What follows is a short essay shared with a group of colleagues who serve in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The goal of our papers was to generate reflection and conversation through the lens of theology and the practice of ministry on the topic of identity. We considered the First Catechism of the PC(USA), the Heidelberg Catechism, and two essays (chapters) excerpted from books: “The imago Dei and a Reformed logic for feminist/womanist critique” by Mary McClintock Fulkerson in “Feminist and womanist essays in Reformed dogmatics.” Amy Plantinga Pauw, Serene Jones, editors; and “Gender Identity” (chapter 4) in “Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation” by Miroslav Volf.; and “See Some I.D.” (chapter 6) in “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” by Carlos Lozada. This brief essay of mine provides a short overview of central topics in our readings, and then launches into a reflection considering the Body of Christ as a source of identity for members of a Christian community.
Our readings offer a few insights into identity. Many of the PC(USA) catechisms speak of identity in covenantal terms as we belong to the family of God. Mary McClintock Fulkerson invites us to consider transforming perspectives stemming from our identity in the image of God. Carlos Lozada outlines societal identity that is historically reactive, clannish, yet often becomes a diverse and fluid dynamic. Miroslav Volf describes gender identity embodied and exclusive when “sexed” yet potentially inclusive when considered in a Trinitarian frame.
My first instinct was to go with the language of the Heidelberg Catechism and the comfort it offers. I lean into the comfort of belonging to one who claims me with sacrificial love. Perhaps I go there because in many ways I now feel like an growing bird whose mother is plucking feathers out of the nest. My mentors are passing and the community they shaped and trained me to lead feels as if it is departing. It leaves me occasionally feeling adrift.
Preparing for this paper, the poem of Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled, “Who Am I?” kept bubbling up in my soul. Here are a few lines:
Am I then really that which other men (sic) tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself? …
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Yet life has a sweetness for me these days. Our daughter recently delivered our third grandchild. Holding and cradling that baby, I sang the same lullaby of love that I sang to her mother, uncle, and older brothers before. Over years of ministry, I’ve gained a reputation as a calming baby whisperer. I’ve also learned that holding a grandchild and singing can have a calming effect on grandpa too. I am reaching for Psalm 131 (my paraphrase):
O God, my heart is not proud, my eyes do not look too high.
I don’t engage with things too great or wonderful for me.
Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet
like a child in its mother’s arms,
as content as a child that has been weaned.
O Israel, hope in Yahweh, now and for evermore.
The last line of Psalm 131 reframed identity for me – from comfort to hope. And, as the Apostle Paul writes, “hope does not disappoint.” Even more, I believe that hope challenges us forward beyond our comfort into something stronger. What I learn from reflecting on this theme is that Christian faith does anchor but also transforms our identity.
Knowing, along with Bonhoeffer, that I belong to God offers comfort. John Calvin reminds me that knowledge of God and knowledge of self go hand in hand. Claiming the transforming insights of Reformed theology spurs me onward and helps me adapt even as I remain grounded in the knowledge that I am God’s own.
The First Catechism of the PC(USA) asks and affirms, “Who are you? I am a child of God.” This knowing shapes our baptismal liturgy. After naming a child, we announce, “See what love God has for us that we are called children of God, and so we are.” There is power in that moment of naming. In recent years, it seems that a growing number of people are choosing to change their given name. Yet more often than not, the gift of a name is a daily legacy of identity that silently frames our lives.
Our daughter, Annie, and her husband, Scott, named our granddaughter Quinn Margaret. Our grandson, Matthew, believes his parents got the name wrong. He is convinced that his sister should be called, Miles. He’s been on a lobbying campaign for months, claiming that it was about time for him to be given the privilege of naming a baby. Who gives us a name and what does it mean for us?
Babynames.com tells me that, “The name Quinn is primarily a gender-neutral name of Irish origin …” Recently, my parents informed me that our Norwegian relatives were shocked to learn that I had been given an Irish name. Later in life, my father-in-law wasn’t sure I should marry Jill because my people “hadn’t come over on the Mayflower.” (I wish he was with us now. One reason I have that wish is then I could share the recent genealogical news that my 11th Great Grandfather, Francis Cooke, did in fact arrive on the Mayflower.)
What is in a name? Who am I? Who are my people? A name can define who we are and to whom we belong. I recall hearing a friend question his mother for naming him after an absent father. He would hold that question as she would remind him whenever he was going out through his teenage years, “Remember who you are.” Nevertheless, years later, my friend chose that phrase as the title of his work on baptism.
I turn to naming at baptism because there is one transforming name that Christians claim, Jesus Christ. We baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity and claim to be with Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. This process of engrafting into the Body of Christ establishes a self-correcting spirit of hopeful transformation. The family tree of Christian faith is ever changing and renewing. The image of God is dynamic and hopeful, particularly when seen through the life of the one who suffered, died, and is risen.
One challenge for our reflection was to consider writing a question and answer for a catechism. I suppose that if I were to reflect on further on identity, I would want to ponder deeply the many dynamics of being the Body of Christ. Here is a catechism question and answer I would write:
Question: How are we the Body of Christ?
Answer: The strong love of God connects many members into a common life. The body of Christ is God’s reconciling presence and purpose in Creation. Our baptism is a grace-filled act that unites us with the embodied life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We place discipleship in Christ on our shoulders like a garment of gratitude as we seek to demonstrate God’s presence and purpose. With every heartbeat, God joins our lives in this shared identity until the completion of our baptism in death and our joyful communion with the risen Christ.
© Brian R. Paulson – February 2023