Individualism, Culture & Christian Commentary

Among Christian thinkers individualism has somewhat become a dirty word. You hardly ever see anything positive said about it and to be honest, there are many valid reasons for this, especially in having a shared identity as Christians. However, on closer inspection there is more merit to the idea than most commentators realise. The problem with it is, like any big concept, it is often poorly defined and a lot of other ideas have become confounded with it. To have a fairer appreciation of individualism, these things have to be carefully unentangled.

The first important distinction is individualism is not the same as radical personal autonomy. Now both are rightly seen as products of Western culture but the idea of the individual person is certainly not unique to the West. Therefore, an even finer distinction that has to be recognised is that the notion of an individual is not the same as individualism, which is certain ideas about the nature of the individual. It is a manifest fact across all human cultures and societies that even though we organise in groups, people are different from one another. What happens within these human organisations is a complex negotiation between how much agency and responsibility the group has to the individual, and in turn how much agency and responsibility the individual has to the group. This is part of the normal process of socialization. It is not about depersonalization but teaching the individual how to participate in this complex social exchange between him or herself and the group. With any collective the whole is more than the sum of its parts but the whole is certainly not less than the sum of its parts. In other words, “I am because we are” and also “we are because I am”.

Recognising the dynamic between the group and the individual means it is really an overgeneralization to describe entire cultures as either collectivist or individualistic. It is more accurate to think of those characteristics as two poles of a spectrum used to describe particular aspects of a culture in comparison with other cultures. Human interactions are complex and dynamic afterall, which is why we need more than an over simplistic analysis in our cultural commentary.

What sets Western culture apart in the dynamic between the individual and the collective is that the smallest minority in principle can effectively challenge the majority, without being completely and forcibly excluded from the society, as long as the sanctity of the minority itself is not infringed upon. What I mean by this is in Western society the individual, who is the smallest minority of all, is allowed to be contrary to and challenge the majority culture and its institutions, and sometimes even prevail against them. Now there is often a social cost to this however, the minority is in principle still allowed to exist in the society and enjoy the unique advantages of the society to varying degrees. There is the understanding they cannot be exiled or denied from being a part of the society. For example, a person who completely hates Western society can still buy food, clothing and shelter in Western society without being forced to recant his beliefs. Of course people with the majority position are under no obligation to support their view, especially monetarily, but they can participate in the exchange of goods and services regardless with minorities. This is an innovation in the history of human society. The fact an individual can sue their own government and win is quite unprecedented. This is what the Western ideal of individualism is all about.

So far I have described the positives of individualism as an ethos. The smallest minority has in principle equal standing with the majority. However things are more complicated than this which is why I often qualify it with “in principle.” History has shown this has not always been the case. It has been an ideal that has been haltingly pursued in fits and starts over the course of modern Western civilisation. Interestingly, for it to work, the majority has to decide not to use its power to force the minority. Individualism does not naturally arise from the individual but it is something that emerges from the group. Therefore, individualism as a concept is really a type of social contract. This is why I said earlier that it is not radical autonomy which would be a rejection of social contracts of any form.

While individualism does not mean the denial of social bonds, it does create its own challenges in the complex process of maintaining social cohesion. Cultural commentators have written ad nauseam about this so I won’t repeat them. Christian thinkers have also been on this critical bandwagon, perhaps as the most ardent critics of individualism, and of course they have legitimate concerns. Individualism when taken to its extremes makes doing church near impossible. However, the thing with any cultural idea is not to take it to the extreme. As I earlier indicated, it is about finding the proper balance between the group and the individual in the various facets of culture. We are social creatures and individuals. Total individualism is bad since it denies our social nature, and hyper collectivism is bad because it denies our individual natures. Individualism, properly conceived as an ideal and not an extreme, is one solution to this challenge. 

As a social innovation, there are both group and personal benefits of individualism. For example, the principle of the sanctity of the minority is something that has obvious benefits for the church. We need to look no further than the lives of our brothers and sisters in non-liberal societies to see the advantages. So if we are going to critique individualism, and for that matter some other cultural features of the West, it has to be more nuanced. There are pros and cons, opportunities and dangers, to individualism and so many other aspects of cultures. When we fail to recognise this we find ourselves in danger of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Unmeasured criticism of individualism leads to Christians ignoring the boons of individualism, things that are in our interest to protect as a Church because they help the gospel flourish. So things like natural rights, nationalism, and capitalism, which of course are flawed and are regularly criticised for that, on careful examination do have value.

On a more conceptual level, I think the reason why Christian cultural commentary is often so myopic is a failure to understand that there are pros and cons to every society and culture. No society is perfect. There are things that will be conducive to the church, there are things the church has to adapt to, and there will be things that are totally antagonistic to it, and these are dynamics the church has to constantly navigate. This is especially true in today’s world which can rapidly change but the church from its very inception has always had to negotiate its existence. This is because we are a movement that emerged in the world but does not have a worldly origin. The Church’s initiative and mission for the world comes from God. So it cannot be fully syncretised with the preexisting culture but on the other hand, it cannot be totally idiosyncratic and contrarian or it cannot exist in the culture. Its members certainly cannot be radically autonomous or there is no church anyway.

I think the often hyper-critical stance of educated Western Christians to their own culture is itself an over reaction to the hyper-syncretization of previous generations, which they are right to distance themselves from. The lesson for all of us here is our view of culture has to be more sophisticated. This is a lesson I have to apply to myself as I can be very critical of my own culture. The fact that Christianity even took in Ghanaian culture means that it is at least doing something right. If the church is able to freely exist in any culture, then it is an indication that there are at least some elements of the culture that are to some extent compatible with the gospel. This is something we all need to recognise in order to have a fair critique of culture.

From a biblical perspective, the often ambiguous nature of human culture, that there are both positives and negatives, is due to the failure of humans to rule with God as he had originally intended. Adam’s decision to determine what is good and evil apart from God instead of in partnership with his maker is the scriptural reason for the often compromised nature of humanity. The story of humanity in Genesis is presented as an exploration of the unfolding corporate effect of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequent expulsion on the generations that followed. Partaking from the fruit of the tree of knowledge means there is both good and evil in humanity, that is the power to bring both flourishing and destruction. The human project is a mixed bag, including the cultures and societies we have formed. We both perform and undermine the calling God gave humanity. We need to bear this in mind in our cultural commentary and as a church be discerning in how we navigate our respective cultures.

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