North American Christianity has often become frighteningly individualistic.
At its worst, the individualism takes over and destroys much of what is really Christianity.
Think of how “Christians” have become the constituency or proponents of
some of the most “me-first / damn everyone else”
domestic economic and social policies and imperial international relations.
It’s sort of difficult to lose yourself and serve others
when you think mostly or most highly of yourself and your own interests…
To be fair, there are strains of individualistic that predate the North American church —
in reaction to the Roman Churches institutionalism as far back as the 15th century,
and certainly picked up by and furthered in some ways by the Protestant Reformers.
But as North American Christians,
there is something particularly American about the melding that we can see
of a particularly individualistic Christianity.
Much of it comes from the influence of American revivalism and fundamentalism.
That individualism has done such a number on Christianity here
is not surprising, considering the culture that’s its host.
Individualism, as an ultimate image of freedom,
is practically deified in our society.
But it does something strange, even perverse, in its Christian incarnation,
I’ve always considered fairly recently formulated answer in many Baptismal liturgies
wherein the individual has to claim Jesus as “my personal Lord and Savior”
as a sign of the degree to which individualism has infected much of modern Christianity.
Another example, perhaps, is how the creeds over time
morphed from affirmations of what we believe, credemos, the church’s faith…
to become bold, almost defiant statements of personal beliefs, credo, I believe…
But I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t setting up a religious system
for selfish claims to my freedom over others’ needs,
or to self-interest as a motivation, strategy and goal.
…Jesus wasn’t out to reform the religion of his day
in order to create the perfect supporting spirituality
for our contemporary comsumerist capitalism.
In fact, individualism you might say appears antithetical to God’s plan
from the beginning.
In Genesis 1 and 2,
God creates the cosmos and everything in it,
and you know the story —
as God goes about making this and that,
God declares over and over again,
in fact 7 times in all,
that it is good.
And when God is finished, and surveys all that was made,
God declares “it is very good.”
The only thing in all of creation that God
says is “not good” …
… what was “not good” was not the possibility of evil
(clearly implied in the presence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil)
that God’s enemy was at large in the world,
slithering around and messing things up…
No, the only thing in all God’s pristine creation that isn’t good,
according to God
is Adam’s ‘aloneness.’
We are not meant to live on our own.
Or as the next generation of this grand opening narrative reminds us
in Cain’s hollow question after taking Abel’s life,
yes, we are to be our brother’s and our sister’s keepers.
God means to create and support and redeem us in community.
Beloved, it is true that each of us is unique and precious.
In God’s love for every one of us, there is a relationship and affection
between God and each particular individual.
And there are those moments when we must decide,
those times and places when living faithfully can demand
some me against the world courage,
when you want to remain true to your God,
while all the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
Maybe that’s why Jesus did want to encourage a spirituality
built on a strong, direct, heartfelt and personal relationship with God.
But you might notice — Jesus’ influence is
how the individual’s frame of reference and personal experience becomes “added glue”
towards the overarching and greater reality of God.
Our modern view of the importance of the self
that can justify the subjugation of others and all sorts of other evil;
this inflation of the individual
at the cost of diminishing the community
isn’t what Jesus was about,
and has impoverished the theology and social mission of the Western Church.
Sometimes it strikes me how even our language betrays
how we are among the most individualistic and possessive people on God’s planet.
Westerners (and maybe Americans even more)
routinely use the personal pronoun
in place of my more complex explanations of relationships —
which, when you think about it, is a bit odd,
as if these nouns that relate to and depend upon whole communities of people
and a host of interconnecting relationships
are owned by and exist exclusively for me.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say,
It’s easier for those of us in the west
to live alone —
physically, emotionally, and in our own self-assessments,
than most anywhere else in the world.
Extended family and community are woven into the fabric of most cultures in the world,
so that only in bizarre or extreme circumstances — Wittgenstein in his ice hut —
would a person choose to live
or even be allowed to live by themselves.
But we have the myth of the lone cowboy on the frontier
or Horatio Alger in the marketplace
…and self-reliance and self-sufficiency
become the marks of true American grit and personhood.
Among the poor, it is unsustainable to live alone.
Bob Robinson cites this in his work with the folks of our Saturday morning breakfast and clothing cupboard,
when he talks about the sense of community he finds.
Consider the 30 men sharing a room downstairs right now.
In fact, quite often, the poor have no choice but to live in close (some would say crowded) community.
Even street kids know they need one another to survive.
It used to be, when most Americans were farmers,
we too had a more developed sense of community.
We depended on one another more.
But In the modernized, privatized, Americanized, bowling-alone version of our society
and in it’s Christian faith,
we see commitment and relationship,
decision-making and journey with Christ
through an almost exclusively individualistic lens.
The ancient Jewish people, the people of Jesus’ life,
as all ancient peoples,
thought of themselves collectively,
and their relationship to Yahweh was more communal than it was individual.
Within the early church, we see whole households
(which likely included related as well as unrelated people)
converting to Christianity together.
Paul also addressed entire households in his letters,
not to mention writing to communities of believers meeting in a city or region.
Most cases of the word “you” in the New Testament are plural
(again the English language makes this fact invisible
because we only have one word for “you,”
mostly used in the singular,
(unless y’all are southern).
Likewise, Paul writes over and over again
of the communal realities of our Christian faith.
I admit, each individual person needs to answer for him or herself
the question of commitment,
the question which Jesus put to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”
But how could we even come up with an answer without the witness of a greater community.
Or alternatively, even when Jesus went off by himself, it was to commune with his Father.
Beloved, you make that commitment to Christ into a relationship with a trinitarian deity
and into your place among the faithful and serving body of Christ.
We must each stand as individuals before our Maker to some degree or other.
And it is appropriate to go alone to Jesus or God in our prayers.
But we are never really alone.
God is with us. And we are with God’s people (even sometimes when we wish we weren’t!).
Still most of us in the west, myself included,
have constructed a privatized, individualized faith,
in which have lost something of the communal nature of the Godhead,
the necessity of the church,
and the support of God’s people.
Jesus’ whose primary preaching and ministry were about the communal Kingdom of Heaven…
and who taught us to pray “OUR Father”
…there’s a communal understanding in his faith and practice.
The call to repentance in the New Testament
was almost always addressed to communities or collections of people
the nation of Israel or
the city of Jerusalem).
And the ideas of spiritual growth, holiness, righteousness and justice
are almost always expressed in communal terms.
There’s a whole lot of “one another” terminology in the Gospels and Epistles,
and any talk of vocation or learning was rarely something as individualized
— even when it was just Jesus interacting with one other person —
as it is for modern westerners.
The idea of a singular person deciding to call herself a Christian
and then explain that she doesn’t need the church…
that’s unheard of in the New Testament.
We are gathered a communal people,
created by a communal Godhead – God-Christ-Holy Spirit.
And yet, we try and live independent of our families…
Or our Western family-consruct of only parents and children
— or in some cases a single parent and child —
is a frightfully more isolated and isolating
than anything we find described in Scriptures.
Church, our understanding of the Christian faith,
of one another,
and of ourselves
is drastically shaped by an individualistic worldview
…driven by the concepts of ME and MY
that often serve a certain selfishness and the accumulation of material things.
But what if we were to lose our individual selves in the Christian community.
Not because God doesn’t love you yourself,
But because by submitting ourselves to the community of the Trinity.
and somehow by mysteriously putting up with the community of the church,
we can come to more fully understand and experience
the God who exists in community
and calls, gathers whole communities of people into fellowship with the Three in One.
And, I believe, in our faith, we might even come to see
how our individual person isn’t so independent of the communites
from which they have come
and in which they find themselves
and to which God is surely sending them tomorrow.
Instead of believing in our self-made or self-sufficient self,
we might come to see that ours and everyone else’s is inescapably a “social self.”
And that might begin to help us be better neighbors.
And walk more easily the servant path that Jesus calls us.
Yes, we lose our individuality in the community of faith
when we choose to walk with Jesus,
but isn’t that also when and how and where
we finally figure out who we really are?
Isn’t that beloved community and the love from on high
where we can be most completely ourselves?
Questions for further reflection:
1.) Do you have a sense of how you are integral to “the body of Christ” — both how you are needed and how you could not be fully Christian without everyone else?
2.) Think about how some of the most basic concepts of Christianity — grace, forgiveness, service, redemption, love — actually only have their fullest meaning in a communal sense… how if they are too individualized, they hardly make sense, or only have some narrower, spiritualized meaning, a feeling you might know, but nothing anyone else could ever perceive or know…