Who are you? Who am I?
What would you say is your identity?
What is the major theme running through your life, by which you evaluate the decisions that you make, by which you decide what company you keep, but which you decide what you aim for out of life, what your ambitions are? What is going to be said about you at your funeral?
I was so intrigued the other night to watch the debate between the potential leaders of the Conservative Party on Channel 4. It was an opportunity to discover who they are and see who, in this election (in which I for one will not be an elector) might be the most suitable candidate for the most important office in the land.
I was so interested that the Channel 4 commentator introduced them all by describing which school they went to; as if that was a very important window into their identity; rather than considering their ideas or what they have done with their lives since they left school, which is, after all, the first time that they could reflect their character in their decision making.
Its actually quite a common way of thinking today; ‘oh, you went to that school and so you are bound to think that….to do that….’
But instead of School, the main theme of identity in you life could be perceived to be nationality, or race, or gender.
‘Oh you are White, English Male, so you are bound to think x’
Whatever it is, this approach assumes that your identity is formed entirely from your background by the family into which you were born, by the school and university that you attended; or by the accident of your birth; not by any decisions that you might have taken yourself; not by what you have achieved, but by what others have made you.
But why do we behave as we do?
Why do we have the character that we have?
Why do we take the decisions that we take?
Is it our genetic background, our nature, or
is it the sum of our experiences, our nurture?
This is a very fascinating issue
I really feel for the Archbishop of Canterbury who only discovered a few years ago, when a newspaper managed to do a DNA check on him, that his father was someone completely different from the person he thought him to be; because his mother had an affair with someone else just before she got married; nurtured (rather poorly as it turns out) by one man but natured by entirely another…..
It is this issue which Paul is grappling with in the passage from Galatians that we have just read.
Paul looks first at our nuture
He uses two analogies to describe what sets our character before we, as Christians, receive Christ.
Firstly, of being imprisoned by the law, an analogy particularly appropriate for Paul’s Jewish audience;
Secondly, being subject to a guardian, an analogy particularly appropriate for Paul’s gentile, Greek and Roman audience.
Firstly, the law.
For Jews in the first century, their identity was completely wrapped up in the Torah, the Jewish Old Testament, the first five books of the Bible. In Deuteronomy 6:8-9, the Lord tells the Israelites to tie his laws on their foreheads and wrists. And they did this in a leather pouch called a phylactery. God told them to write His law on their doorframes and gates; the law was to be taught to their children and they learned it by rote. And, as they grew up, they would literally be surrounded by the Jewish law and learn stories of God’s mighty acts of power for Israel. A Jewish upbringing thus had a huge impact on setting identity for those brought up in it.
Secondly, the guardian.
For children educated in Ancient Hellenistic culture, the guardian or pedagogos, was rather a frightening figure. He was generally one of the family’s slaves but was responsible for a boy’s discipline. The cane would have been used a lot to impose on the child the family identity; ‘this is what we do and not that’.
We can easily think, ‘well, that has nothing to do with me…..I haven’t been brought up to wear leather pouches on my head and the cane was never used in our household’
But perhaps a little further thought might make us realise that we too may have been brought up with ideas imposed upon us which delineate who we are…..
I don’t know whether you saw it but recently the BBC has run a drama by Stephen Poliakoff set in the 1950s called Summer of Rockets. Please do watch it on BBC I Player, if you haven’t seen it
The sub text of the drama is the attempt of a Russian immigrant Mr Petrukin to join the English upper class and the ludicrous attempts he makes to pass himself off as an English gentleman.
In 1956 Nancy Mitford contributed to a light hearted book called ‘Noblesse Oblige’ which famously sought to identify some of the characteristics of English upper class identity according to whether a particular action, use of particular words etc was U or Non-U.
The book includes a very funny cartoon by Osbert Lancaster identifying the absolute (and ridiculous) rule that a gentleman cannot carry an umbrella in the rain in the countryside….
unless he is a clergyman…
Now for many of you, I am sure, that this will all appear like complete twaddle and you won’t know what on earth I am talking about. Thank goodness we have moved on as a society since then!
But others will recognise that their identity growing up has to a greater or lesser extent been shaped by some of these Edwardian ideas.
We may not have been expected to wear leather phylacteries and recite the Torah or be banned from using an umbrella In the countryside, but our upbringing set absolute rules for our behaviour which helped to give us our identity, which told us who we were.
Indeed, I can see that my stepfather acted as my pedagogos in this sense, not actually beating me but constantly correcting my pronouciation of English influenced as it was, in those days, by my boarding school in the Midlands.
The point that Paul is making is that, before we know Christ, we carry much of the identity of our parents with us. They seek to form us in the image of our families, they seek to give us our identity, this is our nuture
But then again there is our nature – who we are genetically.
In the last year or so, this question of who we are genetically has been debated a bit more because of a book published by psychologist Robert Plomin called Blueprint How DNA makes us who we are. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/29/so-is-it-nature-not-nurture-after-all-genetics-robert-plomin-polygenic-testing
According to Plomin, the key to personality traits does not lie in how we were treated by our parents, but rather in what we inherited biologically from them: namely, the genes in our DNA. Genetic heritability, according to Plomin accounts for 50% of the psychological differences between us, from personality to mental abilities. But his view is that the other 50% is not made up of environmental influences, which can be planned and therefore improved by governmental action but is rather made up of unpredictable events.
There are, of course, conflicting views on this highly controversial subject, which has tended to divide opinion down a right wing/left wing axis with everyone being very concerned about the possibility of eugenics rearing its ugly head again as it did with Nazism. Psychologists such as Oliver James prefer the environmental story in explaining personality differences.
Whether Plomin is right or not, I find all of this particularly fascinating as I was (as many of you know) adopted and as I explore more and more about my birth family I am discovering how much of who I am may actually have been contributed to by my genetic background; by my birth mother; by my birth father. It’s fascinating.
Are we Jew or Gentile; English, Scottish or Welsh or even French? Are we slave or free, have we been born into a wealthy powerful family or a poor disadvantaged home? Are we male or female? These things make up our nature
In summary, the nuture side of the argument says ‘put in good education and family stability and you will produce, regardless of genetic background, a wonderful human being’.
The nature side of the argument says ‘mix good genes together and you will produce, regardless of environment, a wonderful human being’.
The difficulty with all of this this debate between nuture and nature is that neither take account of transformation of identity that the Holy Spirit can bring.
The slave traders who become hymn writers like John Newton who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’.
The football hooligans like Dave Jeal https://www.thefuelcast.com/library/2018-05-1-dave-jeal-my-story who become vicars and men of violence like Shane Taylor who becomes a father
and people like Ashley who have their lives turned around
Paul says that nurture and nature are not the end of the story so far as identity is concerned.
We must take a further n into consideration: the numinous
The presence of the Divine…
The presence of the Holy Spirit….
because, when we are in Christ Jesus, verse 26, we all become children of God through faith. We are transformed. We are reborn.
All the identities in which we have been clothed by our parents since we were born. All our genetic background with our strengths and weaknesses, are of little importance in determining our identity, in comparison with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Verse 23 we are no longer held in custody under the law; no longer a slave to the identity that we have been given by our parents and our education; no longer subject to a guardian beating into us the family culture; no longer verse 28 finding our identity in our genetic background as gentile or Jew; as male or female; as upper class, middle class or working class; as English, Scottish, Welsh or French.
None of that matters; but rather we all belong to Christ. There is no limit to the transformation that the Creator God can make in our lives, in our sense of who we are, regardless of the material that the genetic processes he originally set in train have produced; regardless of the environment, the rich or poor background, the school circumstances etc that we have experienced.
You see, in looking for our identity, its not just the adopted child like me, who has spent a life seeking a Father, but rather all of us who will not find peace until we discover that we are heirs to the covenant God made to Abraham; that we are, if we are in Christ, children of God.
As Archbishop Justin said, when the news of his true parentage was revealed: ‘Nothing has changed, my identity is still in Jesus Christ’
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ga 3:23–Ga 4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.