On Criticizing Individualism

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.

He probes extensively into Camus, where he studies “detached selfhood becoming transformed by connection with the infinity of the universe” (105). [I don't know that I've read a word of Camus.] He looks at The Stranger, The Plague, “The Adulterous Woman”, The Rebel, The Fall …  He looks briefly at Satre and then much more at Ayn Rand, her “closed” self and objectivism and radical individualism and selfishness. (Before this last year’s candidacy process Glen had observed connection of Rand to Rand Paul, the Tea Party, and to Paul Ryan.)

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?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I’d distinguish between individuality … having sense of identity apart from but in relationship to others … and individualism … and ideology about the primacy of the individual.

    I suspect that individuality, not individualism, has always been with us. I think many who decry individualism today romanticize the “collectivism” of the past. Societies of the past did not so much incorporate individuality as suppress it. The challenge throughout human history has been to have centralized power strong enough that it could impose order and defend against enemies, but not so powerful that it couldn’t be checked to preserve the freedom of individuals and small communities. The balance across advanced agrarian societies has been tipped toward people subduing their individuality, many times to the point of servitude and slavery, to avoid descent into chaos. The institutions that suppressed individuality and kept order were internalized by the masses.

    Democratic systems, and the revolution in production and exchange, have created a world where there is a more (not perfect) equitable balance between centralized power and individual freedom. With suppressive collectivism in retreat, our institutions in the modernist and post-modernist era struggle to incorporate individuals, not suppress them, in new collectivist relationships that accomplish collective ends while respecting individuality. It is painfully messy.

    The Enlightenment and modernism may have made an idol of individuality called individualism, but idols are grounded in things that have merit. Setting individuals free from the restraints of the past was mostly good but doing so in the context of disassociating from God and the Kingdom is what makes it idolatrous. If we are talking about a need to find ways to better express our collective solidarity while preserving individuality when we decry individualism, then that is all good and well. But what I too frequently sense is that we are talking about a return to pre-industrial advanced-agrarian contexts where individuality was suppressed (or worse, state collectivist models of the 20th Century) and it is this that I recoil from in many of these discussions. The release of individuality is mistaken as individualism, a curse unleashed by the Enlightenment that needs to be undone.

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, I almost wrote a distinction from “individuality” into this post, but I got to thinking that many today have made too much of ancient group-mindedness and too much of our individual-mindedness. The Adam and Eve event of Genesis 3 is the ultimate act of individualism, no? Augustine’s confessions were a profound act of self-reflection and have been read as the “fall” of the ancient group-mindedness toward individualism.

    Yet, I don’t want to deny a greater emphasis on individualism in modernity, and I baked the opening paragraphs hoping to get some to reflect on how they would define individualism.

  • Scott Gay

    I also see the trajectory in making the ecclesia central to this needed work. Now I take us back to the discussions about why artists have even more trouble with church than even scientists have. This is in the vein of conversion and deconversion. And it must be remembered in that series these artists did not result in abandoning faith and become atheist, but disallusioned.
    The beginning of of David Hempton’s approach to disenchantment lays out these reasons- ” An infallible text read with wooden literalism, an instant millenium, an absence of mystery, a lack of interest in nature, priestly personality cults, and modernist soteriological systems”.
    So, again, I lift up ecclesia for breakthroughs. But we must at the beginning highlight an ethos that is the antidote to the above characteristics that evolve all too often in church. They are almost opposites to the above six( the characteristics Hempton finds in early 18th century evangelicalism). They are experiential conversion, mysticism, small group religion, vitalist conceptions of nature, a deferred eschatology, and opposition to theological systems.

  • Jim

    Interesting to me how often the de-emphasis upon ‘individualism’ fades into Progressivist politics. (c.f. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. etc.) The issue is not individualism per se but the political (and coercive) hay that is made when individualism comes under fire. I certainly applaud Christian community (and who is to say where community begins and ends…NOT at the boundary of my skin!) (c.f. Wendell Berry on uses of the word “environment”) . Christian community is possible because we have (or are supposed to have) deep suspicions about power and the uses of power. However, I am very nervous when individualism gets weakened and when the then anemic self is handed over to people with guns. Seems to me theologians end up participating in our hanging.

  • http://www.chezman86.blogspot.com Kevin

    Just some quick thoughts:

    Paul said to Philippians look not only to your own interests but also to the interest of others. Figure out what that means in your own context. We don’t need to “geek” it out to academics and central planners.

    As for the 91% tax bracket…very interesting article here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324705104578151601554982808.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    Data is so easily manipulated.

    Commandment 10: Thou shalt no covet.

    Don’t steal either!

    “Stassen thinks sociologists show that this economic individualism wrecks neighborhoods, families and community involvements (119). Leads to Bellah, Rasmussen, and Putnam.”

    He thinks? Feels? Proves?

    No one can live like the characters in Rand’s books. I don’t think that is her point.

    It is interesting the NT is void of the characters that we find in the OT.

    Rulers have always needed taxes to fund their projects and wars (whether military or against poverty).

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Something weird happened with this post. I could swear that when I read this post last night it was only three paragraphs, ending with “Bruce Malina.” I must be losing my mind. ;-) I really like the emphasis on the interactive-self. More thoughts.

    The rate you have for the first three presidents is the top marginal rate for income taxes. GWB lowered the rate to 35%, not 15%. Obama wants to return to Clinton’s rate. The 15% rate is the capital gains tax rate. Clinton lowered that rate from 33% to 20%. GWB to 15%. Obama wants to return to Clinton’s

    And this points up another challenge in the collective vs individuality debate. Prior to 1913 the top marginal rate was 0% because there was no income tax. (Some brief exceptions, but you get my point.) Revenue was raised primarily through taxes on alcohol and tobacco, as well as other sales taxes and fees. Yet, I would argue that the individual of 120+ years ago, prior to the Robber Barons, was probably more embedded in a collective framework than people paying 35% tax rates today. People were more deeply embedded in collective institutions of family, neighbors, school, church, voluntary organizations, and local government.

    Here is where we need subsidiarity. Rather than seeing society as an intricate network of individuals embedded in local collective structures where people are known to each other, the modernist collective impulse is to weaken and co-opt these intermediate institutions … sometimes in the name of setting individuals free … making these institutions serve the ends of remote depersonalized authorities. And in the extreme, with intermediate institutions weakened to the point they can no longer intervene for individuals when the state becomes excessive, individuality is suppressed.

    Where I suspect I agree with Stassen is his concern about economic individualism. A market economy is a good thing. A market society … converting every societal interaction into wealth optimizing exercise …, not so much. Curiously, this almost certainly ends up in the collectivism I just described, as intermediate institutions are so weakened they can no longer effectively work.

    Thanks for pointing us to Stassen’s book!

  • Tim Atwater

    Kevin, above, curious what you had in mind with — “It is interesting the NT is void of the characters that we find in the OT. ”

    The NT I read is packed full of the characters I find in the OT. Do a concordance run on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph… Mose, Aaron, Miriam… Joshua (what is Jesus’ name again in translation?) David… (not to belabor if I am mishearing the intent, but the list could go on and on and on….)

    The NT is the OT, continued, fulfilled, and yes, transformed in Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit and God Most High, one God forever… There’s a seamlessness between the individual and the community in the whole bible, spoken and written into being for me, you, we and us together…
    Yesterday in bible study groups we were reading Luke 1 and tracing the roots… Noticing Mary’s Magnificat, starting in the me voice and ending with for Abraham and his descendants forever (Abe in whom all the families of earth, not just Israel, are blessed, Gen 12…) Looking at the naming discussion/debate over John later in the chapter, we went back to Ruth — where the women — not mom or dad — but the whole community of the women of the neighborhood name baby Obed…
    (i’m not for the record proposing collectivization of naming rights — but it does sound a lot more joyful than our culture’s putting naming rights of once-public stadiums up for auction…. )

  • Tim Atwater

    Michael Kruse, in your first post above,
    “Democratic systems, and the revolution in production and exchange, have created a world where there is a more (not perfect) equitable balance between centralized power and individual freedom. With suppressive collectivism in retreat, our institutions in the modernist and post-modernist era struggle to incorporate individuals, not suppress them, in new collectivist relationships that accomplish collective ends while respecting individuality. It is painfully messy.

    The Enlightenment and modernism may have made an idol of individuality called individualism, but idols are grounded in things that have merit. Setting individuals free from the restraints of the past was mostly good but doing so in the context of disassociating from God and the Kingdom is what makes it idolatrous. If we are talking about a need to find ways to better express our collective solidarity while preserving individuality when we decry individualism, then that is all good and well. But what I too frequently sense is that we are talking about a return to pre-industrial advanced-agrarian contexts where individuality was suppressed (or worse, state collectivist models of the 20th Century) and it is this that I recoil from in many of these discussions. The release of individuality is mistaken as individualism, a curse unleashed by the Enlightenment that needs to be undone.”
    There’s more in this than I can comment on in a few sentences, but don’t want to chop your words and risk distorting context. (And I am thinking simultaneously of John Frye’s post today on the location of Jesus in Nazareth, not Bethlehem…and posting there today, which on these same themes…)

    I don’t think that any of the New Testament writers nor the prophets would buy into the analysis of democracy and market economics as a big improvement over prior systems. Differently awful, but just as awful (would be my take on their take…)
    Inequality of wealth power and opportunity has probably risen pretty dramatically over the past four or five or more decades (I don’t see this as linked much to domestic us politics, if it is, it’s very bipartisan).

    I don’t put Wendell Berry on quite the same page as Micah or Isaiah, but he does as good a job as any I’m aware of today in describing the very real dark side of industrial and post-industrializing (I’m aware that’s a debatable term) economic culture…

    Again this is a much larger topic than we can cover in a day. But don’t want to let this go by without a comment.

    Blessings on us all as we do discuss with the usual uncanny civility of the Jesus Creed…

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, that may have happened … sometimes when I am writing posts and I click “Save” it gets posted and then when I finish writing the post I observe the thing was published… so you have seen it early.

    A friend told me a well-known golfer in the early 60s paid 91% taxes. That true? I think I got a couple numbers wrong… now changed.

  • Robin

    Scot,

    No golfer ever paid 91% taxes. It was always a marginal rate. In 1958 only 236 people in the entire country even paid it as a marginal rate. If you go through historical records you see that even when we had a 91% marginal rate, tax revenue as a % of GDP never really exceeded 19% because we had many more expenditures (loopholes) than we presently do.

    The effective maximum on tax revenue as a % of GDP has always been 19%. Spending as a % of GDP is presently around 25%.

    The studies I have seen stated that even when the top rates were 70% or 91%, the top 1% of earners still paid average effective rates on par or below what Romney was recently criticized for paying. Accountants can get pretty creative when loopholes are abundant and rates are high.

  • Robin

    According to Ezra Klein, the historical high for revenue as a % of GDP was 20.6% in 2000 or 2001 and the historical average is 17.8%. Warren Buffett believes we should target 18% for revenue and 21% for spending. Actual data shows that for 2011 Federal Spending was 24% of GDP. So we are currently outspending even the historical highs by almost 4%.

    I’m not saying we wouldn’t be in better shape if we chose to raise taxes, but I am saying that under no scenario should we expect our tax system to support spending levels that outstrip historical highs by 4%.

    I would support almost any serious attempt to equalize those two numbers, but not a single person in Washington has offered one (except for Simpos-Bowles who have been roundly ignoed).

  • Robin

    That should have read Simpson-Bowles

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    #9 Scot,

    Glad to know I haven’t completely lost it. ;-) I do remember reading the post and wondering whose picture was attached and why.

    I think Robin is right @10. Kennedy dropped the rate to 70% in the early 60′s but the combination of changing loopholes makes direct comparisons difficult across eras.

  • http://www.justpeacemaking.org Glen Stassen

    Scot, thanks so much for your blog calling attention to my new book, _A Thicker Jesus_, in which I call ours the Age of Interaction–which resonates with Michael’s comment.
    In my chapter on individualism, as you say, I do argue that our age is far more individualistic than in biblical times, which were more community-oriented. In turn I want to call attention to your book, _New Vision for Israel_. You argue rightly that Jesus is deeply embedded in the prophetic tradition, especially Isaiah, and that his central message about the Kingdom of God is very embedded in Israel’s nationalism: “In Jesus’ world, the arrival of the kingdom involved a cluster of events: the end of the exile, the defeat of Rome, the return of the
    scattered tribes to the promised land, the restoration of pure worship
    in the temple, and the coming of God in full glory to Zion.” 85 That’s not individualistic, but communal-national, right?

    This salvation, you say, would usher the people of God into a new era of jubilee, peace, justice, and righteousness. In particular, this hope meant liberation for Israel
    from its enemies, including Rome. Jesus was a child of his people, and
    his people were children of their history. To think of the kingdom
    apart from national deliverance was an impossibility for Jews of
    Jesus’ day and for Jesus himself.” 86 That’s not individualistic, but communal-national, right?

    Yet you also say, rightly, I think, that a central theme of Jesus’ message was the call to repentance for fomenting rebellion against Rome, which would lead to Jerusalem’s and the temple’s destruction, and Jesus was vindicated: it came to pass in 66-70 A.D. Jesus’ call to peacemaking was no mere ideal; it was central, it was grounded in God’s will as in Isaiah and in the real threat of destruction by Rome in his time, and was realistic. That looks like a major turn in what Israel meant by nationalism. But it, too, was not individualistic; it was Isaianic and focused on national repentance. This is what I’m arguing in A Thicker Jesus.

  • scotmcknight

    Glen, now you’re getting me! I would want to argue, in fact, that there is a balance of individuality and corporate realities, but sometimes we make the ancients “corporate” and moderns as individualism, but those categories are often undefined and inadequately studied in both contexts. Yes, the fundamental message of Jesus was directed at Israel, just as most American politicians’ languages is addressed to the nation. But the appeal of Jesus was to individuals, too, and so is our political messaging. I have been giving this individualism some thinking in the last couple years and I wonder if we can prove what we want to prove — and I go back to Robinson’s famous little book on corporate personality in Israel. It’s not an either/or, but a both/and, and always has been. You with me on that?

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Thanks, Scot! It’s so good to see Glen, here!! :) Hi, Glen! (Charlie & you were wonderful profs.)

    I would affirm Glen’s point about the destructive results of economic individualism, and contend that economists are now affirming this reality, and demonstrating it statistically. This counters earlier economic theories such as Milton Friedman’s which were based on a (false) concept of a homogenous economic individual detached from community considerations & influences. Thus, Kevin #5, Glen’s point is well substantiated elsewhere.

    Scot, re your & Michael’s comments about individuality/individualism, ISTM that the courageous individuals you cite were advocating radical & new re-connection to our communal commitment to one another (“communal-national” Glen called it). So, they used their individuality and gifts to recall others to their connectedness to God and each other, under God. Even recalling us to our connectedness to enemies, as Jesus said & which Glen addressed in his analysis of the Sermon on the Mount in Kingdom Ethics, as our call to be “perfect” in love as our Father is perfect in love.

    I’d sharply distinguish American political messaging from Jesus’ message. Jesus called us out (as you said, Scot, lifting up ecclesia) as individuals to become one with God, Jesus & one another. American political messaging tries to unify sufficient people w/in the nation for & against others & causes/agendas.

    As far as your question, Scot, about why Glen might not have lifted up ecclesia at that point. I recall a conversation w/ him c. 2005 where he encouraged us to use common words which outsiders to our Christian community could access. Would his inclinations from that time fit the context and words used in this book? I am off to pick up my copy, now.


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