The first post of this chapter, "What is a Human Being?" was Biological Machines. Now for the second:
9.2 Socially Constructed Identity
We are often unaware of the degree to which we are different from others until we meet someone different from us. This dynamic is true of our personalities. We might assume that someone who does not plan out their future in detail is irresponsible or, visa versa, that someone who plans things out in detail is boring and inflexible. The truth is rather that both personalities have their strengths and weaknesses, and neither should look down on the other.
What is true of individuals is also true of culture. Cultures as a whole can take on personalities, although we must always be careful not to stereotype or “pre-judge” an individual’s identity or probable behavior simply because of where he or she is from. However, cultures usually do have different norms, ideas, and practices. And you often cannot see the idiosyncrasies of your own culture until you live a while in another and can see your own looking in from the outside.
One of the benefits of intercultural experience is to realize that most of these differences are not a matter of right or wrong—cultures are just different from each other. This realization is especially important when it comes to reading the Bible. Do Christian women today need to veil their heads when they pray or prophesy in worship (1 Cor. 11:5)? Do Christians need to abstain from pork (Lev. 11:7)? Must the husband be the head of the household in the twenty-first century United States (1 Cor. 11:3)? These are all issues raised by instructions various books of the Bible gave that were very relevant to the cultural situations of their day. At the same time, they all seem far removed from contemporary Western culture. So do they still apply?
Our identity, thinking, and behavior as human beings are far more “socially-constructed” than we might at first imagine. One of the ground breaking books of this dimension of human existence was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality.[i] They write, “to be given an identity involves being assigned a specific place in the world.”[ii] One grows up with experiences of how your parents and those around you treat you and eventually makes general assumptions about how “everyone” should act and be treated. This becomes a part of our sense of who we are—the “internalization of society as such and of the objective reality established therein, and, at the same time, the subjective establishment of a coherent and continuous identity.”[iii]
We thus largely absorb our default understanding of what a human being is from our environment growing up. These understandings are some of the most basic ways we think about ourselves and others around us—and some of the elements of our thinking about which we tend to be most unreflective. In the West, for example, children are often raised to be individualists who can sharply distinguish themselves from their families and starting point in life. We often think of ourselves as free to determine who we are, whom we marry, and what we want to be.
However, this understanding does not seem to be the default way in which most human beings think about themselves. The majority of cultures both in the past and present have not tended to think of themselves in this way. The West cherishes the freedom of individuals to determine their own identity and to have individual influence on society at large. But most cultures in history have valued remaining true to your inherited identity and societal structure, with certain select individuals destined to lead the vast majority of “lessers.” The contrast between these two perspectives—both largely un-reflected upon—has been particularly evident when the West has tried to “help” other cultures in the area of freedom and democracy without clearly taking the distinctions into full account.
[textbox: collectivist culture, individualist culture]
The distinction also comes into play for Western Christians when we read the books of the Bible, which were written in what are sometimes called collectivist cultures, cultures
in which a person’s identity is primarily embedded in the groups to which you belong, particularly your race, family, and gender.[iv] Westerners will tend to read simple words like “I” and “you” with all the assumptions they make when they use these words in reference to themselves and others as individuals. But many of these assumptions will not hold true for what biblical authors and audiences were thinking.
In collectivist or group cultures, individuals have more what is called dyadic personality. A person defines themselves primarily in terms of their external relationships and the way others perceive them rather than by personal self-identification. Men are a certain way and women are another. Jews are one way and Greeks are another. Wealthy people are this way and poor people another.
In reality, of course, people and people groups are much more complex than simple stereotypes. But most human brains can only differentiate things by way of a relatively small number of distinctions. We inevitably learn things and process the world by categorizing things, by putting things into “boxes.”[v] In group cultures, these boxes are relatively large and are sanctioned by culture and “tribe.” We tend to ignore the things that don’t fit in our boxes—or label such people as deviant—while highlighting those things that fit with our preconceived categories. Such boxes thus have an inherent tendency to skew reality, despite the fact that we cannot think without them.[vi]
The biblical texts are filled with reflections of the group orientation of its authors and audiences. While Christians affirm Israel as God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, the relationship God has with Israel has a number of characteristics that fit with the way other ancient peoples understood their relationship with their chief god. For example, the most likely original wording of Deuteronomy 32:8 pictures Israel’s God as “God Most High” assigning the lesser gods to the other nations of the world.[vii] Different peoples had different gods as their special patrons. Their gods were part of their identity, went to war with them, and so forth.
The fact that the Egyptians detested shepherds who herded sheep (Gen. 46:34) suggests that the Old Testament prohibition against pork was as much a matter of ethnic identity as anything else, despite the common claim that it had to do with health issues. The surrounding Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites ate pork, Israelites and Canaanites of the central plain did not. And since gods were part of this identity, to eat pork was thus indirectly to associate with the gods of the surrounding peoples as well. When the Prodigal Son of Luke 15 finds himself feeding pigs, a Jewish audience would have immediately recognized that he had left Israel and, by implication, Israel’s God.
The New Testament also reflects group embedded identity, although much of it also undermines traditional groupings. Titus reinforces the stereotype that “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Tit. 1:12). Today we would want to emphasize that every individual from a place like Crete should be allowed to determine by their own actions whether they are a liar or not. We would call such a statement prejudicial. But it is typical of collectivist, “us-them,” thinking.
The household codes of Ephesians 5-6, Colossians 3-4, and 1 Peter 2-3 largely embody stereotypically ancient roles for men and women, slaves and free, parents and children. Passages like Galatians 3:28 are far more distinctive and unique in the ancient world: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” Of course the ancient world also allowed for “deviants.” Aristotle, for example, can speak of certain women who are a “departure from nature” in their fitness to lead others (Politics 1.1259b). Again, today in the Western world we would recognize that such boxes are as much a matter of culture as of nature and would argue that an individual should be defined by his or her actions and intentions rather than presupposing how someone will act or think because of the groups to which they belong.
A group culture is more oriented around external honor and shame rather than internal guilt for violating your own values.[viii] Westerners tend not to notice statements in the Bible like, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16), Jesus scorning the shame of the cross (Heb. 12:2), God crowning humanity with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5), or sex with an aunt uncovering the “nakedness” of an uncle (Lev. 18:14). Even the “blesseds” of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are about receiving honor from God despite the shame or apparent foolishness of earthly peacemaking or poverty. We have changed the meaning when we read them in terms of individual happiness.
So what is a human person, as far as most of the world in most times and most places throughout history is concerned? The predominant answer has been that there are different types of persons depending on their groups—their social location. Ancient Jews divided the world into Jews and non-Jews (Rom. 1:16). Greeks divided the world into Greeks and barbarians (Rom. 1:14). There are slaves and free individuals. There are men and women. There are the rich and everyone else. We would argue that the default understanding of the human person, in so far as how people understand people, has historically been to define them externally in terms of the key groups to which they belong.
That is not to say, however, that we do not find expressions of common or universal personhood, especially in what we might call wisdom or proverbial type literature. “All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fail, because the breath of the LORD blows on them” (Isa. 40:6-7). “Man is born for uprightness. If a man lose his uprightness and yet live, his escape from death is mere good fortune.”[ix] Yet even in the proverbial wisdom of the ancients, we generally find people divided up into types like “righteous” and “wicked,” with little sense of the possibility for someone to change from one to another or little allowance for mixture.
[i] The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1966).
[ii] Social Construction, 132.
[iii] Social Construction, 133.
[iv] See, for example, Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology ***.
[v] Cf. Jean Piaget’s theory of learning.
[vi] See chap. 16 and postmodernism.
[vii] The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the ancient Greek translation of Deuteronomy 32:8 was actually more original than the Hebrew texts we had prior to 1947. They read, “When [the Most High] ... separated [humankind, he set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of] the children of God” (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible ***).
[viii] Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology...