The Problem With How Fundamentalists Use the Word Individualism

The Problem With How Fundamentalists Use the Word Individualism May 13, 2015
Image property of NLQ
Image property of NLQ

by Lana Hope cross posted from her blog Wide Open Ground

Over at No Longer Quivering, Kristen examines an article written by a passionate complementarian. Complementarianism, as you probably know, is the belief that men and women are different, so different that they have different roles, with the man being the leader and the woman being called to submit. The main argument of the article that Kristen examines is that egalitarianism, the belief that women and men are equals in the fullest sense of the word, is negatively intertwined with the modern notion of individualism.

This idea that individualism is negative, and that anything that resembles individualism is therefore bad ideology is not new to me, nor is it an argument used exclusively against egalitarianism. In fundamentalist circles, people often scream, “that’s too individualistic” to negatively portray public schools, nonbelievers, and any ideology they do not like. So I want to make a few comments about individualism.

First and foremost, individualism and equality are different issues. While I do not wish to blame the Enlightenment for the wars of the modern period, it is worth nothing that some of the most bigoted people in all of history had a notion of the individual. The self-determinate I-can-do-anything leaders colonized the world, drove out the First Nations people in North America, had slaves, and thought of women and people of color as unequal. I do think that we can have a healthy notion of the individual and be  peaceful people, but certainly, it is worth noting that individualism does not inherently mean viewing others as equals.

Second, individualism was driven in part by material factors. Normally people focus on the fact that individualism was driven by bad ideology and bad philosophy; this is only part of the story. Another part of the story is that material factors changed the way in which we related to others. Before the printing press, knowledge was passed down through authoritative figures, through classical texts that were read aloud and memorized, and through the church. This was a necessity. After the printing press, common people started to own books and more people learned to read. Now with the Internet, we can find any information without leaving our own room. Material factors made our knowledge individualistic. Similarly, before modern technology and modern medicine, it took a community to survive. Now high powered technology and higher salaries has driven us to do things ourselves or hire it out from strangers (it is astonishing how little of my daily life anyone that I run around with knows anything about). In other words, while there is a down side to our hyper individualism, not everything about individualism was driven by some outside, evil ideology. We log onto the internet and write our papers, not because we don’t want to ask our professors and learn from them, but because the internet now provides us with a wealth of information.

Third, the anti-individualistic fundamentalists create a dichotomy between individualism and community that simply is not Biblical. The fundamentalists overlook that Christianity was birthed out of this idea that we have an individual identity grounded in transcendence while yet being linked to humanity as a whole. Kristen mentioned this in her post, but I wanted to say a few more words because I cannot overemphasize enough that Christianity teaches that we are individuals, equal individuals, who are known and loved in Christ and who are, as a result, able to be a being-for-others. Let me explain, first with a paragraph examining the philosophical tension that arises out of our quest to be individuals, and secondly, by explaining how Christianity purports to resolve the tension between the self and the other.

In philosophy, we learn that there is an ongoing tension between part and whole, or between the individual and the other. A tension between the individual and the other occurs because the self is mediated through the other. In other words, I need you to confirm who I am, and you need me to confirm who you are. I cannot be an individual without relating myself to the universal whole or to other particulars. (There are no parts without wholes. and I don’t know that I am a part, except through some kind of relation to the whole.) Given this understanding of the relation between an individual and the other, a new problem arises. If being aware of ourselves and being aware of the other involves understanding the other through what the other has in common with other beings (or has in common with me), then there is no depth to human relationships; the world is just made up of a bunch of independent beings who exist for themselves and who are in tension with each other.

So there is always this problem: how do we know the part through the whole? How do I relate to the other when the other is always restricted to my own ego? How do I affirm others’s identities instead of knowing them through their relationship to me?

In Christianity, Jesus is both the reconciliator between God and people and the model of what our relationship to others should be like. It is interesting that according to Christianity, we are only free as individuals when we are in relationship. As conveyed by the gospel, there is something that the philosophers fundamentally got right — that we cannot know ourselves through ourselves but only through the other, more specifically through Christ who became flesh, who reached outward towards community in order that we might be grounded in the transcendence of God. According to Christianity, freedom and individuality derives from God; we are only free in relationship and there is no individuality and freedom outside relationship. But yet, we are absolutely, according to Christianity, individuals. God wants us to be free in our otherness; he created us as other than him.

Athanasious most famously claimed that “God became human so that we may become God.” Athanasious did not mean that we give up our otherness but that we now can do as Christ did. Because we are grounded in Christ, our mediator, we do not need the other to affirm our identity. We can release the other to be who they are. Bonhoeffer phrases it this way:

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them . . . This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. . . Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. (quoted in Marsh 95)

Christ allows us to release the other from our grasp “and give the other over to its integrity and to its otherness” (Marsh 95).

Incarnational Christianity is centrally about the individual, equality, and freedom. It does not begin with men and women being unequal before God; it begins with God reaching outwards towards men and women and redeeming them. And yet, it is a religion that teaches that we are linked to humanity. The very event of the incarnation was an act towards humanity, an act that Christ asks us to extend to the world.

I hope this long post does not offend my nonreligious readers. My intent is not to state that nonreligious people cannot have a humanism or a being towards others. My main argument, rather, is that the choice is not between the individual or community; the two should go hand-in-hand, and if one is a Christian, then denying that they do go hand-in-hand is a slap at the incarnation itself.

Source: Marsh, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Lana Hope was homeschooled 1st-12th grade in a small town and rural culture. Involved in ATI, her life growing up was gendered, sheltered, and with a lot of shame and rules in disguise of Biblical principles and character qualities. After college Lana moved to SE Asia and began working with the abused, and upon discovering that the large world is not at all like she had been taught, she finally questioned it all, from Calvinism to the homeschool movement to the foundation of her Christian faith. Today Lana is a Christian Universalist, holds a B.A. in English, and is currently working on a M.A. in philosophy.  She blogs about the struggles she has faced leaving fundamentalism and homeschooling behind and how travel and missions has wrecked her life for good and bad at her blog


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