Protestants, Individualism, and Emergent concerns with the Great Traditions

Protestants, Individualism, and Emergent concerns with the Great Traditions May 17, 2005

Robert Bellah is not the only social historian who has observed that Protestantism and individualism are related — and some have contended that the former gave rise to the latter, making America a “Protestant nation.” Andrew Delbanco’s The Real American Dream would be one such example.

Perhaps so — maybe individualism is a Protestant thing. After all, what Protestants value the most is that Martin Luther withstood the pressures of Roman leadership by standing for (what he thought was) biblical theology. It is that “what he thought” that fosters a sense of individualism. Luther had to stand alone, with just a few friends. Standing alone, standing for one’s principles, fighting for one’s faith, however one wants to put it, is what individualism is about. And we do such things according to “what we think” is best.

Now it just so happens that Individualism doesn’t satisfy. The further the retreat into the individualistic self the less of a self that is found. The only way to live out the life God wants for us is to do so in the context of community.

If the above analysis is at all right, the Emergent interest in the Great Traditions is a public statement that Individualism stops right here. That is, it is an embodied act of a group of post-Evangelicals who want to be “connected” with the “communion of the saints” and not pretend that the Church didn’t begin until the Reformation (or later, if some are to be believed). The community for many Emergents is the “communion of the saints” rather than just some small Protestant denomination.

The embodiment of the great traditions, which is what Robert Webber so clearly wrote about in his The Younger Evangelicals and his many other writings, is a public statement that post-Evangelicals want to be part of the entire communion of the saints.

I support the effort, but wish to point out one major issue.

It is this: particular embodiments, from reciting the Nicene Creed to hanging icons, are not the same as connecting to the Great Traditions. It is a rather pick and choose mentality that needs some further thinking. There are three Great Traditions — the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Protestant. One can’t really “connect” with the Orthodox by hanging up an icon or with the Roman Catholic by reverencing Mary or with the Protestant by putting the pulpit in the middle of the room.

The particularities of life mean that in choosing one we don’t choose the other. One of the great features of the Protestant Church is that individual churches can take on local colors and shapes. When we accrete some of these other Great Traditions, we do as Protestants who happen to think that the Church is bigger than us and we want to express our faith in the “communion of the saints.” But we remain Protestants.


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  • Perhaps it would be helpful at some point to draw a distinction between individualism and the kind of hyper-individualism that seems to be the enlightment run amok. There is a kind of individualism that functions within the parameters of community. There is a paradox in that we are more of who we are as individuals when we function within the context of community — and by community we have to think in terms of catholicity as well as local face-to-face relationship.”If the above analysis is at all right, the Emergent interest in the Great Traditions is a public statement that Individualism stops right here…”I think the longing is there for that — but that in actual function much of what is emerging is really another variation on the hyperindividualsim theme. Yes, we long to connect with the great tradition — but we want to pick and choose those symbols which we find meaningful at the moment. We want to bring elements of the tradition into our communities rather than humbling entering into the fulness of a catholic community which transcends the the now. It’s a matter of learning humility.

  • Brad,Good comment. In the previous blog I mentioned that we are all individuals and we can’t get away from it. I’m using Individualism, with a capital “I”, to signify that quest of life apart from God and with the Self as the determinative center of meaning.Your comments about the Emergent use of the Great Traditions are what I was getting at as well.Is that a picture of you at the minor league ball park? My son played in the Midwest League one summer not too long ago.

  • Actually, the A’s are suppose to be major league. I enjoy sitting in the nose bleed section of the Oakland Coliseum.

  • Personally, I love the incorporation of so many features of the great traditions. The reason I do is because of my education, the pieces have meaning in their context and as you say, I include them as a protestant.I fear that including pieces of the great traditions while remaining ignorant of them and of our own protestant tradition could result in just another form of “make it up as you go alongism.”

  • What about this notion of being “post Protestant?”