In asking this question, I’m not looking for a theological answer — although the answer, if there is one, certainly has theological implications.
I’m not asking, for example, “Who am I in the mind of God?” — a question that expects an answer something like “You are a child of God made in his image.” Nor am I asking “What is my identity as a person?” — a question that wants to be answered in terms of my self-perception in relation to social roles, cultural identity, or personal values.
The question “Who am I?” can be answered that way, and the answers are important. But notice that my question isn’t really “Who am I?” The question is “Who am ‘I’?” with quotation marks around the “I.” In other words, despite all the possible answers to the question about who I am, I still haven’t answered the underlying question: What is that “I” that asks the question in the first place?
Presumably each one of us who can think about the question experiences an “I,” but can any of us tell where that “I” is located? “I” am not the same as my physical body, because “I” can experience that body as an “outside observer.” That is, if my body is in pain it isn’t my body that feels the pain; rather, “I” experience the pain as an issue my body is raising for me. The same is true for pleasure I enjoy through my body. My physical body is an expression of, or a sensory vehicle for, my “I,” but it’s not coextensive with the “I” who I am. So my “I” isn’t located in any part of my body, including my brain or nervous system. It can’t be localized in any cerebrum, neurons, ganglia and the like. Whoever “I” am, I have no physical location that I can pinpoint.
Does this suggest that if my physical body should cease to function — if it dies — the “I” who I am is not lost, since it isn’t part of that body? People through the ages have thought so, and have posited the idea of immortality for what has been termed the “soul.”
The biblical words for “soul” (Hebrew nefesh, Greek psyche) refer to an individual life, as lived through the body. But for the Israelite — and the biblical perspective is throughout Israelite at heart — the soul is more than the isolated individual. A person’s soul includes all that he experiences as a concern — family, property, reputation and the rest. It is roughly equivalent to what one psychologist has called the “psychological environment” (and note that the word psychology is based on the Greek word for the soul). Once again, however, who is the “I” that lives within the realm of the soul? Once the “soul is poured out” (Job 30:16), as in death, is there still an “I” that endures? If so, where is it?
Christians have spoken of heaven as the abode of that enigmatic “I,” but what and where is heaven? Certainly heaven has never been located astronomically, or cosmologically, within the vastness of this physical universe (though I once heard a preacher claim it was a planet somewhere!). Moreover, authentic biblical Christian theology doesn’t speak of immortality, or of “going to heaven,” but rather of resurrection — when that elusive “I” once again manifests itself through a body in the restored creation. As to where that “I” is in the interim, the Scriptures are mostly silent; the Apostle Paul suggests only that if he departs he would be “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).
So the question “Who am ‘I’?” can’t be answered within the confines of four-dimensional space-time. The most real thing to me — the “I” who I am — is not equated with any material entity that can be detected with physical instruments. My experience of who “I” am coincides with what the Bible says about the foundation of reality: that which is visible, experienced within the space-time universe, originates out of that which is invisible: “What is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11:3). It’s not the things we see as physical entities that will endure, but that which is to be found beyond the four dimensions of our perception: “The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Although I can’t put my finger on the “I” that I am, that “I” is more enduring than what is visible around me or that which I can experience through bodily sensation. As the Apostle Paul stated, “even things that are not” are able to “bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). All of these thoughts relate me to the Creator who brought all into existence. From ancient times perceptive thinkers have recognized this, including the Greek poet the Apostle Paul quotes in Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being.” We derive our being from the One who calls Himself “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).