Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Individualism as a herd mentality

Why should we in Australia reduce our emissions when China and India are so much bigger? Why should I avoid littering/speeding/wasteful consumption when everyone else does it and I can nearly always get away with it? Why should I be honest on my tax return when much bigger incomes are dishonest? What can one person do?

Individualism as a way of life inculcates a stunted imagination. I lose the capacity to see myself as one of many, as a member of a body. By limiting my sphere of influence and responsibility to myself, social issues become insurmountable, or at least endlessly deferrable as "someone else's problem". But where everyone lives for him or herself, everyone loses.

The church as the body of Christ, the household of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit is a real taste of salvation from the echo-chamber of a life lived curved in upon itself. I discover how much more spacious life is when I stretch out in loving openness to my neighbour. I find in them the image of God, the Breath of life, a brother or sister for whom Christ died. I no longer live and die for myself.


Gordon Cheng said...

However, paying close attention to what China and India are doing, and then allowing it to affect the way you think and behave, is the exact opposite of individualism.

Whereas the smug self-righteousness of those who promote a particular style of political action, knowing that it counts for less than nothing and is not even intrinsically virtuous, is individualism taken to the extreme.


byron smith said...

Gordon - I'm afraid the prolixity of your comment has lost me. What are you trying to say?

Anonymous said...

Nice post Byron.

It seems to me, I mean speaking for myself (pun intended), that one of the problems with individualism is that it fails to deliver the very freedom it promises. Individualism kills - rather than creates - individuality and liberty. Autonomy destroys - rather than creates - personality. When we cut ourselves off from our race's history, and from the human family of which we are a member, when we isolate ourselves from our common authority, when we are hypnotised in the pursuit of our own freedom, we become the victims of a crowd of individuals too like our vagrant selves, victims of a collective suggestion. As Forsyth noted, we become 'worn down by the incessant dropping of dilettantist modernism, by journalistic corrosion ...'. True self-realisation means to be realised, known, by God, who, rather than calling us to shun or resist the surrounding society, sends us to participate in it as servants of a redeemed sociality.

Anonymous said...

I"m quite used to hearing non christians throw out the ' self-righteousness' line. Generally they fire it off at some humble christian who is vey aware of their brokenness and is just trying to be godly. I guess the non christian feels threatened by someone attempting to live with integrity, and has no framework for interpreting what is going on, other than 'self righteousness'. Not used to hearing it from christians, or christian leaders.

byron smith said...

Gordon - On reflection, it was not so much that I found your comment prolix (an old discussion, which perhaps ought not to have been raised here) as gnomic. But then, so was my post. I guess what I would like to hear you expand upon is what you meant by the second paragraph. I, of course, agree with the first, though again, it all depends on how it affects the way you think and behave.

Jason - Great comment. And thanks for the quote. You're a great advocate for PTF. His work is growing on me all the time thanks to you and your blog.

Mike - I am unsure who Gordon intended to describe in his comment. Although it can be and often is abused, "self-righteous" is an important and useful critical term in some contexts. Asking whether we might be aptly described this way is an important part of Christian discipleship, since we know how easy it is to be deceived about ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Listen up everybody to what I say!

Go your own way!
Be yourself,
Find yourself,
Express yourself,
Be different, unique, original, authentic!

(just like everyone else)

Mark Stevens said...

The photo looks like it should be a Pink Floyd Album cover ;-)


Anonymous said...

[Jeremy Halcrow said]

Hi Byron,

Thanks for your post.

I too find Gordo's 2nd par intriguing.

Although I'm sure it merely reflects his climate scepticism.
After all you'd get some very 'liberal' ethical positions if you started applying such a principle to other issues.

I do find it strange that the biblical ethic of the 'mutual love ethic' (Hill/Cameron at MTC) is seen as subordinate to economic libertarianism.

You don't see this in the Puritan writers who had a strong sense of the community as a 'household' of mutually dependant relationships.

In this regard, I've been wondering why Fairtrade is treated with everything from apathy to disdain within Sydney Anglicanism.

Any thoughts Byron?

byron smith said...

After all you'd get some very 'liberal' ethical positions if you started applying such a principle to other issues.
Jeremy - Could you explain this comment a little further?

I do find it strange that the biblical ethic of the 'mutual love ethic' (Hill/Cameron at MTC) is seen as subordinate to economic libertarianism.
Are you suggesting this is what Gordon is doing? If so, could you explain how? I don't see it explicitly in his comment.

In this regard, I've been wondering why Fairtrade is treated with everything from apathy to disdain within Sydney Anglicanism.
All Souls has a fair trade stall every Saturday. I think it is useful in helping raising awareness of the often deleterious effects of "free" trade and providing a small way of directly supporting those working under much more difficult economic conditions. It is far from a perfect system, yet where apathy or disdain towards fair trade is an expression of apathy or disdain towards human suffering, that is obviously a very disturbing indicator of the spiritual health of a congregation. Sometimes, I suspect that the apathy has more to do with the information overload and empathy burnout that all kinds of NGOs face in a world where we are more aware of global problems than ever before. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to perform all the good that it is possible to conceive. So the fact that not every conceivable opportunity is taken is understandable, even necessary for the possibility of continued compassion. Yet where such decisions are made on the basis of a theology that assumes the verbal proclamation of the gospel is the only worthwhile activity, then I think we have accepted a sub-Christian idea of the good as the enemy of the best.

Anonymous said...

[JH said:]

thks Byron.

I wasn't suggesting the logic of your blog pushes towards liberalism. It was a jibe at Gordo's 'turn a blind eye' approach. You could equally argue that Christian social action on every other issue 'counts for less than nothing' because the world will remain stuffed by sinfulness until Christ comes again.

Regarding Gordo's comment I think he is just being a climate sceptic stirrer.. but you'd have to ask him.

My comment on economic liberalism was unrelated.

Part of my thinking here is shaped by just finishing Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.

However, I am sure you are aware of the links between the modern fragmentation of the 'self', the trend towards conceiving consumption as a form of self-actualising identity and hyper-individualism.

There are many ways this plays out in evangelical circles.

Gordon Cheng said...

Gnomic. It's a fine word, Byron. Let's leave it at that, then!

Prolix—you want prolix? Check NT Wright's latest Fulcrum pronouncement on Lambeth/GAFCON!

byron smith said...

The Bishop's piece is indeed long - only slightly shorter than our Dean's comment!

From my sample size of two, it seems to be a topic that requires or at least generates lots of words.

Gordon Cheng said...

Our beloved Dean does indeed have a tendency to prolixity. I suppose we must assess his material by other standards as well, such as complexity and obfuscation. ;-)

byron smith said...

I agree, though I would also add, insofar as we are assessing styles (rather than content, though the two are not entirely unrelated), it is also important to consider the context. There are certain contexts which demand greater levels of nuance and complexity. My comment about this topic generating and requiring more words was not (entirely) facetious.

Anonymous said...

Theology with exegesis, is not Judeo-Christian theology!

byron smith said...

Anonymous - not sure I quite follow you. Are you saying that theology without exegesis is not Judaeo-Christian theology? And is this intended as a criticism of my post?