Written by Chesterton House

August 20, 2013

By Justin McGeary

Who am I?

A question never asked in a vacuum, this one will have new force for the thousands of students packing up and leaving family, friends, and home this month to live and study at a university.

The question will appear or be felt everywhere—in the mind, in the classroom, in the heart, in the cafeteria, in the choices, in the parties. The answers once assumed or understood as coming from parents, friends or the pulpit will be questioned. College life is an identity crisis in the truest sense of the word—a critical time.

Who am I?

In his introductory chapter “From Self to Person—Some Preliminary Thoughts” of the book Figures in the Carpet, Wilfred McClay sets forth two ways to answer the question: one is either a self or a person.

“Our age, of course, speaks of selves,” he observes matter-of-factly. What is a “self”?

“The self is… changeable and contingent and interior…[and] tied to a romantic and subjective view of the isolated and autonomous individual… The self is a moveable and malleable target, one that adapts to changing circumstances, revising its constitution repeatedly over the course of an individual life, taking on strikingly different colorations at different times.”

This self is defined in isolation from others, independent and introspective, but above all, ever-changing. For as exotic as it sounds, and though not the word on the street, the conception of an individual as a mere “self” is arguably the assumption found on the TV and the movies we watch, sold in the stores where we shop, and assumed in the academies where we study.

There is nothing deeper than the constantly changing surface, nothing providing continuity or depth, and for McClay a chameleon “self” is ultimately “unreachable”–and this means, essentially, a hollow answer to the question, or a perpetual identity crisis as the answer shifts as the self changes. And while perhaps entertaining on TV, it does not describe what we hope for in a best friend.

Who am I?

McClay prefers the answer: a person.

“It is the person, not the self, that is not only the home address of our consciousness, but the nexus of our social relations, the chief object of our society’s legal protections, the bearer of its political rights, and the communicant in its religious life. To put it another way, it is the person, not the self, whose nature is inextricably bound up in the web of obligations and duties that characterize our actual lives in history, in human society—child, parent, sibling, spouse, associate, friend, and citizen—the positions in which we find ourselves functioning both as agents and acted-upon.”

A human being is socially, politically, and religiously rooted. We exist in a “web of obligations” and relationships, and we might add, callings (though McClay would not reduce a person to only this “web of obligations”). This description lacks the limitless freedom of the self, but is more substantive. A person lives in relation to others and is known in relation; a self stands alone.

The challenge of the university years, especially the first, is that one feels more like an isolated self than a relationally rooted person. Once dropped off in the dorm room, all the previous relations, callings and obligations seem to fade and there exists an opportunity to remake one’s self. It is unlike anything before in life.

Who am I?

McClay’s description of the person fits well with what theologian John Calvin wrote about “the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Of these two facets of knowledge he writes, “[W]hich one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern… it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”

How we answer the question of identity depends on how we answer the more basic question, “Who is God?” Anthropology and theology are inextricably linked. We are human persons, and human persons are known and understood in relation to divine persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this question of identity is often asked from only one side of Calvin’s equation, the human side, or with assumptions of the “self”’ in view rather than a “person.”  How we answer the question, “Who am I?,” depends simultaneously on how we answer the question, “Who is God?” [1]

In view of the challenges and opportunities facing the incoming students at the university, Chesterton House aims to ask both questions—“Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As a Christian study center and residential community, Chesterton House believes that learning, growing, and knowing occur in life together.  So, we aim to connect students with the Christian intellectual riches of the past in order to robustly address the perennial questions. Thereby, the identity crisis will not be wasted.


[1] For some wonderful essays on this topic see Personal Identity in Theological Perspective edited by Lints, Horton and Talbot (Eerdmans 2006).

Chesterton House Painting