Tribalism: Forming Identity in Relationships

You choose your own identity.

That phrase is familiar to us all. In our culture, the concept that every person is able to choose their own identity has rapidly grown in popularity, despite being hotly contested by many. Most controversial is whether or not people are able to choose and change their gender identity.

Choosing one’s identity is a part of a larger trend of “living your own truth.” Choosing your own identity, particularly that part which is biologically determined, is not just a question of personal preference or personal belief; it brings into question the nature of Truth itself. While this truth-questioning may seem to be a radical departure from Western tradition and its foundational Judeo-Christian values, today’s identity crisis did not come out of nowhere. In fact, today’s cultural view is part of a long history of Western individualism that has naturally led to the current crisis of identity.

In philosophy, psychology, politics, and literature, Western thought and culture have been strongly individualistic for hundreds of years. In contrast to Eastern societies and earlier Western societies, the modern West’s conception of personhood is radically individualistic. This basic cultural and philosophical orientation is what has created fertile soil for current views on identity to arise.

The modern West’s conception of personhood is radically individualistic

While it might be nice to believe that religion is exempt from the trends of the larger culture, Christianity in the West too has become increasingly individualistic. Many Christians have moved to seeing their faith as something that is merely personal, based on individual choice. Christians identify less with the faith communities they are part of and more with their own personally held beliefs and spiritual practices.

The basic assumptions about individualism held by religious and nonreligious people alike are incorrect. To some degree, each of us believes that we choose who we are. Even those who reject ideologies that say we can choose our own gender identity believe they are in control of many of the other things that make them “them.” But this is far less true than we think.

Who we are is far more dependent on our environment and the people around us than we are prone to think. Human identity only forms within the context of community. This is not an accident, but is a feature of humanity—a part of what it means to be made in the image of the Trinitarian God.

Human Development and the Trinity
The second chapter of Genesis attests that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). The study of human development verifies and even emphasizes this claim: not only is it not good for humans to be alone, humans from birth cannot survive without other humans. Babies without physical contact and nurture from other humans fail to develop physically, neurologically, and relationally. The authors of A General Theory of Love discuss how it was discovered hundreds of years ago that babies who are not spoken to or nurtured, even if their physical needs are met, will die.1 Similarly, children who receive inadequate levels of nurturing care react physiologically: “Children deprived of love stop growing, lose weight no matter their caloric intake, and dwindle away.”2 Children who fail to receive nurturing care from caretakers in the first few years of their lives are also stunted socially, unable to relate maturely or naturally to others.3

Humans are not designed just to need physical needs met; we need relational needs met. Because our identity is partially dependent on our physiological and neurological development, our relationships from birth begin to shape our identity.4 Identity is not formed in isolation, but in relationship.

Humans are not designed just to need physical needs met; we need relational needs met

This applies to people at all stages of life, not just babies and small children. From a theological perspective, it is no less true that our relationships make us who we are throughout life. The theologians and Christian psychologists who authored The Reciprocating Self argue that “to be human is to be in relationship with one another”5 as a function of being made in the image of God. That is to say, we are defined by relationships because God in the Trinity is defined by his relationship to himself. We cannot fully separate our identity from our relationships with those around us because our very nature is to relate to others, as is the very nature of God.6

The Reciprocating Self suggests a departure from our Western, individualized conception of how reality works. Relationship and togetherness is fundamental to who God is and what his love is, which is reflected in our nature as human beings. There are no single human beings. Our identities are always and only formed in the context of other humans.

To our Western minds habituated to thinking in terms of individualism this idea may seem alien, but our need for relationship takes us right back to where we started: it is not good for man to be alone.

Identity and Tribalism
Let’s take the idea that identity only forms within the context of our relationships with others and see how this applies to the current cultural identity crisis. In a fallen world, our good design can easily be twisted.

Forming identity in relationships is part of what it means to be human. But when this is twisted, it becomes over-identifying with certain people and identifying against anyone else. This sort of “us against them” mentality is called tribalism. While tribalism creates a strong sense of identity, it can also be damaging, as it leads us to reject and even hate those who are not like us. Tribalism can take many forms, including political, religious, and ethnic tribalism.

Forming identity in relationships is part of what it means to be human

In light of what we have argued about identity forming within relationship, tribalism is not a random phenomena, but is what happens when our nature as relational beings becomes corrupted. Because none of us are exempt from sin (Romans 3:23), we are all vulnerable to the dangers of tribalism. It is easy to identify when others have developed an unhealthy tribalism that alienates or harms people “not like them.” But we would do well to remember that we are not exempt from the dangers of tribalism. If we are not careful, “our people”—whether that is our religious community, our political affiliation, or another group we identify strongly with—can become a form of tribalism. Even thinking in the terms of “our people” and “those people” warns of a tribal mindset.

Implications for the Church
Let us now turn to the problem we see with the faith of the rising generation. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer young people identify as Christian. A leading culprit for this phenomena seems to be ideologies popular in our culture that are antithetical to Christianity and Christian virtue—such as the ideologies behind secular beliefs about identity and the nature of truth. These ideologies have major implications for gender and sexual identity. When we are looking for a culprit to blame for the rising generation slipping away from faith, the easy target is these ideologies and the political, pseudo-spiritual, and social tribes that form around them.

But let’s turn the lens around and look at ourselves. Many young people who grew up in church are now out of the church or on their way out. Their first opportunity to build an identity within the context of relationships was within a faith community. Sadly, it seems to be the story of many young people that a healthy sense of identity never took root for them within their religious community.

The hard but important question to ask here is why are young people not developing strong senses of identity in their faith communities? Rather than assuming that there was an inexplicable, evil pull toward an unfamiliar ideology, we should consider what was missing for the people who left the faith to “find their identity.” Why are churches not fertile soil for people to grow into a sense of identity among healthy relationships? Have many of our faith communities failed to provide what is needed for identity formation?

To develop a sense of identity we need acceptance, grace, a sense of autonomy

The Reciprocating Self suggests that four things are needed for a context to build healthy and whole identities: “a relational context that is characterized by unconditional love, gracing, empowering, and intimacy.”7 In other words, to develop a sense of identity we need acceptance, grace, a sense of autonomy, and the experience of being loved. The fact that more and more young people are not developing resilient senses of identity within the church suggests that some or all of these aspects of a relational environment are missing. Can we look into our own churches and communities and honestly ask whether we are offering acceptance, grace, autonomy, and the experience of love to those around us?

The implication is that the crisis of identity in the younger generation is not an ideological crisis as much as it is a relational crisis. While the identity problem is compounded by modern woes perpetuated by social media and failures to create meaningful relationships, there is also a fundamental failure of the church. People are not just taken captive by false ideas; they have not found wholeness in the experience of relatedness to other people or to God.

What Do We Do Now?
If we recognize that a crisis of identity is a crisis of relationship, what should our response be to those who are identifying against rather than with Christianity, especially those who grew up in the church?

First, we should recognize the difficulty and confusion involved in the crisis of identity. While it may look like rebellion, truculence, or indifference, pain and confusion are often beneath these responses. An identity crisis is never a pleasant experience. It feels a lot like being lost and powerless without guidance—“harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus’s response when faced with people who were lost? Have compassion.

Second, we should listen in order to understand before we speak. If identity is more about relationship than it is about knowledge, giving facts or arguments will be ineffective compared to listening to and caring about a person. There may be opportunities to engage in big ideas and beliefs, but opportunities to genuinely engage with people about their identity will not arise unless there is a relationship.

Along with listening, make space in your life to be with people who identify differently than you. Interestingly, theologian and neuroscientist Jim Wilder explains that our brains only allow themselves to be changed by people who we identify with.8 Unless the younger generation in some sense sees you as “one of them,” that is, a person who is part of the group that makes up their identity, you have little or no influence with them. Pushing harder or proclaiming louder will be ineffective. Rather, we must build bridges of relationship that break down barriers of tribal identity. Find ways to include or invite young people and those you disagree with into your life. Love those people and become a person those people love—as A General Theory of Love puts it, “Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on who we love.”9 If we are loved by those who are not like us, we become a part of their identity and will inevitably influence that identity through relationship.

Jesse Childress

Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He is the former Lead Content Editor and Writer for Summit Ministries' worldview blog Reflect, and spent a term studying at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Jesse has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University), and began attending Denver Seminary in the fall of 2022 to study counseling, focusing particularly on the relationship between trauma and faith.