A Note on Identity

Don Cupitt contributed these ideas on identity and diversity to the SoF study on the allowability of doctrinal diversity in the modern church.

It is said that a religious institution has a perfectly legitimate interest 'in defining a stable and coherent identity'. It can reasonably be called upon to state publicly what it is and what it stands for, and what are the limits of the variety of beliefs, values and behaviours that it allows its members. This note aims to clarify a number of points relating to the modern notion of 'identity': what is it, why is it important, and why in Christianity did highly detailed doctrinal statements come to seem so important as badges of identity?

In its simplest and most basic use, identity is selfsameness, the coinciding of a thing with itself. Thus it used to be said that the first Law of Logic is the Principle of Identity, 'A is A'.

Personal identity is rather more questionable, because it makes reference to time and because persons are complicated, changing things. But the civil law, and morality, and religion all seem to require a sense in which, over the years, I remain the very same person. In recent years, individuals have been convicted of war crimes committed over 50 years earlier by a very different younger self who lived in a very different epoch. But what is the seat of personal identity in such a case? Memory, bodily continuity, or a metaphysical soul? Philosophers have not found it easy to say.

In recent times, and especially since about 1770, people have become very much more psychologically-minded and watchfully self-aware. 'Where Id was, there Ego shall be': the self no longer seems to have a clearly fixed and stable nature or character. The postmodern self presents various appearances, plays various parts and has lots of outside, but inwardly it is 'Empty'. In what does its identity consist?

Because traditional accounts of personal identity have come to seem so unsatisfactory, people have in the past twenty years or so come to locate their own 'identity' in some new places. One is their genetic make up. Thus an AID child may see her (or his) attempt to trace her/his biological father as an urgent attempt to find out her/his true 'identity'.

Alternatively, 'identity' may be sought in 'roots'; that is to say, people hope to identify themselves via various groups to which they belong. The most important of these group identities are sex, religion and nationality. Others that are often mentioned include class and profession.

A very early example of the return to an ancient group identity is Daniel Deronda's discovery of and return to his own Jewishness in George Eliot's novel of 1876. It is to be noted, though, that people who feel a strong need to discover their own true identity, and who find that their only way to it is via the various groups to which they belong, may for psychological reasons become extreme traditionalists or fundamentalists. In order to hold themselves together, they insist that their ethnic or religious group must stick rigidly to all its traditional tokens of identity, in every detail. The Russian Orthodox Church is an example of the results of this.

From early times Christianity was highly multi-ethnic, and questions of power and unity mattered greatly to it. It had to explain to its own members why the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth was so long and unexpectedly delayed, and it had to keep the Church in being as a disciplined and expectant body. In addition, it had to synthesize biblical myth and Greek philosophy, and in due course also had to provide the ruling and uniting ideology of the later Christian Roman Empire. For all these reasons, detailed doctrinal definitions, regularly-recited Creeds, and tests of faith became more important in Christianity than they are in any other tradition. Christians are more likely to become intolerant and fetishistic about matters of doctrine than any other religious group.

A personal opinion — I have suggested that Christian preoccupation with doctrinal correctness is irrational, being driven chiefly by anxiety about questions of identity. I go on to say that in a time of very rapid change we should not worry so much about identity. As the case of Buddhism shows, the postmodern type of self, Empty and watchfully self-aware, can be religious and can be blessed. The late-modern world is cursed by conflict between different ethno-nationalisms and different faiths; but why not renounce them and live contentedly without identity?

Sea of Faith itself seems to have a sufficiently clear identity without worrying about the question of identity at all, and without any positive creed of its own.

I go further, and now maintain that we should entirely give up the idea that there is any religious benefit to be gained from adopting, making our own and sticking to a set of second-hand religious doctrines, formulated by other people long ago. The only really valuable religious convictions, nowadays, are ones that we have worked out for ourselves and tested in our own lives. By that route we may gradually forge a religious identity that is truly our own.

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