Why ‘Looking Within’ For Identity Isn’t Enough: We Also Need To ‘Look Up’

By: Akos Balogh

“Your days are numbered, Maverick. Your kind is heading for extinction.” So said a US Admiral (played by actor Ed Harris) to Maverick (Tom Cruise) in the latest Tom Gun movie.

While the Admiral was referring to fighter pilots – and their breed heading for extinction thanks to AI and robots taking over the flying of aircraft – many in the secular West would say the same thing about religious people: “Your days are numbered, religious people. Your kind is heading for extinction.”

In this view, religion is dying out because (Western) society is becoming less religious. Science, reason, and rationality can take care of all our needs. And when it comes to our identities, all we need do is look within ourselves – ‘you do you’ – to find out who we are.

Except this approach doesn’t work. 

In a previous post, I explored the failure of ‘you do you,’ so far as increasing narcissistic tendencies and being bad for mental health. My post was based on Christian author Brian Rosner’s new book, ’How To Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward is Not The Answer’But Rosner has more to say about why looking inward doesn’t work.

We Can’t Just Look Within For Identity

Rosner argues that we can’t define our identity by looking within because we’re social beings (we need to ‘look around’) who have a history (‘we need to look backward and forward’).

But he goes on to say there’s even more to our identity:

I submit that we need to look not only around, and backward and forward, but also upward. Some theologians insist that personal identity requires that you look well beyond yourself. Rowan Williams writes, “Without the transcendent we shall find ourselves unable, sooner or later, to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.” [1]

In our post-Christian secular environment, this is a provocative argument.

After all, isn’t religion dying out – aren’t Christians ‘headed for extinction’ according to census data? While formal religious adherence may be shrinking in the West, there’s more to the spiritual story than just how many people tick the religious box on the census.

In Australia, a McCrindle survey in 2012 found that nearly one-fifth of Australians identify as spiritual but not religious, more than ever before on any census. Even if looking up in traditional religious terms is on the wane, looking up, in general, is not.[2]

The Human Need to Look Up

Woman in sunshine
Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

Rosner argues that human beings have inbuilt spiritual needs, whatever they tick on the census box:

[E]ach of us wants something more than simply the satisfaction of our most basic desires. Authors across a range of traditions, both religious and otherwise, have noted such yearnings. C. S. Lewis, for example, wrote of the human capacity for “an inconsolable longing for we know not what.”

He continues:

In The Pilgrim’s Regress, [Lewis] describes the object of such longing as “that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

He concludes:

Such yearnings are, Lewis says, “good images of what we really desire; but they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” 16 Human beings are afflicted, or perhaps blessed, with a nostalgia for the garden, a painful yearning for our perfect past.’ [3]

While some Atheists might write off such yearnings and any need for God as sentimental nonsense, it’s hard to deny the almost universal human experience of such deep emotions.

Modern Psychology and The Importance of Looking Up

Modern psychology affirms the importance of ‘looking up’ in one form or another.

The former head of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, affirms the importance of living for something bigger than yourself. And Psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, whose main interest is in child and adolescent development, has surveyed the literature about the effects of spirituality on human wellbeing and behavior:

Spirituality, defined as a sense of connectedness or relatedness to something or someone that transcends the material world, is associated with better mental health. It can help increase self-esteem, aid in one’s search for meaning in life, improve family and special relationships and decrease risk-taking behavior. It can also provide a moral compass to help navigate life.’ [4]

Academic psychiatrist Andrew Sims’s summary of the many studies about the effects of religious belief in the American Journal of Public Health comes to similar conclusions:

Religious involvement correlates strongly with wellbeing, happiness, life satisfaction, hope and optimism, purpose and meaning in life, higher self-esteem, better adaptation to bereavement, greater social support, less loneliness, lower rates of depression, and faster rates of recovery from depression.[5]

Eternity in Our Hearts

According to the Bible, the human desire to ‘look up’ and be spiritual is central to who we are as God’s Image Bearers.

God has placed ‘eternity in man’s heart’ (Ecc 3:11), so we have an awareness that there must be more to life than our frustrating existence ‘under the sun’ (Ecc 1:14). While sin has distorted this spiritual desire so that human beings worship false gods (Rom 1:18ff), worship – ‘looking up’ is key to who we are.

But the modern ‘you do you’ tends to ignore this dimension, leading to all sorts of problems for people across our culture.

[1] Brian Rosner, How To Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not The Answer (Crossway; Wheaton: 2022), 72.

[2] Rosner, How to find yourself, 73.

[3] Rosner, How to find yourself, 75.

[4] Michael Carr-Gregg, “How to build happy and resilient children,” in Raising Resilient Kids (Mt. Evelyn: Collective Wisdom, 2018), 7. Quoted in Rosner, How to find yourself, 78.

[5] Cited by John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? (London: Good Book, 2019), 29. Quoted in Rosner, How to find yourself, 78.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash