Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Slipping or Standing

What is it that makes us who we are?

Recently we reposted Immanuel Can’s exploration of what it means to be “authentic”. IC raised a couple of very important questions:

“What does ‘authentic’ mean when you already admit you don’t even know who you are? How on earth do you find such a thing, and what happens when you can’t?”

The search for identity is not a new one. The Woodstock generation called it “finding yourself”. But what IS “me” exactly? Clairol, for instance, tells us their hair dye “lets me be me”, when by its very design it does precisely the opposite: it lets me be the version of me that I used to be before my hair turned grey. I’m not using it to be “me”, I’m using it to pretend I’m not getting older.

That’s not authentic at all, is it?

The Authenticity Dilemma

That’s not to malign folks who use hair dye, you understand. But let’s not kid ourselves that we color our hair primarily for the sake of being genuine. Here’s the authenticity dilemma as IC sees it:
“ ‘Authenticity’ is a slippery ideal. To be ‘authentic’ to something, there has to be some sort of pre-existing original to which one is being faithful or conforming one’s creative acts. But what is the ‘pre-existing, real self’? How can one ‘pre-exist’ one’s own self-formation? Do we come with a blueprint for this? Surely not. In fact, we are beings who come into this world with no pattern known to anyone except, it would seem, God himself: and there’s no way we have any wisdom about how to make ourselves ‘authentic’, if such an idea has any coherence in the first place.”
Thus the pursuit of authenticity is a vain exercise, says IC, and I agree. So let’s step away from the word entirely for a moment. After all, it’s kind of the world’s frame anyway. We need, as IC points out, to avoid conforming ourselves to the culture around us and instead pursue an understanding of who God has made us to be. I’m with him on that.

So then, what makes me “me”? Which bits are negotiable and which bits aren’t? What can I hope to change about myself as I grow in the knowledge of God, and what am I likely to carry with me for the rest of my life?

Let me suggest there are at least three components to every “me”, and a fourth to every believer: personality, character, experience and gift.

It’s Personal

Personality is the component that makes me who I am when I’m not trying to be anything in particular. It’s my set of natural defaults: assertive or passive, creative or mechanical, sensitive or thick-skinned, organized or chaotic, enthusiastic or placid, and so on. Here the old nature/nurture question raises its head, and I don’t intend to get bogged down in that quagmire. Obviously both play their part in forming our personalities, and those of us who have had more than one child recognize that genetics may be the stronger influence. But there is also what we might call a “family personality” or culture that may be observed: siblings who may be very different in certain ways often exhibit a number of traits in common, so that we can say, “That’s the McMaster sense of humor” or “They’ve got their mom’s compassion”.

Provided they are not pathologically excessive, most personality traits are neither good nor bad. They just are. At best (or worst), personality is a series of predispositions to be managed or indulged, depending on the circumstances. God does not fault us for the package we were born with, though we are very much responsible for what we do with it.

Character Matters

Character, at least initially, is me trying to be something I’m not yet, but really should be. It is not natural, but developed over time. It starts with doing things I’d rather not, but in time I may become what I have chosen to be. Character acts as an amplifier or subduer of my personality package.

Character is distinct from personality, though observers may not be able instantly to isolate what is driving any particular behaviour. Two children playing together in the schoolyard may both appear quite tractable, but it takes a few minutes watching them in action to determine which one is keeping his temper in check because his mother gave him a stern warning before sending him off to school and which one was born with the advantage of an even disposition.

It would be far too simplistic to say that Christians have character and unbelievers don’t. Obviously, the fruit of the Spirit is a package of Christian character qualities energized by the life of God in a believing heart. But unsaved people often exhibit great self-control, faithfulness, gentleness and even love of various sorts when they have had the right sort of influences. Regardless of what motivates them, we may as well acknowledge them as people of good character, since the choices they are making are self-imposed, not instinctive or natural. That sort of character doesn’t help with respect to salvation, but it probably makes life more pleasant for those around you.

We should also acknowledge that character developed over years may eventually become almost as natural as personality.

Getting Experienced

My history is a huge part of who I am. I may be genetically disposed to be gregarious and outgoing, but if I was born into the middle of a bloody revolution in a third world country and my upbringing was violent and traumatic, today I may appear taciturn, withdrawn, hypersensitive or half crazy. Equally, if I am naturally thick-skinned and insensitive but had loving and empathetic instruction, I may have learned to look out for certain behaviours in others and act with kindness toward them. My life experience modifies my defaults, turning them into graces or vices.

Experience dictates my expectations in any new situation and my level of trust in the people I encounter. If I react with hostility to your kindness, who’s to say whether it’s because I was born damaged or whether it’s because I’ve been terribly hurt by someone who once behaved just like you did.

The Gifted Few

Christians have a fourth factor at work in how they present to the world, and that’s the particular spiritual gift we received when we were born again. Here we are just a little bit in the dark. Does God grant each individual a gift that is in harmony with his or her existing personality? Perhaps. He certainly could if he wished. Or does the Spirit grant gifts with a view to rounding out an existing personality and making it more useful in the kingdom of God? That’s equally possible.

But discovering the nature of our gift and using that gift on a regular basis inevitably changes us in one way or another, both with respect to how others see us and with respect to how we view the world and the needs we perceive around us. A gifted evangelist may not have a naturally outgoing personality, but if he is using his gift, it may be hard to tell that. A gifted shepherd may be quite awkward and withdrawn naturally, but the love of Christ compels him to behave quite differently than does the disposition he was born with.

Yes, character does that too, but spiritual giftedness may be as influential in one’s life as developed fruit. An example: in my early twenties, I wore three earrings in my left ear, a physical expression of a contrarian personality. My character (at least to the extent it had then developed), had nothing to say about my ears. Examining the scriptures, I found no compelling reason to change my appearance. My gift did, though. I was invited to speak to a number of young people’s groups in small towns, where someone rightly pointed out the earrings could be a distraction, one that might keep people from paying attention to the word of God I was trying to share. Short story: earrings gone, and they stayed gone. To serious Christians, gift matters.

A Quick Caveat

When I say we are a combination of these three (or four) factors, I should probably not forget to acknowledge that other things may influence us powerfully from time to time: mental and physical health problems, grief, loss, drug use, exhaustion, diet, trauma and so on. We are complicated beings. But recognizing that all things are not always equal for any of us, let’s stick to the factors each of us deals with every day of our Christian lives.

Christian and Authentic

So how can I be both Christian and “authentic”, in whatever sense the latter really matters?
  • First, with respect to my personality, I can (and should) be whomever God has made me to be. There is a wonderful diversity of personalities within the kingdom of God, and I’d hate to be deprived of any of them. All have strengths and most have weaknesses. The trick is to refuse to allow my genetic or family-influenced disposition to direct my spiritual choices. That is to say, my natural tendency toward solving problems violently is going to have to be reined in. My tendency to want to please everyone will need constant managing. My natural inclination to be a peacekeeper needs to be muzzled if we’re doing something genuinely worth fighting for.

    If that’s inauthentic, well, too bad.
  • Second, character is not the least bit “natural”. The fruit of the Spirit is not something I got from my parents, but something I hope to develop through the habit of obedience to the word of God and the promptings of his Spirit in my heart.

    Yes, that’s not “authentic” in any sense the world currently uses it, but I don’t see how any of us can simultaneously serve God and our own natural desires.
  • Third, experience is what it is. It changes us, sometimes permanently. That gives rise to the question, “Am I to be ‘authentic’ to the new me or the old me?” Good luck figuring that out. This is one of the reasons Christians need to stop being overly concerned about whether we appear “authentic” to anyone else: the only question that really matters is if we are currently pleasing God, not whether we are being faithful to some preconceived notion about ourselves.
  • Finally, using our gift for the benefit of others and the glory of God is our present job within the kingdom of God. I suspect we are most truly ourselves when we are being the people God has called us to be. If that presents a tension with our natural dispositions, my guess is they are something we ought to crucify quickly and enthusiastically.
As IC says, “authenticity” is a slippery ideal. As a Christian, would you rather be slipping or standing?

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