Questions of human identity are shaking societies to their very core as traditional answers found in family, community, and faith continue to crumble. Mary Eberstadt laments in Primal Screams that “every one of the assumptions [we] could take for granted is now negotiable. No wonder erotic leanings and ethnic claims have become substitute answers to that eternal question, Who am I?”
As familial and communal ties wither before the exalted autonomous self, our identity crisis is further compounded by the demolition of that most basic of human identities found in being male and female. As Carl Trueman ask in his tour de force on human identity, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, how is it that the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” has “come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful?” Among these ruins of family and faith, amid gender deconstruction, surrounded by endless intersectional identities, and with countless constructed categories being hastily erected in their place, where can a sure and stable identity be found?
Certainly, fortifying the family unit anchors our identity in something bigger than ourselves. I’ve written about that here, here, and here. So too, embracing the mysterious beauty of maleness and femaleness provides lasting meaning in a world of subjectivity and nihilism. I’ve considered that, too: here, here, and here. Yet worth further exploration is an even more ultimate source of human identity found in Christian baptism. In baptism, we find what I might call a meta-identity, an identity that is both personal and communal, local and cosmic. Despite Christian disagreements over baptism’s precise meaning and application, within each denominational tradition baptism is practiced and valued, and has substantial implications for human identity. Baptism combines deep narrative significance at the individual–subjective level with actual real experience at the historical–objective level. This combination makes baptismal identity an enduring and enchanting alternative to the fleeting identity offerings of the moment.
Mary Eberstadt’s driving argument in Primal Screams is that identity politics is “no boutique passing fad of blue America,” but “a genuine attempt at meeting the human need for meaningful identity in an environment where traditional sources of meaning are lacking.” Simply put, “identity politics is not so much politics as a primal scream.” In our post–Sexual Revolution world—what Eberstadt terms the Great Scattering—we see “unprecedented familial dispersion, . . . [where] western men and women are indeed more atomized and estranged from their own than ever before.” Thus, “today’s clamor over identity—the authentic scream by so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world—did not spring from nowhere. It is a squalling creature unique to our time, born of familial liquidation.” In such an atmosphere, people of all stripes and on all sides are yearning for a tribe. Eberstadt illustrates how “the term ‘woke’ of the progressive left and the term ‘red pill’ of the alt-right are [actually] describing the same epiphany: the moment at which one found the figurative family/community to do what literal families/communities of earlier times did by default.”
While figurative identitarian communities may attempt to solve the identity crisis, they actually introduce further peril by basing such community on external characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic identity) which contributes to Other-ing and victimhood thinking. Figurative identities also emphasize interior, non-physical characteristics (e.g., gender/sexual identity) which tends toward instability and self-absorption. As Eberstadt sees it, “the collective signals to which identitarians respond are increasingly incoherent. Identity has become a forever war whose combatants now habitually turn on their own in a spiral of scapegoating and social deconstruction that no one seems to know how to stop.”
Baptism, by contrast, is not based on such subjective internal characteristics or external physical markers. It is more than just a figurative event that creates a figurative community. For all Christians, baptism is a historical fact. It is something objectively done to a person with water in the name of the Trinity according to Christ’s Great Commission. As such, baptism is an identity-gift. “At your baptism,” Peter Leithart explains in Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death, “God wove your name into his, as he welcomed you into the common life of Father and Son in the Spirit. That’s who you are. Baptism is the gospel with your name on it.” Understanding baptism as an objective, identity-giving event offers a refreshing alternative to popular notions of personhood. The identitarian position views the person as self-determining—constructing novel individual identities in accord with one’s inner truth or external indicators.
One of Carl Trueman’s most salient tools of identity analysis in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is the juxtaposition of mimesis and poiesis (à la Charles Taylor). Trueman explains that “a mimetic view regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.” Trueman argues that today we live in a world of poiesis, where “it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires, and not something that we necessarily need to conform ourselves to.” Trueman further unpacks the implications of such a view: “[I]f society/culture is merely a construct, and if nature possesses no intrinsic meaning or purpose, then what meaning there is must be created by human beings themselves.” This puts “human beings as the sovereigns at the center of a universe to which they could give shape and significance.”
In our poiesis-dominated era, there’s a danger that even Christianity will be understood as an act of poiesis, where one’s faith identity is just another identity-category among many that make up your “true self.” Alan Noble writes in Disruptive Witness, “I may try on Christianity like I try on styles of clothes or beliefs, but the ultimate focus . . . is not on an external being who loves me but my own search for fullness.” He further notes that “our identity and our ability to choose its features become the basis for our being in the world, rather than some outside authority. So that even when we believe in God’s existence and choose to follow him, we do so because of an inner decision.” Noble’s account reveals just how easily the Christian faith can collapse into another self-generated construct of identity.
Christian identity as understood through the lens of baptism is a strong counter to poiesis, especially since baptism’s objectively given identity is also subjectively experienced in the context of a story and a community with a past, present, and future. This narrative source of meaning outshines self-bound poietic constructions of meaning. Baptism connects us to the very source of life’s meaning; the life of God in Christ. As St. Paul says in Colossians 2:9–14, in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and “having been buried with him in baptism” we too have been “made alive together with him” and “have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” His story becomes our story; his life becomes our life. Baptism creates real community—with God and each other. Union with Christ firmly plants the baptized in Christ and his corporate body.
Baptism and the Power of Meta-Identity
A meta-identity is profound because it offers something beyond tribal or constructed identity. It gives one a firm place within the larger ordering of the cosmos—a position from which to live with purpose. A meta-identity is also accompanied by practices and rituals framed within a conception of sanctified space and time, that all fortify the deeper identity found therein. “Rituals,” philosopher Byung-Chul Han elucidates in The Disappearance of Rituals, are “symbolic techniques of making oneself at home in the world. They transform being-in-the-world into a being-at-home.” Traditional rites of passage and historical religious rituals can play an important role in anchoring identity beyond the self. Han further points out that rituals “structure and stabilize life. They anchor values and symbolic systems in the body, reinforcing community. In rituals we experience community, communal closeness, physically.”
Baptism functions exactly in this way and answers today’s identity questions in surprisingly satisfying and sustaining ways. It establishes true identity in something larger than the self’s own constructions or inner feelings; yet it also channels grace to suit each person’s unique character. It is an objective event that occurs in real-time; yet it is narratively situated within the True Myth, uniting the two worlds of story and fact. It is particularly applied in a given locale and community, but is universal in scope and application.
As a meta-identity, baptism is also situated in a context of practices and rituals that creates a rhythm to life. Life’s baptismal rhythm punctuates daily life when we retrace the sign of the cross in daily prayers, pause at the font each Sunday, and celebrate and remember our baptism each year. Each new baptism reminds us of our own and welcomes others into this union with Christ and each other. Baptism frames time’s passage as structured by the Church and marked by the milestones of God’s work in Word and Sacrament. It places us on a teleological timeline, with accompanying rites to mark one’s life: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Christian Burial. These are the identity-makers of the Christian life. Properly understood and embraced, they enable us to withstand the tenuous forms of identity found in so many other places today.
The power of meta-identity was on full display in the ancient world, as baptism into Christ transcended ethnic divisions and elevated women, slaves, widows, and outcasts from low status in the Roman Empire and into the Kingdom of God where “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” The simple claim of the baptized was “Christianus sum,” which, historian William Weinrich explains, “was not merely to state that one believed so-and-so to be true. It was a claim of personal identity that re-ordered one’s basic social, familial, and political allegiances.” It was an identification not only with Christ, but also with his living body, the Church, that heralds his name and his gifts to the world.
Thus, Christian identity carried with it new possibilities. Some possibilities, such as elevating human dignity, were hopeful, and others were sobering, like the potential for persecution and martyrdom. Christianity’s person-transforming power expanded the church to the ends of the earth and altered the world, as a growing number of historians are exploring (see for example, Tom Holland’s Dominion, and Christopher Rowe’s Christianity’s Surprise).
The telos of human identity runs much deeper than individual choice or lived experience, personal achievement or social status, racial categorization or sexual preference. Humanity’s true purpose is found not in their own name, history, or constructed identity, but in the name, history, and identity of the Christ, given in baptism. This sure and certain identity offers hope for this world and the next, knowing that what awaits us in the eschaton is the fullest expression of human identity imaginable: a glorified humanity in full communion with the Trinity and with each other.