I am at an Emergent conference outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico as I write this post. Since much of the conference is about having conversations and I know very few of the people here, I am occupied with meeting people and starting relationships.
The conversations always begin the same. “Hi, I’m Mike.” Then comes the exchange about where we are from and what church we attend. Having established a frame of reference, we get to the heart of the matter. First, we establish ecclesiological status. “Are you a pastor?” (i.e., clergy or laity) If you are a pastor, then the interrogation begins about the size of your church, what denomination, urban/rural/suburban, is it liturgical, etc. If you are not a pastor, the big question becomes “What do you do?”
These questions are critical because in our culture you are defined by what you do. Our identity is grounded in action. (This is almost pathologically true of the male population of our culture.) For the person out of work, the person working at a job below their educational capabilities and experience, or a newly retired person, few questions can strike at the heart more than “What do you do?” If I don’t “do,” I cease to exist in the eyes of our culture. The foundation of my identity begins to disintegrate. Each asking of the question is one more assault on my self-image.
A few months ago I was studying suicide rates by five year age categories over the last fifty years (some people golf, some people do gardening, me…well…) There have been considerable changes in patterns over the years. Teenage suicide went way up but has been decreasing significantly for some time. Rates for older folks declined steadily over the time span. But one persistent trend you see over time is the higher rate of suicide for men who are in the 55-65 age range compared to other men in most other age ranges. Facing retirement means the end of “action” and therefore identity. Loosing that identity is a fate worse than death …literally… as indicated by the choices of some. The number of men who die or suffer debilitating illnesses shortly after retiring also points to the “stresses” of loosing identity.
Many women experience similar stresses in their lives. Whether by nature or nurture, women seem to be more relationally oriented. The devastating loss of identity can occur not only with employment but when children leave the home and the family structure of twenty or more years dissolves. The bottom line is that, for many, when demand for our role or activity ceases to exist, we cease to exist as well. Our identity becomes dis-integrated.
Not every culture defines their identity in this way. Ancient Middle Easterners received their identity based on kinship. “Joseph, the son Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.” Later in the Bible we read about X, the son of Y, of the tribe of Z. What you did was incidental compared to your community affiliation. Community was the integration point for identity.
I have been writing in recent posts about common theme: What happens to the church when we are oriented to a false vision of who we are. What happens to us as a community is not much different from what happens to us individuals. As individuals, we all have a model of we are. The model may not always be consciously constructed, but it exists nonetheless. When people reflect confirmation of our internal model back to us, the model is reinforced and we become more assured that we know who we are. The reinforcement of the model establishes our identity. When people reflect back to us that we are less than the model we have of ourselves, depending on the relationship we experience anger, disdain, or our feelings may be hurt. However, if we do something that violates our model of ourselves, or if something happens that exposes falsehood in our model, we experience shame and humiliation. We will often go to great lengths to hide the incongruities, even from ourselves.
Sociologist Peter Berger introduced the term “plausibility structures” to the world decades ago. His language was picked up by people like Leslie Newbigin and N. T. Wright. This concept says that we need a constant feedback loop telling us how we are doing. If we are in communities that reflect affirmation of our models of ourselves, then we will strongly tend to persist in those models. If we are in communities that reflect disapproval of our models, over time, our models will come into conformity with the reality reflected to us by the community. Communities give out social rewards for those that affirm the community’s perception of reality and penalize those that do not. So we are both shaped by our communities and we give shape to them by the reflections we give back.
What some theologians have come to realize is that the Church is called to be a counter-cultural plausibility structure for the world. The existence of the Church serves both as a critique of the “eternal present” of this passing age and a window into the existence of the age that is dawning. Since Adam, Eve, and the apple, the human project has been to find a basis on which to integrate an identity apart from God. (Witness Cain building Enoch or the construction of the temple at Babel.) The presence of the Church dis-integrates human integrations of identity both at the corporate and individual level. It dis-illusions us from illusionary models. By the power of Pentecost, the Church integrates us in to a community where we are daughters and sons of a loving God, and sisters and brothers to Christ. The integration point for our identities is the triune God living in community with humanity.
John 17:14-23 (Jesus praying)
14 I have given them [disciples] your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. 20 I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (NRSV) (Emphasis mine.)
What business are we in? I believe we are in the identity business. We are about the business of rooting our identity in the triune God and the community God has called into being. We are participants with God in community, in the dis-integration and dis-illusionment of the world (including ourselves) so that all may become reintegrated as children of a loving God, and as sisters and brothers to Jesus Christ. Exactly what this looks like will change from culture to culture and age to age but structure and action must always flow from mission. Our identity is always in God, through Christ, empowered by the spirit, but the forms our counter-cultural plausibility structures take will always be contextual.
What will be true in every age and place is anticipation of that day when we all truly will be one and it shall be proclaimed "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever."