When Saul of Tarsus hit the ground on the back of his encounter with the risen Jesus, his first response was a question, “Who are You, Lord?” There’s a sense, of course, in which he gave the answer in the very terms of the question he asked.
The Lord. That’s who He is.
But Jesus might just as well (and more to the point) have thrown the question right the way back at Saul. “And who are you?’ That was really the problem. And had been for long enough.
Very few questions are more basic to, and determinative of, the way our lives are lived than this. The question of identity. Who am I? How am I to understand myself?
That question of identity is in many ways the battleground on which today the ‘culture wars’ are fought. And on few of the big, foundational questions of life is there now a greater degree of confusion: and the chaos that’s been consequent on such confusion has been itself conducive to the vortex of a wholesale cultural collapse.
In a range of different but significant ways these past twelve months have brought this issue of ‘identity’ more to the fore than ever.
Quite apart from the obvious and damaging impact which the pandemic has clearly had across society – the death it’s occasioned for so many thousands of people; the grief it’s created for relatives, colleagues and friends; the fear that it’s fueled in countless hearts and minds; the strains that it’s placed on the tireless, dedicated workforce of the NHS; the cares it’s compounded for those involved in the ministry of ‘care’; the loss it’s entailed for innumerable firms and shops and businesses, and for millions of individuals; the void it has left in the hearts and the homes of the populace at large; the list goes on and on – but quite apart from all that damaging impact, history will surely show that the pandemic itself will not have been the thing which wreaked the greatest havoc in our nation’s life.
It’s the ‘identity crisis’ which will prove to be our undoing. That crisis isn’t something new: it’s been brewing away for years behind the scenes, a quietly ticking time-bomb whose impact on explosion will be lethal and long-lasting. Set beside that, the effects of this pandemic will seem small.
But the pandemic has itself played into this crisis and speeded up the ticking of the time-bomb: it’s acted as a catalyst, bringing right to the fore of our society’s life this issue of identity.
Identity. Who are you? How should you think of yourself? It’s a key, foundational question: we get it wrong at our peril.
We were struggling already, within society at large, to keep our thinking straight in this regard. And the pandemic’s effects have put us all in yet more of a spin: like a child with a blindfold who’s been spun round and round, we’re struggling more than ever now to get and keep our bearings.
Two particular features of these past twelve months have had their effect on this whole issue of ‘identity’.
The first has been the widespread lack of activity.
Large numbers have been furloughed. Their hands have been tied behind their backs; and confined to barracks, they’ve been paid (at least in part) not to work. How disorienting is that?
Some have known redundancy. No longer any work for them to do, they’ve found themselves now ‘surplus to requirement’. Jobless. Rootless. Pointless. No longer any avenue down which to pour their energies. No longer any projects where their gifts can be employed. No longer any industry in which to ply their trade. No longer any job to which their time can be applied. Redundant.
And some have faced confinement. Stuck in their homes and not able or allowed to venture out. Precluded from meeting with others. Unable to do what they’d normally do, restricted by the protocols of caution from above. Healthy, active, energetic people, with no place to go and nothing to do. A limbo-like existence in the lonely land of lockdown, where the fields grow only lethargy and the tenants are left with little else to do but twiddle with their thumbs.
It’s as if society at large has suffered a stroke. And if you’ve ever experienced a stroke yourself, or had contact with someone who has, then you’ll know the frustrations are huge. Huge. Unable to do what you’re wanting to do.
And that’s where this global pandemic plays into identity issues. If you are what you do (and that’s the big question, of course: is that who you are in the end of the day, a person defined by whatever it is that you do?) – if you are what you do, when you can’t do a thing, then what does that say about you?
The logic leads to identity crises. You feel like a total nobody. When you simply can’t do what you’re willing to do, what you’re trained to do, what you’re eager to do, and maybe what you’ve only ever done – when your whole active life has now ground to a halt and you simply can’t do all the things that you’re itching to do, then it’s hard not to feel like a waste of space.
Is that who you are? Really? Your identity defined by what you do. A non-entity: precisely because of that dreadful non-activity.
For some, of course, the past twelve months have been the converse of that lack of much activity. For some the workload’s been remorseless. Physically demanding, emotionally draining, intellectually stretching. A routine which makes round the clock demands upon their time, their gifts, their energies. Important, pressing deadlines ever looming large. Tasks which need attention every moment of each day. Stretched and stressed to the point of cracking up. Busy to the point of breaking down. Always on the go.
Their living is no more than all their doing. What they do defining who they are. And beginning to think, ‘Is this who I am? Is this what I am?’ Identity. Who you are defined by what you do. Which can mean for many that they’re little more than a human machine whose only real significance is found in what they do.
Our culture has long since taken that line. What you do determines who you are. Who are you? I’m a doctor. I’m a plumber. I’m a doorman. I’m a pastor. That’s what I do, so that’s who I am. We all understand the way this works, and we’ve taken the whole thing on board. Your identity tied in to your activity. Which all makes sense … until a pandemic exposes the flaw in the basic premise.
Are you really a non-entity? (Because you’re prevented from doing anything). Are you really no more than a living machine? (Because your life has little time or space for anything more than what you’re constantly doing).
The past twelve months have brought this crucial issue to the fore.
Is it really the case that what you do determines who you are? It doesn’t seem to satisfy at all. The way in which identity’s been defined has needed now a whole-scale re-assessment. The pandemic has seen to that. We’re surely not non-entities. We’re surely not machines. Matters have come to a head. Identity must be redefined.
The perfect opportunity to seek the wisdom of God’s Word. For the Scriptures take a very different line: they turn the thing on its head. Who you are determines what you do. It’s the other way round. And who you are is rooted in the very basic truth that you and I are made in the image of God. It’s that which gives us meaning, significance, purpose.
Go back to first principles, in other words. You’d have thought that that was a pretty good place to start. But no. That good, old-fashioned approach to such things has been muscled out of the way by the rise of a deviant, defiant ‘democracy’ – the second particular feature of these past twelve months.
Again this is nothing particularly new. The ‘rule of the people’ is as old as the garden of Eden.
But the burns of that sinful perspective have been slowly coalescing over many centuries now, and a stream of secular thinking, whose source goes back long centuries, has been swollen through these past many months to become a spectacular river in spate. Its banks have burst, flooding our present-day world with the muddy, all-pervasive waters of its cancel culture, and its warped and woke insistence on the merits of ‘transgenderism’. (Please don’t think for a moment that I don’t understand the reality, and recognise the very real struggles, of gender dysphoria: I’m not referring to that).
Identity is its watchword. Which plays right into the lap, of course, of a people for whom that issue’s become so crucial, who’ve seen the need to redefine identity. The ‘new kid on the block’, when it comes to worldviews and philosophies in the post-modern world of today, that ‘new kid on the block’ has shifted the way our identity is to be defined from something essentially ‘external’ (which is how it’s always been in ages past) to something intrinsically ‘internal’.
Which is simply a rather euphemistic way of saying that you now get to be God. You get to choose who you are. It’s no longer the case that what you do is determined by who you are: no longer even the case that who you are is determined by what you do. Now who you are is to be defined by .. well, by how you feel.
You get to choose. The ultimate in deviant, defiant democracy. The people get to rule; each and every one of them. Who you are is no longer defined by your role in the state; no longer defined by your place in the economic pecking order; no longer defined (God forbid – except, of course, our culture today no longer believes in God!) – no longer defined by your being a creature made in God’s image.
You’re in charge, you get to choose, you determine just who you are – on the basis of how you feel. You feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body? Well, it’s got to be your call: you’re a woman. You wake up tomorrow and you feel neither one nor the other? Your call again. Call yourself ‘they’ or ‘we’, be singularly plural, because maybe you’re feeling you’re both. You get to be God, remember. Every day.
You are the one who determines your own identity. Gone with good riddance are the bad old days when God or the state or the marketplace could define for you your identity. The day of defiant democracy now has arrived. You, the people, get to rule: every single one of you. And the state must now bow at your feet and must jump to your every whim.
Hence it isn’t now sufficient that the state should merely tolerate your ‘trans’ or ‘gay’ or any other ‘victimised’ identity: the state must now affirm it – and, indeed, require that all its citizens affirm it positively too.
No one may object. For the reasons they’ll have for objecting are, all of them, indicative of some ‘external’ factor which is cruelly being brought to bear upon the sovereignty of self. You’ve been oppressed too long! It’s payback time for all who have been victims!
It’s ‘victimhood’ which society now prioritises. And you’re maybe inclined to think, “What’s wrong with that?” Just this: it’s a subtle, intellectual camouflage for sinnerhood. It masks the basic truth about humanity. And again it’s as old as the garden of Eden. Remember Adam’s opening line in the face of their defiance of the Lord’s command? “‘The woman You put here with me – she gave me some fruit ..’” (Gen.3.12). I’m a victim here, in other words. You imposed this on me.
Victimhood is so much more appealing to our self-indulgent spirits than the notion of our sinnerhood! And victimhood’s the trump card of the sovereignty of self. If who I am is defined by anyone else, then surely I’m a victim. If I don’t get to choose who I am, then I’m being sorely oppressed.
Victimhood has thus become the number one priority in how our culture works: the flipside of the sovereignty of self. Victimhood takes precedence over everything else: and ‘victims’, therefore, must be patently affirmed by all society – not least in terms of their identity. There can’t be any room for disagreement: disagree … and you’re an oppressor. Phobic. Bigoted. Oppressive. The sovereignty of self, and a totalitarian state which tells you what we all must think and say.
It’s this which will be our un-doing. It’s this which will see our society quickly collapse. Battling against the huge, surging waves of the storm out at sea which this global pandemic has been, we’ve not really noticed the whirlpool to which we’ve been rapidly drifting. And it’s that Corryvreckan whirlpool of the sovereignty of self which will be our nation’s nemesis – far more than all the waves of this pandemic.
May God bring us all to our senses before it is too late.
Yours in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ,