Identity is a big deal, for good and for ill. People identify themselves in all sorts of ways. By race or ethnicity (whatever that means), culture, language, country, family, gender, sexuality… we could go on. And central to most of the ways we identify ourselves are memory and the stories we tell ourselves about our past, our present and our possible future. These seem to be the best candidates for what bears our identity, as philosophers like Linda Zagzebski and others have pointed out, given the problems with identifying identity with either physical continuity or some fundamental property of persons.
Physical continuity won’t do, for most, if not all, of the molecules in our bodies will be replaced between birth and death, and personal identity seems to survive even the most disastrous of injuries. This leaves us with the sense that there must be some thing, some capacity or quality, that makes us persons, that allows us to identify ourselves as ‘me’, and others to identify us in conversation and the social world.
Theological discussions of these questions have generally focused on the ‘soul’, and/or the image of God. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem, it just relocates it. The image of God does not identify a particular person, it describes something common to all humanity. So, too, a ‘soul’ needs to be related to our experience of the world as bodily beings located in time and space. If ‘soul’ best describes what it is to be a person, then the particular history of a particular person shapes their ‘soul’ and its fundamental characteristics. And so, the problem of identity persists, often now entangled in questions about the nature of the image of God or the soul—does it lie in rationality? creativity? being-in-relationship? an ability to use language, form culture and understand the world and navigate our way through it? For our purposes, questions relating to the soul and the image of God add nothing to the question of identity.
It seems that we’re left with something like narrative: the ability to tell a more-or-less coherent story about our bodily existence that allows for continuity through growth and change and decay, and that can be understood as the particular expression of my being made in the image of God, the shape my ‘soul’ takes through my life in the world. My self-understanding is largely driven by my knowledge of my history, of my roles and relationships, the memories I and others share about my passage through life.
But what happens to us, to our identity, when memory—the ability to remember the stories we use to define ourselves—fades? This is a question some of us will have to face for ourselves, and most of us will have to face with and for others. For dementia, be it Alzheimer’s or some other kind, is a real and growing problem for the Australian community:
342,800 Australians were estimated to have dementia in 2015. Based on projections of population ageing and growth, the number of people with dementia will reach almost 400,000 by 2020, and around 900,000 by 2050.
This is the reality. And it’s a scary one.
Who are we when the acids of dementia eat away our memories, our stories, our sense of self? What makes a self?
Of course, questions such as this are raised not just by the prospect of dementia, but the reality of intellectual disability, or a debilitating mental illness (as I know too well having lived with a brother who suffered a serious traumatic brain injury and a sister with a major personality disorder). Nonetheless, for most of us intellectual disability or mental illness seem distant possibilities that happen to others. But dementia is a prospect that threatens us all. And it impacts in troubling ways, not just on our ability to tell our own stories, to identify ourselves in time, but on how others relate to us, how they identify us.
John Swinton has presented one of the most comprehensive theological and philosophical treatments of dementia and how we understand the condition and respond to people who endure it. While I take issue with some of his ideas, he helpfully shows how many of our understandings of what makes a person, what constitutes our identity, are rendered problematic in the face of a condition like dementia (or mental illness or intellectual disability, for that matter). And that many of the ways we come to re-identify a person as their disease, and so change the ways we relate to them, compound the condition and, indeed, contribute to its pathology. But, as Swinton notes, there is an alternative.
What if our identity is not, in the end, determined by us and our memories, by our narration of our own story, or even others’ ability to tell a meaningful story of our lives? What if who we are is determined as much by where we’re going and who we will become, as it is by where and who we’ve been? What if there is Another who remembers us truly, who knows the story of our lives better than we do (daunting though that prospect may be, as Psalm 139 reminds us)? What if, should our memories unravel in the winds of dementia, God’s memory holds us fast? What, indeed, if God’s trustworthy remembering of God’s promises secures our past and determines our future? What if our identity is in the end as much a gift as an attainment?
This is, in fact, the tantalizing prospect we find in the Christian tradition, grounded in texts like 1 John 3:2: ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ Here we see an identity that depends, not on our failing memories, our fragmented stories, but on God’s claiming of us, and the guarantee of God’s faithfulness to that claim. Beyond the acids of dementia stands the faithfulness of the God who made us and promises to remake us.
Don’t get me wrong: I find the prospect of dementia terrifying (as, indeed, that of intellectual disability or mental illness). I work as an academic: so much of my sense of self and others’ sense of my identity is caught up in my ability to think and use language, to critique and propound ideas. The notion that, prior to my death, these capacities might leave me, and so leave me bereft of what has shaped my life for decades is horrifying. I’m glad that so far it’s passed me by. But horrifying as that prospect may be, I find strange comfort in knowing that my abilities don’t finally define me, including my ability to tell my own story. That even if others forget my story or tell distorted versions that misshape my experience and further compromise my diminishing capacities, my identity is undiminished. For my story has been caught up in the story of the gospel, and so my (or others’) ability to narrate it is less important than God’s ability to incorporate it in God’s own story of love. And that can be true for all of us.
 Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, The Philosophy of Religion: An Historical Introduction (Blackwell, 2007), Ch.8.
 John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Eerdmans, 2012).
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