Thursday, July 06, 2006

Individualism; or, I Am He as You Are He as You Are Me and We Are All Together

I recently blogged about how the notion of "rights" derives ultimately from the dignity of the individual that came as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Many see today a radical individualism and overemphasis on personal rights, and may conclude that the Reformation was wrong on this point, or at least that the ball it started rolling had some seriously unfortunate consequences. This is one aspect of what those who view themselves as "postmoderns" charge against what they call "modernism." (For reasons I don't want to get into now, I find both of these terms as they are used today pathetically inadequate and misleading.) So, for example, we have David Fitch critiquing expository preaching on the basis that it makes Scripture into a commodity that is bought by a consumer-driven, individualistic Christian church. I await his next installment to find out how he believes some other type of preaching would fare better, or how any type of preaching at all can be received by anyone other than individuals. Nonetheless, the assumption that individualism is simply a Bad Thing is worth challenging, or at least modifying.

While the Bible stresses the interdependence of Christians living in community and being the Body, our basic relationship with God remains an individual thing, and has to be so, as long as we understand that faith by grace is the basis for our relationship with God. Faith is not something that is exercised by a community, or a family, or some other social group. It is exercised by the individual. Ezekiel 18:1-20 and Jeremiah 31:29-30 make it clear that even in a culture in which people expected children to be liable for the sins of their parents, God made each individual liable for his own sins. At various points in history God chose an individual--Abraham, Moses, Mary, Paul--to play a pivotal role in salvation history. That role was often for the benefit of or in relationship to a larger group, but God communicated with that individual, often alone and in a unique way, to accomplish His purposes. In
Romans 5:12-21, Paul demonstrates how the actions of two individuals affected the eternal destiny of the entire human race. In Romans 4:4-6, where Paul is describing how justification by faith is actually applied, he refers to an individual--who "trusts God" and whose "faith is credited as righteousness."

None of this is to deny the importance of community in Christian life, or the fact that American Evangelicalism has largely ignored that importance. It is not to deny the interdependence that God intended by the analogy of the Body. It is not to deny that in social and political life, Americans overly stress the individual and individual rights. It is not to deny that the focus on individual gratification results in a consumer mentality that has infected the church. It is merely to say that ignoring the individual results in the loss of an extremely significant aspect of the Gospel. David Fitch critiques expository preaching because it makes the individual the arbiter of what she chooses to accept from Scripture. With all the problems inherent in allowing individuals that kind of autonomy, the alternative is literally the abandonment of the Protestant Reformation. After all, it was an individual--Martin Luther--who challenged the corporate body of the Church, based on his own individual understanding of scripture.

Let's be very, very careful before we abandon that.

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