04/07/2011 09:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2011

A Reflection on Identity and Changing Religious Beliefs

In philosophy, at least one discussion is as old as the discipline itself: What is the nature of personal identity? Or, to personalize it, what does it mean for me to be me over time?

Say, for example, it's my 90th birthday; I sit around with family and sift through old family photos. Someone pulls out a picture from when I was a toddler. No one questions that the little boy in the photo is me; my name is on the back of it, and he and I share similar features. Yet my 90-year-old self and my infant self may not share most of our original cells. We are mostly two different bodies.

I've discovered that this continuity-but-separateness is not only a physical phenomena, but also a phenomena of the mind as well.

I was raised with certain beliefs -- beliefs to which I no longer hold. Some of these beliefs my parents no longer hold to either. But I think I can safely say that I hold the endurance track record in the family overall for change.

As I think back on these changes of perspective, I'm proud of them, though a few have me wondering where I'll be in another 10 years. One thing is certain, if my 20-year-old self met up with me today, he'd have words with me and undoubtedly be a bit confused.

Who am I then? Am I the younger guy raised with a more patriarchal view of the family or the egalitarian that I am today? Am I the teenager who thought the world looked more like the Left Behind series, or am I the guy who today finds the theological assumptions of those novels to be fiction? Am I the young earth creationist I used to claim or the guy who cannot help but see Genesis as an ancient and outdated science?

In religious history, there is a similar discussion to the discussion of personal identity. For example, we might look at Saint Augustine. Is he the young Augustine who wrote many books, which at times emboldened his opponents, or is he his older self, the man who wrote the Retractions on these early thoughts?

Over time, when certain lights of the mind switched on (some might think they went out), suddenly revealing a whole new perspective on an issue, I discovered that now that they were on, I could no longer turn them off. There are some things you just cannot unsee, and once you see it, you have to live by it. Like Augustine, I live in the contradiction of who I am -- young and old, fundamentalist and ecumenical.

It was no surprise that some friends and family members were unsettled by my changes. In some cases, I spent considerable time trying to convince them of the validity of my new views. What I discovered was that I only made things worse. But the problem was not so much with my new views (at least not entirely) as it was with the fact that I was no longer the same exact person. These friends and family members -- people who shared my intellectual place of origin -- were comfortable with the teenager who left for higher education, but not the man who replaced him.

Thanks to Facebook, I get occasional reminders of this friction, particularly when newly friended family members express concern over the content of my status updates. In several instances, it was clear to me that some remain solidly of the same, hermetically sealed religious persuasion that they have held since childhood.

What does this mean for religious identity? The person I am today, having spent over a decade away from home in Chicago, Philadelphia and Birmingham, Ala., is very different from who I was when I left. I've had to reintroduce myself. What I've discovered is that my personal identity is my narrative. I am my story. It is full of twists and turns, good decisions and bad and, thankfully, moments of growth. I am both that kid in his father's small but lively conservative Baptist congregation and that adult who makes his journey at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church (where, for some family, that means I'm almost Catholic).

Time and distance may make it hard for me to remember why I believed what I did once. Why did my early ideas make sense then but now seem so foreign? Time and distance may also make it difficult for me to communicate with those who still believe as I once did. There are days when I scratch my head in disbelief when I hear the views of those close to me. (And I'm sure they've done plenty of head-scratching at me, too.)

I suppose that my story and any discomfort I've felt along the way pales in comparison to the stories of others. The Christian who became an atheist, the Muslim who became a Christian or the child in a family of Ohio State fans who suddenly found himself a fan of Michigan: all might have it rougher than I do.

Nevertheless, I hold onto Rainer Maria Rilke's advice from Letters to Young Poet (letter 4), which I believe applies to many situations: "Seek yourself some sort of simple and loyal community with them [those we love]," says Rilke, "which need not necessarily change as you yourself become different and again different..."

Whoever I am today -- or 10 or 20 years from now -- I will always look to this community of family and friends as part of my story. And when I share my ideas with them, blog and update my social networks, I hope that I remember that as I have a story, so do they. My religious identity may not be the same as it was, but neither would it exist without them.

How has your personal narrative changed over the years?