Good grief! It’s taken me nearly three weeks to get this post out! Oh well. That’s what happens when you get sick one week and then go on a spontaneous vacation to the mountains the next (something I’ll hopefully blog about at some point soon). Anyway, we’re back with chapter six (“The Problem of the Self”) in Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God. Click HERE for an index of all my posts in this book study.
- We now come to the question of identity. “Who am I?”
- What is identity? Keller argues there are two components, a “sense of self…that is true of you in every setting,” and “a sense of worth, an assessment of your own value.” (118)
- In the past and in other non-Western cultures of today, identity formation and self-worth are very tied to external forces such as social/community roles, familial status, and religious communities. The opposite is true of identity formation in Western, secular societies – your true self is realized when you abandon all those ties and look inward to try and determine “self” for yourself. (119-121)
- “In traditional cultures the heroic narrative is self-sacrifice…in Western cultures the new heroic narrative is self-assertion.” (120)
- The modern view of self has brought about some good. People are less locked into socially stratified societies, and there is the possibility for upward mobility and for escaping what your circumstances at birth (family profession, socioeconomic status, etc.) would’ve normally led you to. (121-122)
- But there are significant problems with modern, secular, inward-focused identity formation
- My inner desires will tell me who I am – But we have many inner desires (for love, for power, etc.) and we can’t base our identity on these because they not only often conflict with each other, but they are also constantly changing. (123-124)
- I get my sense of self only from myself (125) – Is this even possible? We are social beings surrounded by other people, and the beliefs and values we subconsciously absorb from our culture and upbringing guide us in one direction or another. We may think we’re being independent-minded when we say, “This is who I am and I don’t care what anyone thinks,” but that’s actually never true. We are always identifying with some tribe or community somewhere. We may not care about a certain community we’ve discarded and what they think, but we care very much about the new community we’ve joined and what they think. (124-128)
- The burden is on me to create my own identity – If identity is purely self-made, if “success or failures is now seen as the individual’s responsibility alone,” (129) then we bear the crushing weight of constantly trying to maintain our identities in order to be acceptable, to ourselves and to others. We are stuck either constantly reinventing ourselves when we fail to live up to the person we want to be, or we run ourselves ragged trying to maintain this identity we’ve created. (128-131)
- My interests come before anyone else’s – Individual interests have become more important than any other social tie, and this disintegrates community. For example, a relationship now only “works” only as long as it’s satisfying to you, and you discard it once it no longer satisfies you. Thus “human communities become thinned out into ‘lifestyle enclaves’ or ‘social networks’ in which people connect, flexibly and transiently, only to people like themselves.” (132)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
This was a tricky chapter for me because I don’t really think about identity in explicit terms very often. It’s there in the background, but I think we don’t really become aware of it unless it’s threatened or upended in some way.
But one thing I started thinking about in reviewing these concepts was parenting and the role I will play in my daughter’s identity formation as she grows up.
In this chapter, Keller presented two views on identity formation that sum up the process for most of the world. On one side, we have a communal, assigned identity – the station/community you’re born into is where you stay for the rest of your life, and you relate to the world “not as an individual but through your family and class.” (122). On the other side, we have a hyper-individualistic, self-focused identity – I alone determine who I am. Keller made a good case that in the end, neither lead to a very durable or appealing sense of identity. And in parenting, they certainly aren’t directions I would want to consciously steer my child toward.
On the one hand, I don’t want to force her into some identity I’ve created for her, which would probably stem from some idealized vision I have for her life or from vicariously living out an identity I wished I had. I knew people in college who experienced this, though usually more due to an honor-shame dimension of their culture than for the reasons I just mentioned. Their parents gave them zero choice in their major or future career. They were simply told this is what you are going to major in because this is going to be your profession because this is what your family expects from you. Period. My friends in this situation usually acquiesced out of a desire to honor their parents and families, and while it resulted in the preservation of family ties and a semi-security of knowing exactly what their path was and what the expectations were, it of course left no room to explore other paths or find a different expression for their unique personalities and gifts.
On the other hand, I don’t want to toss my daughter to the wind and leave her completely directionless. Keller included an anecdote in this chapter about a young man whose parents would never tell him what they thought about his decisions and instead just kept saying, “‘We just want you to do what you truly want to do – whatever that is, it will be all right with us.'” (126) While to most of our modern, Western sensibilities, this may seem like a good answer, Keller said the young man felt unloved and rudderless because he never received any explicit approval from his parents for any of his decisions, and he didn’t have their input to guide his decision-making. How interesting!
So how do I guide my child into living out who God made her to be without crushing her under expectations or abandoning her to figure it out completely on her own? And more importantly, how do I guide her to an identity that isn’t flimsy and that won’t crumble when circumstances change?
In the next chapter, Keller will make the case that in Christianity, there is a third and better way to identity formation. I can guess where he’s headed and I’m sure his insights will serve as a guide for how to frame and answer some of my parenting thoughts, but I’m curious to see how he draws it all out. And hopefully it won’t be another three weeks before I get the next chapter’s post up!
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you?
- How do you define your own identity in the dimensions Keller described – a sense of self (constant in every setting) and a sense of worth?
- How did you arrive at that identity? Does that process fall into either of the categories Keller described, or some of both (community-determined or self-determined)?