Monday, August 17, 2009

The Heresy of Individualism

As you may recall, there was much discussion about a section of our Presiding Bishop's opening address at General Convention. Here's the part that drew so much attention:

...The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being...
Bp. Bena of CANA recently tried to get some mileage out of that statement:

...They listen to religious leaders who teach bad religion, who don’t tell them the truth. For a Christian leader to stand and say, with the whole nation listening, that personal salvation is a heresy -- in my humble opinion, that teaching insults our Heavenly Father, who wishes each one of us to have a personal, saving relationship with His Son...
Of course, for Bp. Bena, that was just a warm up for his real issue: the litigations against those who are attempting to steal property. He even attempts to channel Ronald Reagan at one point. Sorry Bishop, but, in my opinion, you are no Ronald Reagan.

Apparently, the significance of what Bishop Katharine was saying is lost on some folks. Let me see if I can be of assistance by offering similar quotes from various other people.

Here's some thoughts from the Orthodox perspective:

...Perhaps the most difficult theological truth to communicate in the modern world is that of personal existence. Modern English has taken the word person from the realm of theology and changed it into the cheapest coin of the realm. Today it means that which is private, merely individual. As such, it becomes synonymous not with salvation but with our very destruction. Life lived as a mere individual is no life at all but a progressive movement towards death and destruction.

Thus there is always something of a hesitancy when someone asks (in newspeak), “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” If only we would, it would be truly significant. But in our modern street-wise theology, Christ as personal savior becomes synonymous with Christ as private savior, and as such is no savior at all. For no one and nothing can save the false existence we have created in the privacy of our modern existence. We were not created for such an existence.

In the story of Genesis – the first appearance of the phrase, “It is not good,” is applied to man – in an existence that is private. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We do not exist in the goodness which God has created for us when we exist alone. The most remote hermit of the Christian desert does not live alone, but lives radically for others and to God. Of all men he is the least alone. No one would take on the radical ascesis of the desert for themselves alone: it is an act of radical love.

And thus the personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, determined that salvation for humanity could only take place as we lived fully and truly into the existence for which we were and are created: the Church. In the Church we do not exist as mere individuals but as members of the Body of Christ. My life is the life of Christ. What happens to me is essential to what happens to all the members of the Body and what happens to the members of the Body is essential for what happens to me. Their life is my life...
And a little more from an Orthodox author:

...Orthodox theology is anything but individualistic. As theologians in the West have sought to recover a view of Christian community as more than a conglomeration of individuals. they have often turned to the work of John Zizioulas, a Greek Orthodox bishop and theologian. In his highly influential Being as Communion he argues that the inter-relationship of the three persons of the Trinity should serve as a model for human relationships.

Sarah Coakley thinks Zizioulas has been popular among Protestant theologians because they were already looking for a way past the "rampant individualism" of their culture. A vision of persons acting in self-emptying ways toward one another is deeply appealing in such a setting...
You can find Zizioulas' Being as Communion here.

Then, there is the work of C.H. Dodd:

...We have already observed that at a certain point in the Old Testament there is a change of emphasis. In the earlier parts the emphasis is upon the community; in the later parts the individual is more directly in view...

...In particular, it would be untrue and misleading to suggest that the New Testament represents the culmination of a development in the direction of individualism. It is of course true that the religious and moral significance of the individual is asserted by New Testament writers at least as firmly as by Jeremiah; but on the other hand the conception of an organic solidarity of the people of God reaches its fullest expression in the New Testament idea of the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’.

The comparison, which I suggested above, with the development of Greek thought aptly illustrates the point. There is no mistaking the thoroughgoing individualism of the Hellenistic world in the New Testament period. It found its highest expression in the Stoic philosophy, which, for all its efforts to call men to the service of humanity, had for its aim the ‘self-sufficiency’ of the individual (his ‘autarky’, as the newspapers now say, adopting a word from the vocabulary of Stoicism, but usually misspelling it). In contrast, anyone can see that Christianity brought into that world a new idea, and practice, of community.

But even in the Old Testament the break which we have noted at the time of Jeremiah is not nearly so complete as might appear on the surface. All through the Bible the individual is contemplated in the context of the community, though the emphasis shifts to some extent...
And some similar thoughts from Norman Pettinger:

The Bible begins its saga of man’s Salvation by portraying Adam alone in a garden. It closes that saga with the company of faithful people living in the City of God. The story is a story of man’s movement from solitude to fellowship, from individualism to community; and it is a way of saying that man, to be redeemed, needs not only the work of God for his Salvation but the companionship of his human brethren in God. That, I suppose, is the final reason why we need a Church.

We cannot even live to ourselves alone, much less be saved alone. Some of you may remember that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, had occasion to remark that man is a social animal. We all know this is true, although frequently we try to evade the fact. There are plenty of people who want to be "lone wolves." There are very few people who succeed in that enterprise. We live one with another. The existence of the family is a token of this. God, the Prayer Book says in one of its collects, has set the solitary in families; and the man or woman who has not had some experience of family life is to that degree an impoverished human being. A child was found in India, so they say, who from earliest infancy had been away from fellow humans and lived amongst animals; and it was impossible, despite years of effort, once the child had been recovered, to make that child a fully-developed human being. A lone man may make a very good animal but he does not make a very good human. This is the natural ground for the religious fact of community -- one with another -- under God and in God...
It is time to let go of our nostalgic attachment to the "rugged individual," and recognize that our continual move towards individualism is having a negative impact on so many aspects of our clulture.

It is time to reject the heresy of individualism. Being "in Christ" is to belong to the Body of Christ, a community comprised of many members. My salvation is indeed yoked to your salvation.

Your thoughts?


1 comment:

  1. we need to stop throwing around the word Heresy whenever we disagree with something. The Christian Church is in fact a "body" but this is is a body made up of individuals. We have individual relationships with God and as a church as a whole. God works with Christians individually and with the whole church, God works through individuals and the church. God Holds individuals accountable and he also holds the church accountable. Romans 2:6-11 explains that God will judge us individually according to our deeds and of course our personal relationship with Jesus.

    With these arguments I can claim with confidence that individualism is not really heresy it is not a sin.