Thursday 15 January 2015

Individualism is a bad thing, right?

Just today the archbishops of Canterbury and York attacked the rampant individualism in our society. It’s a problem, yes?

Well yes. And no.

Yes: As David Wells describes in the excellent God in the Whirlwind, the dominant way in which we understand ourselves has shifted from “human nature” – what we share in common -  to “selfhood.” With this shift comes an emphasis on our individuality to the extent that the only competent and qualified judge of my actions, character and circumstances is, well, me. With this shift comes a decline in the sense that we have a common share in something like human nature and that we might therefore have certain responsibilities and duties of care towards one another. And with this shift come many of the challenges to authority, the loss of enthusiasm for church structure, discipline, historical orthodoxy, etcetera etcetera. So yes, individualism is a bad thing.

And yet, as Richard Bauckham demonstrates in a paper on John’s Gospel, if we are going to think biblically there is a sense in which we must affirm individualism:

"The gospel of John is individualistic, rather emphatically so. It draws each individual out of whatever group they may use as a cover for evading responsibility and it invites each individual to respond to the Jesus who meets people where they are and deals with them in all their individual particularity. When the gospel transcends this individualism, as it does, it does not contradict it. The individual is not once again lost either in the collective or the divine. Rather true individualism is fulfilled in relationality and self-giving. This gospel leads us far, far away from the self-interested self-aggrandising atomistic ego-centrism that constitutes the individualism of our contemporary society."  (the full talk is available here).

The bible is individualistic and it is anti-individualism.

The same can be said for Paul of course, even though an emphasis on individual salvation in Paul has long been pooh-poohed as a projection of sixteenth or twentieth century angst back onto the first century apostle. Indeed Paul not only speaks of but embodies the themes Bauckham detects in John. Knowing himself to be an individual individually called by grace (“the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” Gal 2:21, “me, the foremost of sinners” 1 Tim 1:15) he then gives himself for sake of the church as the servant of the Son and of his people.