This article is adapted from a talk given by Rob at the Mother’s Union Sydney Conference, ‘For Such a Time as This’, held at St Andrew’s Cathedral in February 2022.
This article is the first in a three-part series.
My wife and I enjoy watching the documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are? In it, various British celebrities are taken on a journey of discovery to uncover their family histories. What they find is often quite moving.
JK Rowling, for example, discovered that she comes from a long line of single mothers. Kate Winslet discovered that she has Swedish ancestry on her mother’s side and that her great-great-great-great grandfather had to steal to feed his family, before losing his baby son and dying in prison.
The show taps into our fascination with how individual lives fit into the broader tapestry of history. At the end of the day, that’s a quest we’re all on, in one way or another. We are trying to work out who we are, where we’ve come from, and what our place is in the world.
Now the question I’m addressing in this article takes a particular approach to this quest: Have I the right to be who I am? It’s a rather contemporary way of asking the question (as we’ll see), as well as a question-begging way of asking it—it begs the more basic question: Who am I? Because unless I know who I am, I won’t get very far in working out whether I have the right to be who I am.
Thankfully we’re not the first people on the planet to grapple with these things. The search for self-understanding is as ancient as the ancient world. For instance, the call to “know thyself” was inscribed above the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in 4 BC. And various Greek philosophers came up with answers to it.
Many centuries earlier (around 1,000 BC), King David asked the question in Psalm 8:
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Ps 8:4)
And drawing on the Bible’s opening chapter, he answered this way:
You have made him little less than God,
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet. (Ps 8:5-6)
Now, admittedly, that is only part of the Bible’s answer to the general question of what it means to be human. But it’s a very important part, because the question “Who am I?” is inseparable from the questions “What are we?” and “What has God made us to do?”
Before we dive more deeply into a broader biblical answers, let me first sketch out three different approaches to the question of identity—approaches that all currently compete with each other.
1. The Traditional Approach: Identity is Received
This approach sees identity as something that is given to us and, therefore, received by us.
There’s great wisdom here, for it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to realise that who we are is determined by a range of factors over which we have no control—like where we are born, to whom we are born, what sex we are and what name we were given.
Identifying people in terms of such features is very biblical. Do you recall that moment recorded in John 1:45, where Phillip finds Nathanael and says to him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”?
Name, place, sex and relationship are key elements of identity… even for Jesus.
In John 19, we’re told that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene [i.e. Mary of Magdala]” (v 25). These three different Marys are all distinguished by relation or place.
For various reasons, we rarely identify people by their place of origin these days. But name, sex and relationships are still key. I’ve spent my life being referred to as Bruce and Joan’s son, David and Andrew’s brother, Claire’s husband, and Nathanael’s father. So, not surprisingly, this traditional approach is still very much alive and well.
2. The Modern Approach: Identity is Constructed
As I’m sure you’re aware, the traditional approach stands in some tension with the more contemporary approach, according to which identity is not so much received as constructed. That is, identity is a project we undertake, rather than a reality we discover. This is why many suggest we should no longer ask “Who am I?” but “How do I identify?” Givenness has been trumped by chosenness.
This approach is not completely mistaken, for there are lots of things about us that aren’t given or set in stone. There is such a thing as ‘identity development’: as we grow, we have all kinds of experiences and make all kinds of decisions that help to form our identity and shape our way of being in the world.
One way of acknowledging this reality is to speak of identity as being made up of primary elements—the things you don’t choose and (usually) can’t change—and secondary elements—the things you do choose and can change. That’s not a bad way to proceed.
But, of course, what’s happening more and more is that the second category is being swallowed up the first. Givenness is being displaced by chosenness; reception by construction.
This is perfectly illustrated in a recent article with the title: “Living in a woman’s body: my body belongs to me. I can harness and shape it as I see fit”. In it, author Juno Dawson—a transwoman—writes:
We get our bodies at birth: our eye colour, our hair colour, our skin colour. We have no say in those things at the moment we are born but changes are within our grasp. We can go against the grain. … None of us are beholden to our bodies.
Realising this, Dawson decided to undergo a series of surgeries to appear on the outside more like the person he felt himself to be on the inside. And he saw this as an exercise of his right to be who he really is. As Dawson puts it:
I believe in individual bodily autonomy; a refusal to let the system predetermine or limit your choices is one of the ways we attack patriarchal structures.
3. Synthesis: A Better Way—Combining Old and New
Not everyone in our culture has embraced such a subjective view of the self, or such an autonomous approach to identity construction. In fact, there are secular voices advocating for a synthetic approach—one that seeks to combine the old and the new by recognising the difference between the fixed and the flexible elements of who and what we are.
The traditional approach has always recognised that there are things about us that can change, or that we might choose to change, or that God himself might decide to change. For example, God has quite a habit of changing people’s names in the Bible.
But on either the traditional or contemporary approach, a question naturally arises: Who says what can and can’t be changed? Who says what’s primary and what’s secondary? Who says that a person born with a male body can’t be or become a woman? How do we know if we’re just letting “the system” predetermine or limit our choices?
The answers to these questions may seem self-evident from a biblical worldview. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God takes bodies very seriously. But take that biblical worldview away and replace it with a social constructionist worldview (which, in large measure, is what our culture has done) then the answers are not so obvious.
4. Missing the Heart of the Matter: Made by God and for God
What’s missing from the secular approach, then, is an awareness of the fact that we were made by God and for him and, as Augustine said, will not find rest until we rest in him. That’s why theologian, Michael Horton, is spot on when he writes: “The ‘self’—understood as an autonomous individual—does not exist”.
That’s also why the so-called paradox of identity—the fact that we don’t find ourselves by looking into our ourselves—is not really that mysterious. We only find ourselves by looking outward and, ultimately, upward.
And that highlights our need for God to speak.
Some will be old enough to remember the “The Logical Song” by Supertramp which has that haunting refrain, “Won’t you please, please tell me who I am?”
Well, thankfully, God has done so in Scripture. So we come,
then, to our need to view ourselves through biblical lenses—four of them, in
fact. And that will be the focus of my next article, as we continue our quest
to answer the question “Have I the right to be who I am?”.
 Juno Dawson, “Living in a woman’s body: my body belongs to me. I can harness and shape it as I see fit”, 11 Feb 2022 (accessed 24 May 2022).
 Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p 87.