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Who Are You?
Heather Grennan Gary

“Tell me about yourself.”

It’s a simple request that everyone has fielded at some point. We know the conventional responses: what we do, where we’re from. We can talk about family, hobbies, interests. If our interviewer is still curious, we can provide even more information, usually suitably curated for someone we’re just getting to know.

Those data points, of course, don’t get to the heart of who we are. That takes time. Even after a lot of time, we can still say or do something that confounds those who think they know us well. “Who are you?” they may ask. Or they confound us, and we squint in wonder: “Who are you?” Sometimes we might confound ourselves.

Who are we? And what are we called to? Articles in this issue take on these deeper questions that have more complicated answers.

In his essay, “Updike or Moses? Artists, Intellectuals, and the People of God,” David Heddendorf considers how to handle the chasm that can exist between one’s professional life and one’s church life. He writes about the dilemma of whether to “keep among like-minded peers and neglect the fellowship of believers…[or identify] with the people of God, many of whom don’t understand or even respect what we do.”

Navigating such diverse communities and environments can cause us to wonder who we really are and where we belong. As we try to make sense of things, Heddendorf suggests that certain people, places, and publications can remind us that we are not alone. These resources, he writes, provide “[n]ot a comprehensive system or orthodoxy, or a hothouse atmosphere of prevailing attitudes and tastes, but stimulating proposals and discoveries that equip us for the world.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe this issue than that. Yes, you will find our contributors contradict each other at points. In “On Becoming a Saint,” for instance, Michial Farmer contends that we are all called “to become perfect (while still remaining finite)”—and that the people around us help form us into saints, as we in turn help form them. A few pages later, Caryn D. Riswold writes in “On Women’s Freedom” that Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian highlights how Christians are liberated from the exhausting, unattainable impulse toward perfection—therefore allowing them to do good. “If a Christian doesn’t need to worry about earning her own salvation,” Riswold writes, “she can serve her neighbor more fully.” Stimulating proposals, indeed.  

Who are we? Jon Pahl suggests that we are the fortunate beneficiaries of the efforts and attitudes of our ancestors; Peter Kerry Powers proposes that we are what we read, and—more than that—we are who we read, how we read, and the questions and assumptions we bring to our reading. We are complicated—which is probably why we tend to stick with conventional responses when someone asks, “Tell me about yourself.”

I am especially pleased to feature in this issue something “from the attic,” as we do on occasion. In this case, it’s really from the University Archives. Sixty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr delivered the lecture “Martin Luther and the Renewal of Human Confidence” at Valparaiso University as part of the school’s centennial celebration. “We human beings grasp and represent all reality…with the aid of analogies, metaphors, ideas, and images,” Niebuhr says in his talk. “After a while we never grasp the reality afresh but always see it in the form or image originally used. We even tend to substitute the idea or image for the real.” That helps explain why we can confound each other. It also underscores why Luther’s direct encounter with the realities of redemption, judgment, grace, and salvation led to such a revolutionary impact. Niebuhr’s clear, perceptive reflections remain relevant and enlightening, and it’s a thrill to share the text of his lecture with our readers today.        —HGG

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