There are few subjects that all people everywhere struggle with, but identity is one of them. As basic a human need as water, food, and sleep, a person must have an identity. As philosophy, social sciences, psychology, and politics have all begun to realize this, it becomes all the more essential for Christians to regain a sense of identity from a distinctly Christian perspective. Klyne R. Snodgrass provides just that in his masterful work on the subject.
In his book Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity, Snodgrass offers a biblically supported Christian interpretation of the importance and reality of a person’s identity. He defines identity as “the sum of everything that pertains to us and shapes us. Identity is that sense of being and self-understanding that frames our actions, communicates to others who we are, and sets the agenda for our acts” (9). This seems to be a rather wide definition, but identity is a totalizing concept of the person. Identity is the meaning-making aspect of what makes the person. A person is only known through their identity, or identities, and that includes being known by one’s own self-reflection.
Snodgrass seeks to show at least nine biblically supported elements of human identity, and how such elements relate a specifically Christian identity in regards to believers in King Jesus:
- You are your body. There limitations innate in the kind of bodies we find ourselves within. These limitations cannot be undone, but must simply be lived within and redeemed. No matter its state, the body is how we exist in relation to all others in this world. We only know the world as a body, and the world only knows us as a body in return (51). The body is the most fundamental gift given by God to each person.
- You are your history. “We are born into histories–the histories of our families, our region, and our country–and our histories affect us in ways we do not notice. History is mediated through other people who explain who we are.” And also, “Our lives are not a series of unconnected events, and something within us longs–is even forced–to create a connected story that makes sense of the pieces and moves us in a successful direction. We create our story from the events and circumstances life hands us, even if we do not do it well. We have a narrative identity” (71). Snodgrass points out that Christians are not lost in some illusory subjective storytelling though. The life of King Jesus, understood only in the story of Israel’s relationship with God, is the fundamental and primary history for Christian identity (74-80).
- You are your relations. “Identity always involves a community, for our identities are always communicated to us through others. You cannot be human by yourself. Your very existence depends on a community, and always has. You cannot conceive of yourself in isolation. Rugged individualism–or any other kind–is an illusion. A community gives the language by which rugged individualism is understood, and other people tell you how to be an individual. A community gives the language necessary for comprehending identity, and a community engages each of us in dialogue, telling us who we are and how we fit into a larger story. We receive our identity from groups to which we belong. None of us is a mere individual, an isolated “I.” Each “I” is a part of a “we”; we are communal beings, and our brains are structured as social organs geared for relation. Other aspects of life make sense only when they enhance relations.” (87-88) The importance of Christian life as lived in a community of faith, worshipping and relating to King Jesus as people, becomes apparent.
- You are your mind. Snodgrass emphasizes here that a person must be a self-reflective, moral agent so as to determine relations, attitudes, behaviors, commitments. This element of the mind also gives the person the ability to self-reflect on the history and expectations placed on them as a body by their community, whether to submit or rebel. The mind is what creates the internal narrative through which the self and the world are perceived, known, and understood as related.
- You are your commitments. Snodgrass’ point here is that the values each person determines with the mind will be enacted in the body. “Identity results from our attaching ourselves to what we think is good.” (139) “We become like what we worship and that which we commit ourselves, which is scary.” (143)
- You are your actions. “Identity cannot be shaped without doing. Humans are notoriously adept at tearing being from doing…but doing expresses who we really are.” “Life is about being and doing.” “Christianity is entirely a gift, but with the gift comes obligation. Real knowing includes doing.” (153) One of the most powerful statements Snodgrass makes in this chapter is, “If faith is participation with the God revealed in Christ, acting in keeping with God and God’s desires is necessary. You cannot participate and be inactive.” (154) And another, “The point is that our actions–and specifically Christian actions–both express our identity and, even more importantly, shape our identity. Actions are a means to our identity, not merely a consequence of our identity. We act because of who we are but also in order to become who we should be.” (161)
- You are your boundaries. By boundaries Snodgrass means two things. First, he means differentiation from others so that we know who we are in relation to others. Such as, “Identity is established by difference, by recognizing what we are and what we are not, and that is based on boundaries…Identifying others or oneself is a means of differentiation, and at the boundary between what we are and what we are not we know who we are.” Secondly, Snodgrass uses the language of boundaries to refer to group expectations on the allegiant participant, “Groups to which we belong, some by default and some by choice, are about boundaries and convey identity…Groups have implicit and explicit rules for admission, and all groups require decisions about boundaries…Where individuals do not identify with the sense of identity and the authority of the institution to shape identity, the positive benefit of the group is diminished.” (179)
- You are an ongoing process of change. Snodgrass adds this element often left out of Christian evaluations of identity. The reality and balance of a person’s perceived self-continuity and their continual change must be reconciled somehow. The gospel hope in the Spirit’s transformation of believers offers this reconciliation. “Life is a process of continually forming an identity…There is a me that is rooted in the continuity of my body and memory that is the same though changing. There is a narrative identity of the same person going through this life process, even though the story may have departures or even U-turns. Identity is the result of the continuity of physical body and memory moving through the process and the awareness that it is I who am on this journey.” (195) “The issue is not merely that we change but how Christianity focuses on God’s continual transformative work in us. Christianity is about transformation.” (196-197)
- You are your future. The gospel creates a vision for a world ruled by God and completely filled with his divine presence. This future is able to be participated in through life in the body. The future has already begun for the people of God, and that future only becomes more empowering as we approach it through the Spirit within time. “Christianity inserts a new option for dealing with time, one based on the pouring out of the Spirit, the coming of the kingdom of God, and the resurrection. Jesus and the early church taught that the future has invaded the present and determines how life in the present is lived. Christians live in the presence of the future.” (216)
Snodgrass offers each of these elements with well founded biblical support and explanation. He gives the stark truth of our humanity while showing the gift and hope that exists in a Christian identity is fully rooted in our (personal via communal) relationship with King Jesus. Snodgrass believes that the primary reality that gives humans their identity is their relationship with God, whether as Creator alone or more robustly through a Christian relationship with King Jesus. The truth is humans are extrinsic beings, created from the outside and defined continually through relationship. As Snodgrass says, “Faith displaces the [human] ego so that Christ is the primary determiner of the self. In other words, the Christian understanding of the self is found outside the self” (7). Christians are able to reconcile with the human inability to create their own world and accept that much of our lives our given to us.
But this ability to recognize and reconcile our identity does happen alone. The last point I would like to emphasize by Snodgrass is the place of the local church in the process of forming and transforming a person’s identity. “The purpose of the church, as far as it relates to humans, is identity construction and maintenance. The process of identity formation in early Christianity was communal. It still is. Identity formation is dialogical. The church is a primary place for the conversation with the external community about who we are, if we are willing to hear each other and be honest with each other. The body image and unity of Christ–again the participationist language– are a necessary focus. This is merely a process of actually understanding the gospel and living it out. The church is an agent of, and the result of, this kind of identity formation.” (203)
This last point is also where I find my only fault. Well, less of a fault and more of a desire for more. Readers would have benefited greatly from Snodgrass showing how each of his elements are actually communicated or appropriated to the person by their community. There are plenty of hints and statements here or there, but no clear exposition about how this process is borne into the individual body through relationships. His apt explanations of the elements of identity would have only been made more recognizable and tangible in the life of the reader.
Human identity is complex, but it is essential. Identity is the way we know ourselves, the world, and how the world knows us in return. Identity is about being a self-reflective and acting body in relation to other bodies, who provide to us history and a sense of belonging or exclusion. Christian identity formation becomes the key work of Christians and communities of faith as they spread the gospel, invite persons into community, offer a new way of life in creation under the rule and reign of King Jesus, and all of which is empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s very life. Klyne R. Snodgrass has provided wonderful book for Christians to learn the key elements of this transformative and participatory reality.