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A Question of Identity

Who am I? From a biological standpoint, I am a creature with a certain endowment of genetic materials who lives in a particular place and time. As a young child, I am aware of myself as someone living in a family. I am aware of my own voice as I engage in conversations with other people. I sometimes see myself in a mirror. I have a physical presence in daily life.

As an adult, I become associated with institutions. I may be a student or have graduated from a certain college. I have a certain occupation. I may be a parent or have family relationships. My occupational role defines me in many instances.

But I want to approach identity in a more general sense. I am whatever identity I myself accept. I am who I think I am so long as this conception bears a resemblance to reality. Recognizing that life has many aspects and situations, it is up to me to decide which ones are significant.

Human beings are endowed with a consciousness that determines their character. I think and I act. From this perspective, personal identity may be defined in two ways:

I am what I think. In other words, I am identified with what I believe.

I am what I do. In other words, I am defined by my place in a story.

Religious affiliation is what many people would say defines themselves: I belong to the people of God. I am, for instance, a Christian. Because religion is close to the process of self-definition, it can shed light on questions of identity.

If I say I am a Christian, that means that I believe in Christ. I believe in the doctrines of Christianity. Protestants maintain that one achieves salvation through faith alone. In other words, what you believe with respect to Jesus at the time of death determines whether or not you are admitted to Heaven. Your identity here is based on what you think.

Roman Catholics stress membership in a church founded by Jesus through his disciple Peter. In their view, salvation comes through administration of the proper sacraments by an authorized priest. You are simply given these sacraments as a member in good standing of the church. You do not do anything yourself to gain salvation. The identity of the church as an institution ordained by God is the important thing here.

God’s identity

With respect to one’s role in a story, let us focus on the identity of God. Who is God and how do we know who He is? There are various philosophical conceptions, but the definitive identity for persons in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition would be what we know about God from reading the Bible. God has a role in this sacred literature.

God’s personality is revealed primarily in the books of Genesis and Exodus. With minimal description, Genesis 12 records several conversations that God has with the patriarch Abraham. God commands Abraham to leave his present home and “go to a country that I will show you.” God promises to bless Abraham and his descendants and make this tribe numerous. God promises that this tribe will possess the land of Canaan forever. In other words, God is someone who has spoken to Abraham and made these promises.

In Exodus 3, there is a story of how God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Moses did not see God but he heard God’s voice saying: “I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Notice that God identifies himself by referring to his role in stories found in the book of Genesis.

In Genesis 6, God becomes more explicit about these stories. He says: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty ... I made a covenant with them to give them Canaan ... And now I have heard the groanings of the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, and I have called my covenant to mind. I will release you from your labours in Egypt. I will redeem you with arm outstretched and with mighty acts of judgment. I will adopt you as my people, and I will become your God. You shall know that I, the Lord, am your God, the God who releases you from your labours in Egypt. I will lead you to the land which I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.”

God has given several elements of self-definition here. First, he refers to his place in an earlier story about his dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob including the covenant to give them and their descendants the land of Canaan. Second, considering that this covenant appears to be violated, he promises to restore the terms of that covenant by leading the Israelites out of slavery and back to Canaan. Third, God suggests that this will be a new story to define himself: “I, the Lord, am your God, the God who releases you from your labours in Egypt.” Henceforth, God will be known as the personality who released the Israelites from slavery. Finally, when God refers to his “arm outstretched” and his “uplifted hand”, there is a suggestion of anthropomorphism. God is like a human being with whom one can have a conversation or make a covenant. There is a person-to-person relationship with prophets such as Moses.

The story that tells of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people is found in Exodus 20. Moses climbs Mount Sinai, meets with God, and receives two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are enshrined. These commandments embody the rules of conduct which God has prescribed for the Hebrew people to remain in good standing with Him. God’s authority by then depends upon his identity as someone who has released the Hebrews from bondage through various miraculous acts including the parting of the Red Sea. Again, it is a role in a story.

In Deuteronomy, written much later, Moses quotes God: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” God’s identity was based on the story in Exodus. God is the one who, being omnipotent, delivered the Hebrews from captivity. That is what we know of Him.

Our own place in a story

What holds true for God also pertains to humanity. Each person understands himself or is remembered for certain things. There is a story behind those memorable events in life. The story may span many years or it may describe events happening in a relatively short time. The person whose identity is shaped by the story would stand at the center of it or, at least, be significantly involved. The story would exhibit an interplay between conscious motivation and activities in the world. We have a natural sense of stories and how they should be told.

The study of human identity therefore starts with stories. A person remembers events that have happened to him and writes them down in a coherent sequence. The hard part is to decide which experiences are personally significant and deserve to be remembered. Each person embodies many different experiences at many levels of involvement with the world. It is not a single story but a collection of them that defines the whole person.

Goethe once said that "all of us seek answers to three big questions in life: What is the story of all mankind? What is the story of my time? And what story is mine alone?" He was saying that a part of our own personal story involves world history. It involves historical events in the particular time and place that a person lives. Finally, apart from history, we should be looking for stories that uniquely define ourselves. Which experiences were decisive in setting a pattern for our lives? Which ones do we think about often? For what do others remember us? It is that kind of story that we seek.

To put our own identity on a sound footing, it would help to reflect upon our own lives, to write down significant experiences, and look for comparable experiences in other people. The persons whom we would pick as personal heroes tell us much about ourselves. It would be helpful to discuss such matters with other people so we are forced to articulate our innermost thoughts. “Know thyself”, Socrates once said. Identity studies start with the thought of personal stories remembered in life.

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