Identity vs Meaning

Identity and meaning are two different concepts that I have been thinking about lately, especially in how they connect.

I have some friends who were raised as Christians.  Overtime, as they read and grew they began to disassociate themselves from any meaning from the idea of Christianity.  The identity was no longer meaningful for them.

I have other friends who were raised as Christian.  Overtime, as they read and grew they began to associate and find new meaning to the identity.  I fall into this camp.  I say I am a Christian and that means X for me rather than saying I am no longer a Christian because that means X.  Much of my thinking and exploring has been defining X for myself.

I have other friends who were raised Catholic.  And that identity just stuck.  It is what it is.  The meaning sort of goes unchecked and accepted.  For many of us, when we identify with a country, or a family name, or a religion – there isn’t meaning we associate with those identities and so we just accept that identity as is.  You see this a lot when someone says “I am Catholic” or “I am Canadian.”  There is no “so that means…” or “and so it follows that I….”  It just is.

If meaning is the individual choice on identity, then identity is the social construct.  We identify by social categories.  Meaning is comes from it’s interaction with the social construct of identity.  The social construct (identity) says male, Christian, American; the meaning says what those identities signify for those that use them.

Meaning then is what?  It seems to be the individual choice of purpose that is accepted or rejected about one’s identity.  Identity for many of us, hangs on the question of meaning. If there is no meaning to be found left in the identity, then we will release ourselves from that identity.

I think the process of accepting or rejecting meaning based on your identity (race, religion, nationality, sexuality, gender, orientation etc) is an important stage of growth.  The options really are endless of how this could go, but doing the work of processing and making these decisions for yourself gives you the tools to navigate a world in which meaning is assumed along with identities.

It took this process for me to accept my identities.  I identify as a straight, white, Christian, Canadian, middle-class, male.  What does all that mean for me?  It has been that process which has caused me to recognize my privilege and make decisions about who I am and how I will live within those.  Being a male could mean that I reject emotion and vulnerability or I can make it mean that I embrace those things.  Being a Canadian could mean I continue to perpetuate narratives of oppression towards Indigenous people or it can mean I accept the narrative of being a settler on stolen land.  Being a Christian could mean I want to convert everyone to my belief system and seek power or it could mean I stand in solidarity with the poor and work towards reconciliation wherever possible.

It is important to create spaces for people to explore the meaning of their identities where we can challenge, reflect and have the grace to change our minds.  The worst thing we can do is try to force meaning on an identity (religion is the worst for this).  I recognize this can backfire.  There is always the risk that someone exploring the meaning of Christianity will find meaning in Trump-style religion.  However, there needs to be space for people to explore even that kind of meaning.

I’d be curious to hear about other journeys of meaning as you started to unravel the assumptions of specific identities.  Did you decide to reject an identity because of associated meaning or did you reject meaning because of associated identity?

One Comment

  • It’s rare for people to want to engage in such discussion but I happen to love it. Happy to meet for a coffee or beer if you want sometime.

    The “Everyone’s Agnostic” podcast has many dozens of conversations like this.

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