The Options for Identity-Discernment in a Secular Age

The present cultural moment in the United States is often described as a “secular age.”[1] Included in this description is the reality that today many people are on a “quest” to understand their “identity.” People have both a heightened awareness of the need to form their identity, especially their religious identity, and an increasing ability to do so. In this paper, we will argue that the quest for identity so prevalent in contemporary culture can be an opportunity for the “new evangelization.”

We will develop our argument in three parts. First, we will utilize contemporary sociological research to investigate aspects of the present cultural moment in the United States that contribute to the contemporary quest for identity. Second, we will appropriate the work of 20th century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) to theologically analyze the notion of identity. Finally, if the analysis in this paper of the present cultural moment, through a socio-theological lens, is accurate, what begins to emerge are various ways in which the present age might be an opportunity for the new evangelization. We suggest that this opportunity can be seized through what is called an “Ignatian Option” for the new evangelization.[2]

1. Preliminary Considerations

The Concept of Identity

Our aim is to pursue some of the defining contours of the concept of “identity.”[3] As a working definition, we understand an individual’s identity to be an answer to the question of “Who am I?” Identity is not so much about what someone is, for instance, as a human being, even though this is necessarily connected to the question of identity. Rather, identity consists of the individuating characteristics of a human being, that which describes who one is, in all of one’s unique characteristics. This includes an existential element, indicating that an individual has to make “sense” of her identity, and explore what her identity means. There is also an ontological aspect to one’s identity. Identity is not just about what one’s identity means to the individual but, rather, there is something more objective, something that is given. As we will explore, this objective aspect of one’s identity comes, in part, from God. Finally, it should be noted, that history, religion, and culture, and furthermore, other people, function, at least in part, to form one’s identity. As we proceed in this paper, we will problematize and deepen our reflection on the concept of identity.

A Preliminary Description of an Ignatian Option

Along with the concept of identity, a working definition of what we mean by an “Ignatian Option” is also necessary. The reference to the Ignatian Option is related to the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). Ignatius is known for his theology of discernment, along with his missionary vision for the Church.[4] Discernment, or as Ignatius refers to it, finding God in all things, is a method employed in the analysis for this paper, as we seek to discern how the present cultural situation might be a opportunity for people to have a deepened encounter with God. Discernment is also a proposal we suggest for the Church as she engages in mission. It is our contention that discernment will not only help the Church engage the world around her, but can also assist people in understanding their own missionary identity.

Though our insight into Ignatius relies more-immediately upon the thought of von Balthasar, rather than directly drawing from Ignatius, we maintain that proposing an “Ignatian Option,” rather than, for instance, a “Balthasarian Option,” is more appropriate. Balthasar was a member of the Jesuits until 1950, and always maintained his indebtedness to the thought, and charism, of Ignatius. Indeed, Balthasar’s theological vision is thoroughly informed by Ignatius.[5] He posits that it is Ignatius, rather than himself, who can provide a guiding hand to the Church as she engages with the modern, contemporary world.[6] Though we cannot be certain, we think that Balthasar would agree upon our choice of Ignatius, rather than himself, for our “option” for the new evangelization. More on these points will follow.

2. The Present Cultural Moment

Individualization and a Heightened Concern to Form One’s Identity

Those who analyze the particular contours of secularized culture posit that one of the prevailing aspects of this culture is what is called “individualization.”[7] Individualization is characterized, at least in part, by an increase in the relative autonomy that human beings have in general. In particular, it is characterized by people’s ability to discern and determine their own identity.[8] This means that human beings are much freer to choose where they live, who they marry, what profession they take on, or what religion or philosophy they espouse.[9] This increase in one’s relative autonomy is coupled by a growing sense within each human being that she is the center of meaning in her life.[10] This “interior” source of meaning is certainly impacted by people’s experience of the world around them. But ultimately, for many people, one’s interior life becomes the main, if not sole, arbiter of meaning, and therefore, a substantial source of one’s understanding of identity.[11]

The process of individualization has also included not just the possibility to form one’s identity, but also, an awareness of the need to do so.[12] This need is exemplified, particularly in relationship to one’s religious identity. Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion, has documented in American culture the emergence of the religious “seeker.”[13] The seeker is understood as the human being who, utilizing a newfound sense of freedom or autonomy, and motivated by a variety of factors, from the fluidity of life, to dissatisfaction with her current religious path, to general American cultural narratives regarding freedom, begins a journey to seek out, and to discover, a new religious identity.[14] Seeking can involve negotiating between religious communities, multiplying religious experiences, or searching one’s interior self in order to find the sacred.[15]

An Age of Increased Opportunity via Pluralization

Another contour of culture, different from, but intimately connected to, individualization, is what many sociologists call “pluralization.”[16] Whether on account of the greater mobility that people have in the contemporary period, or the introduction of technological advances in people’s lives, pluralization means that people are given far more opportunities to experience a diversity of cultures, structures of thought, or religions, than at any other time in the history of the world.[17] Coupled with the reality of individualization, pluralization means that individuals have a plethora of individual choices to make from among the plurality of options that exist, and have the opportunity, and often feel the pressure, to make sense of these experiences.[18] As philosopher Charles Taylor points out, it is not just that the contemporary age offers a plurality of options; it is that today, in contrast to the past, these are real options that can be chosen, on account of the greater individual autonomy that exists.[19]

Personal Identity in the Cross-Pressures of Life: “Haunting” Uncertainty

If the analysis above is accurate, it seems that people living in a secular age have a greater opportunity to form their own identity than at any other time in the history of the world.[20] They have, so it seems, nearly unlimited potential to answer the fundamental question concerning human identity: the question of “Who am I?” The question that might be asked, however, is given this newfound opportunity for, and awareness of, people to discern their identity, are people satisfied with the journey, the process, and, more importantly, the outcome.[21] In other words, do people feel more secure in their own identity? No doubt this is a difficult question to answer. However, current sociological research offers some insight into a nuanced response to this question.

Though it is not possible in this presentation to go through their entire analysis, both Taylor’s and Wuthnow’s research respond to this question in a variety of ways.[22] On the one hand, they both indicate that increased individual autonomy has given people the possibility, especially in unsatisfactory life-circumstances, to overcome these circumstances, and to search out a new life.[23] Still more, people have what might be called an unprecedented potential to explore or pursue meaning or truth, especially in the religious sphere.[24] On the other hand, for many people, an overall feeling of existential uncertainty abounds. Though they have greater freedom, and more opportunities, to discern and form their identity, people are still unsure of who they are.[25] As Taylor writes, they are caught in the “cross-pressures” of life, haunted by the overwhelming number of options available, as well as by their inability to determine which to choose. Therefore, doubt and uncertainty can impact people in their quest for meaning and identity.[26]

3. A Balthasarian Analysis of Identity

The Question of Identity: Who am I?

The question of identity occupies a central place in von Balthasar’s anthropology.[27] Surveying Western thought, Balthasar reflects on how a desire to understand what constitutes the identity of an individual was taken up by the ancient Greeks, pondered by the Church Fathers, and continues to be researched by contemporary psychologists, sociologists and philosophers.[28] All of these responses, important as they are in offering an insight into how one might approach the question of individual identity, often fail, according to von Balthasar, to adequately provide an answer to the problem.[29] Though we cannot cover Balthasar’s entire analysis, we can use his way of reasoning to augment our reflection on the issue of identity.

On the one hand, according to Balthasar, there is the problem of contingency. A human being can comprehend her identity through what he calls “empirical characteristics.”[30] Through their family, birthplace, education, philosophical and religious pursuits, or their relationships with others, one’s identity can be discerned. Yet these are all, at some level, contingent, and only partially determinative of one’s identity. Even if one were to multiply as many of these experiences as possible, one would still wonder if having just one more experience, or knowing just one more person, might not lead her to understand her identity even better.[31]

On the other hand, there is the predicament of perspective.[32] If one turns towards one’s interior self in order to understand it as fully as possible, one realizes that a conundrum exists.[33] According to Balthasar, the “I” realizes that it cannot gain a perspective on itself because it is the one who is doing the investigating, and can never stand outside of itself to understand fully what or who it is.[34] This often, according to Balthasar, motivates human beings to move from a solitary reflection on their identity, to a more human-dialogical method.[35] But even the discovery of who an individual is to another, as important as this is, is still, in Balthasar’s analysis, contingent and incomplete. How another human being understands or values someone else is not fully determinative of who one actually is, and it is subject to change.[36] Therefore, one’s identity, as found in another, is still not fully secure.

A Theological Response to the Question: Identity and Mission

According to von Balthasar, the question regarding one’s identity can only be fully uncovered through a theological analysis.[37] Looking at the person of Jesus Christ, Balthasar notes how Jesus identified himself fully and completely with his relationship to the Father, and in this case, in his sense of mission. Christ’s unique identity as the Son of God, who “comes” from the Father, is one with his mission, or purpose, of being sent into the world. As the Son of God in the world, he is sent in order to reveal to the world who the Father is, to carry out, in freedom and in love, the will of the Father.[38] In short, as Balthasarian scholar Karen Kilby pithily writes, “Jesus does not just have a mission—he is the mission.”[39]

In an analogous sense, Balthasar argues that for human beings the most intimate and fundamental aspect of who we are—the most intimate part of our identity—can only be understood in, and come from, God.[40] As he writes: “It is when God addresses a conscious subject, tells him who he is and what he means to the eternal God of truth and shows him the purpose of his existence—that is, imparts a distinctive and divinely authorized mission—that we can say” that the individual has received the most fundamental aspect of his identity.[41] The question of “who a human being is” is fundamentally answered by the divinely inspired mission given to her by God.


Taken together, then, both sociological and theological research indicate the complexity of the question concerning identity: a question prevalent in the contemporary period. People are not just haunted by the sheer number of choices available to them, and the feeling that they should, and can, make a decision concerning these choices in order to more fully understand and form their identity. There is also a theological tension that exists. Though all of these “empirical” experiences are important, and help to form one’s identity, it does not seem that one can fully access and secure one’s identity through one’s own efforts. Identity is something ultimately hidden in God, who calls human beings by name, and gives them a mission in the world. It is as the intersection of one’s God-given identity vis-à-vis one’s mission, and one’s partial identity as it has been formed through the numerous experiences of life, that one comes to more-fully understand who one is. Therefore, both on account of the current cultural predicament, and based on a theological analysis, understanding one’s identity becomes all the more important, and possible, for people of our contemporary age, and yet still seems to remain all the more elusive.

4. A Moment of Opportunity for the New Evangelization: An Ignatian Option

Our cultural and theological analysis have hopefully led us to a place where we might address the challenge of the new evangelization. We do so by first looking at the Church ad intra, and then at the Church ad extra, continuing to use aspects of Balthasar’s thought, so as to describe the initial contours of what we call an “Ignatian Option” for the new evangelization.

The Church Ad Intra: Fulfilling the Vision of Vatican II

It is argued by theologians that at the Second Vatican Council the Church came to a deepened self-awareness of her own missionary identity.[42] The council clarified that the Church’s mission was not solely relegated to missioners being sent to mission lands but, rather, that all people were now called to take part in the mission of the Church.[43] If the Church’s new self-awareness is seen in light of both the sociological research we have been discussing, and Balthasar’s understanding of identity and mission, certain possibilities seem to arise for the new evangelization.

First, it is likely that many people in the Church are “haunted” by the question of identity that we have been discussing: they feel compelled to know and form their own identity, but are uncertain of exactly what that identity is, or how to form it. Therefore, the Church, not only to realize her own newfound missionary identity, but also, to give people the chance to find their ultimate, and most secure, God-given identity, might best proceed by becoming a place where the connection between identity and mission is more intentionally emphasized. In other words, leaders in the Church might be able to say: Do we seek to know who we are? Then let us together discern the unique mission that God has given us.

To facilitate discernment and understanding of one’s mission, priests could utilize their homilies not only to reflect upon the scriptures, but also to continually raise the question of people’s personal-ecclesial discernment of mission.[44] Local parishes could form small groups who gather together to discuss how their discernment and engagement of mission are unfolding.[45] Finally, the liturgy might continue to be a place, not only where people gather to receive and solidify their missionary identity gathered around the Eucharistic Christ, but also, where people are truly sent forth, in the spirit of the words that conclude every Mass, to carry out their mission in the world.[46] In this way, with the focus on discernment and individual mission, it might be said that what needs to be encouraged is an Ignatian Option, where individuals, concerned with their own identity in a somewhat precarious cultural situation, discern in the Church their own mission, given to them by God in Jesus Christ, which helps to form the identity that they seek.

The Church Ad Extra: Offering the Possibility of Identity in Christ

A few points can be made in reference to the Church’s engagement with the world ad extra that help to build upon our understanding of an Ignatian Option.

First, one’s mission, though it helps to form an individual in her identity, is not meant to be solely for the individual. Mission is meant for the world. Balthasar states that, when a human being is “given a unique vocation and mission, he is simultaneously de-privatized, socialized, made into a locus and bearer of community.”[47] In many and diverse ways, all tailored to individual human beings, Christ gives people a mission and sends them out into the world and for the world.[48] In this sense one could say that one’s ultimate identity is in being for the other in the manner that Christ designates.[49]

Second, people who live out their mission in the world will likely discover that there exists a fundamental solidarity between them and those people who are not formally part of the Church. This solidarity, based on our analysis above, is a sociological reality, in that it is likely that all people stand together in their own haunted search for identity. Still more this solidarity is also a theological reality, in that all people have been redeemed, and are being called by Christ to receive a particular form of life from him.[50] Therefore, there is a sense of unity that exists within the drama of life, as all people seek to answer the question: Who am I?[51]

Finally, as people in the Church seek to live out their mission in the world, there arises a need to discern how God is already at work in the world, even among those who are not directly discerning their identity in the Church—such as non-Christians, or Christians who no longer practice their faith—and to offer to them the possibility of finding their identity in Christ. As Balthasar states, it is true that mission is most often associated with those:

Who are called to be ordinary members of the visible Church and those chosen for a special task within her. But the range of Jesus’ eschatological work is such that he can operate directly, outside the Church . . . [The] special vocation of Christians is explicitly to adopt his standpoint so that they can continue his work in the world . . . [The Church is] commissioned to be the light of the world together with him (Jn 8:12; Mt 5:14). Yet she is not identical with his light: it can happen that, bringing her light into some new area, she finds his light shining there already.[52]

Therefore, if Balthasar is correct, discerning where God is working in the world—where God’s light is present—becomes central to any mission, especially paying attention to how God is already forming people’s identity in ways that are not obviously connected to the Church. This action of discernment would include, when appropriate, opening up the possibility that others may more fully appropriate the identity that God is offering to them in Christ.[53]

5. Conclusion

No doubt more exploration concerning the connection between mission and identity is needed to tease out the fruitful possibilities that exist for the new evangelization. Understanding the inherent tension that exists between one’s own living identity, and appropriating Christ’s mission for one’s life, is worthy of exploration.[54] That people may not be interested in the identity that can be found in Christ, and may outright reject this identity, also has consequences for the new evangelization.[55] However, even with these challenges, it seems that a fruitful connection can be made between the contemporary awareness of, and struggle to secure, one’s own identity, and the nature of one’s identity as it is found in Christ. As we have suggested, this fruit might be reaped in the Church by pursuing an Ignatian Option in a secular age.

 [1] See: Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). Throughout this paper, we will be using Taylor’s work for our analysis of “secular” culture in the United States, and will be supplementing his work with the research of other sociologists. For a concise version of Taylor’s thought, see: James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014).

[2] There are various other “options” being presented in contemporary research in order to address the challenge of evangelization in the United States. One option that has inspired considerable debate is the Benedict Option, which is articulated by American cultural critic and writer, Rod Dreher. See: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

[3] Our preliminary analysis of the concept of identity relies, for the most part, on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar. For more on a philosophical, psychological and sociological analysis of identity, which pushes the boundaries of the theological, see: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory I: Prolegomena, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 481-648, especially 481-487 (Henceforth, TD I).

[4] For further analysis of Ignatius’s thought, see: George E. Ganss, S.J., ed., Ignatius of Loyola: The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1991). For a helpful article on the theology of Ignatius as it is found in his Spiritual Exercises, see Avery Dulles, “The Ignatian Charism and Contemporary Theology,” America 176, no. 14 (1997): 14-22. Dulles emphasizes both the individual’s involvement in the mission of God, along with one’s individual, and yet fully ecclesial, discernment of God in one’s life, as being markers of an Ignatian theology. For further research on Ignatian discernment in our contemporary period, see: Joseph A. Tetlow, S.J., Always Discerning: An Ignatian Spirituality for the New Millennium (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2016). For a method of adapting the Spiritual Exercises to the reality of “seekers,” see: Roger Haight, S.J., Christian Spirituality for Seekers: Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2012).

[5] For a helpful analysis of Balthasar’s interpretation of Ignatius’ theology, as well as the way in which Ignatius’ thought influenced Balthasar, see: Matthew A. Rothaus Moser, Love Itself is Understanding: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of the Saints (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), especially 1-24.

[6] For Balthasar’s remarks regarding the thought of Ignatius, see: My Work in Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 20-22.

[7] On the rise of the importance of the individual in society, see: Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 230-234. Some sociologists denote the rise of the individual as “individualism.” To avoid the negative associations that arise from any word ending in -ism, we chose to denote this process as “individualization.” See also: Rob Warner, Secularization and Its Discontents (London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010), 22. For Charles Taylor’s analysis of the individual, in what he calls the emergence of the “buffered self,” see: A Secular Age, 29-61. For a concise analysis of Taylor’s thought concerning the buffered self, see: Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 28-31. Indeed, for Taylor, the buffered self indicates both greater individual autonomy from society and overarching religious system(s) that form society, and an emphasis on the individual self as the main, or predominant, source of meaning.

[8] See: Taylor, A Secular Age, 25-41. Discerning or discovering one’s identity is something which Taylor argues has only fully emerged in our contemporary period. The reason for this emergence, both of relative, individual autonomy as “movement,” and greater “interior” autonomy, is because of the overall change in the social imaginary of the contemporary period. Robert Wuthnow also acknowledges the specific emergence of physical, individual autonomy, and a growing freedom, along with a felt need, to discover one’s interior identity. See Wuthnow, After Heaven, 52-84; 142-167.

[9] Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping The Future of American Religion (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009), 12-19. Wuthnow notes that individualization is as much a choice out of necessity for people, as it is something freely chosen as a lifestyle. The need to be more individualistic arises, for many people, on account of a lack of social institutions and community organizations available to help people. The need to be slightly more individualistic is most prominent in young adults who have finished college, and are not yet married, on account of the lack of social structures to assist them at this stage of their life.

[10] See: Taylor, A Secular Age, 30-31.

[11] It is important to note that what is being referred to here, that the individual becomes the main source of meaning in one’s life, should not be easily mistaken as narcissism or egocentrism. Certainly, a growing focus on the individual as the center of meaning in one’s life can lead to some overtly selfish behavior, and can lead people to encounter some undesirable experiences. According to Wuthnow’s research, however, that an individual sees herself as the center of meaning becomes necessary on account of the fluid, mobile, and diverse experiences people have in life. See: Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 124-127. See also: Wuthnow, After Heaven, 66-84.

[12] The increased need to determine one’s identity is an underlying theme of Wuthnow’s research. For a few examples of this, see: Wuthnow, After Heaven, 142-150; After the Baby Boomers, 13-16; Christianity in the 21st Century: Reflections on the Challenges Ahead (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 183-191

[13] For a summary of the notion of a “seeker,” see: Wuthnow, After Heaven, 52-84. See also: Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 124-127.

[14] Wuthnow, After Heaven, 148-149. Wuthnow lists many reasons why, through the 20th century in particular, people increasingly questioned their identity. These range from epistemological questions concerning truth, the tumultuous era of the 1960’s, and an overall culture promoting personal discovery. As this research indicates, the search for identity arose both within culture, and from within a relatively new human self-understanding. By the “fluidity” of life, we are referring to the way in which people have become more mobile, how they buy and use services and goods from various venues, and how it is really no longer the case for many people that one institution is the epicenter of their daily lives.

[15] On these points, see: Wuthnow, After Heaven, 60-79; 120; 133-141; 142-157.

[16] For an analysis of pluralization in its classical understanding, see: Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967). See also: Steve Bruce, Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 36-37. See also: Wuthnow, Religion in the 21st Century, 107-108. It is important to note that the pluralization of society, i.e., the multiplication of options made available to people, is closely related to what is called “pluralism,” which indicates a certain tolerance for various competing religions and worldviews in society. The two ideas are related, in that, quite often, pluralism as tolerance allows for a greater plurality of worldviews to compete and present themselves to people in society. Pluralization includes, however, the multiplication of choices made available to people, often on account of technological advances, such as through the Internet, or newer, more efficient modes of travel.

[17] Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 42-48.

[18] Wuthnow, Religion in the 21st Century, 107-108. See also: Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 112-135. It is worth noting that Wuthnow, when addressing the connection between pluralization and specifically religious identity, notes that people often practice what he calls “tinkering,” or that they become “heteroglossic,” i.e., that they have the ability to speak from many religious voices. Tinkering is much like seeking, accept that the former often includes piecing together many aspects of various religious traditions in order to create a bricolage of spirituality, i.e., a much more personal construal of one’s religious identity. See: Wuthnow, Religion in the 21st Century, 108, on the concept of the “heteroglossic.” See also: Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 13-19; 112-135, on the concept of “tinkering.”

[19] See: Taylor, A Secular Age, 304. The plurality of religious options that Taylor is referring to here is different, according to him, from the plurality which existed in pre-modern times. The difference occurs in that, in general, it was not an option for people to change from one particular stance to another in pre-modern times, and so the plurality that existed did not really exist as a kind of pressure on people, motivating them to consider changing their positions in regards to religion or other matters of life, such as philosophical stances.

[20] On this point, see: Wuthnow, After the Baby, 113.

[21] This is not just a question we thought was important for this paper. In fact, it is a question asked by many sociologists, philosophers and theologians. For Wuthnow’s discussion of this question, see After Heaven, 236-237 n. 22.

[22] For a helpful analysis of the positive and negative aspects of the contemporary rise of individualization and pluralization, see: Taylor, A Secular Age, 473-481. This analysis is helpful, in that Taylor seeks to chart a middle position between those who think the current cultural situation is fraught with disaster and selfishness, and those who think that nothing of the current cultural moment is in need of critique. We investigate various aspects of this debate below.

[23] See: Wuthnow, 52-66; 116-120; 142-146.

[24] See: Wuthnow, After Heaven, 69-72.

[25] Wuthnow’s research is telling in this regard. He notes that: “Such feelings [those of self-doubt and uncertainty in relationship to one’s identity] are widespread among Americans, occurring in virtually everyone some of the time and in a sizable minority in relatively serious magnitude. Social conditions magnify these concerns, both by giving us choices and by making it difficult to determine which choice may have the most desirable consequences.” See: Wuthnow, After Heaven, 236-237 n. 22.

[26] In modern times, the plurality of options are real options for people to choose from, and so people are always haunted by questions of whether or not they have made the right choice. This feeling of being haunted, or of questioning one’s views, is what Taylor calls the “fragilization” of people’s views or ideas. Caught in the cross-pressures of the various ideas and systems competing for people’s attention, people are unsure how to choose. See: A Secular Age, 303-304. For a critique of Taylor’s description of the fragilization of people’s views and of society, see: Ruth Abbey, “Theorizing Secularity 3: Authenticity, Ontology, Fragilization,” in Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age, eds. Carlos D. Colorado and Justin D. Klassen (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 105-113. Abbey notes that sometimes there is confusion in Taylor’s articulation of what it means to live within the cross pressures of a secular age. On the one hand, Taylor is sometimes referring to the radical pluralization of options that exist for people to choose from. On the other hand, he is sometimes discussing the psychological or phenomenological experience of the individual. For more on the cross-pressures of life, see: Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 62-69.

[27] For an extended analysis, see: TD I, 481-648. See also: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory Volume III: The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 149-282 (Henceforth, TD III).

[28] TD I, 487-589.

[29] TD I, 645. As Balthasar states, from his analysis, he can conclude that: “Our path’s direction gave us the question ‘Who am I?’: we needed to get away from the arbitrariness of a ‘role’ that was simply thrown over a colorless ‘I’ like some coat that happened to be to hand and could at any time be exchanged for another and to arrive at an ‘I’ that was irreplaceable as such and thus could be enabled to take on a genuinely dramatic role in the realm, not of the theatre, but of life.”

[30] TD III, 204-205.

[31] TD III, 205. As Balthasar states: “This individual, under different conditions, could have become quite a different subject.” It is important to note, here, the connection between Balthasar’s analysis and the contemporary period, as it is exemplified in popular culture. The HBO miniseries Westworld has brought the issue of identity to the forefront of the contemporary imagination. In this series, paying customers are able to enter into a virtual, and thoroughly lifelike, world, to live out, in whatever capacity that they desire, as many encounters and experiences as possible. The business advertises its product by saying that the product is a place where people can come to discover who they really are.  All the while, however, the series begs the question: if you had just one more experience, if you encountered just one more person, would you then know who you really are? Seemingly, the series comes to the same conclusion that Balthasar did, that the question of identity, when looked at through empirical characteristics, remains elusive. For more on this topic, see: Robert Aaron Wessman, ‘“Who am I?’ – Westworld, Identity, and the Church’s Engagement with the ‘Real’ World,” March, 2017, [accessed April 4th, 2017].

[32] See: TD I, 481-491.

[33] I am using “self” and “I” somewhat interchangeably here. They are both used to indicate the core of one’s identity, those defining characteristics that make a person an individual from among the group of human beings.

[34] TD I, 484.

[35] See: TD I, 626-643. See also: TD III, 205-208.

[36] TD III, 205.

[37] For an extensive theological discussion on the nature of identity, see: TD I, 626-648; TD III, 149-282.

[38] Or, as Balthasar states: “Jesus experiences his human consciousness [the question of who am I] entirely in terms of mission. The Father has commissioned him, in the Holy Spirit, to reveal God’s nature and his disposition toward man.” See: TD III, 224.

[39] Karen Kilby, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 96 (emphasis original). One could say that everything that Jesus does is indicative of his identity, and his identity can be seen in what he does. This is different for human beings, who only receive (become aware of) their mission later in life. Therefore, they must grow in their identity a posteriori. TD III, 207-208.

[40] TD III, 206-207.

[41] TD III, 207.

[42] On this point, see: Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), especially at 249-251; 286-288. See also: David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 20th anniversary edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2014), especially at 377-398.

[43] See, for instance, Ad Gentes, § 2, 5, 11. All translations of conciliar documents are taken from Austin Flannery, O.P., ed., The Vatican Collection: Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, new revised edition, 2 vols. (Northport and Dublin: Costello Publishing Company, 2004).

[44] The connection between mission and preaching is central to Pope Francis’s missionary vision as it is laid out in Evangelii Gaudium (EG). See Pope Francis, EG, November 24, 2013, [accessed February 19, 2017], especially §§135-144.

[45] One of the central aspects of the 20th and 21st century Catholic movement Cursillo is the connection between mission and identity. By various means, from lectures, moments of reflection, and small group gatherings, the movement seeks to assist people to discern and live out their missionary identity. For more on the Cursillo movement, and the way in which the movement focuses on individual identity and mission, see the official American website: [accessed February 19, 2017].

[46] In the recent translation of the Roman Missal in English, several of the dismissals clearly indicate the missionary thrust of the celebration of the Eucharist. Two are worth mentioning here: 1) “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” and 2) “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your Life.” See: The Roman Missal: English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011).

[47] TD III, 271.

[48] TD III, 248-249.

[49] Central to Balthasar’s development of the relationship between Christology, identity and mission, is his understanding of the concepts of the admirabile commercium and en Christōi. Taken together, Balthasar argues that just as Jesus’s mission is caught up in giving his life for human beings (commercium), so human beings, when taken up en Christōi, receive a mission from Christ to analogously give their life for the world. See: TD III, 237-250.

[50] See: TD III, 233-237.

[51] Balthasar calls this solidarity a kind of communion that exists within the drama, or theo-drama, of life. See: TD I, 285.

[52] TD III, 282.

[53] On this point, see: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement with God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship, trans. R. John Halliburton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 94-97; 103-105.

[54] TD III, 206-208.

[55] See: TD III, 208. The consequences for the new evangelization arise in that, according to Balthasar, one’s mission is essential to one’s identity. Therefore, persistent rejection of one’s mission is a rejection of ‘who’ one is at the most fundamental level of her identity.

Featured Image: Francisco Zurbaran, St. Ignatius of Loyola, c. 1600; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Fr. Robert Aaron Wessman

Robert Aaron Wessman is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Glenmary Home Missioners. He is currently a doctoral student at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, and serves as a pastor at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Windsor, North Carolina.

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