Thursday, July 5, 2018

Who are you?

This generation may know the song from the hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  Others know its artist and name. The song asks the question of its title, "Who are you?"  Ironically, its artist echoes its question, The Who.  The song dwells on the question of existence and a person's place in this world.  The song expresses the struggle that is a part of most people in the world.

Who are you?  The world has attempted to conjure up many answers to this incessant question.  They cannot escape the need to answer the question.  It is deceptively complex.  The question requires more than an answer of identity but of purpose.  Who are you also involves the consideration of the question why are you here.  Trying to answer these questions apart from God leads to problems.  There is no foundation to begin answering the personal question without a cosmological meaning.  How can you matter if the universe doesn't?

Evolution has taught many that all they are is matter in motion.  Who are you, what is your soul if all you are is atoms chasing one another through space?  Do you even have an identity?  Even if you are something unique, is that uniqueness a mere reflection of chance and genetics.  DNA coding may separate you from another human, but it does not provide identity.  It doesn't answer the question, "Who are you?"

We live in a society that fundamentally lacks identity.  Philosophy has failed to answer the big questions and has turned its attention to the little ones.  Nietzsche's superman does not ask, why am I here or Who am I, but who do I want to be.  Without the big answers, the little questions have no answers other than the ones each person chooses for themselves.  There may be some pride in those answers, but no certainty.  To live without identity is to live on a foundation of cotton candy.  It will melt to nothing in a moment.

This lack of certainty has not stopped the pursuit of meaning.  We live in a society where this question looms large.*
*We must stop to remember that these questions often arise in industrialized societies.  In agrarian cultures, one follows the course set for them by the necessities of life.  You live as your ancestors in an effort to maintain life.  It is only in a culture where the basic necessities of life are secure that the question of identity becomes a major issue.  While lesser affluent cultures may also struggle with this question, it is of less frequent than in affluent societies.*
How are people to conduct this search for identity?  Where is identity to emerge?  Without a solid foundation of identity, people are left to secondary sources of identity.  That is, if you decide for yourself who you are, you will do so by exteriors rather than interiors.  As introspective as you may be, you can never find who you are within, for you have no reason to assume there is a within to find.  Instead, you will define yourself with externals.  These usually devolve into activities you prefer.

Education offers endless options for the individual to select from.  Work, profession, or occupation has become a principle way people have decided to define themselves.  One networking exercise pierces the facade of this method.  We are asked to introduce ourselves without explaining what we do for a living.  If we cannot define ourselves by profession, who are we?

Hobbies and pastimes offer alternative communities from which identities can emerge.  If we cannot define ourselves by our work, we will define ourselves by how we spend our free time.  We live in a virtual buffet of alternative identities.  This attempt at definition suffers from an even worse problem than the former.  If how we spend the majority of our time does not define us, how can our pastimes do it?

Some define themselves by causes or passions.  Political special interest groups often benefit from the support of those who define life based upon their particular interest.  Others base their identity on charitable institutions and giving that they choose to support.  Nevertheless, those many of these groups bring a helpful influence to the general culture, they fail to answer the fundamental question.  Who am I?  Can these good things define me, or am I something apart from these activities?

The Bible has a simple counter to those who place these activities and externalities as the defining characteristics. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)  In Christ, all the external means of defining life vanish into the insignificance that they warrant.  Notice that here, three means of identity are rejected: race, work/wealth, and gender.

The church needs to deal with the issue of race.  The New Testament's teaching about Jew and Gentile is fundamentally a race question.  The Bible teaches that racial division, degradation, and disdain violate God's law  This is particularly sensitive in the United States, where, as Mark Noll writes in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the slavery question could only be definitively answered by the theologians Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.  The Civil War proved to the United States that the church could not solve the most important social question of the time.  The reason for its failure arose from the casting of the question.  If the question is, "Is slavery wrong?"  The Bible says, "No."  If the question is, "Is racism or racial slavery wrong?"  The Bible answers, "Yes."  Ironically, it was Black pastors who got this question right.

Racism is anathema to the gospel.  All men are condemned by sin that the grace of God in Christ may be offered to all.  Throughout the New Testament, the gospel offered to all becomes the message of unity of all.  Christians cannot indulge in the hateful presumption that one race is deficient to another.

This ought to also affect our language and use of stereotypes.  Alan Jacobs comments that our minds, because of their need of categorization, use stereotypes to help categorize people. (Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, p. 114-115, basically all of chapter 5)   Accurate stereotypes are acceptable devices of our mind to understand things.  Inaccurate stereotypes often bear the taint of racist assumptions and ought to be eliminated.  All stereotypes must be acknowledged as only general rules and not applicable to all members of the group.  Consider the following groups of people and the stereotypes that arise in our minds when we thing of them: Christian, pastor, lawyer, doctor, surgeon, video gamer, redneck, urbanite, accountant, secretary, politician, President, scientist, IT guy, mother, father, student, college student, graduate student, actor, golfer, activist.  We immediately have images that may be more or less accurate.  If you identify with one or more of these groups, how do you feel about people thinking of you in terms of the most commonly accepted stereotype of that group?

Within these groups, we appreciate the community and friendships we form within them, but we understand the faults of the governing perception and the variants within the group.  Each group has usually at least two dominant perceptions or stereotypes: those inside the group and those outside.  We need to be considerate of the people within these groups.  Christians in their language and attitudes must hold to the stereotypes lightly.  We judge people as to who they are.  Stereotypes may help form a baseline of understanding others, but they must give way to the reality of the individual.  We need to be those who desire to understand others and not to rely upon stereotypical understanding.  Especially when it comes to dealing with questions of race.

Political and journalistic expressions have not helped in this area.  Race has become a political category.  News outlets pander to this stereotype in its depictions and assumptions.  Indeed, race no longer means ethnicity, but a culture attached to that race.  This again reveals the danger of stereotypes.

The emphasis on the importance of race in the United States has led to the rather unfortunate use of race to form identity.  In contrast to the instruction of scripture, people have used race to define themselves and place expectations on others.  This elevates racial distinction beyond stereotypes to division.  One race cannot understand another because the struggle and persecution is incomprehensible to the other.  One race cannot understand another because it does not require self-reliance and independence.  These crude stereotypes represent the way in which the majority and minority races rely upon differences to avoid the struggle to resolve differences and pursue understanding.  The races have divided culturally and often persist in this division because the individuals within these groups have let their race determine their identity.  They have let the past define who they are.

As I have talked about this racial struggle, an image has been brought to your mind.  I would guess that it is one of two alternatives.  Either you think I am describing your race and don't understand it, or you think I am describing another race and doing it accurately.  Let me challenge you to consider if I am describing your race and describing its struggles well.

I will admit that it is normally minority races and cultures who struggle with the temptation to find their identity within racial categories.  The majority race normally does not deal with cultural struggle involving race since that race normally defines the culture.  Even so, many in majority races arrogantly assume superiority of culture and adopt a condescending attitude toward minority races and cultures.  While this may not rise to identify, it reflects an identity assumption that has no place in Christianity.  All races are one in Christ and the church must labor to make its community reflective of this reality.

When the Bible talks about the genders, it does not deny the reality of gender distinction any more that it denies the reality of racial distinction.  Rather, the Bible reminds both genders that there is something more defining than gender.  Something must define us more than the differences in our bodies.  Something must define us more than what we do with our bodies.

In the United States, is you use the words "gender identity," you will immediately find yourself in a conversation that includes a host of letters defining a host of ideas about so-called sexual orientation and gender confusion.  The passion excited about the use of these labels and the members of this community persuasively demonstrate that many in this community have made sexual activity the means of obtaining identity.  The push to have their activity normalized in society along with the pressure for culture to accept them as "born this way" all points to an identity built upon this type of activity.

This study is not the appropriate venue to attempt to describe the litany of letters and what they represent.  Since this is such a developing community, even within their own ranks they cannot agree on the meaning of all the labels or whether they deserve a place within the community.  While we refrain from entering into the problem of definition, we can lay down the biblical position regarding this means of finding identity.

Paul explicitly describes the issues of sexuality in three critical places.  In Romans 1, Paul uses sexual sin to describe the descent of sinful man.  "Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves." (Romans 1:24)  Here, it is likely that Paul is talking about sexual activity outside marriage.  He uses unrestrained lust, the flagrant violation of the seventh commandment ("Thou shalt not commit adultery.") as the sign that man is given up by God to freely express his sin.

Paul continues with another sin as a sign of just how far people will go to rebel against God.  "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet." (Romans 1:26-27)  By this, we must conclude that homosexuality is a sin, reflecting the extent to which man will go in his rebellion against God.  There is an unnatural aspect to this sin that Paul notes.  The order of marriage between man and woman is now not only violated in acting married with non-spouses, but with people of the same gender.

Paul speaks in another place of the sin of what may be called incest. "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife." (I Corinthians 5:1)  We cannot assume minority in either of the parties.  We could also assume that this is a step-parent, but Paul's condemnation is clear.  This relationship violates God's law.

At this point, we must answer the justification that is leveled against the scriptural perspective.  Can any sexual activity be justified by love?  We have seen how this justification has crept into the culture.  We accepted divorce, remarriage, and adultery on these terms.  Spouses divorce because they don't love each other anymore (or so they think).  People indulge in affairs both marital and pre-marital because they are in love (whatever they mean by that).  This excuse has been extended to what we will refer, for the sake of simplicity, as the homosexual sins.  All the letters of the subgroup use the same stock of excuses.  Their sin is justified because we cannot define love or restrict love to our heterosexual assumptions.  We must accept gender confusion and changes because they were not born their true selves.  This is a kind of self-love that culture requires us to accept.

We have already described love in a previous lesson.  As a reminder, love is not left to the definition of man, but comes from the character of God, Himself.  As such, whatever man may feel and call love is not love if it does not conform to God's law, another expression of God's character.  Law and love cannot conflict for both are part of God's character.

We ought to have compassion upon those who have trapped themselves into finding their identity in any of these groups.  Paul again reminds us why.
"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." (I Corinthians 6:9-11)
Paul reminds the church that we were once those who found our identities in all these sins.  We were those who found our identities in something other than Jesus.  Remember Galatians 3:28. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."  What is it that brings unity to the church?  We are one in Jesus.  We are united to Christ, and as we are all united to Him, we are united to one another.

Who are we?  In Christ, we are children of God.  All other parts of life (gender, race, work, recreation) emerge from this reality.  We cannot interpret these other aspects of who we are without this fundamental reality.  It is the gospel.  We who were sinners, God in Christ has made children.  We are part of His universal plan of redemption.  This defines how we are to live Christian in an unchristian world.

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