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Identity, anthropology and mission

What does it mean to be missional while being a student? Abigail shares a story demonstrating that university can be a place to express and explore - not lose - our faith.

I've been studying Anthropology at university. It’s about understanding cultures and trying to see things from their perspective, and having traveled a fair bit the last five years and going on a few mission trips myself, these are valuable skills I hope to use a lot in my future trips. Useful skills for modern missionaries.

The other day I got into a debate with my Anthropology lecturer in a tutorial. His argument was that identity is purely contextual and relational - our experiences and the people around us make us ‘who we are’. So if there is to be ‘me’ there must always be a ‘you’ to make me ‘me’.

This is one of the foundational building blocks of Anthropological thought. It's necessary for anthropologists to think outside of their cultural context, avoid ethnocentricity (being biased and only seeing things from their own perspective) and understand other groups within their own context and relations. ‘It’s all relative’ so they say.

He went on to discuss how there is therefore nothing that makes us essentially who we are.

There is nothing essential or eternal about us all.

But he failed to point out that the academic who had make the point in the reading we were discussing was writing from his own belief system - a belief in ‘Nothing’. The same foundational philosophy as Buddhism - a great universal nothingness.


My question to him was, “What happens when we die then?’”

Because when the context and the relationships that defined us in this life disappear, if there is nothing that makes us essentially who we are, our identity must disappear along with them. We cease to exist.

We become ‘nothing’.


I am not saying that our identity is not purely contextual and relational.

Because I think it is.

But what if you were in an unbreakable, unchangeable relationship with something essential and eternal, that would always be there?  With a place prepared for you forever.


I asked him another question: “What about integrity?”

That idea of being one, whole person, all of the time. Perhaps even a ‘genuine’, honest person. If a person’s identity isn’t grounded in ‘Something’ outside of time and space then there is no way of being a person of integrity, because nothing outside of your environment is defining your choices or who you are. No one to make you ‘human’, or even humane. No conscience, compass or morality. You are a ship on a thousands seas, with a million fractured personalities.


My lecturer threw me back a question: “Why did God make the world then? What could he possibly want from us?”

Because he loves us, I said. He created us for a relationship with Him. Love is creative. It was not that he needed us at all.

Jesus came that we may meet the God who loves us, the ‘Something’ outside of nothing. And when that day comes, and the people we meet and the things we have experienced are gone, a relationship with God and a context in eternity will remain-  and our identity in Christ will remain.


My lecturer was right - identity is purely contextual and relational.

And if I believe in Nothing… if I fail to find my true identity through a relationship and a context in Something (eternal, everlasting, infinite, loving, unending, faithful, enduring), nothing is really all that will remain.



Its easy to hide our faith, especially in the academic classroom. What has your experience been when your faith is challenged? Are there creative ways you can express your faith in your context like Abigail did?


Watch out for an opportunity God will give you this week to share your faith. (Also, consider doing an anthropology paper or reading a book about the subject - it's an incredibly useful area for those interested in mission.)


Abigail has worked in mission contexts around the world the last five years with a focus on anti-trafficking. She completed a film school last year in South Africa and has returned to Christchurch to study Anthropology at the University of Canterbury. In the future Abigail hopes to use the arts and film-making as an advocacy tool, and is currently interning with the Tear Fund to raise awareness and support for the anti-trafficking organisation Nvader (

One thought on “Identity, anthropology and mission

  1. Love it, awesome blog! and great work you’ve been up to with Tear Fund 🙂 shows why the world tries so hard to impress others, gain experiences and possessions, simply searching for self-worth. really interesting point about integrity as well, our relationship with God keeps us accountable to being truly human, whatever we’re up to. Keep being bold at at uni, I hope to be as well.
    “Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3.

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