Clothed with Christ — Being and Identity

My installation lecture from this past Thursday evening…


Let me begin with what is perhaps an odd observation: We all got dressed today. And probably that’s a good thing!

And to that first observation let me add another: That we probably thought about what we would wear today. Some of us may have dressed up – some us may have dressed down – some of us wondered what on earth to wear this evening – some of us didn’t particularly care.

Clothing, of course, has always been significant for human life – not only for protecting and sheltering the body but, equally important, for providing a sense of identity. And historically speaking, human patterns of dress reflected an identity that was shared – our clothing marked us out as belonging to a particular culture or people. So of course there has been a style of dress typical among the Scottish, and there have been styles of dress typical to the peoples of the Senegambia, and styles of dress typical among the Dutch. Today we refer to these as cultural costume or folk dress. Historically speaking in western cultures your clothing primarily constituted you as part of a particular culture.

Now when we dress ourselves today, we might still experience this communal dimension of clothing in some small way. This evening, for example, I have put on a Geneva gown that sets me firmly within a tradition of pastor-teachers stretching back 500 years. I have also put on an academic hood that sets me within a tradition of university education stretching back about a thousand years. In the context of everyday life, I may also put on a jacket and tie – the uniform of the corporate employee for a few generations now. Each of us, in our own way, may be able to discern ways that our clothes set us within a particular community.

But even as we acknowledge this continuing collective element in our dress, it remains the case that clothes today do not primarily reference a shared identity. Rather, the clothing we buy and wear become elements in our individual projection of ourselves and our identity. The clothing we choose to wear – the ties and tights, the jewelry and jackets, the pants, the pumps, the sweaters, the sweater-vests, the blouses and the boots – these have become elements in our individual projection of who we are or want to be. Through our clothing we attempt some private and public declaration – this is me. This much is, I think, a commonplace of cultural analysis.

Yet Lars Svendsen, a philosopher at the University of Bergen argues that our clothing can make only a very limited contribution to our sense of self. We might put it this way: It is a fraught exercise to define oneself through one’s fashion choices. It is a fraught exercise because fashion in the modern context is driven fundamentally by the requirement of novelty. In the realm of clothing and fashion, as Svensen puts it, we have all become neophiliacs – lovers of the new.

The very word ‘fashion” carries within itself this logic of the latest thing. The fashionable thing just is the most recent thing. The fashionable thing, in whatever domain of life, is the decidedly contemporary thing. The fashionable thing has just recently displaced former values or preoccupations or ways of thinking. To speak of the fashionable is not to reference what was interesting or important last week or two years ago. The very word “fashion” implies simply this logic of novelty for the sake of novelty – it’s the latest thing.

Now of course there have always been shifts and changes in human patterns of dress and clothing – including prior to the modern era. But what’s different about the modern era is that changes in fashion are now driven fundamentally by the desire for novelty, simply for novelty’s sake – having something different, just for the sake of it being different. This emphasis on novelty for novelty’s sake comes into its own in the eighteenth century. Svensen sets this emphasis on novelty within the wider context of modern culture when he argues:

The growth of fashion is one of the most decisive events in world history, because it indicates the direction of modernity. There is in fashion a vital trait of modernity; [namely,] the abolition of traditions…

The challenge, Svensen goes on to say is that

there also lies in fashion an element that modernity would not have wished to acknowledge. Fashion is irrational. It consists of change for the sake of change, whereas the self-image of modernity consists in there being a change that led towards increasingly rational self-determination.[1]

We moderns like to think that rational self-determination is the driving force in our lives and culture – that we are in charge of our lives, and that our self-directed lives are determined by a coherent arguments and commitments. Yet the logic of fashion defies this self-understanding of ours, argues Svensen. Fashion as the adoption of the new, for the sake new – novelty for the sake of novelty – I wear it because it is new and different – this does not reflect any deeper logic of rational self-determination. Rather fashion is in a sense irrational or at least it is teleologically empty – there is no end or goal in view – only the adoption of the new because it is new.

Now there are some counter-arguments that could be made here, which we don’t have time to explore. Even so, however, there is something deeply compelling to me about Svensen’s argument based on my own experience and what I, at least, observe in the world around me. In fact, it is possible to go further with Svensen and point out that fashion is finally unsustainable. Or as one cultural critic has said – fashion caries its own death itself with itself. We are enamoured with the new – but the new fades so quickly. The time lapse between our being enamoured with the new and our being disappointed that it is already old – that time laps gets shorter and shorter in the modern period. The logic of novelty for novelty’s sake is finally impossible – the new is unattainable. The new is almost immediately the old. Here the link with consumerism becomes clear – the new cannot be held on to – it slips through our fingers. We put on that new shirt, that new dress – it is already old.

The sociologist Anthony Giddens is well known for his description of modern life and the modern self. He argues that in the modern world each of us is left to craft an identity and lifestyle for ourselves – something that would have been inconceivable in traditional societies. He defines this lifestyle each of us must generate in terms of the routines of our lives. He explains:

Each of the small decisions a person makes every day – what to wear, what to eat, how to conduct himself or herself at work, whom to meet with later in the evening – each small decision contributes to such routines. All such choices (as well as larger and more consequential ones) are decisions not only about how to act but who to be. The more post-traditional the setting in which an individual moves, the more lifestyle concerns the very core of self-identity, its making and remaking.[2]

Is there any surprise that we moderns are exhausted? We are on the hook for establishing our lifestyles, for establishing our routines, for establishing our selves – we are on the hook for constantly expressing who we are – who we might become. It is an exhausting task to try and construct a durable and meaningful life and sense of self. Who am I today? Who will I be tomorrow? What will I value? In which individuals or tasks or vocational responsibilities will I invest myself? The modern self, following Gidden’s description, is an exhausted self.

But it seems to me that the challenge of the modern self goes much deeper than the challenge of exhaustion. For a deeper question arises concerning the criteria by which we may determine who we will be or become – the criteria by which the self may determine what is good and beautiful and true for him or her. Alasdair MacIntyre makes a compelling case that in fact the modern self is without such criteria – without any rational basis for determining what is good and beautiful and true. He argues compellingly that in the absence of practice-shaped traditions, and in the absence of a communally determined account of the human or of human nature, we have no rational basis for deciding between one set of values or another. The most the self can do is simply will to follow this path or that – the self can do no more than simply insist that this is the good… for me… for now. So out of the scattered remnants of older, traditioned societies, the self picks out what will be valued, but doesn’t have deep reasons to explain what should be embraced, or why. Here we can go back to Svensen’s suggestion that our fashion choices are in a sense irrational – the new for the sake of the new – novelty for the sake of novelty – not the rational self-determination modernity presumes is possible.

Perhaps in modern fashion there is an echo of the modern crisis of the self. We choose new clothes for the sake of their newness. We are frustrated that the new can’t finally be obtained. And we are also exhausted at the perennial task of finding willing ourselves to be this new person or that. In neither our clothing choices nor our creation of ourselves is there a clear telos or end given to us or achievable by us.

Now you may have hesitations with the trajectory of this argument I am offering – there is a lot to debate and discuss, here. But even more, this evening, you may be wondering about my preoccupation with fashion and the self and identity at this service of installation. Where does this come from? Well I hope there is some method to my madness.

This weekend at The Presbyterian College we are participating in continuing celebrations of two anniversaries. We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the college itself and participating in a denomination-wide celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But there is another anniversary celebrated today. A decidedly more personal anniversary. Today is in fact the 43rd anniversary of my baptism. 43 years ago today water was poured over my head – the name of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was invoked – promises were made – a confession of faith was spoken by a community of God’s people.

And at that baptismal service 43 years ago, I was clothed in a particular way. In fact I was clothed with this baptismal gown (I FullSizeRenderpresent my baptismal gown and place it on the table in front of the lectern). Now speaking in sociological terms, with this baptismal gown we are back in the realm of cultural costume – wearing this gown set me in a particular cultural tradition. Certainly this particular garment owes its shape and styling to Victorian sensibilities. But pressing beyond merely sociological analysis, with my baptism and with this baptismal gown we are oriented toward a reality beyond the self. We are oriented, I would say, to a reality that bears with it a durability and substance that modern selves can only dream of – and perhaps do dream of.

I want to approach some of these questions, now, by considering a portion of Paul’s letter to the to the Galatians – specifically, Galatians 3 verses 26 and 27. In the broader context of these two verses, Paul is speak about the difference between life lived under the law and life in Jesus Christ. And importantly, it’s also a passage that sees an important shift in Paul’s language – he moves from speaking about us and we to speaking about you. He addresses his readers, Jew and Gentile, directly. He addresses us directly, could we way.

We read these verses again, beginning a verse 25: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

There is something so broad and beautiful about Paul’s language here – his language is eloquently expansive: You are all children of God through faith… As many of you as were baptized. The old boundary no longer exist – the title “children of God” is no longer limited to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – rather in Jesus Christ you are all children of God – as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourself with Christ.

And obviously Paul’s language resonates with our discussion this evening – Paul refers to our being clothed with Christ. He makes an association between our baptism and our being clothed with Christ. Some scholars have suggested that this text reflects a very early baptismal practice in which candidates for baptism donned a white garment at baptism – symbolizing the glory and holiness of Christ. Whether there is enough evidence to support such an early adoption of that practice is open to debate.

But aside from that historical question, there is also an important theological question at the heart of this passage – a question about how we enter into the new life of Christ. As Douglas Moo points out, in verse 27 Paul makes a surprising shift from faith as the basis of our union with Christ, to baptism as the seeming basis of our union with Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Now in quite a Protestant mode, Moo will hesitate in attributing too much to baptism, soteriologically speaking. He argues that in all of Paul’s writings it is through faith that we enter into relationship with Jesus – it is through faith that we are converted to Christ and live with Christ. Baptism, in this account, would be the moment of initiation into the community of God’s people. But in spite of his own hesitations, Moo pushes a little further, using even the language of incorporation into Christ. He follows Ridderbos in arguing: “By being baptized into Christ, and thus belonging to Christ, that which once took place in [Christ] is also valid for his own.” Adopting the language of Ridderbos I’d want to go further and say that baptism into Christ is “the union of the one baptized with Christ…and thus [union] with his death, burial and resurrection.” Through baptism what belongs to Christ belongs to us – through baptism his death is our death, his life is our life, his redemption is our redemption. Above all, for Paul, Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son of God is our identity as the beloved children of God.

We are clothed with Christ. There is a deep and mysterious identity or union implied here between the one baptized and the one who is our life.

In Christ we receive our identity.

In Christ we receive our true selves as the children of God.

In Christ we become truly alive and truly human.

Now it is true, as Witherington points out, that this language of being clothed with Christ expresses an ethical orientation in other writings of Paul. In Romans 13 Paul speaks about drunkenness and debauchery and quarrelling and other vices and then says “instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ”.” In his letter to the Colossians Paul similarly reminds his readers that they have stripped off the old self with its sinful practices and have put on a new self. In both of these parallel texts, putting on Christ means living ethically in the light of Christ.

But the context of Galatians 3 is distinct. Here Paul speaks about who we are through baptism into Christ. Rather than an ethical question it is, we might say, an ontological one – the question of our very being.

The white gown worn at my baptism was and is a decidedly Victorian garment. But whether the garment of infant baptism is a Victorian baptismal gown or the swaddling bands of earlier generations – whatever shape the baptismal garment takes, it expresses the reality of my new life in Jesus Christ – my reception of my truest self – my incorporation into Christ and into the Body of his people. Through baptism I am clothed with Christ – I receive myself in Christ, with and among his people.

To return to our earlier discussion, evidently this putting on of Christ is not my establishment of myself or my creation of myself. Baptism is not a moment in which I establish my own identity by an act of will. This putting on of Christ and this reception of my self – these are not based on my own wisdom, not based on my creativity, not based on my will to establish myself. This putting on of Christ is not and should not be conceived as my picking up the fragments of some ancient culture in an act of bricolage. The very logic of baptism represents a refusal of such willful making

Now in all of this we have, of course, entered the realm of those vexed questions that arise around baptism – particularly in the Reformed tradition. Is baptism a mere a sign and symbol of God’s promises? Is baptism simply a different and more concrete communication of that promise? Or is baptism a moment in which God, by the Spirit, acts in relation to the one baptized. In his Institutes, Calvin appears unable to come down consistently on one side of this question – owing particularly, perhaps, to his preoccupation with the invisible as opposed to the visible church. For my part, I think the Scots Confession, with its admittedly strong language, accurately reflects Paul’s account of baptism. The Scots Confession puts it like this: “And thus we utterly damn the vanity of those that affirm sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, by the which our sins are covered and remitted…”

So we come back to the modern self and the modern logic of fashion. And doing so we refer again to Giddens’ description of lifestyles and routines in modern life:

Each of the small decisions a person makes every day – what to wear, what to eat, how to conduct himself or herself at work, whom to meet with later in the evening – contributes to such routines. All such choices (as well as larger and more consequential ones) are decisions not only about how to act but who to be. The more post-traditional the settings in which an individual moves, the more lifestyle concerns the very core of self-identity, its making and remaking.[3]

We also recall MacIntyre’s contention that in this making and remaking, the modern self is left without any criteria for rationally choosing between one path and another – there is only the will to adopt this set of values, in this moment.

For followers of Jesus – for those who belong to the church today – it is immensely difficult to imagine how we could step out of this modern world or mindset. It is almost impossible to imagine somehow going back to inhabit an earlier world and community – some world where the human self has a given end and goal – an identity prior to our acts of the will. And yet the logic of our baptism into Christ, the reality of our being clothed with Christ, represents an account of the human that is deeply resistant to the logic of the modern self. Already it is more than apparent that our selves are gift and grace, selves we receive in Christ and among his people. Minimally, this entails deference to the life of the Body – a deference that is so much in tension with our personal choice to be defined by a particular community or its so-called values. It is a deference that says: “This is the self I have received. This self can only find fulfillment in the Body of Christ. This self will only reach maturity through a set of Spirit-shaped practices. This self cannot help but declare that Christ is Lord. I receive my end, my goal, through his resurrection life and in his renewal of creation.”

Which brings us back finally, and oddly perhaps, to the question of clothing. But now in an altogether different framework. If we have been clothed with Christ – if this is the self we receive in baptism – then clothing ourselves daily is not a willful attempt to create ourselves or establish our identity. And our clothing of ourselves cannot be conceived simply as an irrational or teleologically empty pursuit of the new for the sake of the new. In Jesus all things have been made new – he is the new life of the world. The new has been accomplished in Christ. The new has been given in Christ. We don’t have to reach for the new again and again, never really grasping it. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves either in creating a new self daily, or exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of ever-new clothes to project some identity. The one who renews the creation is among us. His Spirit enlivens us, daily. All of our actions, including our dressing of ourselves, arises out of our identity in Christ – and here we make the shift from the ontological to the ethical – from receiving our selves to living out our identity.

When it comes to clothing ourselves daily there are a few of directions we could take this conversation. We could speak of the compassion and justice of our Lord – the invitation and command to seek the wellbeing of those who make our clothes – our call to live in the neighbour-love of Christ. We could speak of the creation that is given and redeemed in Christ – and the invitation and demand to care for and respect that in practices of clothing production. Do our clothes reflect the compassion and justice and care for creation that is ours in Christ.

But let me finally move us in a different direction – toward the possibility that our clothing might also express the freedom and delight and inexpressible joy of our life in Christ. Is it possible that our clothes could express the joyful play of those who find themselves loved and set free in the life of Jesus Christ? Is it possible that our clothes might express the delight and happiness of those who have become the children that Jesus embraces and holds up as example? After all, the prophet Zechariah in describing what it looks like when God returns to his people pictures God’s redemption in terms of children playing in the streets. Could our scarves and ties and shoes and shirts and accessories and pants express the joyful flourishing and play of God’s children.

To be clear, this is not the playfulness of the modern self – not the play of a self unmoored from any criteria – not the self unmoored from the good creation given as gift and grace – not the self unmoored from the fulfillment of the law in love – not the self we playfully create out of our own wisdom and insight. Rather this is a play and delight founded on the impossible and beautiful gift of our selves – our truly human selves given and received through baptism into Jesus Christ. We are clothed with him, and why should we not be clothed with the abounding resurrection joy of his kingdom. As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have clothed yourself with the joy, have clothed yourselves with the playfulness, have clothed yourselves with the celebratory new life of Christ. As many of you as have been baptized into him, have clothed yourself with the beauty and goodness of Christ. He is our Lord. And he is our life. And we are clothed in him. May our clothes reflect the truth of our identity – the reality of his kingdom.

And now to the one God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, now and always. Amen.

[1] Lars Svendsen, Fashion: A Philosophy, trans. John Irons (London: Reaktion Books, 2006) 24.

[2] Giddens, 81.

[3] Giddens, 81.


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