by Dr. Scott Daniels, Alumnus of the Year, Class of 1988
Thirty years ago, sitting in chapel as a student in the same sanctuary where I now preach every Sunday, I heard Tony Campolo say these words, “I am convinced that the self is not an essence waiting to be discovered through philosophical introspection. Quite the contrary! I believe that the self is an essence waiting to be created! We create who we are through the commitments we make. And without commitments we have no identity.”
Dr. Campolo was describing the existential crisis he had witnessed among his undergraduate students for several decades. “There’s a whole generation out there trying to find themselves,” he proclaimed. And then he added jokingly, “And they are all looking for themselves in the same places: Arizona, Southern California, or Boulder, Colorado.” The biblical text for his message was the great call to discipleship from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
WE WERE ALL DESPERATELY TRYING TO FIND AN IDENTITY THROUGH VARIOUS EXPERIENCES, WHILE OUR TRUEST SENSE OF IDENTITY WAS WAITING TO BE DEVELOPED THROUGH COMMITMENT AND SERVICE TO CHRIST AND HIS KINGDOM.
Those words of invitation from the Lord resonated with me and my peers as we faced our late adolescents crises. We were all desperately trying to find an identity through various experiences, while our truest sense of identity (that found only in Jesus) was waiting to be developed through commitment and service to Christ and his kingdom.
I initially responded to that call by serving the church and specifically the youth of the church. I immersed myself in preparation for long term pastoral service and in youth ministry. First in the Treasure Valley and then in Seattle, I started to form my identity in Christ through students like Robin, Traci, Matt, Danny and Jenny. While preparing for a life of ministry in seminary, I discovered that I might also be able to serve the church through continued study and through the preparation of others for ministry. Work with youth morphed into living life among college-age students and helping them discover the mission and ministry of service that the Lord had prepared for them. Along the way, God has continued to expand my reach of service to the marginalized, to the parentless, into diverse cultures, and (in ways I never imagined) beyond borders.
Looking back thirty years later, I realize how prophetic and timely the Lord’s words through Tony were for me. In those decades, I hadn’t discovered selfhood, but by grace God had formed his identity in me through service to my family, to the church, to various communities, to people who are now like family, and to hundreds of students and colleagues.
In the midst of graduate studies in ethics, another truth captured me that has shaped my understanding of life and service. The most well-known statement of ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre is this: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
For MacIntyre, one thing humans cannot do is escape the storied nature of our existence. People will always live into and out of a story. So, what story do I find myself in? This is a question of ultimate significance. Does this story have purpose, or is it meaningless? Is this story accidental or purposeful? Is the story I am in likely to have a hopeful or tragic ending? What role do I play in this story? These and countless other questions connected to the great story we each find ourselves in shape our decisions and give direction to our service.
The cultures of our world offer all kinds of stories (the Scripture refers to them as “gods”) for people to live into. The “Accumulation Story” offers meaning through wealth and prosperity. Many in our world pursue purpose through the many forms of the “Sensuality Story.” One seemingly beautiful but dangerously idolatrous story is the “Nation or Culture Story.” I think a slippery but increasingly popular story is the “There isn’t a Story Story” (which is still a story). Like the polytheists of old, most people probably actually live fragmented pieces from many of the world’s defining narratives.
Obviously, the kingdom message Jesus offers to people is not only a truthful but also a hopeful, meaningful and transcendent story. However, in the hyper-individualism of our own culture I fear that for many people the Christian story becomes just one more fragmented piece of their patchwork quilt of narratives. Shaped as we are by individualism and isolation, we become convinced that our story is the primary narrative, and Jesus becomes one more character in our story. I sometimes describe this as the “condiment option.” Like mustard spicing up a hotdog, we are actually living the success or sensuality story, but we are convinced it will go better with a little bit of Jesus sprinkled in.
The gospel, however, does not invite us to discover how God fits into our story. Rather, the Scripture calls us to discover our meaning as we become characters in God’s story.
I find it an inexpressible blessing to be back in the Northwest, getting the opportunity to serve Northwest Nazarene University and its surrounding community. For me, the unique gift of Christian education to the church and the world falls specifically in these two areas: the invitation to service and the call to enter God’s story.
I feel the challenges placed upon today’s young people are especially acute and make the need for places like NNU uniquely valuable. This generation, so desperate for identity, has two overwhelming forces working against them.
The first is the continued push for young people to begin the discovery of their identity by throwing off every shaping authority in their lives. This has left a generation without roots, without history, and without a defining story. Every time I see the commercials for an ancestral DNA company, I chuckle just a bit. Only our rootless culture would need to send hair samples and $65 dollars in to a company so we might discover what story we are a part of.
The other force is the ever-increasing ability to shape our consumption and our experiences in personalized ways. The ability to have my own personalized playlist, video queue and shopping sites shapes most of my experiences through preference. The personalized world is a world of constant consumption and comfort, but it is rarely a world of stretching and service. Those who try to find themselves through constant consumption will lose themselves.
NNU stands at the crossroads for today’s young people searching for identity in a world where it is too often impossible to find. No matter how rigorous, an education that is directed toward self and pointed toward a false and idolatrous story will never be able to give true meaning and purpose. Only an education that also invites the one enlightened to find oneself by giving oneself away and to discover a life lived within the great, glorious, and hope-filled story of God’s redemption of creation can offer formation as well as information.
It is a privilege to be back roaming the halls, classrooms, and sacred spaces that helped me find my identity in service to Christ and, inviting others, in the words of one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to go and live by first learning how to come and die.