Unlike some of the other ‘isms’ we are discussing in this little series of blogs, ‘individualism’ is such an accepted and fully integrated element in our modern Irish culture that it is often difficult to even notice its presence any more never mind appreciate its influence.
The joy-robbing severity of legalism and jarring anger of sectarianism immediately stand out for most of us and thus are relatively easy to spot. In contrast, however, the impact of ‘individualism’ is much more subtle and much less easily discerned. Like old marks on our furniture or scratches on our car, we are so used to this modern philosophical companion that we simply and subconsciously filter it out of our field of perception. It continues to be right in front of us, of course, but we no longer see it.
A major reason for this evolving blindness is the fact that individualism’s contribution to our lives is so often one that is helpful, or at worst benign.
Originating with the Greeks and blossoming through the Reformation and Renaissance period, individualism has led to many of the social and political realities in our world for which we can be truly grateful – democracy and human rights, for example. Yet, like many fine things – think of sticky toffee pudding or a glass of vintage wine for merely a start – when the consumption of individualism is allowed to go on unrestricted and to excess, the results can be, and, I want to argue, have been extremely detrimental.
Of course, all of us are influenced by the presence of ‘behind the scenes’ philosophies. That’s just how life is. It is this way with me as much as with any other. For those of you from a Catholic background, for example, the discussion on transubstantiation in communion is case in point. It was Aristotle’s philosophical understanding that everything in our world has two elements – its accidents, which is what we perceive with our senses, and its substance, which is the hidden, essential reality of the thing. Dominant in the culture of the middle ages, this is where the idea of a transformation in the substance of the bread and wine used for the Eucharist came from. Its accidents remain as plain bread and wine. Its substance is transformed into the actual body and actual blood of Jesus. Thus transubstantiation. The primary reason I do not hold to this position in my own teaching is that I do not hold to Aristotle’s assertion that everything in our world has these two elements. Obviously, if bread and wine do not have a ‘substance’ then that ‘substance’ cannot be transformed during the liturgy of communion. And so on…
But it is not just Roman Catholic theology that has been influenced by outside philosophy. Individualism has just as surely, and on some occasions just as unhelpfully, skewed the theology of the ‘evangelical’ church. Take the reformed view of communion, for example. In I Corinthians 11:17-34 Paul provides us with arguably the primary text on the Lord’s Supper within the New Testament.
In the common interpretation applied to this passage, many of our bible teachers, shaped in their thinking by our current ‘ism,’ have looked at phrases such as “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (v27) and “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (v 29) and have concluded that what Paul is speaking of here are the dangers involved for those who would participate in communion without personal preparedness and personal worthiness before the Lord. It is the standard interpretation within the reformed church (and most catholic churches) and has given rise to a huge number of books and sermons on the subject. It has even given rise to one of evangelicalism’s special expressions, the ‘fence around the table’. Given the threat of judgement, even of death for those who eat and drink unworthily, bible teachers from John Calvin to this present day have taught that we need to carefully control access to the communion table. Thus there are discussions on how high or high low the fence needs to be. There are discussions on what proper examination and worthiness actual means. There is even the practice of issuing the blessed ‘communion tokens’ as a mechanism to regulate attendance. (You non-Presbyterians can just mutter to yourselves for a few moments!).
The only problem with all of this is that such an interpretation of I Corinthians 11 entirely fails to grasp the point that Paul is actually making here in this chapter.
What Paul is addressing in I Cor 11 has nothing to do with individuals’ proper approach to the Lord’s supper and worthy recognition of Jesus’ body on the cross while there per se. What Paul is addressing is the fact that rich people in the church at Corinth were utterly disrespecting the poorer members of their new Christian community when it came to the communion feast. Instead of waiting for them to arrive at the homes of the wealthier members before beginning the feast, the wealthier members were continuing to regard the poorer ones with less esteem and respect (just as those in society around would have done) and by doing so were in complete denial of what God had now done in their midst. As Paul says in Galatians 3:28 within the new family of the Christian church, all the alienation that is rife in the world around us has been overcome. Now slaves are brothers and sisters with those who are free, women are accepted on an equal basis alongside of men, gentiles are received just as much so as Jews and, we can add, the poor are just as much a valued part as the rich. We are “all one in Christ Jesus.”
But in Corinth the rich members were failing to honour this new reality and in doing so they were utterly failing to recognise the body of Christ, ie the church, to which they were now called in the bread and in the wine. Just read through the passage for yourselves, noting in particular v 22 and v 33 and you will see this immediately. Paul isn’t regulating who should and who should not attend the Lord’s supper, he is commanding the rich not to be stuffing their faces and drinking themselves under the table (if you’ll excuse my pun) so that when the poor arrive, there is nothing left for them to have!
How could so many have gotten this passage so wrong? The answer is individualism!
To pick another favourite verse, those of us in the reformed church often go to Ephesians 1:4 in our discussions about predestination and election. If I had a Euro for every time I have heard someone say something like ‘doesn’t Ephesians 1 tell us that God chose us before the foundation of the world?”, I could easily purchase a new hard-backed set of Calvin’s Institutes!
But what does the verse actually say? “For he chosen us in Him (ie in Christ) before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” In other words, Paul is not really speaking in this verse about the election, conditional or unconditional, of individuals at all. He is saying that before the creation of our world, God chose a people, i.e. those who would be engrafted into the body of his Son, to be a community marked by holiness, who would be holy just as he is holy and who would be blameless in his sight.
Why is it that so many people get this verse wrong? Once again, because we come to the scriptures not with a community hermeneutic as we should but with an individualistic one as our ‘behind the scenes’ philosophy leads us to.
Space is gone but we could also examine how individualism has not only warped our view of the scriptures but has also warped our view of ourselves. Instead of those created in the image of God and who like him are created to enjoy relationship and community, individualism at its extreme turns us into nothing other than rugged singularities, islands, fortresses of utter independence. But that discussion will have to wait for another day…
I think that the ‘dark side’ of individualism lies primarily in this fact that it has led us to lose touch with the sense of community, this ‘community hermeneutic’ that we ought to have as we read through the scriptures and seek to apply them to our lives. If we are to recapture the wonder and glory of what God has actually done for us in Jesus, his Son, we must rediscover it. Indeed we must determinedly seek to wriggle free of every stricture that would bind or narrow our perspective of the Gospel. And for me, one of them, most certainly, is the philosophy of individualism.
Please click here for the next in the series.