Individualism: The "Me" Society
"If religion is to awaken from its slumbering state in Canada, its first hurdle will be to get its own house in order. The devastating damage caused by individualism and relativism needs to be assessed and addressed. It has been extensive."
Reginald W. Bibby - Mosaic Madness: Pluralism Without A Cause
Since the l960s, Canadians have been living through vast cultural changes, which, like a bulldozer, overturned many of their traditional values. One key component in this new phase in Canada's social development is "individualism." Although individualism is a well-worn term in our vocabulary, we tend to forget that it is a relatively new concept and limited to our Western culture. All other cultures are holistic - focused more on the community rather than the individuals that make up that community.
The term "individualism" was first used by the French politician and historian Alexis de Tocquevile (1805-1859) and it was then, during the 19th century, that individualism penetrated every area of Western culture. For example, the German scholar Max Stirner was so enamored with the idea of individualism he defended the absurd notion that, "each one of you should become an almighty I."
What is postmodern individualism? It can be defined as "the doctrine that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the state or social group." Individualism advocates the free and independent action of the individual as opposed to state interference. No external force or authority is allowed to determine a person's actions within society unless he is contravening the freedom of others. Individualism says farewell to tradition and becomes a law unto itself. The autonomous individual is the measure of all things. The false idol "The Self" has taken over the privileges and rights, which were once reserved for God. The individual alone decides what will become of the world without any reference to the Creator. He has been given the green light to focus on himself, his own personal development, apart from his community and society.
The late Pierre Elliott Trudeau played no small role in this drastic cultural change. He had a game plan when he entered politics in 1965. In 1990 he and a colleague recalled: "We went to Ottawa not to gain power for power's sake but to transform our society to a set of liberal values. Make no mistake, we were an ideological government ideological in the sense that we were motivated by an overarching framework of purpose. That framework was grounded in the supreme importance we attached to the dignity and rights of individual human beings."
But the foundations on which the house "Self" is built are faulty. And no building erected on such foundations will endure (cf. Matt. 7:24-28). The cumulative impact of both the idolatry of "The Self" and the actions of the late Trudeau's government undermined the social structures that our Canadian society needs.
Creating one's own truth and morals
When the individual acts like a god, absolute truth and objective moral standards become victims. An emphasis on "truth" and "right" is replaced by an emphasis on "viewpoint" and "what's right for you." Truth has become a matter of personal preference. It is no more than one's own personal opinion. No one viewpoint is more accurate, or superior to another.
This leaves little room for Christians to make "dogmatic truth" claims. Today it is regarded as a virtue to defend the right of others to choose whatever belief or lifestyle they want. But when Christians point to Jesus Christ as the only way to God the Father and when we point to the objective moral standards revealed in the Bible, there is an immediate hue and cry. We are then accused of being intolerant, narrow-minded, and dictatorial.
Are morals like clouds?
In his book The Postmodern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of our Age Millard J. Erickson tackles the folly of this type of thinking.
He writes that in the comic strip "Peanuts," Charlie Brown and his friends are lying on the grass looking at the clouds that drift by overhead. One of his friends sees in one of the clouds a famous painting. Charlie Brown, however, is somewhat embarrassed because he was going to suggest that is was only a "horsey and a sheep." Erickson comments that in a very real sense, the cloud has no shape or patterns. There are only elements, which can be interpreted in various ways by different people. In other words, each person finds something different, and no one can say that his or her label is the final and correct one.
But what is true of clouds is not true for everything.
Erickson shows the absurd results of creating one's own truth and values. He tells the story of one young woman, studying at a notable postmodern university, was asked on an examination to define the word juxtapose. Not knowing the meaning of the word, she wrote in jest, "Juxtapose' means 'cat.' Since Heidegger said that reality is as we perceive it, this is what 'juxtapose' means to me." To her surprise, she received a perfect score for her answer, and the professor praised her for her insight.
What happens when the source of moral values is the individual? He is the sole arbitrator of what is right and wrong, the creator of values he deems right. German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote that when he was faced with conflicting moral positions, " the individual has to decide which is God for him and which is the devil."
The Loss of Community
But when people believe and act so autonomously as individuals, they tend to forget that they are social beings. Individualism fosters private life at the expense of the community. And in today's parlance the word community has even lost its original meaning. The word no longer spotlights people who share the same interests or lifestyles. For example, it is now common to hear people talk about the gay community or the Christian community without any expectation that members of these "communities" live anywhere near one another. They are not expected to know one another. Modern technology has pushed this idea to the extreme. We read about the "gathering" of communities via the Internet. Yet in many cases none of these people have ever met in person. There is no physical contact. And some even find this physical anonymity extremely liberating - "no one knows what I look like online."
This loss of the traditional community has ruinous consequences for society and individuals alike. In fact, the individual no longer counts. He becomes a thing. For example, in First Things [June/July 2002] Richard Neuhaus reports on a new disturbing social trend in Germany. He notes that in that country funeral practices are rapidly disappearing all together. No death notices in the paper, no wakes, no funerals, no memorial services. Bodies are taken from hospitals to the ovens of the crematorium and the ashes are dispersed. Neuhaus comments, "[It is] just as though the person, and the body inseparable from the person, had never been. That is not closure. It is a forced and unnatural forgetting. It is a mark of a people aptly described as post-Christian."
In Canada, before the 1960s the view of marriage as the fusion of two lives was common. It was understood that love between a man and a woman would lead to the institution of marriage, with the legal and other commitments that are involved. The marriage vows included expressions about "from this day forward...till death do us part," and these vows were taken seriously. But today individuals decide what kind of marriage is best for them. Increasingly, our society views the traditional family as optional. Self-love, self-expression, self-development, and self-actualization are now common themes expressed in relationships. This new fad tends to symbolize a decision to receive each other's love, rather than a decision to love one another. One personal growth seminar leader put it this way: "Love is a beautiful thing involving one person: you."
There is even an orchestrated assault on the institution of marriage. Canadians may soon witness the abolition of the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and witness the legalization of same-sex unions as "marriage." The federal government was advised that it had "little legal choice" in light of a court ruling by unelected judges to adopt "same-sex marriage" into law.
A totally bizarre example of individual choice, self-love, and disdain for the traditional institution of marriage was demonstrated in Holland. According to Dutch and German newspapers, when Jennifer Hoes of Haarlem turned thirty she became a bride and married herself. She promised before Haarlem's magistrate to love, respect, honor, and obey herself. "We live in a Me society," she explained to Der Spiegel, "hence it is logical that one promises to be faithful to oneself."
The spirit of individualism has also made its inroads into the Church. Church services and theologies have become more diversified than ever before. For many the Christian faith has become a personal matter. Our society will tolerate Christians as long as they keep their faith in "the closet'" and within the confines of the church. In the public arena Christian witness is stifled. Christians are allowed to express opinions, as long as they don't step on the toes of other individuals and groups. And the Church is expected to go along with the spirit of the age. It is supposed to be big and tolerant enough to embrace a wide range of beliefs and lifestyles. Many churches have caved in and offer a smorgasbord of theology and practice. For most church members doctrine is a secondary issue. One denomination's truth claims seem to be as acceptable and accurate as another's. Only the claims of sects and cults are regarded as suspect. Personal preference and fulfillment seem more important whether or not a church is faithful to Scripture. Just think about the music controversy - the so-called worship wars. Some prefer a traditional worship service with organ, psalms, and hymns; others want a contemporary service with guitars and casual songs.
Until recently denominational loyalty was a given. When a Presbyterian moved he would look for a Presbyterian church in his new community, as an Anglican would seek out an Anglican church to attend. Only a strong and compelling reason would make them switch denominations. But times have changed. Often a convenient location or a worship-style seems more important than denominational affiliation. Within the last few decades independent house churches and megachurches have come on the scene. The new house church movement does not want to be bound by denominational structures, creeds and confessions, or membership commitment. American author Cecil Hook argues that the traditional church pattern "encroaches on our individual freedom in serving God. It would make our individual relationship with God dependent upon an organizational relationship." But catering to individualism has its pitfall. Erickson points out that some independent non-denominational mega-churches that had built their appeal on a basically postmodern type of ministry did not simply decline, they crashed. Because their constituents did not have a long-term or emphatic commitment to the church and had not been discipled much beyond their initial commitments, they quickly abandoned the church when something more attractive came along. In some cases, these local congregations lost their church property to the lender through foreclosure.
A Christian Response
The Christian faith is anti-individualistic. Individualism is sinful. It makes people lonely, weakens the nation and leads to anarchy. We can't be out for "number one." We cannot view people apart from community or without social connection. The popular proverb "God helps those who help themselves" is a secular invention and is nowhere to be found in Scripture. A human being is not an autonomous individual who can create his own truth and moral values. What is morally right or wrong is not for the individual to decide. The standard for right and wrong is rooted in the revealed law of God, independent of people and their judgment. For example, if the federal government of Canada decides to legalize "same-sex marriage," it is still morally wrong.
A human being cannot do without other people. Apart from society and community the individual is nothing. We need people like fish need water. People in every stage of life have something irreplaceable to give and take from the community.
The Bible does recognize the intrinsic value of the individual. Jesus cares for the individual. He encountered people one at a time, as individuals, and He took a different approach with each person to whom He ministered. But salvation is never a solitary experience. The lost son returns to the house of his father, the lost sheep returns to its flock.
The Lord looks for individual repentance, conversion, and responsibility. Yet the church is the body of Christ. A Christian belongs to the communion of saints. This fact has practical consequences. For example, in Philippians joy is never solitary. It is always social joy. Joy is shared. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, seeking in all things to glorify Him. We are responsible to God, our neighbor, and creation. Jesus said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are not just to tolerate our neighbor but to love him. Under God we are responsible for our neighbor's welfare both spiritual and material. There are no rights without duties.
Clearly, Christians cannot and may not be individualistic. We belong to the communion of saints. In Christian fellowship we reflect the Trinitarian Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are equal yet different, always in relation with one another. And how can we act as individualists when we together acclaim God as "our Father," and partake of the Lord's Supper together. Individualism has no place at the Lord's table. The Bible encourages us to submit to one another in love, to serve one another in humility, and to values relationships - even with strangers - above else. The self-indulgent, self-centered, self-referential focus is in utter contrast to the self-giving love and humility of Christ. And when Christ returns in glory, we will live as a community in the new city of God. For this we look to the book of Revelation: "And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:4).
Now is the time for Christians to join hands and proclaim the liberating Gospel which alone can set people free from the slavery to the idol "Self" (John 8: 36). Only in Jesus Christ can we be true individuals, free to serve Him. Because of Him we know that the standard of right and wrong is woven into the very fabric of our world. It is not the autonomous individual, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ who King and we are His subjects. This means that we must try to obey Him in all areas of our lives: family relationships, friendships, business, labor, politics, art, science, and so on. In whatever we do, we must seek to glorify God.