Tillich said that the existential question of meaning was the most important one in “our” time. I think maybe our culture since then has shifted a bit, so today the question “who am I” is the most central one. This is a consequence of our fragmented society and the breaking down of all institutions of authority (see, I avoided the “p-word”).
The question of Identity is obviously primarily the problem of a young person, though it seems to be asked by older persons more and more. It can also be an aspect of the question of death, because we tend to ask what of me will remain; and it is part of the question of meaning, because meaning is about the relationship of the self and the world.
To be a complete person is to have, at the same time, a good sense of who one is, and to be part of a community with other people. If either of these two poles is lacking a person is not complete. There has to be a balance: to much “Me” is to be egoistic, to much “We” is to be without a will of one’s own. This is what the Christian tradition calls sin, and I have discussed it at length already. I will only add that Christian tradition has tended to emphasize the egoistic part, pride, and overlook the tendency not to be in charge of one’s own life. This is one of the many important point’s feminist theology has brought up: “Traditional” sin is very much something that the traditional male role tends to, while the kind of sin that consist of not being responsible for one’s own self in fact is the role society, with the help of the Church, has given women.
In what way does Christianity address this problem? Humans are created by God. This is the most fundamental part of the Christian doctrine. In this lies a sense that our “I” is given us. In other words, when we aspire to find out who we really are, we are exploring the will of the Creator. But this can easily be vulgarized into the idea that God has our life planned for us, and if we only find out what this plan is, we can live happily.
However, God has created us free, and this means that it essentially up to us to decide what we fill our “I” with. This is the great paradox: We are created by God as we are, and we decide ourselves what this is. In a way we create ourselves, but God is present in that creation.
Being created is to be free, but this freedom carries and imperative: We must accept this freedom. If we live life without accepting this freedom, we are living in sin. We are either letting other forces overpower us, or we believe that we are able to control things that are beyond our power.
To be able to find one’s identity it helps to be aware of what forces are exercising control over us. This is important in a theology of decline, because these forces are also responsible for the destruction of our world and culture. It is in the interest of these forces that we become consumers who live in an illusion of power, while the only real choices we make are which multi-national product we choose to distract us from our true selves. To overcome the question of the Identity is a strong blow to these forces indeed, because a person who is secure in his or her own identity cannot be manipulated easily.
Creation theology alone cannot overcome the problem of Identity. To be saved from sin we need Jesus Christ. How are we to understand that Christ is to save us from a false identity? We cannot answer this question properly without addressing the question of death, but we can manage pretty good by taking Jesus as a model for how to live. When Jesus says that he and the Father is one, he says he is under the influence of no other force than the Creator: i.e. he is living in complete harmony with his identity. This is what it means when we say that Jesus was without sin.
The Church addresses the question of identity especially in the sacrament of baptism, which I will return to in another post.