Lost at Sea: Looking for Identity in an Inauthentic World
In a time of world crisis it’s easy to overlook the big questions. Some of them, though, matter even more now than they usually do. This is one of them. We need stable realities to hang our responses on. We dare not lose track of our humanness and identity at a time like this. — Editor
Netflix recently produced a reality game show entitled The Circle. Participants create avatars on a social media interface where they can fabricate any identity they want. It’s a popularity contest based upon their assumed identities.
You might find a game show like that amusing or absurd. Either way, it raises the question, who are we, really? Do we assume alternate identities in the real world? Many of us certainly do online. What does it mean to truly be ourselves anymore?
Those questions go deeper than they might appear.
No Fixed Point
Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship.” Without a fixed point, one becomes chartless, lost, perhaps even sunk. Our culture is an abyss of identities. Unfortunately, our age not only lacks but celebrates the deconstruction of any fixed point for knowing ourselves.
Western culture teaches that the highest pursuit in life is to define one’s identity—an authentic self. Many believe that there is no objective basis for persons’ identity. Instead, you are only who you are conditioned to be in certain situations of life. The pursuit of this “authentic self” is relativistic, too: No one choice is better or more honorable than any other. Whoever you choose to be is as good as whoever I wish to be.
Thus you are allowed to be whoever you desire. That’s why we hear so often, “Be yourself,” “Be true to who you are,” and “Be who you want to be.” But there are problems with this.
No Basis for Knowing Who We Really Are
First, the relativism beneath this pursuit undercut the entire project. As Charles Taylor explained not long ago in The Ethics of Authenticity, we need what he calls conditions of significance in order to form our basis for identity. To determine my own identity, I must start with what differentiates me from others, but those differences must have a certain significance.
That probably needs an example to explain it. Suppose it’s true of me that I weigh the same as a boulder in Switzerland, and also that I can accurately predict the stock markets. Which of those will matter to my identity? Am I more likely to call myself a rock-balancer or a stockbroker? But that decision depends on a background, especially involving other persons, that defines what is significant.
If that example seems too extreme, consider the young person who chops down trees just as expertly as he predicts the stock market. How he identifies himself will depend to a great degree on what Taylor calls the “horizon of significance” with respect to those pursuits. And that answer would be very different today than it was in the early days of our country.
Yet, relativism deconstructs, or you might say disassembles horizons of significance. Our culture declares that all identities are equally worthy. No one’s choice is better than another. Chopping down trees is as good as helping people make money on the stock market, and vice versa, too — and it doesn’t matter what time in our history you’re talking about.
Ironically, this means that no identity is significant. For one’s identity to be worthwhile, it must hold greater worth than another option. Taylor wrote,
“I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter…. Only if I exist in a world which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial.”
There Can Be No “True Self”
Second, when relativism trivializes all choices, people will simply look to what the society around them values. They’re try to be recognized for those traits. Lost in a sea of irrelevance, men and women will look for a fixed point. There is none, so they look to the closest substitute: cultural values. The person’s “true to the self” identity ends up reflecting cultural norms, or even conforming to them.
Finally, the search for an authentic identity self-destructs into an inauthentic mode of living. Consider Netflix’s The Circle once again. The contestants forge identities that they believe will make them acceptable and recognized by the other contestants. It’s a picture of what everyone does. They say they’re pursuing the “authentic” self, but they adopt identities based on what culture values instead. Is that genuine? Is it authentic?
Writing at Vulture, Meg Wright commented, “The real pull of The Circle is that it’s a brutally honest reflection of the fractured way we attempt to connect to each other today… and how we filter our thoughts, feelings, and identities before throwing them into that huge web.” The Circle is an exaggeration of what many of us are doing every day on the internet.
Our digital environment only makes this worse. Every platform begins by asking you who you want to be. There are no constraints. You can choose any name, age, race, gender, picture, or avatar that you like to present yourself to the world. From one social media platform to another, you can fragment yourself however you wish.
There need not be any correspondence between the actual you and you that you present to others. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the affirmation from your followers.
Where to Find a True Identity
So where do we find a true identity? We need a true horizon of significance. Scripture teaches it can be found in a relationship with our Creator by virtue of being made in his image.
When we know God, then we can discover what he desires and live according to his design. Only in Him can we find a secure foundation for the self. Being made in his image means that we’re designed to reflect his character. The more we reflect him, the more we become who we were meant to be.
Jesus died so that we could be made alive in relationship with God. Paul wrote that for those saved by God’s grace, they are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). The gospel promises us a fixed point. We are God’s workmanship, his masterpieces. We can discover our identities in the overlap where the attributes he gave us and the “good works” which he prepared for us meet.
Perhaps you are creative, and you can use your art to glorify God or bring healing to hurting people. You might be a highly organized and efficient person that he can use to bring order to places of chaos. Whatever your unique gifting is, you can discover and use it in a relationship with the Maker. The more you exercise your gifting with God, the more you will know who you were meant to be.
Fragmenting ourselves with false profiles online won’t get us there. Investing time in offline relationships and pursuits offers far more hope. Still there’s just one fixed point from which to find what matters most. By living in true relationship with God through Christ, we may truly become who we were always meant to be.
Aaron Shamp is a writer, speaker, and the lead pastor of Redeemer City Church. He holds an MA in Christian Apologetics from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Aaron lives in Lafayette, LA with his wife and daughter. You can follow him at aaronshamp.com and at @aaronmshamp on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.