The question “Who am I?” is as old as time. It’s not just a question found in an introductory philosophy course or book. It’a question every man and woman encounters . We can’t escape it. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “A cow is simply a cow. It does not ask, ‘What is a cow? Who am I?’ Only man asks such questions, and indeed clearly has to ask them about himself and his being. This is his question.”
This human question, however, is not always easy to answer. We seem to be in a crisis in finding an answer. In 2015, according to New York Times Magazine writer Wesley Morris, our wrestling match with who we are and what we are to be was at an all time high. Morris’ article is appropriately titled “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.” He writes that “2015’s headlines and cultural events have confronted us with the malleability of racial, gender, sexual and repetitional lines. Who do we think we are?”
“For more than a decade,” writes Morris, “we’ve lived with personal technologies—video games and social-media platforms—that have helped us create alternate or auxiliary personae.” We are also amidst the every growing “makeover shows, in which a team of experts transforms your personal style, your home, your body, your spouse.” But Miller writes that though “our reinventions feel gleeful and liberating — and tied to an essentially American optimism,” not all seems to be at peace. Something still seems to be wrong.
Why are we in such a crisis? Why is it so hard for us to figure out who we are? How is it that many can’t seem to find what they are looking for? I wonder if the problem we have in discovering who we are is due to where we are lured to look for answers. Consider today’s media. They suck us in. They compellingly show us that to be complete you need to acquire the best education, secure the perfect job, marry your soul mate, raise intelligent kids, wear trendy clothes, eat healthy, exercise daily, never grow old (or at least look young since you can’t avoid aging), drink hip coffee or green tea, travel the world, and by all means, live authentically and be happy, even if it means abandoning all the above.
Today, “our identities,” writes Mark Sayers, “have been replaced with images.” And these images are “disposable images of the media landscape.” The frustration is that there is no one picture which helps us “complete the puzzle of our identity; instead, it merely offers us a jumbled mess of puzzle pieces, which we constantly configure, reconfigure, and then deconstruct.” As philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “every time I find the meaning of life, they change it.”
So what are we to do? C.S. Lewis wrote that “the first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used” (taken from Mere Humanity). If we take a tip from Lewis, it appears we need to go back to Genesis 1 and 2.
It is in the first chapters of Genesis that we see that God is center stage. It all revolves around Him as He is the creator of all things. And we as humanity, are seen to be the culmination of His creation, created in His image. We are made in His love and to be loved by Him. We are also created to mirror God upon this earth. The bottom line is that we are made to relate to and reflect our creator. This is our identity. This is where meaning in life is found.
Unfortunately, however, it is in the third of chapter of Genesis that we see the wheels come off the bus. As a result, life becomes tricky for us humans. The conscious decision to move away from the love, protection, provision, and instruction of God begins a series of calamities of which our first parents never dreamed. From that point forward, we lost focus as to who we were. But we never stopped looking for meaning. We just began looking in all the wrong places. And it has not turned out well.
Therefore, we must “look to the morning of creation and try to hear the first words that God spoke to [us] and [our] father Adam,” writes Helmut Thielicke, “if we want to know who [we] really are and what God intended [us] to be.” Otherwise, we will never find true identity for which we are searching. It’s only in understanding ourselves as created by God and in His image that our identity and meaning in life is to be grounded. To find who you are in anything else is like trusting in a current fad to never change.
Could it be that one of the greatest Biblical and theological tasks for us is to rediscover who we are as being created in the image of God? In a world of many images, do we not need to refocus on our true image? If not, where will we look that provides a stable answer to our “human question.”