For decades now Bible scholars and theologians have raised the red flag of warning about individualism. The ironies of the warning, and I confess to part of the red-flag-raising crowd, are ignored: raised often enough by those who are themselves very individualistic, raised by those who are at the same time contending for a gospel and a theology in tune with our own time (which happens to be very individualistic), and raised by folks who are the first to gripe when a social institution — church, academy, work — lays claim on time and schedule and money. Perhaps the biggest irony is that, while most can make a valiant case for how dyadic or familial or social or corporate the ancients were, my own reading of the ancients has often revealed how individualistic they could be. I wonder today if this isn’t a criticism that ultimately fails to convince. Is this because we are too individualistic? Or because individualism is endemic to humanity? What does “individualism” look like?
What do you think of this criticism of individualism? What’s the alternative? What kind of life are we talking about? What does it look like?
I mention a few — Elijah, David, Ezekiel, John Baptist, Jesus, Paul — Deborah, Huldah, Ruth — and then I think of Aristotle up to Plutarch or a Cicero — these folks were admirably courageous at the level of individualism, spent gobs and gobs of time alone from what we can tell… you get my point. Sure, they were embedded perhaps more than we are, but I wonder if we are not far more embedded than we care to admit (or know) or that they were far more individualistic than we care to observe. Yes, there is in modernity a new turn toward individualism but humans have always had will and we have always made up our own minds. What do we think ancients did when they got up, go next door or into the agora and ask what should be done that day? Overall, then, we’ve created something everyone thinks is such a great idea but which far too often lacks a bite with some teeth in it. The poles, since I haven’t said this, are individualism and collectivism. I wonder if we lean left on this spectrum, but I also wonder just how easy it is to prove the ancients were that much different than we are. By the way, if you want to read a good sketch of dyadic personality types — a more collectivist life — read stuff by Bruce Malina.
We turn, then, to Glen Stassen’s study of individualism in the context of his “thicker” Jesus and “incarnational discipleship,” in his A Thicker Jesus. He’s using Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and lands upon the category that today the self is a “buffered self.” We are “detached” and “withdrawn” and lack “covenant with cosmos or community or bodily emotions” (101). We are “self-sufficient” and into “advancing our own cause” and my self is “inside me” and like a “pinball.” The “first” understanding was “deeply embedded in society” (101). None of this is proven; it’s standard faire in the academy for the problem with individualism today. The problem, since we are also disconnected from God, is “secularism.” It is this construct that Stassen wants to investigate and find a way for the Christian gospel to speak.
Neurological studies, relying here on Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown, show that we are far more interactive and connected — emotionally and otherwise — than Rand’s philosophies permit. We are connected; we are interactive. The self is interactive. We need to see the importance of loyalties, interests and passions. Alan Greenspan, connected as he was to Ayn Rand, has admitted too much commitment to radical individualism. Did you know the income tax rate under Eisenhower for the very rich was 91%? That it was Reagan who reduced it to 28%? That Clinton balanced the budget by raising it to 39.6%? That Bush cut it back to 35%? Obama wants to move it back to Clinton’s numbers? [See comments below from Michael Kruse.]
Stassen thinks sociologists show that this economic individualism wrecks neighborhoods, families and community involvements (119). Leads to Bellah, Rasmussen, and Putnam.
The aim is to re-recover a more social understanding of selfhood and a covenant commitment to community. He sees this at work in the development of ending slavery, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Economics, neurology, sociology and philosophy are each leading us to see a more interactive self …
Now I have point out the irony of this chp, and that it is all about an interactive self. The way forward, I would contend, is not to make the self less selfish but to make the community, i.e. the church, more central to the work of God in this world. Stassen’s approach is for us to become more interactive with God. We are to find the breakthroughs of deliverance, justice, peacemaking, healing, joy of participation, repentance, and a sense of God’s presence. Yes, I agree… where? Why not lift the ecclesia at this point?