Eccentric Existence 10 (personal identity)
[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.] Kelsey moves on in the next chapter to discuss the nature of personal identity. He begins by addressing several common ways of understanding personal identity, arguing that each of them actually addresses a subtly different issue than the “Who” question he is interested in. He contends that this question can only be answered buy understanding humans as those who are constituted as God’s creatures by the divine address. This brings with it two implications.
First, that we are constituted by the divine address means that
we are finite creatures empowered by God to be and to act, to give and to receive in our own places and times, creatures whose personal identities are defined by our responsive trust in God. (338)
And second, it means that “we are finite creatures called by God to be wise for the well-being of the quotidian” (338). This is our vocation, and it is a vocation that fundamentally shapes our identity. Thus, the personal identity of human beings is grounded in its ultimate context (addressed by God as his creature) and its proximate context (the quotidian).
From here, Kelsey move into a discussion of our “existential hows” – i.e. the ways in which we live out (or fail to express) our identity in the world. These existential hows should be expressions of “doxological gratitude” as we respond in faith to God’s glorious presence.
Consistent with his emphases elsewhere, Kelsey rejects any attempt to identify normative hows for every context. Instead, he argues that we need to learn how to practice wonder, delight, and persevere through a series of formative practices (disciplines), in community, and in everyday life. I won’t take the time to unpack everything that he says here. But I did appreciate his argument that expressing doxological gratitude toward God includes learning how to attend carefully to God’s creation and express wonder at our fellow creatures. This is more than idle curiosity or technological study. This kind of wonder requires a commitment to see our fellows creatures in their own particularities, attending to their uniqueness and individual splendor. And, this attention is not simply instrumental, a practice that leads to worshiping God, but is itself a liturgical practice.
I also found his emphasis on perseverance to be helpful. Our identity is grounded in our vocation to seek the flourishing of ourselves and all creation. But, we live in a broken world filled with alienation and ambiguity. Thus, the fulfillment of our identity through vocation will often be filled with frustration and failure. But, this is where it becomes important to see that our identity is primarily in our status as creatures called by God. Despite the apparent failure of our vocation, we persevere in our identity by faithfully maintaining our trust in God.
Perseverance is doxological gratitude’s loyalty to God’s call to be wise for the well-being of the quotidian; and therein it is loyalty to and trust in the triune God’s loyalty to God’s creative project despite God’s apparent indifference to, or even apparent abandonment of, the project. (353)
Who am I? For Kelsey, this question cannot be answered exhaustively. But, he contends that one answer must precede and ground all others. I am a creature summoned by God and gifted with the vocation of serving with and for my fellow creatures to see that all of creation flourishes and manifests the glory of God. This identity is difficult to maintain in a fallen world where God’s presence, faithfulness, and even existence seem to come into question with every starving child, broken home, and betrayed trust. But, I persevere in hope, holding on to the faithful God who will not abandon us.