Where Did "I" Go?:
The Loss of the Self in Postmodern Times

Rick Wade


Introduction

Who are you, anyway? Do you have an identity? What constitutes your identity? Who your parents are? Where you were born? What you do for a living?

Christians will rightly locate their identity ultimately in the God who created us in His image. We are His creation made for His purposes and glory. But are we important as individuals before God? Are we just a small part of the mass of humanity? Or are we unique individual selves with some characteristics shared by all people but also with a set of characteristics unique to ourselves?

According to the mindset overtaking the Western world called postmodernism, you arenít really a self at all. You have no unique identity that is identifiable from birth to death; thereís no real "you" which remains constant throughout all of lifeís changes.

In a previous article my colleague, Don Closson, explored the views of human nature held by theists, pantheists, and naturalists. In this article I want to examine the postmodern view of human nature and consider a possible direction for a Christian response.

Postmodernism: The End of Modernism

What is postmodernism? It is generally acknowledged that postmodernism isnít a philosophy as we typically think of philosophies. It isnít a single, well thought out philosophical system which seeks to define and answer the big questions of life. Postmodernism is more of a report on the mindset of Western culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some call it a mood. We might say it is a report on the failures of modernism along with a hodgepodge of suggestions for a new direction of thought and life.

Modernism is the name given to a way of thinking born in the Enlightenment era. It was a very optimistic outlook buoyed up by the successes of the sciences which produced some truly wonderful technology. We could understand ourselves and our world, and working together we could fix what was broken in nature and in human life.

Unfortunately the chickens have come home to roost; weíve discovered that our optimism was misguided. We obviously haven't fixed all our problems, and the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. Reason hasn't lived up to its Enlightenment reputation.

Not only have we not been able to fix everything, the technology we do have has had some bad side effects. For example, the mobility which has resulted from modern transportation has removed us from stable communities which provided standards of conduct, protection, and a sense of continuity between oneís home, work, and other activities of life. Add to that the globalization of our lives which brings us into contact with people from many different backgrounds with many different beliefs and ways of life, and we can see why we struggle to maintain some continuity in our own lives. We feel ourselves becoming fractured as we run this way and that; and at each destination we encounter different sets of values and expectations. As theologian Anthony Thiselton says, the resulting "loss of stability, loss of stable identity, and loss of confidence in global norms or goals breed deep uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety."{1} We no longer take our cues from tradition or from our own inner "gyroscope"--an internalized set of values which guides our lives. Rather we are "other-directed." We take our cues from other people who are supposedly "in the know" and can tell us what we are supposed to do and be in each different compartment of our lives. We find ourselves "eager to conform, yet always in some doubt as to what exactly it [is] that [we are] to conform to."{2} We are "at home everywhere and nowhere, capable of a superficial intimacy with and response to everyone."{3}

All this produces in us a sense of constantly being in flux. The debate over which was fundamental in our universe--change or stability--occupied the thought of Greek philosophers long before Christ. This debate continues in our day. In fact, one writer noted that "postmodernism can be viewed as a debate about reality."{4} The search in modern times to find what is really real--what is true and stable--has given way. In postmodern times, change is fundamental; flux is normal.

In all of this we seem to lose our sense of identity. In fact, as we will see, avant garde postmodern thinkers say we have no self at all.

Basic Issues: Truth, Language, and Power

I noted earlier that postmodernism is more a report on the failures of modernism than a philosophy itself. One of the key issues which divides the two eras is that of truth. Whereas modernism was quite optimistic about our ability to know truth not only about ourselves and our world but also about how to make life better, postmodernism says we canít really know truth at all. To mention one way our lack of confidence in reason to get at truth shows itself, consider how often disputes are settled with name- calling or a resort to the ever ready "Well, that's your opinion," as if that settles the issue, or even to force. As one scholar noted, "Argument becomes transposed into rhetoric. Rhetoric then comes to rely on force, seduction, or manipulation."{5}

Since we canít really know truth¾if there is truth to be known¾we can't answer questions about ultimate reality. There is no one "story," as it's called, which explains everything. So, for example, the message of the Bible cannot be taken as true because it purports to give final answers for the nature of God, man, and the world. In the jargon of postmodernism, it is a metanarrative, a story covering all stories. Any metanarrative is rejected out of hand. We simply canít have that kind of knowledge according to postmodernists.{6}

One of the basic problems in knowing truth is the problem of language. Knowledge is mediated by language, but postmodernists believe that language can't adequately relate truth. Why? Because there is a disjunction between our words and the realities they purport to reflect. Words don't accurately represent objective reality, it is thought; they are just human conventions. But if language is what we use to convey ideas, and words don't accurately reflect objective reality, then we can't know objective reality. What we do with words is not to reflect reality, but rather to create it. This is called constructivism,{7} the power to construct reality with our words.

What this means for human nature in particular is that we canít really make universal statements about human beings. We can't know if there is such a thing as human nature. Those who hold to constructivism say that there is no human nature per se; we are what we say we are.

There is a second problem with language. Postmodernists are very sensitive to what they call the will-to-power. People exercise power and control over others, and language is one tool used for doing so.{8} For instance, we define roles for people, we make claims about God and what He requires of us, and so forth. In doing so, we define expectations and limits. Thus, with our words we control people.

As a result of this idea about language and its power to control, postmodernists are almost by definition suspicious. What people say and even more so what they write is suspected of being a tool for control over others.

What does this mean for human nature? It means that if we try to define human nature, we are seen as attempting to exercise control over people. As one person said, to make a person a subject--a topic of study and analysis--is to subject that person; in other words, to put him in a box and define his limits.

Thus, human nature canít be defined, so for all practical purposes there is no human nature. There is more, though. Not only is there no human nature generally, but there are no individual selves either.

Postmodernism and the Self

Letís look more closely at the postmodern view of the self.

Writer Walter Truett Anderson gives four terms postmodernists use to speak of the self which address the issues of change and multiple identities. The first is multiphrenia. This refers to the many different voices in our culture telling us who we are and what we are. As Kenneth Gergen, a professor of psychology, says, "For everything that we 'know to be true' about ourselves, other voices within respond with doubt and even derision."{9} Our lives are multi-dimensional. The various relationships we have in our lives pull us in different directions. We play "such a variety of roles that the very concept of an 'authentic self' with knowable characteristics recedes from view."{10} And these roles neednít overlap or be congruent in any significant way. As Anderson says, "In the postmodern world, you just donít get to be a single and consistent somebody."{11}

The second term used is protean. The protean self is capable of changing constantly to suit the present circumstances. "It may include changing political opinions and sexual behavior, changing ideas and ways of expressing them, changing ways of organizing oneís life."{12} Some see this as the process of finding one's true self. But others see it as a manifestation of the idea that there is no true, stable self.{13}

Thirdly, Anderson speaks of the de-centered self. This term focuses on the belief that there is no self at all. The self is constantly redefined, constantly undergoing change. As one philosopher taught, "The subject is not the speaker of language but its creation."{14} Thus, there is no enduring "I". We are what we are described to be.

Anderson's fourth term is self-in-relation. This concept is often encountered in feminist studies. It simply means that we live our lives not as islands unto ourselves but in relation to people and to certain cultural contexts. To rightly understand ourselves we must understand the contexts of our lives.{15}

If we put these four terms together, we have the image of a person who has no center, but who is drawn in many directions and is constantly changing and being defined externally by the various relations he or she has with others. All these ideas clearly go in a different direction than that taken by modern society. It was formerly believed that our goal should be to achieve wholeness, to find the integrated self, to pull all the seemingly different parts of ourselves together into one cohesive whole. Postmodernism says no; that can't happen because we aren't by nature one cohesive self.

So there is no "I", no inner self to wrestle with all these different roles and determine which I will accept and which I won't and, ultimately, who I really am. How, then, do changes come about? Who decides what I am like or who I am? According to postmodern thought, we are shaped by outside forces. We are socially constructed.

The Socially Constructed Life

What does it mean to be socially constructed? It means simply that one's society's values, languages, arts, entertainment, all that we grow up surrounded by, define who we are. We do not have fixed identities which are separable from our surroundings and which remain the same even though certain characteristics and circumstances may change.

It was once believed that what we do externally reflects what we are on the inside. But if there is no "inside," we must rely on that which is outside to define us. We are products of external forces over which we have varying levels of control. The suspicious postmodernist sees us as having little control at all over the forces impinging upon us.

Thus, we are created from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. If in traditional societies one's status was determined by one's role, and in modern societies one's status was determined by achievement, in postmodern times oneís status is determined by fashion or style.{16} As styles change, we must change with them or be left with our identity in question. It's one thing to want to fit in with one's peers. It's another altogether to believe that oneís true identity is bound up with the fashions of the day. But that's life in the postmodern world.

Being bound up with the fashions of the day, however, means that there is no eternal context for our lives. We are "historically situated."{17} That means that our lives can only be understood in the context of the present historical moment. All that matters is now. What I was yesterday is irrelevant; what I will be tomorrow is open.

Let's sum up our discussion to this point. In postmodern times there is no confidence in our ability to know truth. There is no metanarrative which serves to define and give a context to everything. Change is fundamental, and changes come often and do not always form a coherent pattern. There is no real human nature, nor are there real selves; there is no real "me" that is identifiable throughout my life. Whatever I am, I am because I have been "created", so to speak, by outside forces. One of the most potent forces is language with its ability to define and control. My life is like a story or text which is being written and rewritten constantly. How I am defined is what I am. What I am today is means nothing for tomorrow. To empower myself, I must take charge of defining myself, of writing my own story my way, not letting others write it for me.

But for many postmodernists this isn't really an individual exercise at all. I am a part of a group, and I'm expected to remain a part of my group and be defined in keeping with my group. Furthermore, no one outside the group is permitted to participate in the defining process. So, for example, men have nothing to say to women about how they are to act or what roles they are to fill.

Results

The bottom line in all this is what you already know. Life in the postmodern world is one of instability. To quote Thiselton again, the losses of stability and identity and confidence "breed deep uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. . . . [T]he postmodern self lives daily with fragmentation, indeterminacy, and intense distrust" of all claims to ultimate truth or universal moral standards. This results in defensiveness and "an increasing preoccupation with self-protection, self-interest, and desire for power and the recovery of control. The postmodern self is thus predisposed to assume a stance of readiness for conflict."{18} Our fragmentation, our lack of an internal "gyroscope" to give direction and balance, the pressures of external forces to conform, the lack of continuity in our lives, together work to strip us of a sense of who we are, or that we are a single somebody at all.

Some people might despair over this. But many believe we should embrace this rather than fight it. If we aren't happy with our own individual "story", we should rewrite it. We need to simply accept our inner multiplicity and devise a story that accounts for it. "If meaning is constructed in language," says one writer, we must learn to tell "better, richer, more spacious stories" about our lives.{19}

But if the forces surrounding us are so strong, how shall we stand against them? If we find ourselves resisting others who try to define us or set standards for us, indicating that we believe they're strong enough to have an influence over us, how are we ever going to be able to avoid being a pawn for those who are more powerful? How can we avoid get sucked up into "group- think", where we're always expected to toe the party line? What happens to our own individuality? Is there no place for our individual unique sets of gifts and abilities, needs and desires, loves and concerns?

Consider also the potential for loss for the individual in favor of the group. What if the group's standards or goals diminish the individuals in the group? Prof. Ed Veith has spoken of the similarities between this mentality and that of Fascism with its suppression of the individual in favor of the group. With or without realizing it, postmodernists aren't establishing a basis for empowering the oppressed, but are "resurrecting ways of thinking that gave us world war and the Holocaust."{20} Veith quotes writer David Hirsch who said, "Purveyors of postmodern ideologies must consider whether it is possible to diminish human beings in theory, without, at the same time, making individual human lives worthless in the real world."{21}

A Christian Response

Is there an answer in Christ for the fragmented, suspicious, "non-selves" of the postmodern world?

In this writer's opinion, it is simple common sense that we are individual selves with an identity which we carry throughout our years despite the various changes we experience. "I" can be held accountable for the things "I" did five years ago. The individual brought to the witness stand is believed to be the same "self" who witnessed the particular events in the past. The worker is promised a pension when she retires with the understanding that the retiree will be the same self as the one who worked for many years.{22} Furthermore, we know that we have a set of abilities, great or small, that are our own and that we can use for good or for ill. We naturally resent being molded in the image of other people and prevented from expressing our own true nature.

Does Christ have anything to say to the postmodern individual who canít shake the common sense view that he is the same person today that he was yesterday? Or to the person who wants to affirm or regain her own identity and chart a course for life that she as an individual can experience and learn from and within which to develop as an individual self?

Indeed He does. The call of God in Christ is to individuals within the larger story of God's work in this world.{23} For one thing, having been created by Him we see ourselves as ones who can be addressed as Jeremiah was with the news that God knew him before he was born. It was the same Jeremiah being formed in his motherís womb to whom God spoke as an adult (Jer. 1:5). Furthermore, in Christ we recognize ourselves as responsible individuals who must give an account for our actions without pointing the finger of blame at "society" (Rev. 20:12).

In Christ we can acknowledge that we are shaped to a great extent by our surroundings, and that we are historically situated to an extent. But we aren't trapped. Redemption "promises deliverance from all the cause-effect chains of forces which hold the self to its past."{24}

There is more. In Christ the suspicion which marks postmodern man who is ever on guard against being redefined and controlled by others dissolves into a love which gives itself to the interests of God and other men.{25} The will-to-power of postmodern man which is self-defeating gives way to the will-to-love which reaches out to build up rather than to control.{26} We can indeed find common ground with people of other groups. "The cross of Christ in principle shatters the boundaries and conflicts between Jew and Gentile, female and male, free person and slave" (Gal. 3:28).{27} Recognizing our relative historical situatedness should help us to understand the importance of the local church as the social context within which barriers are destroyed.{28} In Christ, then, we have love rather than conflict, service rather than power, trust rather than suspicion.{29}

In Christ we recognize that sometimes life seems chaotic, that there are places of darkness in which we feel overwhelmed by outside forces that donít behave the way we think they should. Consider the experiences of Job and of the writer of Ecclesiastes. But we are called to "set our minds on things above" (Col. 3:2), to put our confidence in "the fear of the Lord" (Prov. 9:10; Job. 28:28; Eccl. 12:13) rather than give in to despair or try to find a solution in simply rewriting our story with our own set of preferred "realities."{30}

Thiselton emphasizes the importance of the resurrection for postmodern man. "The resurrection holds out the promise of hope from beyond the boundaries of the historical situatedness of the postmodern self in its predicament of constraint.".{31} In addition, "Promise beckons 'from ahead' to invite the postmodern self to discover a reconstituted identity." It "constitutes 'a sure and steadfast anchor' (Heb. 6:19) which re-centres the self. It bestows on the self an identity of worth and provides purposive meaning for the present." The work of Christ promises a restoration of the individual self which will "once again [come] to bear fully the image of God in Christ (Heb. 1:3; Gen. 1:26) as a self defined by giving and receiving, by loving and being loved unconditionally."{32} As Steven Sandage writes, "The core absolute in life is not change but faith in our unchanging God, the 'anchor of the soul' that reminds us we are strangers longing for a better country " (Heb. 6:19; 11:1-16).{33}

The message of hope is the one postmodern men and women need to hear. That message, delivered two millennia ago, still speaks today. "The word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8). Some things never change.

Notes

1. Anthony Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 130.

2. Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Inventing the Postmodern Person (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997), 26.

3. David Reisman, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 26; quoted in Anderson, 26.

4. Steven J. Sandage, "Power, Knowledge, and the Hermeneutics of Selfhood: Postmodern Wisdom for Christian Therapists," Mars Hill Review 12 (Fall 1998): 66.

5. Thiselton, 13.

6. Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 49. Note Lyotard's brief definition: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives." Jean-FranÁois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans., Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv).

7.Ibid., 47-51.

8. For a Christian's recognition of this in his own life, cf. Sandage, 68-69.

9. Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 228. Quoted in Anderson, 38.

10. Gergen quoted in Anderson, 38.

11. Anderson, 38.

12. Ibid., 41.

13. Ibid., 42.

14. Ibid., 42-43.

15. Ibid., 51-56.

16. Veith, 85.

17. Thiselton, 42, 148-150.

18. Ibid., 130-31.

19. Anderson, 56.

20. Veith, 80.

21. David H. Hirsch, The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press, 1991), 165; quoted in Veith, 80.

22. Thiselton, 74.

23. I am greatly indebted to Thiselton for this portion of the discussion. See chaps. 23 and 24.

24. Thiselton, 155.

25. Ibid., 160.

26. Ibid., 161.

27. Ibid., 43.

28. Cf. Sandage, 72.

29. Thiselton, 43.

30. Sandage, 71-72.

31. Thiselton, 43.

32. Ibid., 163.

33. Sandage, 73.

© 1999 Probe Ministries International