Monday, March 03, 2008

Individualism and Christianity

"When they [pagan philosophers] wish to say that the wise man’s life is a social one, we agree, and we say it much more clearly than they do."

- Augustine, City of God 19.5.

A Christianity that simply mirrors the individualist assumptions of contemporary western culture - my salvation, my faith, my "values" - poses little threat to the powers that be.* The idols of self, family, security, success and money can all be comfortably worshipped alongside (or as) Christ. Membership in a Christian community is seen as an optional extra, a useful tool for my spiritual growth, a place to express my spirituality, a shop at which I "purchase" those items of tradition that suit my taste and opt out of those that are too difficult, or which I don't understand. Once I am made too uncomfortable, I move on to find a more suitable mix at another church down the road (or just at home). Beliefs are transformed into values, and what is important is that they are mine, not whether they are true. My own experience is sacrosanct and perfectly transparent to my understanding (or so fascinatingly opaque as to justify endless introspection). I find myself without reference to others (if this doesn't sound like a recipe for being lost, I don't know what does) and only then need to interact with those with whom I choose. I live on a gated island of my own making, to which others visit only with permission.

Does any of this sound familiar?
*See this post by Dan for further analysis of the alliance between individualism and the dehumanizing powers at work in modern society. He argues that individualism is not directly a worshipping of the self, but a hidden worship of other gods.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see how this philosophy is also evident in how people think about marriage and relationships across society in general. I'm sure it lies behind the trend away from marriage and also the rate of divorce.

I wonder how long it will be until this way of thinking, so evident among Christians in their church shopping habits, will spill over into their relationships?

Unknown said...

Tim, I would say that this way of thinking already has affected their relationships which is the cause behind the church hopping habit.

I think we need to make a distinction though between the individual who is making both a prayerful and thoughtful decision into their church community against someone who is not looking for community.

Byron, I think there is a problem with modern day church-manship in that we do isolate ourselves from community and interact with those we choose in that the church isolates and inoculates its self from society.

Take for example Anglicare which I think is a great organisation, and yet that is what it has become and somehow the greater church and it have become (or seemed to become) two distinct organisms

I think the same can be said of the fact that we need to have a Evangelism department...etc has the church within itself become isolated from its intended community and its societal responsiblities and is no longer working together as one?

Drew said...

Nice post.

Perhaps we ought to recognise that a Christian might live in contradistinction to these principles, and teach those around them to do so as well, but finish their race without gaining notoriety or popularity, without being known as such except to a small circle about them. I wonder sometimes how easy it is to be preoccupied with this or that general trend at a large scale, and that this might act as a screen for living truthfully in one's life, in one's own relationships. Do not blogs etc only make this easier? Is the desire for change itself warped and reframed by this individualism? Your question, Byron, of what this sounds familiar too - I can think of too many things you might mean here!

I by no means mean this to deny your points Byron, nor Tim's or Craig's, in fact, I whole heartedly agree with them. But we - I should say I! - need to make sure I don't put the cart before the horse.

byron smith said...

Drew - I'm not sure I've got your point. Is it that we can sometimes reconfigure even the very 'battle' against individualism as something which heroic free-thinking individuals engage in?

Craig - As you say, it is ironic that the very strategies aimed at connecting can function to disconnect. The very acknowledgement of the importance of caring for physical and social needs or of evangelism that leads to a department being set up can have the long term effect of making these activities somewhat marginal to the life of the average parish.

Tim - hasn't this overspill already happened? Isn't this a large part of what we wrestle with in our congregations (and our own lives) week by week?

Drew said...

Yes, that was pretty much my point, and that this might often mean we fail to recognise those who succeed in the battle.

byron smith said...

Ah, yes I see. Good point.