Who Are You? How Christians & Naturalists Explain Personal Identity

By Todd Clay / July 22, 2018

How naturalism answers questions about personal identity compared to what God says about us in the Bible.

Short Answer

The question of ‘who are you’ is answered very differently by naturalists and Christians. To the naturalist (who explains everything in terms of a natural, atheistic, and evolutionary universe), a person can only be described from a horizontal perspective without reference to a transcendent purpose. To the Christian, a person is an eternal being made in the image of God.

Long Answer

Who are you?

This perennial question has plagued humanity for thousands of years. Our personal identity seems to be crucial to our ability to make sense of life. We are something, but we don’t know what that “something” is.

How someone answers the question of “Who am I?” depends a great deal on their worldview. There are two approaches to this question that seem appropriate in a Western context – the naturalistic and the Christian. Naturalists attempt to explain everything in terms of a natural, atheistic, and evolutionary universe. Christians look to the Bible. Both the naturalistic and the Christian explanation about personal identity are very different.

Let’s explore both approaches.

Naturalism’s Answer to Personal Identity

In the West, non-Christians typically appeal to non-theistic explanations of personal identity. Informed by naturalism, they attempt to answer the question of “who are you” through psychology, sociology, behavior, and beliefs – from a horizontal perspective. In other words, they do not appeal to a transcendent purpose. Corona Radiata illustrates this approach by identifying 6 components of personal identity…

  1. Autobiographical – based on your personal experience of yourself through life.
  2. Body – based on your understanding your body is the limit of your experience.
  3. Sense of Agency – based on your ability to change your situation.
  4. Social Identity – based on membership to groups like family, sports team, company, etc.
  5. Beliefs – based on your personal views like being a liberal, conservative, Christian, etc.
  6. Conscious identity – seen in the statement “I am the author of my subjective experience.”

In all of these areas, the naturalist author singles out several important dimensions of personal identity. For anyone researching this question these areas may be helpful to explore, but it’s important to underscore one critical problem with the approach. It does not account for anything outside of the person or social group. In other words, there’s no reference to transcendence. The explanation is relativistic and ultimately not explanatory for human purpose or nature.

Fundamental Problem of Naturalistic Explanations of Human Nature

Without understanding your purpose, you will never understand who you really are. Here’s why: God created the world. When he spoke the universe into existence (John 1:3), he ordered everything from the expanse of the galaxies to the organization of mitochondria in amoebas. He defined the limits of creation (Job 38:8-11) and also revealed the reason humans were created. He alone defines the nature of human beings.

To attempt to explain our nature apart from God’s stated purpose for us is like trying to explain an airplane to someone with no knowledge of airports, passengers, or engineering. For instance, if you were to drop off a single engine crop duster in the middle of a 19th century jungle, the tribes would never understand the airplane. Being hunter-gatherers, they would have no context for how pesticides were used on crops, how the wings were used for lifting the airplane, or the engine powered flight. They probably wouldn’t know it could fly at all and may mistake it for an undersized hut.

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? (Job 38:8-11)

The same problem exists for naturalistic explanations of the purpose of human beings. The best answers a naturalist can posit are pragmatic and experiential aspects of human nature. Ultimately, they cannot account for purpose because they deny the biblical purpose for human beings. To them, humans are nothing more than grown-up pond scum. Or as Family Research Council’s founder Gary Bauer once quipped…

“Today’s children are taught by our culture that we are a cosmic accident. Something slithered out of the primal slime and over billions of years evolved into a human being. We are cousins, ten times removed, to the ape at the zoo eating his own excrement.”

No wonder naturalism can’t explain the ultimate purpose of human beings. Fundamentally, humans are just “cosmic accidents”. There is no transcendent purpose.

What God Says About Who You Are

But God is not silent about who we are. Instead of approaching this question from a naturalistic perspective, shift your vantage point. Look at yourself from the Creator’s perspective instead. Because God has spoken (1 Timothy 3:16), we have a better understanding of our identity than the world.

We are eternal, spiritual beings. God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and we long for more than this world has to offer. There is something beyond our own experience, body, choices, associations, beliefs, or self-proclaimed identity.

According to the Scriptures, God created each individual person in his image (Genesis 1:27). It’s what makes a human being distinct from every other created being. We are not giraffes, party sequins, sequoias, or moths. We are people, made in the image of God. This aspect is also the source of dignity for every man, woman, child, and unborn baby. Theologians throughout church history have described several aspects of this “image of God” idea (Latin: Imago Dei).

These areas include…

  • Rationality and cognitive capacity (Job 32:8).
  • Relationship with God and others (Genesis 3:8).
  • Ruling over God’s creation (Genesis 1:28).
  • Object of God’s compassion (Matthew 5:45).

The Bible Project’s “Image of God” video incorporates some of the latest theological research in this area…

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

In Conclusion: Seek God For Your Identity & Purpose

In these two approaches, we see very different perspectives on human nature. To the naturalist,  a person is a cosmic accident. Any perspective about personal identity always devolves into a horizontal explanation without reference to the transcendent – without reference to God.

However, Christians know who we are based on what God said in the Bible. We are eternal creatures made in the image of God. We have a purpose and role to play in the grand design of the universe. Thankfully, we are not tethered to naturalistic and false ideas about human nature. We know who we are and our destiny thanks to the God who has spoken.

For more information on how to become a Christian, checkout How To Be Saved.

References

Open Bible: Who I Am Verses

Ken Boa: Who Does God Say That I Am?

Todd Clay is a husband, dad, and a Christian (Reformed Baptist). Todd holds a BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and an MA in Theological Studies from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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