The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

Why call individualism a heresy and not just a bad idea?

While the first installment in this series dealt with a definition (and some examples) of what might be called a “toxic individualism,” the present post touches on some biblical and theological reasons for rejecting such a posture.

But first, a brief digression.

THE TWO EXTREMES

I wrote my PhD thesis on a British theologian named Colin Gunton.

In several works (but especially The One, the Three and the Many), Gunton ping-pongs between theology, Scripture, philosophy, and political theory in order to understand the nature of human and divine personhood.

In so doing, he identifies two ideological extremes in modern times: 

  1. Western Individualism, and
  2. Eastern (Communist) Collectivism.

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Like many of Gunton’s sweeping claims, this is more than a little oversimplified, but I still think it can be helpful.

His claim is that both extremes represent deficient understandings of God, humanity, and the nature of reality.

In his words,

The person is neither an individual, defined in terms of separateness from others, nor one who is swallowed up in the collective (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 13).

Building on a certain doctrine of the Trinity, Gunton writes the following:

To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others cut off from the them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship.

Being a person is about being from and for and with the other. I need you – and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others, and to the world from which they come (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 14; italics added).

PARTICULARITY AND PARTICIPATION

In contrast to Western individualism and Communist Collectivism, we might highlight the Christian concepts of “particularity” and “participation.”

Particularity speaks to the way we retain our distinct identities by virtue of our relationships, not in spite of them. To use an example: I am not my wife, but my relationship with Brianna makes me distinctly who I am in innumerable ways.

Particularity is important as it helps us see and appreciate differences rather than consuming others or homogenizing them with foolish and dishonest phrases like “I don’t see color.”

Particularity is beatified by participation.

Participation means that I am bound up with others in a way that baffles and and offends the individualist.

SOME BIBLICAL EXAMPLES

Scripture gives multiple examples of a shared existence that is very far from an isolating modern individualism, even if we struggle to understand what that means.

Salvation is being “in Christ” through a union wrought by the Holy Spirit.

The two become “one flesh” in marriage, which is an imperfect picture of Christ and the church.

Paul was crucified “with Christ” despite never having met Jesus in his pre-ascended state.

Jesus prays that his followers would “be one,” just as he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” him (John 17:21).

To show hospitality to the hungry, the naked, the immigrant, or the imprisoned is to welcome Jesus in disguise (Matt 25).

Romans claims that we can be united with Christ in his death (by baptism), and so also united with his resurrection life (6:5).

1 Corinthians says that “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (6:17).

Ephesians states that Christians “are all members of one body” (Eph 4:25).

Colossians claims that “all things” in heaven and earth hold together “in him” who is the Son (Col 1:16-17).

Hebrews says that Christ “shared in [our] humanity” when he took on human flesh (2:14-16).

And 2 Peter claims that humans may actually “participate in the divine nature” because of what God has done for us (1:4).

To unpack each of these references would require more time and wisdom than I have. But the overriding point is that personhood is porous: we are designed to be both distinct and yet united with others (both human and divine) in relationships of love and obligation.

Or as Paul writes, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19).

CONCLUSION

None of this makes any sense through the lens of Western individualism, wherein the highest value is independence. It is heresy. And that’s good news.

So while an apt description of current American culture might be that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; ESV), the biblical hope is more in-keeping with some marriage imagery from the musical Hamilton (I couldn’t resist…):

“To your union, and the hope that it provides.”

 


In the next post, I’ll tackle what Scripture has to say about the reality of “structural” or “systemic” Sin, as opposed to purely individualistic conception of transgression.


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