Beyond the Catch-22: Forming and transcending identity in Christ

May 29th, 2019

The other week, I wrote about identity formation and relinquishment as it bears on the current moment in the United Methodist Church by using the example of Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. But it strikes me that what I'm trying to say might be said even more clearly and directly without trying to exegete it from Teresa or any other mystic. So, in this post I'm going to try to state an aspect of the wisdom I think I see in the mystics in my own words, with only minimal allusion to any of them.

The problem, it seems to me, is this. The vigor of churches (and other institutions) depends on robust identity formation, and yet robustly formed identities give stable grounds for pride, sectarianism and all manner of self-superior "us versus them" thinking and acting. And it seems like churches, no less than other institutions or groups, are caught in this pickle, this "catch-22." Now, the way of Jesus and the spirituality of the Christian mystics point a way out of this trap, but the first thing is to see the trap clearly and see the ways in which all churches are prone to get stuck in it. It seems like either a ministry forms a strong sense of its identity, giving its members a strong sense of mission and purpose in the world, and to that extent at least has the possibility of growing and flourishing, or it leaves things wishy-washy regarding community identity and values. An institution with a wishy-washy identity can feel like a safe haven for some folks to land in, but it fails at the level of providing strong, convincing reasons (1) to persuade others to join, or (2) to persuade members to remain members, particularly beyond the first generation.

Yet — and here's the bull's other horn — to the extent that a ministry gives its members a strong and clear sense of their identity, as it corresponds to and aligns with God's mission and purposes in the world, the members of that ministry are prone to view other groups, and other Christian identities, as suspect and in dubious relationship to God's mission and purposes in the world. So it goes very much to (1) the inescapability of a church's understanding its mission and purpose and identity being tethered to the articulations of that mission and purpose and identity by some teacher or group of teachers, and (2) the inescapability of Christian teachers and groups of teachers articulating the Christian mission and purpose and identity somewhat differently, and occasionally significantly differently, in this world.

At any rate, the problem, as I've traced it above, is crudely put. Doubtless others have said much the same with more sophistication. In short, a lack of Christian identity formation means a lack of vigor and mission; but a strong Christian identity formation can give foundation to some very un-Christian impulses and actions. It seems like Christian churches, as they actually exist, end up looking half pagan, and it is difficult to see how this isn't inescapable. I'll call this the Identity Catch-22.

This description, in the context of the United Methodist movement at present, has relevance to both progressives and traditionalists about sex and marriage. Whichever understanding one judges more correct regarding the biblical vision for sexuality, marriage and family — and the two versions on offer differ considerably — the above diagnosis can fit the facts on the ground in churches and ministries. Both traditionalist and progressive churches can err wishy-washy in identity formation, and correlatively lack missional vigor; on the other hand, both progressive and traditionalist churches can robustly and decisively define their identities, and here the spiritual and social problems that emerge have to do with pride, intransigence, near-sightedness.

OK, so far, so good? My claim is that Jesus Christ and the mystics point a way beyond all this, but before I lay it out, I need to make a second distinction. The second distinction is brief.

This second distinction concerns the way in which the Identity Catch-22 is and isn't inevitable in churches and ministries. My claim is this: all churches and ministries will experience the above tension to some degree. That's because all churches and ministries that sustain themselves through time will be incorporating and raising new members, and those new members (whether due to sheer youth, spiritual immaturity or both) will, to the extent that they form a Christian identity, do so in a way that's not yet worked out in their experience and character; they'll do so unevenly and in near-sighted ways; they'll blunder about a bit. This is inescapable, and one shouldn't think that God's grace is absent this process of awkward, blundering growth. Saving grace and significant blundering can both be manifestly experienced and mixed up in a single life, as many teenagers would attest. But what the argument below hopes to point the way beyond is the inevitability of the Identity Catch-22 among spiritually mature members.

Because, ultimately, leaving identity wishy-washy is not an option for Christian churches. We've been given by God a mission in the world and told it correlates to God's purposes for the cosmos. So the question is: is there a kind of Christian identity formation which gets beyond the above? I'll claim that there is.

My claim is that (1) we see the way beyond the Identity Catch-22 in the way in which Jesus and the scriptures articulate Christian identity. Further, (2) the mystics bear witness to some spiritualities that help people actually grow into (1), grow into the ways Jesus and the scriptures articulate Christian identity.

OK, briefly on point (1). Intrinsic to Christian identity, as we encounter it in Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible, is what I'll call "identity transcendence." Intrinsic to one's identity is a going beyond, and relinquishing, one's settled identity. So Jesus says that those who want to save their lives will lose them, whereas those who lose their lives for his sake will find them. We're called to leave family, to take up our cross, to follow Jesus into the darkness and suffering. We're called by St. Paul to recognize our identity as grounded radically in Jesus Christ and in the Father's free adoption of us in love. Paul can write, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:19-20). This nexus of identity as identity-transcendence stretches back biblically to the genesis of God's call: Abram is called to leave his parents' land, family, and security to go to a destination as yet in darkness, as yet unseen. That darkness is the darkness atop Mt. Sinai where Moses meets God and hears from God; it is also the darkness of Good Friday. We're all called into the divine darkness, into the mystery of crucifixion and resurrection in Jesus Christ so that we can live radically by the Spirit and not by the flesh. All this is intrinsic to Christian identity.

Rightly understood, Christian identity is an ecstatic identity. It comes as a gift, as a summons, and calls us beyond. It is the terrible advent of divine beauty into the everyday, and, ultimately, as the everyday. There's a connection here to the way J. Kameron Carter discusses Israel's and the church's theological identity in relation to eschatology: when one's speaking of mysticism, eschatology is never far away.* Most of all, this self-transcending quality of Christian identity is seen in Jesus Christ himself: in his own way of life as the incarnate Word, culminating in his death, burial and resurrection. Jesus Christ is the grain of wheat who falls to the earth and dies in order to bear much fruit — to allude to the verse of John's Gospel which Dostoyevsky made the epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov.

So, Christian identity, as tethered to Jesus Christ, is a curious form of identity. It should be, in its mature forms, subverting and transcending of the Identity Catch-22. To authentically, and by grace, participate in Jesus Christ's identity as eternally beloved Son of God will be to gain the tools to relinquish and transcend even our own understanding of this identity. In Jesus Christ, we see that God is love and that the divine darkness, the divine infinity, the divine transcendence beyond the world that is everywhere present in the world, is to be trusted, embraced, loved. We can go into darkness, for God's darkness is safe for us. There is resurrection beyond the grave, and light beyond the mind.

Of course, this identity transcending quality of Christian identity is all over the New Testament, but in order for it to be efficacious — in order for it take Christians and churches beyond the Identity Catch-22 — it has to be embraced and integrated spiritually and practically be believers.

Here's where point (2), on the mystics, comes in. The mystics and spiritual masters of the Christian tradition are guides who have lived into the trinitarian reality St. Paul speaks of in Romans 8, in which the Spirit prays in us and bears witness with our spirit with groans too deep for words. That's to say, in Christ we're inside the infinite love God is, and because we're finite that infinity registers in our minds as darkness. So, as contemplatives and Pentecostals know, the greatest intimacies with God in this life take place in some sense beyond our minds: at the level of our spirit. So the fifth century Syriac monk Dionysius speaks of the height of union with God achieved in this life being a place where, metaphorically atop Sinai in the divine darkness with Moses, one is "neither oneself nor someone else" and where "by knowing nothing" one is knowing "beyond mind."

The pertinence of the mystics' spiritualities to this argument, then, is that they are spiritualities that let us participate in Christ by transcending our own understood identities. I'll take up one brief example: the spirituality of the Cloud of Unknowing, which has been popularized by writers like the late Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, Martin Laird, and was even the go-to mystical text for the Jesuit genius Bernard Lonergan in his later years. In the form of prayer the Cloud teaches, one lets all concepts, images, thoughts and ideas drop. One lets oneself lose them in the Cloud of Forgetting and the Cloud of Unknowing. (I'm speaking with some imprecision here.) When they arise or re-emerge, one lets them drop again. Repeating a simple word, like the word "God" or "Jesus", as one phrase can both aid one's focus and recall one from thoughts back into "the cloud." Here one leaves behind even one's Christian ideas, identity, thoughts, trusting God, as it were, in the darkness. Those who practice a similar form of prayer experience numerous transformations which I won't go into here. But one of the most significant is that they wear their identities lightly: they've discovered the depths of the way in which Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light. That's to say, they show a way to have Christian identity that is both robust, and robustly identity-transcending and relinquishing. They show us how to follow Jesus beyond the Identity Catch-22.

* see J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, esp. pp. 247-251.

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