Questions of self-identity are of abiding interest. Contemporary fascination with “identity politics” demonstrates that there are a multitude of significant questions that deserve careful and responsible exploration. In Concordia University’s Enduring Questions & Ideas (Q&I) curriculum, students investigate the many contributing factors in the development and expression of self. A nuanced exploration of the psychological, social, and cultural forces that shape identity is pursued in Q&I courses that answer the big question “Who am I and who are they?”
It is clear that many factors contribute to the shaping of our individual personalities. Each of us has unique attributes and characteristics that may be viewed as our identities. Some of these traits are manifestations of inheritance and genes, and others are produced by the social and cultural influences of our upbringing. A responsible investigation of identity considers the dialectic, both/and, of the forces of nature and nurture.
Investigations of identity demonstrate that the actualization of individual potentialities is not simply a matter of individual effort. Possible identities are defined by one’s social and historical context. Individuals may feel enabled or constricted by the roles society makes available. Therefore, an investigation of identity requires asking questions about context: What are the institutions that define, organize, limit, and enable individuals to flourish? What are the structures that guide and compel even when we are unaware of their tremendous force? An awareness of these larger forces which influence enable us to see more options and give us more agency in choosing what is best, not only for ourselves, but for those others all around us.
Additionally, the questions of identity cannot be answered adequately by considering only those like us. The world is a big place. We are but a tiny sample of the humans who have lived here. There are many ways to live this life, and many solutions to the problems that confront us every day. A cross-cultural comparison of similarity and difference must provide a data field to glean the vastness of human diversity.
We begin our investigations with the recognition that all people are equally created, valued, and loved by God. We acknowledge that the full range of human character is found in each cultural group and that differences between us are not the result of different kinds of humans or different levels of progress, rather, humans are created equally and the differences are the manifestation of different social and historical contexts.
How does one’s environment shape the self? We are continuously exposed to our society’s messaging about personal satisfaction, accumulation, and pleasure as the gold standards to which we are to measure. While our society highlights self-fulfillment and actualization, at Concordia, a Lutheran Christian university, we are invited to consider an alternate narrative which remind us that we were not created to be alone, but to be in community. We hear again that serving our neighbors and putting the other before ourselves is an imperative for a well-spent life.
As Christians we realize that identity is always found in relationships, and the most important must be the one we have with the creator of us—the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He made us with specific identities in mind and that through his son our rightful identity is being restored—we are becoming the persons he had in mind when he made each of us. We are reminded that we are created in the image of God and with a purpose. We are reminded that each human being is equally created and called to a restored relationship with our maker and redeem. All identities must finally find their location in the heart of God. Understanding that place gives one a vocational direction to live life forward.
Jack Schultz is Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University Irvine