Identity formation, identity transcendence and the UMC

April 30th, 2019

The spiritual masters in the Christian tradition teach both a process of identity formation and its relinquishment as part of the process of our transformation in Christ. We tend to experience identity formation and identity relinquishment as being at odds with each other. We need to learn to see them as connected and mutually interdependent.

United Methodist readers, in particular, feel an acute tension in the present moment. (Non-UM readers might as well skip this paragraph.) Whether one inclines more to the traditionalist side or the progressive side of the current fracture, one experiences the UMC as undergoing humiliations at just the nexus of identity formation and relinquishment. The traditionalists have won the war, so to speak, at the GC/worldwide church levels, yet, if the emails and petitions circulating in my own Rio Texas Conference are any indication, the traditionalists are soon to experience the humiliation of pastors and other church leaders acting in disobedience to GC on a perhaps large scale. The progressives, for their part, have experienced the humiliation of watching their worldwide church vote and rule against progressive North American and European views of homosexual practice and marriage. For some, this felt like a personal humiliation, a rejection of their own identity; for others, it causes acute shame to be associated with a church that would so judge. At any rate, anyone with their finger remotely on the pulse of the current United Methodist theodrama knows everything I'm saying in this paragraph, so there's no need to expend further keystrokes depicting the situation, though I'll make further reference to it below by way of application.

One of the more winsome of the classical depictions of this harmony of identity formation and relinquishment in the mystical life comes in Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, book five.* It's the example of the silkworm which becomes a butterfly. Teresa knows she might not have all the "natural science-y" details right, and bids her readers keep their focus on the spiritual application. First the silkworm grows from a little seed to be a grown up silkworm, "fat" and "ugly" in Teresa's description. This process of growth is, spiritually speaking, the process of general Christian growth and, for our purposes, Christian identity formation. Think here of all the ways the Christian is catechized as a Christian by doing the ordinary things of an engaged spiritual life: going to worship, confessing one's sins, reading good books, listening to sermons, praying. One forms one's identity. In the United Methodist world, we have many books and resources in our tradition for thinking about this process, classic among them William J. Abraham's The Logic of Evangelism. (And see also the brand new edited volume, The Logic of Evangelism Revisited.) Abraham helps his readers and students think about evangelism as initiation into the kingdom of God. That's to say, in the terms of this article, that to be evangelized in Abraham's terms is to have one's identity progressively formed as Christian.

But the growing up isn't the end of the silkworm's journey. It must spin its cocoon. The cocoon, Teresa tells us, is the place the silkworm goes to die. Teresa associates this spinning of one's cocoon as one's participating in mystical prayer in cooperation with supernatural grace. Here is the space of radical openness, of letting one's will be progressively and supernaturally conformed to God's will, of entering into the forms of prayer Teresa knows as the prayer of quiet or the prayer of union, to various forms of ecstasy and rapture Teresa catalogues, and, finally, to betrothal to Christ. For Teresa, union with God is, most definitively, spiritual betrothal to Jesus Christ. Unlike some mystics who conceive of divine union as sheerly having to do with unknowing, the incarnation of the Word in Jesus and the holiness of Mary and the saints remain vital to the life of growing union with God. There's both the unknowing in darkness and the inputs of the sense and meditation on Christ, and these are all associated with different levels or faculties of the human person.

Here's my main point: the silkworm, having formed its identity, has to die in the cocoon in order to become a butterfly.

Having formed our identity through catechesis, sermon, study, eucharist, prayer, we then have to enter into spiritual depths that take us — still in and with Christ — beyond our identity. We've formed our identity only to transcend it. We have to follow Christ into the darkness of unknowing, and the darkness of the dark noonday of his crucifixion. Only in and through those twin darknesses are we fully transformed.

What I want to suggest is this: we have to form our identity as Christians, and all the normal Christian stuff we do and study assists in this process. But, because an identity formed as Christian is an identity formed in response to the radically transcendent God revealed in Jesus Christ's dying, burial, and rising, the transcendence and relinquishment of our own idea of our Christian identity is internal to our union with God. We can let all our ideas and understandings drop in prayer, and just let ourselves be and be loved. This self-transcendence reflects and enters into the self-transcendence of Jesus in going to the cross, and the self-transcendence of all those who die in response to, because enfolded by, grace.

Here's the next key thing. If we don't transcend our identity in this way, there's two consequences. First, we cling to our identity (even if its a Christian identity) and so defend it in a sectarian and worldly way. Second, our identity, even if it was a "Christian" identity, is thus revealed as sub-Christian or counterfeit, because the grain of authentic Christian identity points and leads to self-transcendence.

Let me return for just a second to the UMC, because there's a word in this word for both traditionalists and progressives. Both United Methodist traditionalists and progressives have work to do in terms of identity formation and relinquishment. Progressives, in all likelihood, have to endure the humiliation of having to creatively construct a new denomination. Traditionalists worldwide have to carry the cross of the responsibility of having won the vote and so take responsibility for the present denomination's identity formation going forward. Both sides are summoned by the fact that they're trying to hold onto and form Christian identities to follow the path of the Lord Jesus Christ as constitutive of those identities and enter into the depths of self-transcendence, so to pursue an agile and faithful equipoise between the processes of identity formation and identity relinquishment.**

* Teresa's Interior Castle is available in various English translations.
** For an acceptable form of prayer I recommend Martin Laird's books, beginning with Into the Silent Land.

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