Listen: Tim Keller talks to Sam Robinson about modern identity.
Modern ideas about ‘finding your authentic self’ are partly to blame for a lot of today’s depression, anxiety and shame—and only an identity truly built on God can fix it.
That’s the view of Dr Tim Keller, pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and author of many books on faith.
In an interview with Hope 103.2, Keller said today’s young people are building their identity and sense of self-worth on personal interests, pursuits, talents and tastes. And it’s an identity that’s prone to disappoint.
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The Shaky Ground of Modern Identity
Keller’s thoughts on identity are influenced by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and he delves into the topic in his latest book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Sceptical. Talking to Hope 103.2’s Sam Robinson, Keller explained why he believes secular individualism can lead to such fragile emotions.
“Charles Taylor makes a really good case that the contemporary idea of the self is that you define yourself,” he said. “You don’t connect to God, you don’t connect to your family; you look inside and you determine who you want to be. You have to be true to yourself. You go inward. That’s the contemporary idea of identity.
“He makes the case that that is an incredibly fragile identity, that it needs recognition, it needs affirmation, and it can never get enough. [But] traditional society says, ‘You are a citizen, a family member, and believer in God’, in other words your identity is based on your connections to things outside yourself. He makes the case that that is a lot more stable.
“[Taylor] thinks modern people are more prone to depression, to suicide, when someone that they’re in love with, you know, breaks up with them, if their career reverses.”
In his book, Keller says traditional forms of identity can be damaging, too. Drawing on the work of other philosophers, he writes:
“The traditional self is suffocating, captive to what your family and tribe tell you that you must do. Adding some religion and moral strictures only aggravates the problem. Both the traditional and modern selves are inherently insecure. They can never be either fully at peace or bold enough to ‘venture everything’ for the good and right. They are always in danger of dissolution, being so conditioned by what others think and say of you.” (Ch 7)
So Where Should Our Identity Come From Then?
In Making Sense of God, Keller writes that “someone who you cannot but praise, who praises and loves you,” is the foundation of identity.
We’re bound to be disappointed if we seek this from family, friends, a spouse, children or work colleagues. Only God can satisfy, he says.
“If we put this power in the hands of a fallible, changeable person, it can be devastating. And if this person’s regard is based on your fallible and changeable life efforts, your self-regard will be just as fleeting and fragile… Only love of the immutable can bring tranquillity. Only the unconditional love of God will do.” (Ch 7)
Why Jesus is the Best Source of Affirmation
In his chat with Hope 103.2, Keller explained that faith prepares us for life’s inevitable challenges.
“Christianity gives you an identity that’s not as fragile, that can handle disappointments, that can handle failures, that can handle suffering—in a way that the modern secular identity cannot.”
“The sense of worth or value that comes through faith in Christ is arguably more secure than any other.”
And because his book, in making a case for Christianity, contrasts Christian belief with other faiths, “in which individuals are expected to achieve their own salvation through moral effort and religious observances”.
By following Jesus, he writes, we discover that we’re invaluable treasures created in God’s image, and also that we’re adopted and loved by a supernatural Father: “The sense of worth or value that comes through faith in Christ is arguably more secure than any other.”