25 June 2022
Inspired by the cultural diversity of Ridley College and concerned with the growing self-interest in the West, Ridley principal Dr Brian Rosner wants to help others grapple with identity.
I caught up with him to discuss his latest book How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward is Not the Answer.
We talked about what his motivations were for the book, and what he hopes it will offer those who are searching for a more robust view of identity.
Can you tell me some background to why you decided to write the book, and what you are hoping it will offer?
The first book [I wrote on identity], Known by God, is a Biblical theology of personal identity. It is more technical – it’s really written for ministers, students, scholars and nerdy Christians. This [latest book] is an attempt to address the cultural moment more directly. It comes out of two motivations. I find our society’s approach to identity issues quite confusing and even confronting, and I think the Bible offers some really helpful and true ways of being yourself. From my own lived experience, I have found [Biblical] teaching to be very helpful. I had a crisis of identity myself in the mid-’90s, and since then I’ve been reflecting on the subject. One of the strange things is that when you do that, you find a lot of other people are doing it as well! So, it’s ended up much more topical and current than I could have ever imagined. All sorts of people are wondering about who they are. It’s never been more important to know who you are, so everyone says be yourself, be true to yourself, you do you. On the other hand, there’s more uncertainty about who you are. The irony is it’s never been so important, but it’s also never been harder to know who you are.
[I have also been inspired by] the multicultural student body at Ridley College. The only way to evaluate your own culture is to learn from those who have a different culture. The rich community of Ridley College is a real benefit [to my understanding]. What it reveals is that maybe there’s more than one way to do identity.
In the book, you focus on the most common places in which humans tend to search for their identity. Was there any other personal experience that led to choosing those in particular?
Authenticity is thought to be the consequence of looking within yourself and living accordingly. What I found was that personally, that was unsatisfying. Other authors – social critics, psychologists, sociologists – have suggested that it’s not working and it’s not true to human nature. We’re social beings, and we look to find ourselves by being known to others. We are storytelling beings – we look backwards and forwards to our life stories, which are shared stories. Each of us inhabits stories inherited from our families, our cultures, our nationalities [and] our ethnicities. And then finally, we look up to find ourselves, which is obviously the Christian element. We’re adoring beings. We’re not just historic and social, we are adoring. We worship something. [Whatever it is we focus on], if it doesn’t look up [to God], it doesn’t really achieve its aims. When you look up, you’re known by God. The life story of Christ becomes our own life story. We see that in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The most important thing that ever happens to us happened before we were born – Christ died and we died with him.
In my own crisis of identity, it was being known by God as His child that really gave my life comfort and direction. [This book] is me sharing what I have found to be of great comfort and help. [It] tries to say them in a way that’s accessible and hopefully not just helpful for Christians but [also] for people who don’t go to church.
You focus a lot on individualism in the book and its consequences to perceptions of identity. Do you think that Australia has a bigger problem with identity than other countries in the world, and can you tell me about that?
The idea in the West that you become yourself by excluding all other influences is ridiculous. Sociologists distinguish between what’s called the “buffered” self and the “porous” self. The West has this view of the self as buffered, where you find yourself within your own self exclusively. Most cultures in human history and around the world today outside the West have what’s called the porous self – you find yourself by connecting with those around you and by contributing to society. A lack of contentment in our Western culture – the kind of restless insatiability, the fact that we’ve got so much anxiety – that’s another example where expressive individualism is letting us down. Obviously, it’s a complicated thing and there are other factors, but if you live in a culture which is more communitarian, there seems to be less opportunity [for] discontent.