Elasticity of Christian Identity

Part One

Stephen Curkpatrick

Whoever seeks to secure life will lose it … whoever loses life … will gain it

This article was previously published in Suci Iman Akademis Dan Praktis: Jurnal Teologi, 7.1 (2018); with acknowledgement to
Sekolah Tinggi Teologi Jemaat Kristus Indonesia.

(1) Identity, loss of loss, Christology and formation

What conditions give the possibility of pliable identity that is sustained through change? Following Hegel, identity is inherently differential in its determination within a movement of encounter, contradiction, assimilation and growth. Identity is elastic, always changing as already mediated by immanent relation with what it is not—by analogy, as the determination left is inhabited by right, yellow by blue or some other colour etc.—identity is, because it is not. Immanent differentiation within human identity invokes dialectical moments of negation (contradiction) and double negation (assimilation) in a movement of elevation (sublation). Accordingly, gain emerges from loss—so experience and finer determinations of identity within encounter and relation. Sublation is a moment of becoming as a dialectical mediation of contradiction (alien) and assimilation (integrated) in incremental change that is intrinsic to formation—in education, maturation and competency—so elasticity of identity and growth in the capacity for relationality and empathy. (With reference to Hegel)

According to the gospels, a certain divestment or loss is gain; there is nothing to lose but a perception of loss—yet real loss necessarily prefaces loss as gain; loss of loss is losing the fear of loss. These dynamics are christological: God relinquishes presumed inviolability as kenotic and is paradoxical in disclosure by divestment within the theological scandal of Christ crucified (loss) that prefaces superlative creativity and gift. Christology represents a radical new possibility for human subjectivity—as the formation of specifically Christian identity through loss and gain that correlates with death and resurrection. Losing the fear of loss is a freedom to reinterpret perceptions of loss within life. Loss of loss is non-grasping at identity, especially by tribal determinations; human freedom is open to new mediations of self and therefore relationality, with space for (re)formation within the most adventurous narrative of human existence—the unnerving venture of loss (negation) and gain (double negation) in (trans)formation. This impetus is pervasive in Hegel.

By reference to Hegel and Hegel’s interpreters, the following aphoristic sequences present (2) tribal scenarios of presumed gain that is loss, (3) peculiar loss that is gain, (4) though recognized retrospectively, even as (5) the truth of predication in dialectical moments and movement is a dynamic site of (6) creativity in (7) continual formation within the elasticity of Christian identity and so human possibility.

(2) Tribal gain without loss

Contrary to asserting and presumably securing determined identity, identity assertion is already implicated in differentiation. Hegel posits identity as identity and non-identity by negation and relation: any entity is by reference to its negation—a is, because there is non-a, so b, c, d, etc.; recognizing this inherent differentiation within identity is also the possibility of relation—that a relates to non-a within self-reflexive determinations of identity. This evaluation contrasts with assertions of identity that demand tribal immunity from any possible negation—a is only a; therefore b, c, d represent potential threat. Tribally, a is invariably amplified to A.


 (2.1) Identity politics and identity reticence

In making an appeal for the inviolability of any tribal identity, identity politics presumably promotes mutual toleration and affirmation of all tribal entities. Yet any tribal assertion of immunity from critique concerning its valuations and practices effectively isolates that tribe from all other tribes and any recognition of our fragile, anxious and invariably fractured humanity. With each tribe claiming priority marginal status and invoking political privilege as imperative, identity politics generates an unexpected nemesis—resentment, even open antagonism.

A paradoxical principle of identity reticence and so continuity with all humanity is here necessary. Christian testimony to fractured human existence, so incomplete identity, articulates the perennial elusiveness of wholly integrated identity, which contemporary identity politics presumes to establish. Contrary to any privileged claim to inviolable tribal identity, this theological recognition is a prerequisite for reticence in tribal assertion. By contrast to the multiplication of tribal identities, each competing for exclusive regard as intrinsic to particular identity, our fractured humanity is potentially kenotic as intentionally self-deferring. This is Christian, following Paul’s rejection of any privileged claim to tribal identity—as neither Jew nor Greek (Žižek). Conferred and received as a gift, identity exhibited within generous self-deference for others is a specifically Christian perspective.

(2.2) Contradiction: with or without formation?

In assertion of identity, negation is immanent within identity (a implies non-a). (Hegel) Derrida suggests that identity is deconstructed, negated by what it excludes in assertion—for example, in assertion of white by exclusion of black, white is nevertheless already defined by black; in deconstructing identity, the derivative entity becomes visible. Tribal assertion exhibits the response of a derivative identity subsequently reversing and repeating the same oppositional posture—therefore invoking negation (deconstruction) without self-reflexive double negation (sublation). Hegel’s dialectic of negation and double negation exhibits identity as also non-identity, so movement and growth by contradiction, recognition, assimilation (change) and empathy.


 (2.3) Human dignity and identity politics

Desire for integral human dignity as meaningful work, health, education, belonging, positive relationships, recognition and freedom is perennial. Yet this common concept of human dignity has paradoxically, been displaced by contemporary identity politics to the detriment of dignity applicable to all. Consequently, nothing can be critiqued. Any common concept of human dignity is invariably scuttled; if one tribe can decline such dignity, so can another. In Paul’s neither Jew nor Greek, so non-tribal identity, all are equal as to humanity in Christ (Žižek). The realization of a common concept of universal human dignity was made possible through such Christian influences.


(3) Question and answer, loss and gain

The sustained question concerning human identity (What are we?) implies a substantive answer. Yet every instance of announcing it (We are this!), eventually lapses (as not this either). Presumed substantiations of identity are invariably negated—so precipitating continual crises of seeking identity (Are we this?). The perennial differential between question and answer is crucial to human life as dynamic not static. (Hegel) We do not need to answer the unanswerable identity question (Who are we?). Paradoxically, distinctive identity is received as also pliable in continual transformation by loss and gain within the difference between recurring question and elusive answer.


(3.1) “I am not this either”  

Within a sustained encounter with a particular focus as to life’s meaning—whether religious, political or traditional—a person may finally respond, “I am not this”; what I am is something else. This can occur several times in a lifetime. Every pursuit of identity in something else—as a modification, supplement or new choice—is eventually recognized too as inadequate. Within every person is a tacit void that is expressed in conceding, “I am not this either”.

Inasmuch as a symbolic order is invested so as to bind or stabilize a composite identity, this is never wholly encompassed by a particular symbolic reality. (Lacan) Crisis occurs in recognizing that identity inscribed in any symbolic reality is finally “not this”.

Recognition—that I am “not this” is an implicit critique of any focus by which I can say, “I am this”.

Within Christian messaging concerning humanity, an essential identity cannot be secured, for human identity is either elusive as continually deferred or clearly fractured. Within Christian faith, my identity is no longer sought, for the human reality of being fractured as consciously “not this”, is intrinsic to specifically Christian identity received as gift. (With reference to Žižek)


(3.2) Loss within peculiar relationality

Force is exhibited by counter-pressure; it is relative to and sustained by resistance. If force prevails, movement occurs; without resistance, force is converted into change, ceasing to be force. Force is a moment mediated by resistance. Force and resistance are dialectically interactive; each is implicated in the other. Actual force is only sustained by not prevailing over resistance. (With reference to Hegel) What implications emerge in identity being mediated dialectically—quintessentially through a peculiar resistance within relation as by experiencing visceral loss in turning the other cheek and by vulnerable relationality with an antagonist (love for enemies)?


(3.3) Identity mediated through loss

What is lost in losing life is a particular grasp on presumed identity that is always already contested. Re-cognizing loss prefaces gain in going beyond self-determination to engage the mediation of loss by reconciliation with the elasticity of human identity—so self-reflexive pliability in personal formation. (With reference to Hegel)

 The next instalment of ‘Elasticity of Christian Identity’ will appear in reo 2019:1. This article was previously published in Suci Iman Akademis Dan Praktis: Jurnal Teologi, 7.1 (2018); with acknowledgement to Sekolah Tinggi Teologi Jemaat Kristus Indonesia. 

Stephen Curkpatrick is Lecturer in Christian Theology and Academic Dean at Stirling Theological College.