“Who Am I?" Personal Identity in an Age of Identity Angst
After certain events changed Brian Rosner’s life dramatically, he had lost his sense of self and was forced to revisit the most personal of questions:
Who am I?
Out from this one question tumbled a number of others: How do your circumstances affect your sense of self? What makes you, you? What is a human being, anyway?
Leveraging his own personal experiences, Rosner addresses these questions in his new book Known by God. It tells the story of his own crisis of identity and the comfort he found in being known by God in an age of identity angst—a sense in which people are no longer sure who they are.
In our day and age the question of personal identity is subject to two powerful but opposing forces. On the one hand, nothing is more important than knowing who you are and acting accordingly. But the problem is that it is harder to know who you are today than at any other point in human history. (24)
“Personal identity…is a mark of humanness” (33). Rosner's biblical theology of personal identity begins by outlining what culture and the Bible have to say about it.
Personal Identity and Culture: 1 Answer
“Be true to yourself.”
That’s the answers culture gives, for the mantra captures the essence of its commitment to authenticity as a moral ideal. And yet, this answer has a big problem:
The biggest problem with the advice to be true to yourself is that in order to do so, you have to know who you are. And while these days more and more people are telling us to be true to ourselves, many of us are unsure of our true identity. (25)
There are a number of reasons for this insecurity:
- Marital breakdown and multiple careers can lead to confusion over personal status
- Juggling family and work often leaves little time for ourselves
- Globalization, consumer culture, and hypermobility have broken down historic constraints, leaving us spoilt with choice
- Crises about personal identity occur earlier and more often
- The Internet has reshaped how we tell the world who we are
Here Rosner quotes Kevin Vanhoozer: “The human race at the dawn of the third millennium, following the demise of the Christian paradigm and the break-up of modernity, is suffering from a collective identity crisis” (27).
The question “Who am I?” is more urgent than ever.
Personal Identity and the Bible: 3 Questions
Culture is obviously interested in the quest for personal meaning, but is the Bible? Rosner reveals something surprising:
As it turns out, thinking about your self is thoroughly biblical…personal identity appears everywhere in Scripture. (33)
Along with the primary question ‘Who am I?’ are two related ones in Scripture: ‘What is a human being?’ and ‘Who are we?’ “Put differently, I cannot know who I am without first considering what I am and then to whom I belong” (34).
First, the Bible offers insight into what it means to be a human being on three occasions: Psalm 8:4; Psalm 144:3; and Job 7:17. “The context of all three is the wonder of God singling out humanity for his attention from among all his creation” (35). Both psalms express wonder at God’s care for something so insignificant in the face of overwhelming reality—whereas Job marvels why God would examine and test something as such. While Job doesn’t receive an answer, both psalms suggest “humans are those for whom God ‘cares’ and about whom he ‘thinks’…human beings are those of whom God ‘take[s] knowledge’” (36).
The question “Who am I?” receives a similar response when Moses and David pose it to God. God’s response to Moses is “to reassure [him] that he will be with him when Moses meets the pharaoh” (36). As Rosner suggests, Moses’ identity is wrapped up in God’s care for and knowledge of him. When David asks a similar question in 2 Samuel 7:18–19, “In the next verse David answers the question himself: ‘What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, Sovereign Lord’ (2 Samuel 7:20). If David wonders who he is, the answer is that he is known by God” (37).
Finally, “Who are we?”, a question that acknowledges our identity’s inherent social orientation and “goes to the heart of a biblical answer to the question of personal identity” (37). Both the Old Testament and New Testament reference our identity as the people of God:
- “You [plural] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6)
- The church—“you” (plural)—are the “the body of Christ” and "God's temple" (Romans 7:4; 1 Corinthians 3:16)
“The Bible has a direct interest in answering the questions of personal identity, including its three forms of the identity of human beings, individuals, and groups of people: What is a human being? Who am I? Who are we?” (37).
Known by God “seeks to show how profoundly helpful the Bible is in addressing the identity angst and confusion that is so rife in our day, drawing deeply on the neglected theme of being known by God” (19).
Professors, Known by God might be a great fit for your class. Find out if it is by requesting an exam copy here.
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