February 2024
What Is Identity?

Western culture rages about identity, but the concept is far more complex than popular discussions suggest. And reducing identity to a single element can be dangerous.

The simplest questions have the deepest answers. And we're at a stage in human history when enough thought lies behind us and around us that we feel paralyzed by all the perspectives. But thank goodness: Scripture offers us answers that don't sacrifice depth for clarity. That doesn't mean, however, that we'll attain a God's-eye view on any issue just from reading a few Bible verses. In Scripture, the answers God gives to our deepest questions always help us to recognize both his greatness and our smallness. Ultimately, God grants humility as an answer to our longing for short and shallow responses. This keeps God on the throne and us on our knees. And that's exactly where we need to be when we're wondering about our identity.

Identity is a word that houses libraries of our thought and experience. In the broadest terms, Scripture reveals that our identity is rooted in God himself, who made us "in his image" (Gen. 1:26). And yet defining what that image is has been the aim of many books. I've written about that here, as an example of the Reformed perspective. As one of my favorite theologians put it, being made in God's image means being made "like God in everything in which a creature can be like God" (Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 34).

Not exactly the detailed description you were hoping for, is it? That's because our identity is found not in one narrowed, particular thing, but in our holistic imitation of God. Our identity as image bearers, in other words, is no simple thing; it's deep and complex and rich. Ultimately, it is this way because we cannot identify ourselves without staring at God. This was John Calvin's famous observation in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

No one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself. (Institutes of the Christian Religion: Translated from the First French Edition of 1541, p. 2)

But if we're gazing upon the face of an incomprehensible and ultimately mysterious God, we can't expect to see utter simplicity and non-mysterious identity when we look in the mirror.

Kenneth L. Pike

Now, rather than survey the literature about identity and its current cultural expression (on the modern understanding of identity, readers will gain much insight from Carl Trueman's, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self), I wanted to offer another perspective from a Christian linguist, Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000). Why add yet another perspective? Because many of the arguments I've seen over identity today stem from what we call reductionism, or what Christopher Watkins in his Biblical Critical Theory calls "reductive heresies." As a linguist, Pike developed a language philosophy that ended up being a helpful means of interpreting much more than language. In fact, his theory has been used on the broadest levels. What might identity look like through the lens of Pike's theory? The short answer is that I think his approach would keep us from being fully satisfied with the statement "I am X" as a sufficient, all-encompassing expression of identity. (That's particularly relevant for anyone scrolling social media these days.) After accounting for our perspective on identity, Pike's theory would suggest we are more than one thing, we are all in the process of developing, and we find our identity in relationships with others. These are truths that echo the teaching of Scripture itself (for example, Gen. 1:26–28; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:15; 2 Pet. 3:18; 1 Cor. 12:15–26). Let's start by asking how we are looking at identity.

How Are You Looking?

If we're trying to understand what identity is, we might start by asking not "what is it?" but "how are you looking at it?" This may seem like philosophical pedantry, but it's much more than that. We easily forget that whenever we try to understand anything, we do so from a certain perspective, a vantage point. In other words, we always have a way of seeing the world. Pike was convinced that we often use three interlocking perspectives. He presented these perspectives using the analogy of light: particle, wave, and field. In his words, each person

often acts as if he were cutting up sequences into chunks—into segments or particles. At such times he sees life as made up of one "thing" after another. On the other hand, he often senses things as somehow flowing together as ripples on the tide, merging into one another in the form of a hierarchy of little waves of experience on still bigger waves. These two perspectives, in turn, are supplemented by a third—the concept of field in which intersecting properties of experience cluster into bundles of simultaneous characteristics which together make up the patterns of his experience. (Linguistic Concepts, pp. 12–13)

Particles, waves, and fields—discrete things, developing waves, and interlocking grids. We use these perspectives all the time, and each of them presupposes the other two.

Applying this to identity, we might ask the questions: Are you talking about identity as a definite thing with discrete borders (particle)? If so, where do we draw the borders, and are they fuzzy? Or, are you talking about identity as a changing dynamic, something that rises to a peak over time and then begins to settle back down (wave)? Or, are you talking about identity as an interlocking facet of life that can only be understood in relation to other things (field)? Of course, Pike would say we need all these perspectives (and more!), but his theory wasn't as widely accepted as he'd hoped. Why? I can only speculate that Pike's theory didn't offer people the thing they wanted most: simple, shallow, easily master-able answers to life's deepest questions. Pike would not offer that. And, I might say, Scripture doesn't either. 

Again, just consider three sets of questions Pike's theory would bring to identity based on these perspectives.

  • Is my identity fixed and changeless, like a piece of granite with sharp boundaries? Is who I am something static?
  • How long does it take my identity to develop or crystallize with maturity? In other words, when do I know who I really am?
  • How is my identity bound up with other parts of life: my relationships, my occupation, my passions, other events in the world?

Do you see how this opens this door to so much discussion? In contrast to the terse and simple replies we often hear today about identity (whether that's ideological, religious, sexual, or psychological), Pike's approach invites conversation. And I think that's precisely what our world needs more of as it grapples with identity.

What Are You Seeing?

After asking "How are you looking at identity?" we can ask, "What exactly are you looking at?" Pike wrote that every unit of language, or every unit of human behavior (or every "thing" in existence), had three features: contrast, variation, and distribution. Don't be put off by the terminology. He just meant everything has traits that contrast it with other things, appears somewhat differently each day, and exists in a network of relationships. If this sounds reminiscent of particle, wave, and field, that's good. This all fits together as a unified theory.

Since we're talking about identity, I'll use myself as an example. First, I have physical traits that mark me as unique—thick eyebrows and a heavy beard (thanks, dad), a particular hairline, skin color, height, etc. Those things are external, but there are also internal traits. I have habits of thought and language that mark me as distinct from other persons, as well as passions and means of expressing those passions (like writing!). All of these things contrast me with other human beings.

Second, each day when I wake up, I'm still me, but I'm slightly different variant or version of me. I've changed in small ways, but not so much that my family wouldn't recognize me. A few more wrinkles might be forming, a hair or two fell out during the night, and maybe my voice is raspy from a cold. Again, these things are external, but there are internal changes as well: new thoughts, spiritual longings, ways of interpreting my surroundings. All of these things make me a new variant of myself each day.

Lastly, I find myself in different places each day, tied to network of relationships. I am not "just me." I am a son, husband, father, friend, employee, neighbor, acquaintance. I can't detach who I am from where I am and those to whom I'm related. In other words, I live in a distribution, both in terms of space and in terms of personal relationships.

Each of these features is always present, and each is a way of looking at the same "me." They are what my teacher and friend would call perspectivally related. They are different perspectives on my one self.

Again, notice how this invites conversation. When someone says, "I am X," you can ask several questions.

  • Is that what contrasts you from other people? Do you see that as a necessary contrast or as something that could change?
  • How have you been a slightly different "X" in the past? What matters to you most right now?
  • How is your identity as "X" related to the other roles you play as a person? Do you see your identity of "X" as more prominent? Why?

Deep things require conversation. And what could be deeper than identity? I love how Pike's theory calls people into communion with each other, into vital and probing conversations.

The Depth of Identity

Maybe you're disappointed that I haven't answered the question that titles this article, "What is identity?" But that's the point. Pike's theory draws attention to the depth and complexity of human identity. In fact, it draws our attention to the depth and complexity of . . . everything. But this depth and complexity often get ignored on the popular level. Put differently, identity is often reduced to one thing among many. In answer to the question, "Who am I?" we tend to hear responses in two- or three-word chunks. "I'm progressive." "I'm conservative." "I'm homosexual." "I'm transgender." "I'm a Christian." "I'm a feminist." "I'm a teacher." What Pike's theory suggests is that all such answers leave much unsaid. They momentarily ignore the depth and complexity of life for the purpose of quick communication. And that wouldn't be problematic in itself, as long as we didn't then treat people on such a flattened level. But we do, don't we? We reduce things, and the world is suffering for it.

This isn't an invitation to flood other people with questions every time they use "I" and a form of the verb "to be." But it should encourage all of us to receive any claims to identity with calm contemplation. We think all too often only about what people say and leave unchecked all they don't say. But when it comes to identity, there's always more we can say. When someone claims a label we take issue with, for various reasons, or even a label that differs from our own, we might do well to find out more of what lies behind the statement: the contrasts, variations, and distributions that go into being a person in the world, in addition to the perspectives we're taking from the outset (particle, wave, and field).

Now What?

I've already suggested why I'm taking this approach, but it bears repeating. In our world, we need talk, not terse judgment. We need to be prepared for conversations, not categorization. If we really do believe that we're image bearers of the incomprehensible God, then all claims to identity have a gravity to them. And that gravity should call us into conversation. Perhaps more profoundly, they should call us into deeper communion with one another. 

Learn more about our culture's view of identity in Insider-Outsider.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Stay Connected

Join me on Substack