Theology, Identity and Nation-building

From the “Identity of Christianity” to “Christianities of Identity”

Identity remains a powerful force in the experience of ordinary people. The phenomenon continues to animate and define relationships and possibilities in the contemporary world in matters from personal to global. At the communal level, the role of identity in building community or in fostering division is well studied.

Identity has been at the heart of a searching critique, as cultural theorists have uncovered the manufactured nature of identities. Identity politics has been even described as “the Politics of the Unreal”. The work of critical theorists, however fails to deprive identity of its power, constructive or destructive. Such treatments “problematised” identity without being able to supersede it. Identity is, according to Stuart Hall “an idea which cannot be thought in the old way, but without which certain key questions cannot be thought at all.” Identity remains intractible and unavoidable.

Wishing to advance claims that represent to be universal, theological thinking has had a particular difficulty in dealing with the power of identity and identities. In general, it has tried to ignore it and hope that the mission of the church would not be too much compromised. This is especially true of Western theologies of almost every hue, which have – in general – shown an astonishing lack of self-awareness in their neglect of this issue. Even theologies that have epmloyed the category of identity, such as gay theologies, have been prone to this weakness.

In situations of communal division, such as Ireland, theology has largely failed to develop any theological approaches which might deal creatively with identity and related issues at the level of community and nation. Those who have considered themselves to be advanced theological thinkers have tended to regard identity as a form of “false consciousness”. Even christians with a “peace vocation”, as many in Ireland, have failed to develop comprehensive theological understandings of identity.

The theologies of the non-Western world, especially those of Asia have often been bolder in this regard, and arguably more prophetic, relevant and successful for that reason. Among the most influential and comprehensive were the contextual theologies which arose in the Taiwanese church, especially among the Presbyterian community. In that situation, a small minority feeling itself to occupy a marginal position socially, and in the face of oppressive governments, embarked on a process of theological development that caused it to take definite positions on questions of that island’s political future – internally and in its external relations – based firmly and explicitly on theologies of “homeland” and “identity”.

This story of this difficult but creative development – with many lessons for Ireland, as for other situations of conflict and division – is the subject of doctoral research that John currently undertakes at the Centre for East Asian Christianity of the University of Birmingham.