said about the concept of person, but the point I want to emphasize is that the question “Who is God?” asks about the particular personal characteristics that distinguish God from other persons, divine and human, and help us to enter understandingly and empathetically God’s personal dimension. We need to know “who” God is so we know how to relate to God: What should we say and do in relation to God and what may we expect God to say and do in relation to us?

What sort of information could satisfy our need for an answer to the “Who” question concerning a particular human being? It will not help to hear about their generic human characteristics; these they share with other individual human beings. We want to know things that distinguish them from others. First we want to know their name, which stands for their whole personal identity. Next, we want to know what forces and events shaped their characters. We also want to hear about their significant actions, choices and aims. What they’ve suffered and to whom they are related and in what ways. In sum, we learn something about who a person is by listening to their story, the story of what made them who they are. A person’s story is unique to that individual; it distinguishes and identifies them, gives us a sense of knowing them and makes their actions meaningful and to some extent predictable. In the end, however, only by entering into a relationship with someone and by becoming a character in their story and they in ours can we really know another person. I’d like to state a principle here: it is in their personal characteristics, best understood by hearing a story and by mutual participation in a common story, that one person is distinguished from another and that a person can be known in their unique personhood.

Many religions and philosophies speak about “God.” But what do they mean, and of whom are they speaking? There are two questions here: “What is God?” and “Who is God?” I will post another essay on the “what” question later, but think about this: even if two human beings possess in common every quality that makes human beings human, they are not the same person. In a similar way, even if two people speak about God as possessing the same divine attributes they are not necessarily talking about the same person. If the stories they tell are different and the personal characteristics those stories portray are different, we may not be speaking of the same one. It is as if two people were talking about “Kimberly,” whom they think may be a common friend, but tell such different stories and relate such dissimilar personal experiences that they begin to think they are speaking of different persons with the same name.

But why is having the right answer important? And what is Christianity’s answer to the question “Who is God?”

To be continued…