A discussion starter from Peter Toon
What we call “individualism” is so much part of what is taken for granted in the West, and particularly in America, that to raise the question as to whether or not modern individualism is a part, or should be a part, of the Anglican Way in the West is immediately to raise eyebrows and suspicions!
People read the frequent occurrence of the first person singular, “I”, in the Psalter along with the use of “I” by the apostles in their Epistles, and they take for granted that what is present here is individualism, be it that of the Psalmist or St Paul. This is confirmed for them by the singing of hymns which, though congregational, also use the first person singular. Then, not a few Ministers in leading public prayer, use the first person singular in speaking to God, as they ask for blessings upon the assembled congregation.
Let us seek to be clear. Used as an adjective “individual” has a long history. People in all places and times have needed to distinguish this one thing from the collection of things and so have spoken of an individual person or an individual meal. However, to call a person, a human being, an “individual”, where the adjective has become a noun, suggests that a special way of looking at persons has arrived in human culture.
Human beings/persons are related to one another in specific ways, first by procreation and blood so that each one normally has relatives – mother, father, brother, sister etc. -- and also by marriage, so that each one normally gains “in-laws”. Thus we talk of kith and kin. Until relatively modern times in the West (and to the present in much of Africa and Asia – and clearly in the Bible) an individual human being was defined or regarded in terms of human relations, the relations created by procreation and association, along with where he lived and what he did. Certainly he was an individual person but a related person, not an “individual” isolated and alone.
What we call individualism was noted by the famous French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his visit to the USA and described in his book, Democracy in America, in the early 19th century. It was a phenomenon of human society and culture that he had not seen or known in Europe but it was present on the new frontier in the new republic of the United States. Here individual persons, separated from traditional family ties and facing challenging situations, had to fend for themselves and then for their nuclear families, and as they did so there developed in them a new mindset, that which he called individualism. It was not self-centeredness as such but a necessary adaptation of a sense of who one is to changed and demanding conditions of life. As such this new individualism was often very energizing, but yet in it were seeds that when grown in a changed America would have major consequences for life in the USA and the West.
Over the last two centuries, and to cut a long story short, the nature of individualism has changed dramatically, and not for the better, so that for many in 2005 it is a way of regarding themselves as unique. The claim of individuality and of individual uniqueness is now seen in terms of “my unique inner life, my personal feelings, desires, intentions, my rights, my orientation and my dignity.” No other person has my feelings! How I feel is unique! My rights and my dignity should be accepted by all for I am I and I deserve such!
Importantly, with this sense of individuality/individualism, there goes the further sense of the importance of “relationships” (not ordered relations or necessary relatives but relationships). That is my choice of with whom and to whom I choose to relate under conditions that I choose or accept – and here the association, long-term or temporary, can be with human persons, animals or the Deity.
Of course this modern sense of individualism exists against what is now usually a very weak background of relatedness of family, kith and kin, in the West. As is well known, the existence, even of nuclear families, in western society, is often now less as a proportion than other forms of living together as “individuals” in partnerships and relationships.
So, if one is affected – as we all are to some degree – by modern individualism how does it affect our practice of Christianity? Here are a few suggestions.
First of all, it makes us think that “an individual relationship” with God is the most important thing of all. (Note that in the best, literal translations of the Bible and in the classic Prayer Books one does not find the word “relationship” or the noun “individual.”)
Secondly, it makes us read the Bible, not from the vantage point of a member of the Body of Christ and of a servant in God’s Household, but from that of an individual entity, an unrelated person. Thus we tend to have a liking for modern paraphrases or dynamic equivalent forms of the Bible wherein modern culture informs the way the ancient text is rendered and our individualism is confirmed by the version used.
Thirdly, it causes us to find classic liturgy and forms of devotional writing and practices to be “dead” or “boring” or irrelevant ! For the content does not chime with out mindset and cultural outlook. In fact, it points us away from individualism, not into community as such but into koinonia, Christian fellowship and communion in God’s family. And as individuals we want community not communion, for community is individuals in association whereas communion is persons in fellowship.
Fourthly, it causes us to have a low view of the need for the actual unity of the Church of God on earth in space and time. If the individual relationship is the real thing then competitive denominations in the supermarket of religions are necessary for real choice for real individuals!
Fifthly, it causes us to mis-read a lot of political talk and action and to describe as Christian what is in line with individualism of the kind that suits us.
Though we cannot escape modern individualism, which we breathe into our souls daily, we can seek to be aware of it. We can be aware that as a way of understanding human personhood it is so very different from that presupposed and illustrated in the Bible, and in classic Liturgy, devotion and doctrine.
Consider this: When you or I am born from above by the Holy Ghost, and converted to Jesus Christ, I am placed not only in a relation with the Father through the Son by the Spirit, but also in a relation with the Body of Christ and into membership in this Body, which is the Household of God, where I have many brothers and sisters in the Lord, who are my family by grace! There is no individualism here but there are genuine personal relations – with the Holy Trinity and with the human persons who are in the Household of God.
A final thought. In classical dogma the Church uses the word “relation” to speak of the way in which the Three Persons are united one with the other as One Deity in a TriUnity, a Trinity of Love. In Latin the word is relatio, and to translate this as relationship, as many moderns do, is wholly to change the received dogma! A relation of order is not the same as a modern “relationship”, which is temporary and usually disordered.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon April 25, 2005 firstname.lastname@example.org