Sunday, May 28, 2017

On Christian Identity

Those familiar with Christian theology or early church history will have encountered doceticsm. The docetics believed that Jesus only seemed to be human (from the Greek δοκεϊν - to appear). The physical body and bones of Jesus life were a mere phantasm, an illusion; in fact Jesus was existed in another, higher, plane of existence.

Docetism has been rightly condemned as heresy by the church. But I believe that Christians, and especially Christian pastors, have fallen prey to a newer variation of the docetic false teaching in their day to day pastoral care.

One of the buzzwords of early third millennium pastoria is 'identity'. We talk about identity a lot. And that is probably appropriate for our day and age. Never before has a generation been so conscious of its image. Social media, videos, and google searches ensured that. The politicising of identity, the pace and ease with which communication travels, and proliferation of choices have all made the changing of identity seem plausible. And never before has it been so possible to modify your identity: your job, your preferences, your gender, your body, your location - it's all up for grabs. Which one is the true me? Whilst there are many other factors which have contributed to this, it does expose something about modern society. That identity is so contested, variegated, and fluid suggests there is confusion about what it means to be human in the world. And whilst we may find broad consensus about what entails human flourishing and the good life – justice and equality, freedom and the minimisation of harm – the underlying foundations for such assumptions are themselves contested. 

In response to this confusion of identity, Christians will now commonly counsel people to find their true identity in Jesus Christ. Your work, your family, your sexual preferences, your education, your ethnicity, your quest for fame and success – in none of these does your identity lie. Instead, your identity is found in Christ; he alone determines who are you. And so identity has become the primary concept of describing the Christian life.

There are, however, a few problems with this approach. To start with, sociologically identity is the thing that distinguishes one person from another. Yet by reducing "identity in Christ" to a cliche of negative theology, we end up stripping away all those things which make us different to each other. In addition, the via identitas conflates several concepts with identity such as worth and self. (These aspects of our personhood are arguably given to us from outside ourselves. Our self is given to us in the gospel; it's a gift according to Ephesians 2, rather than a construction. Meanwhile our worth is found not in ourselves, but comes from outside ourselves in our justification). Furthermore, identity language is often used as a short-hand for union with Christ. Yet as a short-hand it significantly short-changes the doctrine of participation in Christ. This doctrine explains the glorious truth of how we partake in Christ; that we partake in his trajectory. To reduce union to the cliche that our identity is confirmed to him does not do the doctrine justice.

This becomes particularly apparent when 'identity in Christ' is used – explicitly or implicitly – to negate the aspects of our lives. And herein lies the connection with docetism. For the contemporary use of 'identity in Christ' suggests that those areas outside of our identity in Christ, our family or our work for instance, are not really part of our identity. They only seem to be part of who we are. As a consequence of this, we are homiletically left without anything to say about family, work, and so on. The irony is that through attempting to address the confusion of personhood, we mute ourselves at the very moment when we need to make sense of who we are in light of Jesus. The truth is that rather than supplanting who we are, our spheres of relationships, our gifts, abilities, and so on, Jesus reframes them around himself. 

Take family for instance. There are a few times where Jesus relatives family. "Who are my brothers and sisters?" he asks in Matthew 12; those who do my fathers will. In a society where family was everything, Jesus switches the focus of familial allegiance to himself. But instead of abolishing our family responsibilities all together, Jesus sends us back to love be serve our families with renewed intent and purpose. 1 Timothy 5:8 is a clear cut example of where Jesus' followers being sent back to serve their biological family. In reframing familiar allegiance and priorities, our families remain a necessary part of who we are; they continue to form our identity.

Perhaps not as famous for his hymn writing as other reformers, John Calvin penned a beautiful reflection on the Christian life:

Thou art the life by which alone we live
And all our substance and our strength receive;
Sustain us by Thy faith and by Thy pow’r,
And give us strength in ev’ry trying hour.

Jesus does not nullify the various parts of our lives-instead he brings them to completion. In an age driven by a desire to be our 'authentic selves' but are unsure about what (or who) that is, Christian pastors need to find a way to affirm that Jesus is the life by which alone we live so that our being in Christ touches every aspect of our lives. 

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