Voices of Faith

The place of personal identity in faith

Experience influences faith

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, Congregation Beth-Torah, Kansas City, Mo.:

Identity influences faith. Formative childhood experiences often determine adult religion. Other factors exist, however.

Some people reason their way to faith, like Soren Kierkegaard or Adin Steinsaltz. Others experience momentary revelation that touches their lives inextricably, like Mother Teresa or Franz Rosenzweig. These vital events become incorporated into the individual’s identity and profoundly touch his or her faith.

Some people experience an identity contradicting “call” to faith, like Dr. Eben Alexander, and they integrate that into their identity over time.

The impact of identity on faith may be unconscious or conscious, depending upon the person’s thoughtfulness. Sincere individuals who convert to a new religion may be attempting to match their faith to their interior identity. Some people adopt a new faith in order to change their identity.

I have particularly witnessed the latter when addicts in 12-step programs forcefully place their faith in God, attempting to alter their destructive habits by asserting the primacy of their faith over addiction. The process works both ways: identity to faith and faith to identity.

The identities of prophets are changed when responding to God’s call, biblical Jonah or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance. Humility requires that we flawed humans admit the subjectivity of our personal faith dependent upon individual identity, and not assert its supremacy over lives other than our own. Morality may be absolute. Faith is subjective.

Faith transforms us

Rev. Betty Hanna-Witherspoon, pastor of Ebenezer AME Church, Kansas City:

I define personal identity as those characteristics that make us unique from other human beings.

We start with our names, build our personality types, add our accomplishments and our failures. These characteristics determine how we enter into relationships. Some of us are shy, others of us are extroverts. Some of us wait to build relationships, asking: Will this person find me acceptable? Others of us jump into new relationships easily and quickly. Some of us think very highly of ourselves and others of us do not.

From the perspective of how we see ourselves, we approach God. Some of us come to faith easily and quickly. Others of us require a time of contemplation. Some will approach God from a place of feeling “wretched and undone.” They are in need of a healing relationship with God where it is established that God loves them, no matter what unique characteristics they bring.

Others will see Jesus as their friend and expect to converse with him as friend. They are the people who see Jesus as willingly bearing their sins and grief. They just have to ask the Savior to help you, comfort, strengthen and keep you. He is willing to aid you. He will carry you through.

The Apostle Paul discusses his resume (those unique characteristics that make him Paul) in 2 Corinthians, 10-12. He declares that he could boast about his ancestral heritage, his suffering for the faith, his revelations from on high, but these things are not important because God has said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Faith in God transforms our personal characteristics so that they become not ours, but God’s, to be used for his purposes. We cannot boast about our characteristics or accomplishments, because when we become truly faithful, everything about us is used for God’s glory — our shyness, our exuberance, our education.

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