Identity in the Post-Modern World
I posted a piece yesterday asking the question: Are you spiritual or are you religious? In reality, a majority of people want to keep these two together. But, it is important to acknowledge that the world of today is very different from the church's "golden age" in the 1950s. We look at the world in very different ways. In the forthcoming issue of Sharing the Practice, the journal that I edit for the Academy of Parish Clergy, Loren Mead, founder of Alban Institute writes a piece on the changing world of ministry. He uses the metaphor of the tides to describe the difference between the world in which he entered ministry, in which the Academy of Parish Clergy was born, and the world of today. Then the tide was coming in, now it's going out. That makes doing ministry much more difficult.
Yesterday, in her closing presentation, Diana Butler Bass shared with the gathered Disciples clergy a matrix to understand the old and the new -- she made it clear that old isn't "bad" and new isn't "good," they are what they are. She shared with us the three areas of inquiry that sociologists use in formulating polls and surveys. They want to know about identity -- to what do you belong -- belief, and practice. I'll be commenting on the latter two at a different point, but I want to focus now on questions of identity.
As Diana laid it out the question that lies at the base of this inquiry is "Who Am I?" Descartes answered that question for the modern age with the words: Cogito ergo sum -- "I think, therefore, I am." Identity is defined in terms of rationality. What makes us different from other species is our rationality. You can see how this would affect and influence the way the church exists and organizes itself. It leads quickly the next point -- belief, which is defined in very rational terms, and practices, which are defined as techniques -- How do we do what we're supposed to do? That is the old paradigm that defined the world in which the American church had its golden age. It focused on the external and the institutional -- what so many describe today as "religion." And it worked very well.
But, the world has changed, and the identity questions have changed. Science is asking different questions about identity, and those questions have made it clear that things are rather complex. We may be rational beings, but we're more than rationality. In fact, identity is defined in a context of a complex web of experiences and possibilities. Identity is wrapped in economics, politics, the environment, religion, science, and more. So, in this new age, when we talk about identity we must add prepositions -- what Diana referred to as "Prepositional Identity." Thus we must tweak the question.
It is no longer "Who am I?" or "Who are We?" Instead, the question is: "Who am I in . . ." Or, Who am I with . . ." And as people of faith, we must ask the question of what we're doing or why we're doing something in this way: "Who am I in God?"
And that's the question I want to pose. Who are you in God?