Identity At University

June 27, 2023

Identity At University

William L. Peirson

One of my favourite plays is David Williamson’s Dead White Males. Written in 1995, it follows the experiences of university student Angela Judd at a time when tensions were developing between the academy and broader society over issues of reality, identity and gender. It is a theatrical milestone in the journey towards the present-day friction between some forms of liberal humanism and Christianity. Indeed, in his opening speech in the play, Angela’s literary theory lecturer makes plain his rejection of the Christian world view:

This course will show you that there are no absolute ‘truths’, that there is no fixed ‘human nature’ and that what we think of as ‘reality’ is always and only a manufactured reality. There are in fact as many ‘realities’ out there as there are ideologies which construct them. [1]

We now live in a world of ‘You do you’, as recently highlighted by Brian Rosner. [2]

Practical questions arise. For an open, Christian, university residential college, a core question is how to maintain a safe, supportive and peaceful community in a context where each individual resident labours under the imperative to express themselves. This can be an especially vexed question given the diversity of backgrounds and beliefs of people who find their home in these communities.

One solution is to advance identity champions (either organisationally or self-appointed) who advocate for their particular identity group. There are fundamental problems with this, especially within Christian organisations.

As I asserted in Case #54 (p9ff), Jesus’s teaching requires individual care for each person within the community, no matter who they are or where they are from. The purpose of that article was to enunciate how this might be done in large and diverse communities, specifically, to respectfully monitor for and seek out anyone within a community who might be struggling and ensure they receive whatever support might be required. The importance of discretion in dealing with potentially sensitive issues was noted, and it is crucial that those responsible be trusted to deal with difficult matters diligently, discreetly, and kindly.

All communities are in danger of focusing on specific iconic individuals. This must not deflect care from the vulnerable who may not readily attract attention.

If identity champions are to be made responsible for pastoral care of those they represent, the community must ensure that identity groupings are exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

If identity groupings are not exhaustive, there is no guarantee that every person will be an identified member of a group. The individual who doesn’t align with—or is not willing to publicly align themselves with—the recognised identity strands, may fall through the cracks.

If identity groups are not mutually exclusive, a different problem arises. Identity is multidimensional, and individuals may fall into more than one represented identity category. Where the expression of one of these identities is at odds with another, the potential for conflict arises, and not just between and within identity groups, but even within individuals. Stan Grant writes of his experience of exactly this when, as a person of mixed race heritage, he feels pressure to set his Indigenous identity against his Anglo identity. [3]

Of course, it is not difficult to achieve exhaustive, mutually exclusive identity groupings when identity is based on simple arbitrary groupings (those living in each section of the building, for example). But it is not the case for groupings around complex and highly significant identity markers like race, sexuality, or religion.

The biblical witness is clear that not all aspects of our identity are equally significant. Some demand our loyalty regardless of the consequences. Jesus is explicit that basing one’s identity on faith is divisive (Matthew 10:34ff). Other aspects of our identity can be held lightly. The Apostle Paul was an identity chameleon, encouraging Christians to let go of cultural identity and status markers when they compromise the needs of others (1 Corinthians 9:19ff).

The university years are times of rapid personal transition. The first time away from family is a unique time of discovering what is important to who you are, and what is not, apart from the influences of earlier life.

Those of us responsible for university residential colleges are keenly aware of the negative potential of unwarranted peer group pressure. Young people need safe time and space to sort out any identity issues for themselves. Choosing paths that might vary from the expectations of parents or peer groups is a difficult process.

The New College communities were established and operate on Christian principles, but our approach is not to enforce involvement in Christian activities. While it is an important aspect of Christian community life to provide opportunities to explore and engage in a range of Christian activities, we make these optional principally because university years are an important time of personal discovery. Pressuring emerging adults to identify as Christian does not line up with the discipleship call of the Christ. Jesus is quite clear regarding the merit of true faith and the dangers of apparent faith (Matthew 15:1-9).

My view is that similar principles apply to other non-faith aspects of identity, including personality, race, gender, and sexual orientation. People should not be pressured to publicly ally themselves prematurely—or at all—with identity labels of such personal significance. Many of us carry secrets of difficult experiences and past trauma; we do not know what others have been through. In my case, seven years had to elapse before I could comfortably discuss a particularly difficult crisis in my (relatively easy) life. Mutual respect demands that we do not require others to openly discuss sensitive and personal areas of their life.

As some of our most recent editions of Case Quarterly have documented, different contemporary approaches to personal identity and advocacy are creating major frictions within society at large. For Christian community leaders, sharing Jesus’s intentional vision for the vulnerable individual and his engagement with others by invitation, rather than compulsion, are crucial principles as we navigate these issues.


[1] David Williamson, Dead White Males (Currency Press, 1995), p2.
[2] Brian Rosner, How to find yourself (Crossway, 2022).
[3] Stan Grant, On Identity (Hachette Australia, 2020).

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