More Thoughts on Identity

Living or dead, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). Our identity is in relation to God, not ourselves. This is the wisdom Paul proclaimed to his society (1 Cor. 1:30). These days, the society in which I live is having a similar debate about what is true. Much of the debate centers around the idea of sexual identity.

The well-known sociologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, made a prophetic presentation in Philadelphia in 1973. In it he mused about the policy-makers’ reliance on “evidence” as opposed to wisdom. He complained that in child development studies the science of the child was usually based on the circumstances of the lab, not the natural ecology of the child. The application of the science then created a policy-driven ecology that was bereft of wisdom and even damaging to the child. When people asked him how to speak into such an environment, he had nothing to say because wisdom was not allowed. Policies about sexuality based on “identities” that are supposedly derived from “evidence” encourage a similar lack of wisdom.

These days, many people have learned a philosophy that is bent on finding the identity of things, as if we can reduce things, and even people, down to their essence and understand them. Christians and unbelievers alike all seem to follow this basic thinking; everyone is either “this” or “that.” As a result, most people are very interested in finding out, “What am I?” and being true to that. The modern enthusiasm for science encourages the process, and the post-modern emphasis on radical individual self-determination really encourages it. There is reason behind the development of this thinking, of course, but its application has become an oppressive law, locking people into the specious conclusion called “sexual identity.”  The scientists took our sexual expression into the lab and decided we could be homosexual or heterosexual, and everyone has had to find their place in that binary argument ever since.

I do not think there needs to be a heterosexual or homosexual identity, as if a person could be defined by their sexual desires or practices. It is a too-small way to see a person. God repeatedly tells us that we fallen-away-creations find our true identity, or self, or purpose, or destiny, in relationship to God, not in relation to ourselves or to another person or to our sexual impulses. A person’s primary identity is God-and-person, not merely a self-reflective definition.  DNA structure and brain wave activity are ways to define who we are; but we have a primary source of identity that is outside ourselves. I do not want to reduce a loved one to a “homosexual” or “heterosexual.” As Gore Vidal was fond of saying, “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people.”

I am trying to move with how Jesus teaches us to develop a true self: “Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will save them. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?” (Luke 9:24-5). The struggle with our bent sexuality, defined as hetero, homo, or however is too deep, too precious, too mysterious to reduce down to an application of a scientific formula, or a rationalistic definition. It is not enough. It must be handled in Christ.

I’ve decided not to bend the knee to the “Baal” of identity labeling in general, but surely with regard to sexual identity. While I may not be able to avoid the scrutiny and condemnation of the “civilization police,” who think equality under the law of the United States is freedom and think that such law must be spread universally, I still long for dialogue in grace that allows people to be on their own journey, facing the issues of intimacy with self-respect and the respect of others. I think Janelle Paris, in her book The End of Sexual Identity, has gone a long way to reframe the discussion so it is not just another divisive political argument, as if political dialogue is the only tool we have for gaining wisdom.  She says, “When disagreements about same-sex sexuality are just differences, not divisions, and when we share mutual affection and bestow honor on those with whom we disagree, we’re already living beyond the end of sexual identity.”

Reframing the question does not immediately make for good relationships with people who have already adopted the identity, of course. Since the seventies some people have achieved some freedom from societal oppression, much of which was based in the church’s teaching. At the same time, the rancor over the new definition caused an upheaval that hurt people and divided families and institutions. There are a lot of feelings being felt that cause a lot of conflict. Just writing this might cause some more conflict.

The other day at our training time, I shared some of my convictions to set the stage for the day’s discussion. I think we need to keep talking, even though it is frightening to do so for many of us. Here are three of the convictions I listed; I mean for them to add to the discussion, not end it:

1)  I want to maintain the complicated position of not having a policy about sexual identity. I don’t think God makes policies about people, or divides people up with labels — especially invented sexual labels. I would rather wait and see how someone’s life works out than be committed to a scientific/political label that became popular in the 20th century.

2) Besides, the labels are not always helpful or accurate. For instance, the UC Davis LGBT Resource Center now calls itself the LGBTQIA Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, and asexual center. The spectrum of how people express themselves sexually is varied and changeable. Our expanded interest in the spectrum is expanding how we see it. The labels are too small and end up being straitjackets.

3) The politics of sexual identity can be oppressive to many LGBT people. It often turns them into an anecdote that so-called heterosexual people tell to justify their righteousness. People are not their sexual ideas or behavior codified in law by the people who dominate society. The politics make so-called minorities pawns of the law, which only permits behavior, not wisdom, these days. We have a deeper law from God to sort out.

I hope we are open and affirming in a way that pleases the Lord, who is extravagantly welcoming. I think Jesus would like us to resist labels that exalt ourselves and diminish our identity in relation to Him (Matthew 23:8-12). Living or dead, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). Our identity is in relation to God, not ourselves. This is a wisdom I want to proclaim, too.

Companion posts:

Identity and What the Idea is doing to Sexuality

The Language of Sexuality

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, PhD in MFT from Eastern University.
This entry was posted in Theological Help and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to More Thoughts on Identity

  1. Marta Rose says:

    Couldn’t exactly the same things be said about race? That race is a social construct, and “identity,” and therefore you should not have a policy on race, should not use racial labels? Or might you respond that you don’t have a policy about race, which doesn’t really exist anyway except as a social construct, but you do have a policy on racism, which is a violent institution that has created the labels “black” and “white,” etc., and that must be confronted? And if you did respond that way, why would it not be different to say that we don’t have a policy on sexuality, but we do have a policy on homophobia and misogyny, which are violent institutions that have created the labels “gay” and “straight” and “bi” etc, and that must be confronted?

    • Rod White says:

      Yes. I think we have to bravely speak the truth in love about what the ill-use of the concept of identity has done to people. I can’t wish it away by objecting to the labeling people endure. But I don’t have to conform to it either.

  2. Pingback: The Language of Sexuality | Rod's Blog

  3. Pingback: “Identity” and What the Idea is Doing to Sexuality | Rod's Blog

  4. Rod White says:

    I agree with you, for the most part, Siobhan. I want the dominant culture to stop persecuting people with the labeling. I am also experiencing the reality of being a minority, since my convictions are not part of the binary definitions; I want the dominant identity-making structures to stop demanding my allegiance.

  5. Siobhan says:

    Ah, this is such a complicated topic. While I agree with the idea that we are whom God made us and are not to be defined by something like our sexual preference, this seems to put the onus on the minority to stop identifying as such. I don’t think that most minorities outwardly identified as minorities until they were oppressed for being them. Does that make sense?
    So while in an ideal world there would be no need for any of us to choose a characteristic of ourselves to define us, that can’t happen until people stop being persecuted for those characteristics. So asking an LGBTQIA person to not voice that characteristic as their identity seems more like asking them to lay low until they’re considered equal. Similarly, I’m not going to stop identifying as a woman or a feminist more than as a human being until women are considered equal human beings.
    Our stance on homosexuality should probably be that we love homosexuals. Because we do and because some of us are.

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