I love those “aha!” moments that you come across in the course of study when you are studying one topic and suddenly, something else comes along that suddenly makes sense in light of the topic you have been studying. That happened today, as I was enjoying a nice walk in downtown Edinburgh. The last evening, I was reading up on social identity theory as proposed by Henri Tafjel and popularized in Biblical Studies through scholars such as Philip Esler, trying to figure out how it might relate to my own research. Then, as I was walking today, I happened upon a post by an acquaintance on Facebook about another person who was hostile towards Christian faith in virtue of Christianity historically tied to the God of Abraham, whereas faith in this God made one abandon one’s own nation by abandoning the gods of their ancestry. Then it really clicked: our cognitive understanding of divinity and our understanding of our national and social identities are tightly intertwined.1
The heads of an empire, such as Pharoah or the Caesars were bestowed varying degrees of divinity. Rome had the goddess Roma who was a personification of the city. In the more recent past, the United States had a sense of manifest destiny where God has set America for dominance from Atlantic to Pacific. For most anyone with a theological or religious education, the tight, historical relationship between politics and religion is a familiar pattern of human society from the ancient past to the very present day in the form of civic religion and political advocacy.
But, what is not so readily noticed is that this relationship between politics and religion is simply one example of the manner in which religion and identity becoming tightly intertwined. The various socio-political organizations of human societies are but one type of social identity. It is a peculiar form of social identity where we understand ourselves by identities that are shared with each other based upon a common relation to a particular distribution power, where our relationships are centered around a specific person or persons who inherit and/or embody the power that unites and directs the people. Divinity is often an explanation employed to describe how these individuals or political unity possess this power, especially in population groups and societies that do not have some anthropocentric theory about the distribution of power (i..e. democracy as the will of the people, rather than government ruled by the will of particular divinity/divinities).
But there are various social identities that are not structured by power relations. Ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. all are classes of social identities. Religion is often an expression of these social identities. YHWH was the God of Israel, a people defined their ancestry. It has not been infrequent in modern feminist circles to a) switch to talk about a goddess or b) employ the usage of maternal and feminine depictions of God. It is common to hear people of non-heterosexual identities to say “God made me this way.” Whatever the specific social identity, it is a frequent phenomenon to somehow connect one’s sense of social identity with some divine reference, whether it be an (1) appeal to a divinity within a specific tradition (such as God of Judeo-Christian tradition), (2) a call to a different goddess or god, and/or (3) a reference to some other, non-personalistic ontic entity that has a pervasive influence (such as the anima mundi).
Now, for most religious practitioners, they would consider a causal relationship in which the divinity causes their own status as members of the group to which they belong. However, religious skepticism in traditions streaming from people like Feuerbach or Marx would reverse the causal order, suggesting it is our social identities that cause us to conceive of a divinity that aligns with our social identity. Both directions of causality are plausible, if not even probable, under conditions of there does exist a set of divine beings that do interact with humans at some level (i.e. not an Epicurean god). If the God known in Jesus Christ makes the work the Holy Spirit known to me, then I am (a) impacted by God in an “objective” sense while simultaneously (b) developing a “subjective” understanding of God that impacts how I make sense of the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not that different from any other social or interpersonal relationship, where my interactions with other persons or groups lead me to construe them in a specific way. If, however, there does not exist at least one divine being that interacts with people in a such a way that this interaction can be known by at least one individual, then the causality flows one way, from social identity to divinity.
It is at this point, then, that a critical challenge is presented to all of our theological talk. I will use myself to present this: on what grounds can my understanding of God and the relationship God has with people that I share a social identity with (Christian) be considered reliable if my sense of God is influenced by my social identity? This question is connected to a common objection to any sense of epistemic confidence in our theological conviction based upon where we grew up. I had been born in and grown up in Iran, I would most likely be Muslim rather than Christian. Implicit in this objection is the relationship between social identity (nationality and ethnicity) and theology that repeat the skeptical objection.
But these challenges operate on the assumption that to appropriately understand our religious beliefs, we must first proceed from the epistemic known of social identity to the epistemic uncertainty of divinity to determine the right level of epistemic confidence we can have in our belief in divinity. But this implicit assumption only seems legitimate based upon an epistemology rooted in scientific empiricism, where we can have higher epistemic confidence in those things we can sense and readily measure in such a way that the measurement would be generally agreed upon to between ‘rational’ persons. In other words, because social identity is more readily measurable because we can connect specific social identities with specific perceivable actions, speech, symbols, etc. than divinity, the analysis of the relationship between theology and social identity commonly starts from the perspective of the theological skeptics.
However, I would submit that by doing so, theological skeptics end up reinforcing the causal factor that leads to the problem of religious dogmatism and conflict many of them object to. By legitimizing that we start from social identity, our social identity becomes even more salient and therefore becomes a much stronger force in our theology. If our understanding of divinity is tightly intertwined with our social identity, by making social identity more salient, we reinforce the theological understandings that come from social identity. This is why in an age of theological skepticism, religious adherents make more reference to their experiences as people of a specific identity in developing their theology: the age of theological skepticism has strengthened the power that our social identities have on our theological beliefs. Theological skepticism is the fertilizer of “tribal” religion.
But, as a Christian, I would make the claim that the starting point of social identity is the exact opposite of the trajectory of the Biblical narrative about people’s relationship to God. Israel were the people of God, and yet, in the end, God was redeeming the world and not just Israel. Whatever the specific relationship that exists between Israel and God, Israel routinely fell into error when it thought their social identity as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had cemented their relationship to God. The people of Israel did belong to God in a special way to bring the knowledge of YHWH into the world, but God did not belong to Israel as a guarantor of their particular status and ambitions within the world. In the end, I would say the Scriptures tell more about how God “deconstructs” Israel’s social identity rather than reinforces it. In other words, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a God who challenges social identities rather than reinforces them. The boundaries humans create are in the process of being broken down rather than being built up.
But I want to clarify what I am saying here. I am not saying God is abolishing social identity in the Scriptures. God does not reject Jewish identity, nor does he renege on His promises to Israel’s patriarchs. By deconstructing and challenging, I am suggesting that God is continuously re-tearing down the “towers of Babel” that groups regularly rebuild up to God on the foundations of their social identity. God is not the God of Tradition that takes our past as the confident grounds to know God. God is not conservative. Here is something else I am not saying: God is not providing new social identities that replace old social identities. God retains his commitment to Israel, but He surprisingly incorporates the Gentiles into Israel as children of Abraham through faith. Even as these Gentiles do not follow the Torah, they retain their faith and loyalty to this God of Abraham who did make His will known through the Torah. God is not the God of a revolution that abandons the past for something radically discontinuous and new, as if this new identity has now finally the right foundation for understanding God. God is not progressive. Both the conservative and progressive understandings of God still retain the pattern of a specific social identity as being necessary, if not sufficient, condition for having right theological belief.
What I am saying is that from my understanding of the Bible, God does not reinforce the relationship between social identity and theology as much as He challenges the way social identity impacts our theology. There is a two-way causal relationship between God and our social identity, but it is more typically an antagonistic relationship where God and the people whose theology formed out of social identity come into conflict rather than it is sympathetic harmony between God and the religiosity of groups defined by their social identity. The “theologicalization” of social identity is a contribution of our hostility with God, even as we call on God’s name in old or new ways.
Rather, this God is specially and uniquely known in a personal identity: the identity of the individual person of Jesus Christ. But I would go further to say that God does not bestow to us a specific identity that we then possess in virtue of Jesus. Our identity isn’t in Jesus. Rather, God is in the process of forming our identity into conformity to that of Jesus Christ, which includes both the label we use to identity our affiliation with Jesus and our ever developing understanding of what that social identity entails. In virtue of our being part of the body of Christ, our identity is becoming understood by taking on the mind of Christ, in which this process of sanctification is constantly changing and adapting our sense of identity.2
We might be tempted to call this “becoming,” but even then this can serve as a foundation for social identities, such as that of spiritual pilgrims, by which we can then build yet another tower of Babel. Plus, “becoming” often works with an implicit understanding of change, whereas God’s challenge of our identity may keep it the same as it was. If God has formed something good in us, one should stay consistent with that good; development in that specific case is consolidation rather than transformation. I do not think God ALWAYS deconstructs social identities in Scripture, but only by in large challenges more than reinforces, but consolidation is something God can do. In other words, this is not a theology of eternal becoming, but of contingently being and becoming.
Rather, this is a theology that finds much in common with theological skepticism: we do often try to make God in the image of our own social identities. The difference is that whereas theological skeptics say “we form God in our own image” and leave it at that, I go one step further to say “we form God in our own image, but God tears that image down to show His own image instead.”
Thus, in addition to the person of Jesus, God is primarily known by how He challenges and transforms our social identities through the work of the Holy Spirit. But a more generic understanding of this in the idea that God challenges social identity provides a counter-thesis to the modern analysis of social identity and theology. Yes, if I grew up in Iran I would likely have been Muslim. However, it has been my experience as a Christian that God has challenged and transformed by own social identity in what I understanding about being a Christian. I would contend my understanding of God is based upon how my identity has been changed from how my own acceptance of that identity. I would contend that my understanding of God is generalizable to the hypothetical me born in Iran, even if I would not have that same understanding as a hypothetical Muslim, because my confidence in grounded upon the powerful events I have seen challenge my social identity as a Christian that I can only attribute to the God known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
While this might seem abstract and abstruse, let me apply it to matters of sexuality that divides Christian theology for a specific example. However, I need to state that as a heterosexual, I try to be intentional to consider why it is that LGBQ3
A conservative evangelical might say to a gay person “Don’t put your identity in your sexuality, but put your identity in Christ.” The problem with this is that it assumes that there is a sense of our own identity we possess or claim in virtue of being a Christian. It seeks to establish that definition over and against one’s sexual identity, as if one identity has a more secure ground than the other in the life of a person. It is treated as if this is some therapeutic process, as if the Christian identity will somehow solve the struggles of people who experience same sex attraction but desire to hold to a traditional sexual ethic. One’s religious identity is not necessarily more sure or stronger than another identity. Almost all people, straight or otherwise, when sexually aroused will see themselves in terms of their sexual identity, not their religious identity. One can incorporate one’s religious identity into their sexuality identity, but that doesn’t address their sexual experience. Rather, is the God known in Jesus and the Spirit, not a sense of identity in Jesus, who is faithful, true, and powerful. “Putting your identity in Christ” places faith in the cognitive and affective rather than God.
However, alternatively “God made me this way” also succumbs to the “theologicalization” of social identity in a pretty bold way that borders on the type of theological justifications that kings and emperors made for their own status and identity. There are similar conditions for such theological justification in that it (a) resolves the dissonance that people who bear such an identity have with those who do not agree to their own sense of identity and status by (b) evoking God against dissenters in virtue of the moral power such a claim makes. In other words, empires formed in conflict with other powers and developed theological justifications for their identity, and so too does the “God made me this way” appeal to the same form of theological justification.
What then? (I am speaking generally here and not just with the specific case of sexuality) Don’t seek to find one’s identity or to secure one’s identity. Rather, recognize that you are God’s but that God is not your possession for establishing your own social identity. Rather, seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness, which does not have a specific social identity of ours in mind but rather has others in mind.
- To be clear, what follows is not a direct application of Tafjel’s theories. I only present that as the context for what follows.
- Although, to state, I don’t think this process of change in identity is haphazard and utterly chaotic with no continuity across time, but there is a development that takes place even though we can not pinpoint what about our identity as any one point in time is rightly understood and firmly established.
- I leave transgender out of the discussion as it is not, strictly speaking, a sexual identity but a gender identity.