Identity questions

Yesterday, the Gospel Coalition blog posted an article by Jeff Buchanan of Exodus called “The New Sexual Identity Crisis.”

Today, Matt Anderson (of MereOrthodoxy) blogged about “The Trouble with Talking about Our ‘Identity in Christ.'”

I agree with Matt that there is a lot of confusion surrounding use of the term “identity.” I want to address this issue in more depth at some point, but I don’t have the time these days. So I will just throw out a couple of (relatively) brief observations.

1. “Identity” is borrowed from the surrounding secular culture. It has displaced terms, like “nature” and “calling,” which have deep roots in the Bible and in the history of Christian thought. This displacement has made it more difficult for Christians to think clearly about what it means to be transformed in Christ.

The term “identity” doesn’t appear at all in either the KJV, RSV, or NIV translations of the Bible. And although the term itself appears in important Christian theological works like John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, neither of them use it in anything like the modern sense.

In the Bible and in Christian writers up to the early twentieth century, the kinds of questions many Christians now address in terms of “identity” were more typically discussed either in terms of “nature” or, much more frequently, in terms of “calling” or “vocation.”

“Nature” and “calling” are both found in both the Old and New Testaments. “Nature” is the word the Bible uses to refer to what God has created us to be (and, what we have become as a result of the fall). “Calling” is the word the Bible uses to refer to what God is transforming us to be through grace. (Many Christian theologians use the term “vocation” for this idea of God’s call; “vocation” is derived from the Latin word vocation, which comes from the verb vocare, “to call.”)

2. As Matt notes, Christians seem to use “identity in Christ” in a negative sense, that any other label we apply to ourselves makes an “identity” claim that is somehow incompatible with “identity in Christ.” But talk about “calling” or “vocation” has never worked this way.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as He chose. . . . As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:12, 14-18, 20, 27-28)

Paul makes clear that just as the body has different parts, there are a variety of different callings. And if God has called someone to be an apostle or prophet or teacher, etc., then it is not a problem if we call them apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.

In both the New Testament and in subsequent Christian writings about vocation, both marriage and celibacy can be callings (see especially Matthew 19:3-12 and 1 Corinthians 7).

Although most Christian reflection on Matthew 19:12 focuses on those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” I have already pointed out that it would be worth reflecting more deeply on those who are eunuchs involuntarily.

It might seem that only those who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom have a vocation. However, the prophet Isaiah said:

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
which shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)

In a letter to Sheldon Vanauken, C. S. Lewis wrote:

Our speculations on the cause of [homosexuality] are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (Jn. 9:1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will “turn the necessity to glorious gain.”

All of this suggests that there is a fruitful discussion to be had about the life which God calls people whom we might label “gay” or “same-sex attracted” to. This is both a positive vocation to love and honor Him, and connected in some way with their “sexual orientation” (just as the eunuch’s call in Isaiah’s prophecy is connected with the limitations imposed by being a eunuch).

There’s a lot more that would need to be said here, and none of this is even the beginning of an argument for or against Christians who label themselves as “gay” (or “same-sex attracted,” for that matter). It is simply an argument that the category of “identity” is much less helpful than many people think for discussing these questions.

But I would suggest that focusing too much on “identity” and “labels” has largely short-circuited the kind of discussion of God’s calling which I have only begun to sketch out here.

If I were to say more about labels, I would first want to ground what I was saying in a more in-depth discussion of “nature” and “calling.” Unfortunately, I don’t have time to develop that argument now.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

5 thoughts on “Identity questions

  1. As someone who increasingly would use the term gay in reference to myself I found Jeff Buchanan’s essay misunderstanding the issue. I really am beginning to think the gay label is a generational difference more than anything. The old guard in Exodus and the like are very often people who have come out of the gay “lifestyle.” For them the gay label has substantial connotations with promiscuity, and their past regrets/life. Whereas for the newer generation a using “gay” as any part of identity doesn’t come with as much personal history/baggage. We use it simply to describe the fact that we are drawn to the same-sex rather than the opposite-sex. I find that using the “gay” label is the best way for me to communicate with the average person about that aspect of me. I think a term like “SSA Struggler” can overtake an identity centered in Christ as “gay” can. It’s a semantics issue I think more than an identity issue. I think the closest parallels are the phrases, “I’m a mother” or I’m a teacher” while both describing something that is fairly fundamental in a person’s life, having a child, being an educator, they don’t usually take the place of Christ in a person’s life. However in some cases they can, co-dependent parents, and arrogant, self assure teachers for instance. In much the same way someone can loose their identity in their gayness.

    I do think the author is right in his cautions regarding segregation and crafting of “specialness.” I want to see single gay men and women incorporated into the ministries of the church without any special treatment or need to make special groups. I also feel there is some merit in his caution regarding anchoring. I’ve now known two same-sex oriented friends who’ve fallen in love with a woman and found sexual intimacy as a derivation of their relational intimacy. However they are still same-sex orientated. That goes to say that by crafting too firm an identity in gayness you may unduly limit your options. However I honestly think this is a minor issue because in both cases the connection was obviously apparent at the beginning of the relationship.

  2. Ron, thanks for this helpful post. I hope you have time in the future to develop your thinking on identity as it relates to sexual orientation.

  3. Pingback: Vocation Roundup | Spiritual Friendship

  4. Pingback: What Is “Gay”? | Spiritual Friendship

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