Finding Our Identity

making-sense-of-godThe next section of Tim Keller’s new book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical looks at identity – the ways in which we define who and what we are. Chapter six focuses on identity in our secular Western culture, while chapter seven digs into Christian definitions of identity. Today we will look at the first, and in the next post, we will discuss what Keller sees as the Christian source of identity.

Identity – sense of self and sense of worth – can be defined in a number of different ways. “Identity formation is a process that every culture pushes on its members so powerfully and pervasively that it is invisible to us.“(p. 118) In most traditional cultures “the self was defined by both internal desires and external social roles and ties.” (p. 119) In contrast, modern Western society tends to define identity and worth by internal measures of success in one realm or another. Personal survival is valued over self-sacrifice, personal success and happiness are paramount.

There is much that is good in the modern view of identity. Individuals are not locked into the status quo. One’s identity and lot is not locked into poverty and servitude for the greater good – as one’s ordained role. “[A] rigid, exploitative social stratification stemmed from the traditional understanding of identity. You were your rung in the socially stratified culture; you related to the world not as an individual but through your family and class. Your mission in life was to “know your place” and fulfill your assigned role. There was no way out; there was no mobility at all.” (p. 122)

I enjoy reading Jane Austin, where this theme is obvious – although she picks at it and sometimes ridicules the rigidity, it clearly formed a framework for society in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. The freedom to pursue a variety of career paths and life styles, live in a range of places, interact with a diversity of people is a clear advantage of our twenty first century culture.

The modern ideal is incoherent. Keller contends, however, that the contemporary approach to identity as something strictly (or ideally) from within is incoherent. Identity is not simply desire fulfillment, nor can it come without social connections. “We need someone from outside to say we are of great worth, …Only if we are approved and loved by someone whom we esteem can we achieve any self-esteem. To use biblical terms, we need someone to bless us because we can’t bless ourselves. We are irreducibly social and relational beings.” (p. 125) A few minutes thought will reveal the importance of affirmation and society. The opinions of peers, family, and superiors matter. Both the helicopter parent who micromanages their children’s lives and the hands-off parent who never gives guidance or affirmation (whatever you want, honey) are a problem.

In fact, society always plays a role in identity formation – shaping what is or is not acceptable. Try a thought experiment posed by Keller (p. 126). Suppose a man experiences two strong impulses and feelings. “One is aggression. When people show him any disrespect his natural response is to respond violently, either to harm or to kill.” The other is same sex attraction. In our contemporary secular culture, the first is a problem to be dealt with while the second is deemed acceptable. There are other cultural contexts, however, where the acceptability response is reversed. The first is an acceptable way for a warrior (for example) to behave, while the second is suppressed as unacceptable.

Try a less controversial example. As a woman who grew up in the sixties and seventies, with influences from the forties and fifties (movies, radio, books, family, TV) , it was often portrayed as unacceptable to to be smarter or more successful than the boys. We had an important role to play, and it was important to stay within the bounds of that role. Suppose a woman feels two strong impulses and feelings, one for achievement and recognition, the other for acceptance and a family. The subliminal message was quite clear – one had to be suppressed to obtain the other. Dozens of sitcoms, dramas, and movies taught it was better to forgo achievement for domestic tranquility (and a husband). I remember an Aunt I still respect who, when I expressed interest in being an archaeologist, responded that she had ambitions when young also, and I would outgrow it. Today our culture’s message is more conflicted, leaning toward forgoing domestic tranquility (if necessary) to be true to one’s self.

Commenting on his example, but equally true of many other situations we could pose. Keller answers the question why an individual makes the identity defining choices they do:

It is because in each case their society is telling them what to believe. We must get our beliefs from somewhere, and most ore picked up unconsciously from our culture or our community – whether ethnic or academic or professional or familial. Every community has “a set of understandings and evaluations [about life] that it has worked out over time.” This set of beliefs is “an inherent dimension of all human action” and it is usually invisible to us. (pp. 127-128)

Keller quotes Robert Bellah et al. (Habits of the Heart) above, and in the section’s conclusion:

Our identity, then, is not something we can bestow on ourselves. We cannot discover or create an identity in isolation, merely through some kind of internal monologue. … We find ourselves in and through others. “We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning.” In the end the contemporary identity – simply expressing your inner feelings, with a valuation bestowed on yourself independently – is impossible. (p. 128)

Crushing and fracturing. In addition to being incoherent, Keller suggests that the modern ideal for identity is also crushing and fracturing. Identity and self-worth becomes rooted in something that can be lost – power, money, health, achievement, virility, attractiveness, and such. Even the love of another can be lost – through death, abandonment, or abuse. This is a crushing burden. It is fracturing because much that is, or should be good, becomes reduced to instrumental and utilitarian. Social ties and institutions are eroded. There is less obligation to others or to the whole.

The next post on Thursday will turn to Keller’s vision for Christian identity (too often diverted and distorted in the church, following culture rather than Christ).

To what extent is our sense of identity and worth constrained by culture?

How does this shape the choices we make?

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1 Response to Finding Our Identity

  1. Paul says:

    Thanks so very much for this. I’m compelled to pick up the book.

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