Scholars and theologians alike today like to bang the drum of individualism, and I’ve done the same myself. It is a big drum, and it sounds loud, and most fear its power.
Andrew Delbanco, for instance, in his happy little survey The Real American Dream, set out American history in three stages: an orientation to God, to Nation, and now to Self. Like others, he can quote the sorts of things that show up in Robert Bellah’s The Habits of the Heart and Putnam’s Bowling Alone.
In its place, many (including Emergents) are calling for a return to communitarianism — and a variety of terms are used: community, church, ecclesial center, etc..
First, we are individuals and we can’t get away from it. Sometimes I wonder if some admit even this. No one, my friends, can be anything other than an individual. (Which doesn’t make us individualists like Thoreau, but individuals for sure.) We have individual self-consciousness and self-identity and the like.
Second, very few people are at the extremes: either as Individualists or as Collectivists.
Third, most of us are somewhere in between.
Fourth, some groups are more Individualistic than we suspect. In other words, the less genuine diversity in our group the greater the likelihood that our group is our own preference than a real collection of God’s people, the greater likelihood that our group is our own Individualism writ “group.” When we find ourselves wanting to leave and be with people just like us, we are seeing the fruit of Western Individualism. When we find ourselves frustrated but sticking it out, we are seeing the fruit of genuine Christian community. To love others is to embrace others who are not like us.
Now this is where it gets difficult.
The biblical vision is a perfect balance, and I see some pushing us to both extremes. The biblical message can be summarized like this:
Humans are not designed by God to be individualists, where meaning is determined by each person, or collectivists, where meaning is determined by the group. The former leads to self-idolatry and the latter to the tyranny of some dictator, some elites, or some majority. Humans are not designed to self-testify and they are not designed to get lost in someone else’s world. We are neither Individualists nor Collectivists.
Instead of Individualists, humans are designed to be Eikons.
Instead of Collectivists, humans are designed to be part of a Community.
For me, there is always this question, which shows whether or not I am leaning toward the Individualist side: What am I doing that is what my community calls me to do that I would rather not do? Or, what am I doing that I know is not God’s will that my community imposes on me?
Being Eikons in the Community of Jesus is a challenging road to walk.