Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is Individualism Christian?

I have wanted to do a post on individualism for a while, but only now do I have my thoughts about it in order. (At least, I think I do.) What brought my ideas into focus was an article on the website (which I highly recommend). This article is at

The article quotes Alexis De Tocqueville who wrote the book, Democracy In America, in the 1830s. He was a Frenchman whose parents were almost guillotined in the French Revolution, yet he himself grew to love American democracy. His insights and predictions are remarkable. He is clearly in favor of democracy but, surprisingly, against the individualism that generally accompanies it. Here is a quote from him:

"I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone." Powerful stuff.

Then the author of the article, Louis Beckett, states, "Tocqueville fears an individualism where people replace a focus on God, neighbors, community life, charity ... with the glamorization of work and petty material comforts. He warns those of us who would make self-interest the only good: individualism is a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled with government."

This is as good as Tocqueville's quote and a great insight. When the individual only worries about himself and not his neighbor, when he ignores his responsibility to God, when he does not participate in the community in a meaningful way either in church or in a civic organization, he leaves essential needs in the community unmet. That void is increasingly being filled by government and government is usually lousy at it. Government is a blunt instrument; it does everything by force. When it gives money to those in need, it first must extract it from its citizens. All voluntarism, and therefore all virtue, is lost.

Early in the book of Acts the fledgling church shared everything in common. It met the great need of the moment and brought everyone together. The beauty of it was that it was completely voluntary. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to make themselves look generous, but lied about it and were condemned. Peter made it clear that they were under no obligation. But when we allow government to do it, choice and freedom are excluded.

So what Tocqueville and Beckett describe is a bad kind of individualism. Is there a good kind of individualism, a Christian kind? I think there is. And here is where I must depart from some of the so-called progressive Christians.

Progressives sometimes want to take out of Christianity the most valid forms of individualism. Marcus Borg, who is wrong on just about everything, wrote a blog post about individualism where he said that one of the problems with evangelicals was their individualistic view of salvation. "Christian understandings of salvation are often individualistic. When Christians identify salvation with a blessed afterlife, with going to heaven, salvation becomes about the salvation of individuals." Umm ... yeah, that's about right. Salvation is by grace through faith - an individual thing. God does not save groups of people. How would He do that? I choose this church here, but not that one? Would your salvation depend on the group you belong to?

A Catholic might think that. Their religion is much more communitarian that Protestantism. In Catholicism you get saved by becoming Catholic (getting baptized). In Protestantism you become part of the (mystical) body of Christ by being born again. You join the group by being saved rather than the other way around.

Then Borg says that our individualism has caused us to consider morality to be mainly a personal thing. "For many Christians, morality is understood primarily to be about personal behavior." Yep, that's what I think. Progressives often think that individual morality is less important than vague notions like "economic fairness" and such like. Does that mean that having progressive social and political views makes one virtuous but actual personal virtue does not?

To me, individual virtue is the real virtue. If we live in an 'unjust' society (is there another kind in a fallen world?), then our individual virtue makes life good even for those at 'the bottom'. If we live in a 'just' society and have no individual virtue, I think we would be living in hell. But, of course, without individual virtue and morality there could be no just society. There is a reason that God gave us ten commandments that told the individual what to do. "Thou shalt not" is singular! (If it were plural it would have said "Ye shalt not.") When they obeyed the commands of God, they had a good and just though imperfect society. The commands to not steal, murder or commit adultery were put there for the express purpose of holding the society together. Even laws requiring the Israelites not to glean the edges of the field but leave them for the poor to glean were directed to individuals to help those in need. The government did not enforce this. Individual morality is the glue that holds a society together.

So I certainly believe that Christianity supports, and even requires, a certain kind of individualism. Yet it is not the fleshly, selfish individualism of the world but a godly dignity that places the onus for doing what is just and right on each of us. Imagine what it would be like if we always did the right thing.

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