Faith and Fruit in a Post- Christian World: Identity

On my commute to school, I pass a sign that reads: “We believe: Black lives matter. No human is illegal. Love is love. Women’s rights are human rights. Science is real. Water is life. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

For a culture that scorns institutional religion, this series of statements sounds surprisingly similar to what church folks would call a creed. It even begins the same way (“creed” is from the Latin credō, for “I believe”). In recent months, signs like this have proliferated on lawns, bumpers, and social media pages—all in an era that casts a suspicious eye on anything that smacks of organized faith.

The claims made in this secular creed have something to do with identity: one’s racial identity, sexual identity, or identity as a person deserving justice under the law. To put it simply, our culture is enthralled with questions of identity—and it is committed to throwing off the repressive constraints of outmoded traditions and religions that attempted to prescribe our identities for us. In movies and the media, the messages bombard us daily: You be you. Love yourself. Take control of your fate. Write your own story. Only you can choose your destiny.

How is our quest for self-made identity progressing? What does it imply for the future? And how does the historic Christian faith speak into today’s crises of identity with comfort and assurance?

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Researchers outside the Christian community have a lot to tell us on the topic of identity. In 1991, Kenneth J. Gergen wrote a book entitled The Saturated Self, which argues that our ability for unlimited worldwide communication is robbing us of “our assumption of true and knowable selves”; we are “caught in often contradictory or incoherent activities,” and if we are not cast into despair by “the violation of one’s sense of identity,” we will eventually reach a point at which “the self vanishes fully into a stage of relatedness.”1 As our senses of ethics and reality shift and change, we have less and less of an objective self to provide stability for our lives.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Gergen’s book, with others like it, looks ahead with optimism toward a time when our sense of selfhood will dissolve completely, leaving us to revel in a newfound sense of relatedness with other people. But this silver lining belongs to a towering and particularly ominous cloud which cannot be ignored.

Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent a career researching the ways that digital devices shape our perceptions of the self. Writing more than twenty years after Gergen, Turkle worries that the human reality of “being comfortable with our vulnerabilities” is quickly yielding to a social media culture that demands invulnerability instead: “Torn between our desire to express an authentic self and the pressure to show our best selves online, it is not surprising that frequent use of social media leads to feelings of depression and social anxiety.”2 The more we turn to social media to tell us who we are, the more unsure our identity becomes.

Anxiety and depression are comparatively mild side effects of our culture’s crisis of identity. An increasing number of public health officials are warning that there may be even darker consequences ahead. That I am not my own . . . Suicide is the now second leading cause of death for 10-to-24-year-olds in the United States—a figure that has risen dramatically in the past decade.3 Young people’s explorations of new ways of relating to others come with hidden costs. One recent article describes teens forming Internet “suicide pacts” whose members covenant together to kill themselves.4 Another paper, published last year, observes that suicidal tendencies can spread like a virus on social media, producing “contagion” that provokes similar behavior in other users.5 Meanwhile, a recent study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, also in 2018, found transgender adolescents at a unilaterally higher risk for attempting suicide than heterosexual adolescents, reporting that more than half of teenage girls who had transitioned to boys admitted to trying to kill themselves at least once.6 Grimly, these researchers add that the actual figures in such studies may be higher, since only the adolescents who had survived past suicide attempts could respond.7

Although communication media and sexuality are frequent subjects of conservative politicizing and Christian moralizing, the point is not whether particular lifestyles or media platforms are to blame for rising suicide rates among youth. Rather, the critical question involved in habits of sociality and sexuality is how we relate to other people. And that question points to a paradox in the contemporary ideal of self-definition. As much as we may hope to define ourselves, we desire even more to belong—to know that we have a place in the world and that there are ofher people who love us. We want to know not only who we are but whose we are, as the wild success of genealogy sites like and DNA-testing kits like 23andMe attests. Even when today’s no-strings-attached hookup culture meets the marvels of science and technology, the mind-bending news stories that result continue to proclaim the basic human desire to belong. One New York Times writer who participated in a fertilization program shares how he discovered his biological children and their mother on the Internet years later, marveled at the “uncanny aura of me-ness” that his offspring possessed, and has since moved in with them in what could be described as a “traditional family arrangement.”8 His ironic arrival at something approximating a long-term monogamous relationship suggests that our longing for membership in a community of love may be even stronger than our desire to self-define.

. . . but belong . . .

A long line of thoughtful authors in the Christian tradition has explored the link between identity and relationships. The French Reformed sociologist Jacques Ellul connects the issue of identity to the desire to “make a name for ourselves” that drove the builders of Babel in Genesis 11.9 The problem is that we cannot name ourselves, any more than we can invent our own language—at least if we hope to be understood by others. If we are to have a name, we must be named by someone before can accept or reject it.

When we attempt to name ourselves— to craft our own identity—we find ourselves cut off from the possibility of relationships with others. When individuals in an entire culture attempt to name themselves, they encounter instead the breakdown of human communication and the path to fatal despair. The novelist Walker Percy describes the “face of the self” in contemporary culture as “the face of fear and sadness, because it does not know who it is or where it belongs.”10 Ellul portrays the situation as a “‘will-to-suicide’ . . . which is slowly preparing, and will involve the whole world, body and soul.”11 In a world dominated by self-expression rather than authentic relationships, cultural suicide is a not-too-distant possibility.

Our culture’s quest for identity is destined for disaster, as long as the chance that we have already been given a name by a compassionate and covenantal God is off the table. And in that regard, the current identity crisis is hardly new. It merely reinforces the prayer uttered by Augustine of Hippo so many centuries ago: “You created us toward yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”12

. . . body and soul, in life and in death . . .

Readers inside the church might object to my use of the words “we” and “our” to describe these cultural attitudes. But, directly or indirectly, the quest for identity haunts us all. The lie of self-definition captures neighbors and friends, co-opts family members, and tugs at covenant children. Even as professing believers, we may at times value the self-made identity of our accomplishments more highly than the God-given identity of faith.

And for these reasons, Reformed Christians cannot afford to indulge in self-righteous head-wagging about the identity confusion of a depraved world. Lives are on the line. This is no time for mockery or condescension or indifference toward the lie of self-definition. News like this calls for weeping and fasting and ardent prayer to God on behalf of a generation plunging toward suicide because it no longer knows its right hand from its left. It is time to re-examine our hearts and count the cost of our identities as Christ-followers in an age that spurns his Word—“This man also was with him” (Luke 22:56). And it is time to re-examine the beauty of the Christian doctrine of identity, as revealed in the Scriptures and summarized in the confessions, so that we might invite wanderers in the desert of identity to drink from the river of life. Why are the Reformed confessions so vital in a post-Christian age? Because creeds frame identity: what we believe shapes who we are. If we claim to have no creed, it is merely because we have failed to recognize our implicit creed of self-definition. But whereas this secular creed undertakes ever more desperate and ever more futile attempts to construct an autonomous individual self, the Christian creeds and confessions define us as derivative and dependent creatures, called into being and called to account before the face of a holy God. This is not an identity we built for ourselves; it is an identity given to us through our Lord’s sovereign mercy, made known to us by the revelation of his Word. Confessing our faith together is a reminder to us and an affirmation to the world of our new identity as his children. In speaking these words we remind ourselves of them, and we invite others to discover them—over and over again.

. . . to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

In this generation, when the notion of orthodox Christianity seems more foreign than ever, the opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks directly to our world, ministering comfort to the depths of its identity crisis with the gospel truth of Scripture. With it we bear witness, not self-righteously but with humble faith: My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own. Someone else created me. He gives me a life, a purpose, and an identity. I belong to him—not as a slave, but as a son. By his grace, I can call God my Father and Christ my elder Brother. This is no oppressive patriarchy; this is glorious freedom. Such faith gives me comfort for my journey through this “vale of tears” (Q&A 26) and assurance of my eternal home.

The Almighty God is the Father no earthly father could be. He coordinates the course of the cosmos to accomplish my full and complete salvation. He empowers me to conquer the doubts of my flesh, the scorn of the world, and the schemes of the devil. And he says, “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). That name is my gospel identity, bound up with the glorious victory of his Son, Jesus Christ, and promised to all who put their trust in him.

And I can say, “Amen!” because my identity as a child of God rests in the fact that he hears me even more than I can desire to be heard (Q&A 129). He knows me even more than I can desire to be known. He loves me even more than I can desire to be loved. His love is true love, and his water is true life.

1. Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books), 16–17.

2. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 24–25.

3. Melonie Heron, “Deaths: Leading Causes for 2016,” National Vital Statistics Reports 67, no. 6 (July 26, 2018): 10; Kellie E. Carlyle, Jeanine P. D. Guidry, Kofoworola Williams, Ariella Tabaac, and Paul B. Perrin, “Suicide Conversations on Instagram™: Contagion or Caring?,” Journal of Communication in Healthcare 11, no. 1 (2018): 13.

4. David D. Luxton, Jennifer J. June, and Jonathan M. Fairall, “Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective,” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. S2 (2012): S197.

5. Carlyle et al., “Suicide Conversations,” 12–18.

6. Russell B. Toomey, Amy K. Syvertsen, and Maura Shramko, “Transgender Adolescent Suicide Behavior,” Pediatrics 142, no. 4 (October 2018): 1–8.

7. Toomey, Syvertsen, and Shramko, “Transgender Adolescent Suicide Behavior,” 6.

8. Aaron Long, “First I Met My Children, Then My Girlfriend. They’re Related,” New York Times, September 28, 2018. 9. Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, trans. Dennis Pardee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 15–20. 10. Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, ed. Patrick Samway (1991, repr., New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), 312. 11. Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, trans. Olive Wyon, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 96. 12. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.1.

Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA.