If psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, and theologians are correct that identity is contingent on relationship to the other, there is much work to be done in a society that links identity to individual achievement. Several major studies confirm that camps have tremendous potential for identity development. Most notable is ACA’s 2005 Directions study of more than 3,000 campers at 80 camps. The study measured the “positive identity” constructs of “self-esteem” and “independence” and found significant gains from pre-camp to post-camp surveys, and the gains were maintained in a six-month follow-up survey and confirmed by parents. (1) However, a distortion comes when camps emphasize achievement, a distortion not limited to sports camps and secular camps. Christian camps that emphasize personal salvation through actions and decisions also distort identity formation by making it contingent on the individual rather than the other. In the intentional community of camp that is so radically focused on recognizing the needs of the other over one’s own, a programmatic emphasis on individual achievement confuses the participants, who are forced to choose between their own success (which may mean manipulating the community for personal gain) and success of the other. Camps must work to avoid this confusion by focusing programmatically on cooperative games, servant leadership, and Christ’s command to love one another (John 13:34).
Through a Christological lens, Christians declare that identity comes ultimately not from the other who is our neighbor but the Other who is God at work in the neighbor. God’s very identity as Trinity is defined as a relationship in the mutual indwelling (perichoresis) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and human identity is defined in relation to God and in relation to one another. In the daily rhythm of the Christian camp experience, participants are reminded of their identity in Christ throughout the day. The teenager who has been told repeatedly from uncaring peers at school that she is ugly and fat hears the words at camp from trusted friends, “You are God’s beautiful creation,” and their caring actions throughout the session confirm their words. The one labeled “delinquent” who has been told by school officials that he is “a bad seed” hears the promise “You are forgiven,” as a trusted adult traces the sign of the cross on his forehead. The foster child who has bounced from school to school and home to home hears the words, “You are a beloved child of God.” The child who is labeled “disabled” mentally or physically becomes the hands and feet of Christ reaching out in love to an unsuspecting other. Identity is grounded in relationship to the God who is in relationship, and the Christian camp community provides space, both physical and psychosocial space, for participants to experience daily living as part of the family of God.
Practical theologian James Loder sheds light on the essential identity found in relationship to God. Borrowing from Kierkegaard, he speaks of an “indwelling” of God’s Spirit in humanity that mimics the perichoretic relationship of the Trinity. In the Spirit of the transcendent creator God come near to be in relationship with humanity, the individual finds what Loder calls “intimacy in the context of ultimacy,” which has power to negate the drives of the ego so that the person can live in response as “I – not I – but Christ” serving the other.
Loder says, “Given clarity about the object of faith, Jesus Christ, and the transformational work of his spirit, the struggle to work out who one is only in relation to why one exists at all forges an identity of theological proportions.” (2) As participants at camp (or Christians in other circumstances) come to understand their identity as child of God, their focus turns away from the self to the “why” of their existence, which is found in the “someone” of their calling, the God at work in creation and through the other. Picking up on Loder’s argument, Kenda Dean addresses the implications of this identity as “counter to the expectations of society, and therefore it actually impedes our ability to succeed by the standards of contemporary culture.” (3) This is why the studies of the “Positive Youth Development” movement only take our analysis so far. Their focus is on what makes youth successful and productive members of society. While there is some overlap, a theological anthropology necessarily chafes against an individualistic society of achievement as it calls for radical love of the other.
1) American Camp Association, “Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience,” (Martinville, IN: Author, 2005).
2) James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 248.
3) Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 34.