Thursday, May 28, 2009

Frogs in the pond

Identity is important both for each of us as individual people (man/woman, Kiwi/other nationality, I am a bus driver, what do you do?) and for groups we belong to (evangelicals, for instance, in the church; 'Westies', for instance, in the city of Auckland; Muslims, for instance, in the people groupings of the world).

Of course individual and group identities get mixed up: a slighting remark from a liberal could upset me as an evangelical (i.e. offend me the individual) or upset me on behalf of the group of evangelicals ('you do not understand us'). In identity politics we assert claims about our own identity or against the identity of others in a manner that makes 'identity' the determinant of good and evil, rather than specific actions or ideas advanced by the other person or group. At least, this is how I understand 'identity politics'. I may have it wrong ...

Vilifying all Muslims as extremists is 'identity politics', as is advancing the wisdom of women as more virtuous than the wisdom of men (a slight hint of which is being taken up as reason to critique Obama's nomination of Sotomayer to the Supreme Court).

Within the church one of the things which intrigues me these days is the reaction I sometimes get when I self-identify as an 'evangelical'. It's difficult to describe the reaction save to say that it does not please people; and as I try to discern why, I am left wondering if it is because by putting myself in a 'box' others are concerned either that concomitantly I am putting them in an identity box or I am fostering a climate of conflict in the church between groups, each seeking dominance.

Even if I am entirely wrong in my understanding of this reaction, I think I need to be clearer when speaking to the wider church as to what I mean (and do not mean) by self-identifying as an evangelical. One aspect of that clarity, for instance, could be to offer 'evangelical' as meaning a commitment to remind the church of certain doctrines which otherwise have been readily forgotten (so I read church history since the Reformation!!) more than as an intention to divide the church into groups at odds with each other.

Anyway, against that background, and all difficulties in the life of the churches today, not just the Anglican church, around 'identity politics', it may be helpful to note this bon mot of Augustine of Hippo (h/t to Timothy Radcliffe, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, p. 181):

"The clouds of heaven thunder forth throughout the world that God's house is being built. But these frogs sit in their pond and croak: 'We're the only Christians'."

(From: Enarratio in Psalmum XCV, Augustini opera omnia, Vol IV, Migne, p. 1234.)

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