Future Faith: Challenge Six: Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism

For any community to thrive, there must be more members who can say “me for the community” than those who say “the community for me.”

The deeply imbedded sense of individualism, accentuated by the political framework of modern liberalism, corrodes attempts to strengthen bonds of community, whether in church or society.

Me for community or community for me

That simple contrast—me for the community versus the community for me—captures the heart of the dilemma facing modern Western culture and, by extension, the expressions of the church that are sustained in its midst.

Modern Western culture freed humanity from oppressive, authoritarian rule governing thought, religion, and political structures. The role, rights, and agency of the individual became paramount.

One agrees to the obligations of belonging to a wider community to guarantee and gain certain individual rights and freedoms.

In the famous words of John Donne, “No man is an island, entire unto itself.” We live together in essential networks and webs of social cohesion and interaction.

Philosophers like Ayn Rand took individualism to such extremes that selfishness became a virtue, dismissing altruism and self-sacrifice and advocating a radical laissez-faire capitalism free of any government interference.

Think, for instance, of the famous line in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was a political way of saying, me for the community, rather than the community for me.

Pew Research Center posed this question to Americans and Europeans: “What’s more important in society, that everyone be free to pursue life’s goals without interference from the state, or that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need?” Fifty-eight percent of Americans cited that an individual’s freedom was most important, while majorities in European nations felt the opposite.

Life organized around “me” at the center is constantly reinforced.

Biblical faith and community

That assumption is, in fact, foreign to Christian faith. Put simply, it’s an unbiblical, alien concept.

Throughout salvation history, God’s action has focused on creating a people faithful to God’s love and purposes for the world. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people are invited to become members of this community based on God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Much of the New Testament is devoted to explaining to, exhorting, and instructing those who follow Jesus what it means to live together as a community, experiencing the gifts of the Spirit, and demonstrating the unity and reconciliation that is God’s gift.

The metaphor of existing together as one body powerfully highlights the intrinsic interdependence of every member with one another.

Another frequent metaphor for the church in the New Testament is the family.

The goal is to become incorporated into a community that is the vehicle for God’s transforming work in the world. The goal is not to find one’s individual happiness and affirm one’s individual rights. Therefore, Christians are always beckoned primarily to say, “me for the community.” That’s what it means to be claimed by God and participate in God’s ongoing transformation and redemption of the world.

The Christian journey always has an inward as well as an outward direction.

Christian faith is intended to be personal. Most definitely. But Christian faith is not intended to be individual. There’s a difference. We are addressed personally by God.

However, one’s transforming, personal encounter with God’s grace and love destroys the illusion of individualism.

views of reality

Dietrich Bonhoeffer led one of the “underground seminaries” of the Confessing Church in the 1930s, before it was closed by the Nazis. There he established practices to build the life of Christian community through prayer, meditation on Scripture, and identification with the most vulnerable in society.

life as relationships

The Cappadocian Fathers (including Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory Nazianzen) of fourth century eastern Turkey finally turned to a word from Greek theater, perichoresis—circle dance—to describe the foundational quality of God’s character: relationship and communion. In the beginning was relationship.

Individualistic self-indulgence will always search for threads of religious justification and blessing, particularly in the crazy patchwork quilt of American Christianity.

the power and promise of community

A thirst for community, however, among both rich and poor persistently endures.

starting with community

A popular African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” offers a glimpse of how togetherness is valued over individualism in African cultures.

“Ubuntu” is that “a person is a person through other people.” This means that one can never conceive of their own identity as an isolated individual. Rather, personhood can only emerge out of relationships with others. Our humanity, in fact, is not embedded in our individuality but bestowed upon us by others. That’s how linked we are in bonds of communal belonging.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning cleric from South Africa, helped export the concept of Ubuntu in his writings. “A person with Ubuntu,” wrote Tutu, “is open and available to others, affirming of others . . . knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.”

“Liberation Theology” attempted to reconstruct theology by seeing the world and reading the Bible “through the eyes of the poor.”

Drawing as well on themes of solidarity within the political currents of the continent, such communities incarnated the conviction that the power of the gospel had to find its starting point in communal life with one another.

The power and promise of grounding faith in community that is so prevalent in global Christianity challenges US congregations to seek a transforming vision of future faith that is not based on the heresy of individualistic Christianity.

discussion guide

 

  • What do you think of Jean Vanier’s proposal that for any community to thrive, “there must be more members who can say ‘me for the community’ than those who say ‘the community for me’”?
  • How does the world around us, and sometimes even the church, organize life with “me” at the center?
  • From what biblical examples does the author draw in the perspective of life organized around community? What benefits are experienced “in community”?
  • How does God’s nature itself lead us toward community?
  • What examples of both individualistic ministry and community-based ministry are given in the chapter?
  • How can the power and promise of grounding faith in community, which is so prevalent in global Christianity, sharpen your faith community’s life together?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?

 

Previous post can be found here:

Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations

Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future

Challenge Three: Seeing through Non-Western Eyes

Challenge Four: Perceiving the World as Sacred

Challenge Five: Affirming Spirit-Filled Communities

For more on this, please support the author and buy his book at Amazon or Fortress Press. I do not receive any compensation for this summary.

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