A professor and a student life mentor discuss how Pepperdine students navigate their search for identity alongside their faith walk.
by Gareen Darakjian
For many young people, college is a time to discover one’s identity. At Pepperdine a student’s personal
growth is connected to their spiritual growth. But what results when a person’s sense of self is disconnected from their relationship with God? Ron Highfield, Seaver College professor of religion, and Christine Yi Suh (’07), resident director of housing and residence life, explore the topic from their unique perspectives.
In his upcoming book, God, Freedom, and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture, Highfield shares insights he has achieved in his three decades educating college students. His goal throughout: to encourage students to embrace a life and identity centered on God.
Twenty-four years of struggling to help college students develop a living relationship with God has compelled me to think hard about why this task is so difficult. I concluded that our “me- centered” culture subtly teaches students to think of God as a threat to their freedom, dignity, and happiness. Popular culture pictures God as an absolute, all-knowing, all-seeing power, a disturbing image unless accompanied by a deeper understanding of God’s identity. Since the Renaissance and Enlightenment we’ve been taught that true freedom is power to do and become whatever we want. Likewise, human dignity (or worth) can be grounded only in power for self-determination or autonomy.
Secular culture urges that individual happiness and self-worth are always at risk from other powers. Clearly, this view of God and humanity pits them against each other, for both are defined in terms of unfettered power. But everyone knows that human beings are outclassed by God, and confronted with the Almighty, we are faced with three alternative responses: defiance, subservience, or indifference. I believe the dominant way college students (and most others) are tempted to relate to God is with indifference. Indifference is not a conscious attitude but a habit of thoughtlessness. Contemporary culture keeps young people so focused on the search for pleasure, quest for approval, and pursuit of attention that their minds have no place and their schedules no time to think of God. Never has a generation been so busy, so lonely, and so unhappy!
What can be done to break the spell of indifference? The first step is to expose the plain falsehood of the modern view of the human self as completely independent and self-created. We are born, we suffer, we die; and most of the time we don’t know what we are doing—not an impressive foundation for freedom, dignity, and happiness!
The second move is to grow in understanding of God and humanity. In Christian teaching, God is not a threat to human freedom, dignity, or happiness, but their ultimate ground and guarantee. God’s great power never dominates; it liberates us to accomplishing something lasting and to become something beautiful. God’s complete knowledge of us, far from invading our privacy, gives real substance to our identity and writes our names in eternity. And God’s creative and redemptive claim on us does not diminish our worth but establishes us as unquestionably worthy of existence and of God’s love.
As a source of daily support in students’ lives, Yi Suh has a bird’s-eye view of the faith and identity struggles that young people face. Here, she explains why students cannot truly know themselves until they know God.
When students first step onto the college scene, they are full of anticipation as they explore creating a new identity for themselves for the next four years. At Pepperdine, having worked with freshman to senior classes in various residence hall settings for three years, I’ve found that students wrestle with fully knowing or embracing their identity each year of their college career.
As God’s beloved children, we are not defined by what we do, or by what others say about us, or what we have. At Pepperdine, students are tempted to disregard their belovedness by replacing their identity with their reputation, major, social status, relationships, vocation/calling, or accomplishments. This leads to a way of life in trusting alternative identities that eventually disappoint and mislead. However, we can follow in accordance with St. Augustine’s prayer: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.”
John Calvin states, “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” According to Calvin, our students are unable to know God deeply if they do not know themselves deeply (and vice versa). We strive to answer the question, “Who am I?” with any or all of the three responses: “I am what I do,” “I am what others say about me,” or “I am what I have.” However, when we define ourselves by these classifications, our lives often follow a tiresome up-and-down motion since these responses are not static but constantly changing according to our life circumstances.1
When our sense of self is deeply connected to God, we can see our life circumstances in light of God’s constancy, faithfulness, and unwavering love in our lives. When we take hold of our identity as beloved children of God, we are able to live in true freedom and joy. And as we learn to know God and ourselves more fully, we can take comfort in knowing that “he who began a good work in us will carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
1Nouwen, H. (1992) Life of the Beloved (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company)