The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      23rd January 2022
Individuality and Identity
Andrew Penny

Listening to a concert on the radio this week, I heard the soprano Fatma Said, who was about to sing two of Mozart’s Arias, say she needed to invest her individuality in the music in order to give a convincing performance. Initially, I thought this a bit odd; I thought performing artists would rather suppress their own personality. But she meant, I think, that Mozart’s music had a universality that required the performer to adopt it as her own adding her individuality to his, to be able to express it adequately. When it came to singing them, she succeeded.
The night before I attended one of the Living in Love and Faith sessions organised by Graham, in which we have explored questions about identity. I approached the sessions with some misgivings, but it was in fact both thought provoking and liberating, a clearing of the air around difficult questions. I recommend joining them on Tuesday evenings. 
This evening I want to try to clarify, some of the questions that trouble me about identity and individuality. Superficially at least they are questions which Christian teaching seems ambivalent, on the one hand telling us that we are all individuals cherished by God; whatever anyone else may think our uniqueness is valuable to Him. On the other hand, conventional Christianity teaches that there are some ways in which we identify ourselves are not acceptable. Equally, the concept of being made in God’s image might be seen as limiting diversity. That and being, in St Paul’s phrase, members of Christ’s body admits different roles and aptitudes, but alosorather suggest a common identity and a denial of individuality.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians Paul is allowing individuals to retain their individual identities as Jew or gentile/ slave or free now, because to him it doesn’t matter; what matters is Christ’s imminent coming when we will all be one in Christ. Compared to that a few years of belonging to one race or another or being free or enslaved are really immaterial. St Paul’s premise here has, two millennia later, proved wrong. The second coming has not happened, not, at least as St Paul envisages it.  The sense of being one in Christ is powerful, but for most of humanity, race, status and a host of other distinguishing features make up our identity and individuality, and tell us who we are. Can we, or how should we, make sense of Paul’s ideas? 
Our identity is in part defined by our self-expression, our own idea of who we are but more I suggest in how we want others to see us. It’s something which we mostly consider in particular contexts; who we project ourselves as being is highly dependent on the company we are in; on how we do or do not want appear.
It might be a definition of being in love to say that it the only situation in which we are -or hope to be- completely liberated to be ourselves. Those we love we love for what they are, and we are loved back on the same terms. If we are lucky this will apply between parent and child and child and parent. Perhaps this happens more commonly with the friends or life partners whom we choose, but that can go wrong too. There is, however, one full life partner whom we do not choose, and whom we may try to ignore but God is always there and before Him there is no dissimulation and equally on his part infinite understanding and sympathy (not, of course, always recognised as such). In God’s company we can be loved as individuals and unconcerned about our identity.
When God creates the world in Genesis, it’s not initially so much creation as reordering; putting the primordial elements in their proper place. And as he goes on and his Word becomes sun and moon, trees and plants and animals, it’s a categorising exercise, made overt in the second strand of Genesis where Adam gives names to all the living creatures, and the name he gives them, “that was its name”. Clear categorisation is seen as essential to the order of the world. The Israelites problem with water, for example, was not just its destructive power, but its fluidity-it can’t be pinned down. I think the strange prohibitions in Leviticus, on mixing linen with wool, barley and wheat and most famously milk and meat are because these hybrids insult God’s ordering of the world.  On one view of creation, therefore, identity is firmly fixed and there is no room for individuality; certainly no room for transsexuals, or cross dressing, nor by extension, for anything but straightforward heterosexuality. 
There are a number of difficulties about this, beside the offence it gives to most of our liberal leanings, or just our notion that God might love all his creatures, and love them as they are. It’s difficult to square with evolution, or indeed any sort of change and development. It seems to ignore the fact that categories are sometimes not so clear cut as they seem; human gender, for example not always just female or male. The exceptions are rare, but genuine. And, of course, people change; identity is not static.
Does the idea that we are all created in the image of God offer any help?  On one view the image of God suggests a static uniformity, but I prefer to see it as the opposite. The ordering of creation describe in Genesis was no doubt consistent with science at that time. Things have moved on and there is no reason why we should not accept the scheme of ordering, but see it rather more detail and more complicated.
 Like all other creatures, we are made in his image, because all of us are realisations of his word; that word, like God, is infinitely varied and indefinable, let alone to be put into categories. Creation is indeed ordered, but it not an order that humanity can hope to fathom, and human efforts to do so, and impose its own perceptions on creation are doomed to failure, most importantly because to do so will limit the most vital characteristic that being creatures of God entails, that is that we share in His creative, loving power. That power would be hopelessly limited if it could only be exercised to reproduce what had already been created. Re-creation is a poor substitute for the power we have to love and so create new life in so many different was. I don’t just mean through sex and children, but through, for example kindness and artistic expression. In this we are members, organs and limbs of Christ’s body; a body of as many forms as His father is infinite and able to bring to life His love in infinite individual ways.
We can all be like Fatma Said who brings Mozart to life, by expressing our individuality and our unique identity by sublimating that identity with that of our creator. As we are told at confirmation, in an echo of Adam in Genesis, “God has called us by name and made us his own”. Amen

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