Tim Keller's use of identity in his theology

I originally posted this in Oct of 2006

A key theme that Keller works again and again has to do with the concept of identity. All preachers use what I call pathways. These are ways to easily get from here to there, they are the main arteries of one’s theological fabric and one of the central arteries for Keller is use of the concept of identity. Keller quotes Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death by depicting sin as “building your identity on anything but God”. Sin can be defined as law breaking, but Keller points out that in a post-modern age the immediate retort is “who sets the laws?”

This quote from a piece on the web from Keller is a great example of how he uses identity.

“Message: Sin is building your identity—finding your greatest meaning, significance and security—on something besides God. Everyone centers his or her life on something, and whatever that is becomes by definition and function a)your god—something you adore and serve with your whole heart, and b) your “savior”—something you have to have in order to feel spiritually and emotionally significant and meaningful. So even the seemingly most nonreligious people are living lives of worship, working for their “salvation” though not expressing it so to themselves.”

From this quote you can see that identity links up with his other ideas about idolatry, salvation, and worship.

There are a couple of good reasons why this works so well I think for Keller. It has to do with where we are in history as well as how fundamental identity is for how we see nearly everything else in life.

The American revolution was the political and cultural expression of enlightenment ideals. The enlightenment sought to break many of the bastions of traditional societies. In traditional society you inherited your identity from your family. It was expressed in vocation and geographical and theological location. You were who you were born to be. The king was born to be king, a few were born to be nobility, most were born to be commoners. The words of the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To be an American (initially just men, mostly of European descent) meant that increasingly identity was something that you did not inherit but was a product of your will. How freeing is it to no longer be limited by your birth or by class or caste but to see life as a blank sheet of paper, full of possibilities and potentialities to pursue. Identity was not received, it was created!

American history would be seen as a narrative of struggle for other classes of people seeking the liberty to also create their own identities. Dark skinned people received emancipation and were free to create their own identities (with or without 40 acres and a mule). Children would be freed from factory work to pursue an education in order to create their identity in this land of opportunity. Women would be emancipated from the identity of house-wife, mother, vassal and could enter into the market place to establish their own identities, not prescribed by gender. The gay right’s movement has been a quest not merely to assert identity, but to assert it’s acceptance. Many of America’s social conflicts can be seen through the lens of identity. In each of these movements identity is achieved by force of will and freedom of choice.

Identity has also become in our culture the center of one’s religious quest. Expressive individualism is all about finding the true me, the authentic me. Religion is seen as the journey of becoming the spiritual me, the unique me, the fundamental me. Me as individual, me as chooser, me as definer of my own reality, me as creator, sustainer, definer. The older religious patterns of finding my place within a larger cosmos and community through moral living and dutiful service are replaced by finding my path to becoming my best self, my truest self. Oh to be as self-actualized as Oprah!

It is important to stress that this identity is an individual identity. Community may be a function of the identities self-expression but community serves individual identity, not the other way around. This identity is also assumed to be written upon something of a blank sheet. Surely there is a heritage available that may be chosen or rejected, but the identity emerges out of the will or spirit; it is either chosen or spiritually discovered through some unique or authentic spiritual quest.

It is also important to realize that culturally any sense of emotional shalom is dependent upon satisfaction or fulfilment of this idealized identity. The person’s historical existence becomes a function of their psychological and spiritual identity. If they can life up to their idealized identity they are happy. If they fail to realize their dreams there will be trouble in one’s sense of self. We are free to pursue happiness through identity creation or exploration but will we find it?

All of this is the romantic mythology that surrounds our sense of identity in this culture, the truth seems far more crass. People mostly cobble together their identities from the stock accessories offered by our popular culture. Marketing in fact has become all about images of identity. Those Ipod images of dancing silhouettes with the stark white of the Ipod and it’s trademark white earplugs say it all. Adolescents of course are particularly attracted to this as they leave the identity given them by their parents to find their own. (Given Keller’s population of young adults in the big city looking for themselves the theme seems particularly vital.) The irony is of course that in the quest for individual identity most simply follow the crowd and adopt some combination of the stock images available.

Keller in his preaching repeatedly notes that in fact this identity creating culture is really all about idol fabrication. These idealized identities that we create for ourselves very quickly become spiritual masters whose approval we seldom attain. Many of the aspects of our identity are natural and proper in their place but elevated to become the main focus of our heart they become cruel masters who can never be satisfied, forcing us into serving them until we die. Success in career is a common culprit yet most of us have to satisfy for less than we had dreamed and some who succeed discover that there is nothing as boring as success. Success in family, success in love, success in world changing, all of these as Keller says often: “if you find them you realize they don’t satisfy and if you fail them they’ll crush you…”

Your identity in our culture is your glory and where do you place it. In his message Praying our Fears Keller urges us to “relocate our glory”. If your identity is built on anything other than Jesus we will inevitably enslave others and be enslaved by our ideals. Jesus is the only safe holder of our identities because we have no standing to justify ourselves (which leads to feelings of superiority which is the root of discrimination against others and enmity with our neighbor) yet we are given the status of sonship which we don’t deserve. Keller basically sees correcting our notion of identity as being the heart of loving God (removing our fear and pride) and being free to love our neighbors because we no longer feel superior. The emotional payout of this is satisfaction. We are satisfied because Jesus as the only trustworthy master loves and forgives us even when we fail, and deeply satisfies us when we live for him (Christian hedonism).

Identity when used this way really becomes the attachment by which the other elements of his theology are applied to a person emotionally and experientially. Identity becomes a conduit by which emotional application is made of the more intangible theological points such as imputation and atonement.

Identity is not a function of the will, that is the error of the enlightenment. Identity is not a function of an emergent spiritual journey which will generally lead to either fantasy exaltation or elimination. Identity is given by God and only found in Jesus Christ.

About Paul VanderKlay

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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