A Question of Identity

imagesWay back in the 1980s, when I was doing my year of internship in a large Lutheran church, I had the opportunity to observe my supervisor conduct a rehearsal for a Jewish-Christian wedding. When the wedding party arrived, someone reminded my supervisor that he had agreed to remove the Paschal candle from the front of the church.

I was appalled. I remember thinking, “But this is a Christian church; this is who we are. We shouldn’t deny that!” I never mentioned it to my supervisor and missed an opportunity to discuss the issue. At the time, I was forming my own pastoral identity, steeped in “correct” theological beliefs and church practices, so I may not have been open to a more expansive view at that time.

Decades later, however, I look back and see the question of identity as a crucial one with which the church of today must wrestle. It’s part of both the interfaith and intrafaith landscapes. And it is an ongoing process! Even now, when officiating at a wedding at the chapel at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, I flinch a little when we pull the drapes over the cross in the front of the church. It’s like telling Jesus to turn his back for a little while.

Identity is important. How can I make my way in the world if I don’t know who I am? If I’m confused or if I allow myself to be swayed by someone with a stronger sense of self, I risk losing myself completely. Boundaries are a big part of identity. Part of an infant’s growth process is discovering where she ends and her mother and others begin. We’ve learned that poor boundaries lead to all kinds of dysfunction in individuals, families and organizations. So it is no wonder we become alarmed when we feel that our identity as Christians has been eroded. We feel threatened, under attack from all directions – secularism, science, a new generation that does not find the same meaning in the institutions in which we were raised.

And then there’s the reality of religious diversity. Just look at the panicked responses to “the war on Christmas.” My Facebook page this past season was filled with challenges to dare to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”

This anxiety isn’t unique to Christianity. Sylvia Boorstein, who is Jewish, reflects on the popularity of Buddhism:
“. . . I think the alarm people express about Buddhism has more to do with instinctive fears about tribal survival than philosophical error. . . Doing an action that another group does . . . arouses concern. I think it’s the natural, self-protective, genetic response of tribes.” [1]

Our Christian tribe is anxious. We lament the decline in membership in our churches and try to figure out how to attract new people. We worry about how to pay for the expenses of the staff, buildings and programs we’ve come to expect as necessary parts of being “church.” We live in survival mode and when we can no longer afford these perceived necessities, we count ourselves as failures.

For many in the Church, interfaith encounter seems superfluous or downright threatening. However, I believe that our tribe will be in trouble, not because of all the other tribes out there, but because we will not have figured out who we are in the midst of them. In family systems terms: we must be self-differentiated while remaining connected. Just as this is the way to health in personal relationships and families, so it is with the Church.


[1] Boorstein Sylvia. That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 135-6.




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