The new year is a great time for reflection and re-commitment and a good time to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a Christian. I have wrestled with this concept for a long time. I have always sought to “find myself” in some sort of esoteric way and am pleased to share some of my thoughts. I hope and pray that my reflections will in some way help you to find a deeper meaning in your relationship to God.
The “Question of Identity” has been well studied and hotly debated in philosophy since before the time of Plato. While in college I came across a paradox that illustrated the question well.
The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus' paradox, is recorded as follows;
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
— Plutarch, Theseus
The paradox is meant to illustrate a question of identity, mainly, would the ship remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes complicated the problem centuries later by asking what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship. Which ship, if either, would be considered the original Ship of Theseus?
This puzzle has always fascinated me because people change all the time, often piece by piece. On a strictly physical level every cell in our body is completely replaced over an 11 year time frame. Psychologically, ideas, opinions, attitudes and beliefs often change much more rapidly. For me there was a distinct moment when my identity changed, yet I remained the same ‘me’ and even felt more myself. So what happened?
I believe that the true solution to “The Problem of Identity” is one of ownership. In the case of Theseus’s ship we will notice that the main descriptor of the ship is whom it belonged to. No matter how many planks are replaced it can always be said that some version of this ship belonged to Theseus at one point in time. His ownership of this ship gives it distinction and ties whatever state it may be in now to a historical context. The ship without his name is just as any other and would lose all value beyond its parts or utility. This then begs the questions, ‘what’s in a name?’
Assigning names to things is a very ancient and human act. We are the only species that names things and according to Genesis this was mankind’s first God given task. The act of naming is no simple task. It defines responsibility for both the namer and the named. The namer takes a position of authority, deciding what a thing is to be called. The named by default cedes some degree of authority to the namer. Naming generates a certain level of ownership and belonging but in turn also demands a certain level of responsibility and care for the named.
If we take a historical view of this perhaps the best example is one of marriage. A wife used to take her husband's last name to symbolize that she was no longer under the care or guardianship of her father’s house and now is under the care of her husband. We can still see this very ancient practice in our modern world in a few ways;
- Parents will name their children.
- Founders or a democratic people will name their country.
- A biologist who discovers a new species will get to name it
- Astrologists who discover a new planet or star get to name it.
All men in this sense then have a distinct power, not just in naming others but in the way we name ourselves. This is what I fundamentally believe human identity is all about. Not so much what others call us, so much as what we call ourselves. After all, it is one thing for another to call someone a drunk but quite another when we say it about ourselves. As such a self proclaimed rich man must necessarily identify himself with his wealth and a lawyer with his profession. Somehow the things that we give ourselves over to take a part of who we are.
Part of the human condition is one of belonging and we as humans will always belong to something. In our western world a man names himself after a fashion. He will base his identity off of what he perceives himself to be. If he is a “Rebel” he may dress a certain way and espouse certain ideas. If he is a smoker he will smoke; a drunk, then he will drink. A fun person will have fun and a serious person will not. Things and habits that we claim possession over claim a certain level of ownership over us as well. Yet in the end all of these identities are ones that we choose for ourselves.
It is under this lens that the Christian identity comes into focus. We Christians often identify ourselves as ‘called’, ‘named’ or ‘belonging to’ Christ and we are in no way exaggerating. In fact I think that in our unfamiliarity with the idea of ‘naming’ we perhaps miss the significance of what this means.
For a Christian this view of identity is upended. We are now in the less powerful position when it comes to the named and the namer. The Christian does not name himself, he himself is named. When we are saved, we no longer belong to the vices and identity tags that we once labeled ourselves as but instead belong to Christ, having been bought with his precious blood. Our identity is no longer about what we choose, but by who has chosen us.
While previously we gave ourselves over to various sins and idols and labeled ourselves as such, when a man truly is saved, he can’t think of himself as his career (lawyer,volunteer, judge, activist, senator, doctor, mother, revolutionary) or his possessions (poor, rich, children) or where he is from (Ugandan, American, Californian, Texan) or his sins (adulterer, alcoholic, liar, murderer) but instead thinks of himself as belonging to God.
Christian identity is something that God gives us. Truly saved individuals are continually in a process of renouncing the idols and sins which detract from our identity our focus and worship from the one who purchased us, the one we belong to.