Roots Systems

Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

Last week Kirsten Anonby set up this four week series with an introduction covering what human identity is, how we have thought about identity formation traditionally, and how we’re doing identity formation in the post-modern era. She discussed the benefits and pitfalls of how we’re thinking about identity formation today, and turned our attention to how we might think about identity formation as Christians, with the foundation of Jesus, and the instruction of scripture. That’s where we’re heading today. Where do we begin thinking about identity formation, thinking about who we are, from a Christian perspective? One answer to that is creation.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1.26-28)
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Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2.7)

HOMECOMING

I’m heading to England in couple weeks. Some folks are jetting off to Maui or California this winter, which sounds lovely, but have you ever visited the East Midlands in February? I’m going to visit my grandmother, who’s ninety-three, and is as fiery and quick-witted as ever. She may be little bigger than a Hobbit, but you don’t mess with a woman who’s weathered the Second World War, a pandemic, and everything else in between. But something strange always happens when I cross the pond. Even though England is my birthplace more than anything, (I’ve spent most of life in Canada), certain pieces of the puzzle fall into place when I’m “home”. There are parts of me that only make sense to me when I’m there. I laugh there in a way I don’t laugh here, things like that. I imagine many of us have similar feelings given our various diverse histories. Each of us are a complex mixture of cultures and backgrounds. We’ve all come from somewhere and delving into our histories is how we tend to make sense of ourselves, learning a bit more about why we think or talk or laugh or argue the way we do. Because none of us appeared out of thin air, we all have roots systems.

When thinking about our identity, asking “who am I?”, a Christian needs a grasp of the roots system, of the origins. And it’s when we return to the origins, as found in Genesis, that we discover if our views about ourselves are aligned or misaligned with the biblical view of human intention and purpose. What is our understanding of our own roots system, and is that understanding being shaped scripture or by something else? So, talking about identity and creation together is always a kind of homecoming for a Christian who want to ask that question “who am I” earnestly. Asking “who I am?” as an individual is of course tied up with asking “who are we?” in broader human terms. In other words, I can’t think about my identity outside of what it means first to be part of the human family, and Genesis 1 and 2 has a number of things to say about what human beings are and are for.

CREATION & IDENTITY
A lot could be said about Genesis 1 and 2 in relation to human identity, but a few starting points might help. These starting points may be new to us or feel almost simplistic to others, but when they’re missed it’s easy to go off course in discussions about identity. What do hear in Genesis 1 & 2, the Judeo-Christian account of the creation of the cosmos? We hear that we are from someone, we are parts of somewhere, we are given body and breath, and we are reflections.

Let’s begin with the beginning. We are from someone. I mentioned my return to England which helps me understand a little of myself, but you’ll also notice in the same breath I said that the visit is not just to a place but is to a person, my grandmother. We know that when it comes to ancestry where we come from is impossibly entangled with who we come from. But in the Bible, geographical origin is secondary to our locationfrom God. Genesis doesn’t begin with where humans came from, but very clearly who humans come from. Where is important, and we’ll get to that, but the who of the question is the key. “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1) That might seem like a no-brainer, but when I lose that crucial view that life, including human life, didn’t just come about haphazardly, but was intended and animated by the origin who we call God, I end up already on another course of thinking about my identity. How I relate to things around me, to myself even, is already influenced by that starting point. And we could even say that a denial of that origin, of the life-giving God, is a kind of futile denial of life itself, even our own life. For the Bible, there is no life apart from God, as life’s single point of origin. Before we have a geographical origin, a familial origin, a personal origin, we are all of us rooted in the life of our Creator – that’s the Bible’s view of things. So, the next time someone asks you “where are you from”, you could consider answering with “I’m from God”, though that might solicit some puzzled looks. But that’s what a Christian believes. Humans have been made by God, intended by God, belonging to God. If we don’t begin there, our questions about identity get murky pretty-quickly. One scholar notes,
 
“The sense that human beings are limited and dependent is not, for religious believers, something humiliating or disempowering; it is simply an acknowledgement of the way things are which, like any apprehension of the truth, is liberating because it delivers us from aspiring to mythic goals of absolute human control over human destiny.”[i]

I wonder how many of us walk around each day thinking that that we are created? That humanity was intended, limited, purposed, and that we have no life whatsoever apart from the one who has gifted life. We are inherently dependent bunch, as is all of creation. And as complex and cruel as life can feel, there is already in that remembrance a rising gratitude and perspective that is gained by that worldview. I have not given myself life, at the very heart of who I am as a human being is the reality that I’m reliant on the gift of life. I have come from someone.

We also hear in Genesis that we are parts of somewhere. If you got up this morning and stubbed your toe getting out of bed, or enjoyed some marmalade toast, you’ve already encountered the reality that you’re made of stuff. And Genesis 2.7 goes so far as to say the stuff we’re made of is not different stuff than the rest of the stuff all around us. If you’ve ever attended a graveside service you may have heard that from the dust we came and to the dust we return. Interestingly, the word for the first person in Genesis 2 is Adam, the Hebrew word for man, but also a word closely related to the Hebrew word for ground “adamah”. We get the same sense in Genesis 1. Humans are both a part of the created order, but also the pinnacle of the created order. We are parts of somewhere.

The whole view of creation in Genesis is not that creation is something humans are intended to disconnect from but to inhabit. Creation is the home, the house, the temple, and God calls it “good”. God makes humans and calls them “very good”. What we end with is a picture of a place humans are made to live within. It’s a place not to abuse, to escape from or to worship, but a place to reside in and even to caretake. So humans are parts of somewhere, which again helps with questions about identity. Abusing this place, worshiping this place, trying to escape this place is not really on the menu in Genesis 1 and 2. One of the quickest ways we can appraise our understanding of self is by asking how we treat our surroundings, particularly the people within our surroundings. Are we interacting with creation in a way which signals that we believe we’re inherently removed or disconnected from it, or are we interacting with creation with an understanding that we’re a part of it, interconnected within it, and most importantly with one another. Dave will share more on that next week. So for the Bible, we don’t come to identity formation as a kind of subjective, isolated thought experiment that I do alone. Identity formation comes from our interconnection with one another. So striving toward an individuality that ignores or discredits our relational nature, our historic nature, is impossible work. That’s part of why it’s problematic to see history only as unreasonable and disposable. We end up trying to forget our very selves, and as the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat its blunders, or ignore it’s wisdom.

So what we’re hearing so far is that we are from someone, we are parts of somewhere, which leads us to our next observation, that we are given bodies and breath. As parts of the created order in Genesis, humans are especially breathed into, given life, spirit by God, and they are set as pinnacles of creation. This is when life as a gift really begins to come home for us. The stuff humans are made of is called good by God, and is in a way inhabited by God. God breathes life into humanity. So again we have this sense of gift – God’s life giving us life. So, like creation all together, a body, my body, is not something then to be abused, worshiped or escaped. Like all creation, a body is a gift. A broken gift, certainly, in need of redemption and renewal, but a gift nonetheless. We see all over scripture that what we do to and with our bodies seems pretty important. Our bodies are a part of us, not disconnected from our essence. In other words, part of what makes me me is my body. So a picture emerges in Genesis of the givenness and goodness of creation, including our bodies, and the sustaining power of that creation through God’s Spirit. 

When we think about how we come to an understanding of our identity, our bodies then are essential to the discussion. For the Bible, a body isn’t a bad thing nor a thing to be disregarded. Nor, in a way, is a body owned by us if life is a gift from God. We often talk about stewardship of our financial resources, or even the broader environment, but what about a stewardship of our bodies? The first century Christians were thought of as strange in Greco-Roman society because of their views of bodies and what they would and wouldn’t do with their bodies. Many in the ancient world saw a body as something to eventually be escaped, a bit dirty or base. Following that logic then, the body didn’t matter all that much, so what was the problem with doing with it whatever you like, or doing what you like with your neighbour’s body? But the Christians thought differently, that the body mattered as good gift inherent to our personhood, in need of renewal along with all creation. They had a very specific way of relating to their bodies as intended, indwelt, dignified beings. That’s a pretty hot topic today for a lot of reasons. But that Christians should take subjects about our bodies seriously is entirely right. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, with challenging fast-moving assumptions, and pointing back to some good a Christian view of bodies has done in the development of western society. For example, universal healthcare in this country has its roots in a very Christian view of the dignity of everybody in our society.

This leads to a final thought from Genesis on identity, that we are reflections. Scholarship in Genesis in the last few decades has shown that Genesis 1 sounds an awful lot like how ancient people would describe the building of a temple, with the final piece of the temple installed as the image of the God. This is the language of Genesis and the picture of creation in general. Creation is God’s temple, and humans are placed within the temple to represent and reflect the character of the God, to be the image of the God. Humans are meant to be representations or reflections of the God who has built the place. This is why God commissions the first humans to oversee creation. And there is a returning sense in scripture that how we treat one another is deeply connected with our relation to God. Some people have said it this way: what you do to the image of the God, you do to the God.

If that sounds a little familiar you might be remembering Jesus in all of this, and why human dignity seemed to matter to him. God is not so detached as you may think, says Jesus, from this human body before you, and people are not only the stuff of dust, they’re made in God’s likeness, indwelt by God’s Spirit. What you have done to others you have done to me, is what we hear in some of Jesus’ language. And what does Jesus go around doing? He goes around renewing life, opening eyes and ears, resorting dignity. Jesus is renewing the temple and the temples which have fallen into disrepair because of sin and death. That’s one way to think about the kinds of things Jesus does in the gospels. And when you read the end of John’s gospel, there is Jesus in his resurrected body, breathing his Spirit into his disciples, an echo from Genesis 1 of the animation and commissioning into the purposes of what it means to be human.

TURNING TO PRAYER

That’s quite a bit to chew on. But what I’d like us to see in Genesis 1 & 2 is the very clear theme of connection. Our identity has an inescapable connection with God, and inevitable connection with creation, crucially with one another. So, how does this help us? Well, though we don’t always believe it, prayer is a very practical thing.

I’ve attempted to gather these four starting points into a kind of simple prayer. What kind of day would I have if I began my day with a meditation on my identity as defined by scripture and rooted in God? How would I act, speak, think? Let’s close with this prayer and we’ll make it available through various ways if you’d like to use it elsewhere.

Gracious Lord, thank you for gifting me life. 

I confess I have no life apart from you, so let me live in gratitude. 

Thank you, for putting me here and now in this place, and with these people.

 I confess I’m reliant on my surroundings, and am deeply in need of others. 

Thank you, for enlivening me through your Holy Spirit, and for my body. 

I give my whole self back to you in worship, and ask you to renew and restore all I am. 

Thank you, for intending me to reflect your character to the world around me. 

I confess I need the wisdom and power of your Holy Spirit to live as you live. 

Thank you for making me and loving me. 

Please sustain me today through your immeasurable resources.

In Jesus’ name, amen.


[i] Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square, 2015

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