A Note to Start With:
I am speaking primarily of the western experience in the Christian era, though Christianity is far more potent in the lives of the people outside of the West, where it is community, rather than the individual, that plays the greatest role in the understanding of the self. In the West individuality and community act in tandem, though it is the individual and not the community which is given precedence in how we understand ourselves. That is what I seek to address here.
“To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity.” Soren Kierkeegard
“Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” Paul Tillich
“All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Acts 2:44
“I wandered out in the world….you just stayed in your room.” Mike Scott
“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” Luke 5:16
I. Some History
It is difficult to look through Scripture and find any praise for radical individualism. God, in the opening of Genesis, goes about declaring everything to be good. It is only in the second chapter, He declares that which is not good: being alone. And again in the wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes 4:9) it says, “two are better than one.” And it is not just the Hebrews. The early Christians too lived in community and its central ethic of love necessarily involved others.
But we know the western world is different than the Semitic one Christianity grew from. To the ancient Hebrews natural law made the formation of family and blood ties tantamount to the survival of the community and an entire morality developed around preserving the community. People were tied ferociously to the geography of a promised land and to one another who were were given the land.
The western world and modern times with its emphasis on rugged individualism changed this, but we would be remiss if we saw being on one’s own absent from Scripture. Jesus prayed alone, Moses went up the mountain alone, the prophets were alone in their testimony as was John the Baptist. And then there is Paul, who extols the virtue of Christian community, but takes the first swipe at reorganizing the Hebrew natural law on which community is built.
Though we can hardly blame Paul for the breakdown of community as he also made community central to Christianity, he did set into motion the idea that the most basic Hebrew form of community (the family) though permitted, was not ideal. Granted if Paul believed the world was to be here 2000 years on, his thoughts may have been different.
With the natural law of the Hebrews challenged, Christianity set itself on a path that looked at community far differently than it was viewed in either the Old Testament or as it is viewed today.
For better than a millennium, it worked quite well. Vast monastic communities outside of the bonds of family were created and in these places the individual could draw on the support of community while finding time to be alone in prayer and meditation. With this time given over to prayer, there also developed an ascetic tradition that valued being on one’s own as a path to God.
There was also the watchful eye of the Church to see to right belief and action within these communities and among individuals. And though the Church found cause to censure and excommunicate, it did this much more rarely than moderns believe even as it preserved a unity that allowed believers to act as both individuals (at least to an extent) and as members of congregations, families, orders etc. The way to belief was broad and not always orthodox, but in all of this was the overarching community of the Church to hold believers together whether they “be out in the world or alone in their rooms.”
It did work well to a point. But then the West, as we understand it today, was born. It did not happen overnight, but it had its flashpoints. We are not certain how to enumerate these or even whether they were all moments of cataclysmic change, but we do know the eventual affect, for it is the world that we live in.
The most obvious flashpoint occurred in Germany in the 16th century when an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, rallied people by the thousands to throw off the Church as the guide to one’s Christian consciousness making the individual and Scripture that guide instead. And if that did not seal the deal, the Enlightenment certainly did as it birthed philosophies of liberty, which elevated the individual above institutions and gave rise to nation-states that drew on a new cultural Christianity that valued liberty more than community.
II. The Situation Today
It is no doubt we are people, who prize individualism. Here in America, our story is built on it. We left family and friends to cross the ocean, we threw off the state churches which had earlier cast aside Rome. We traveled westward through geographies the likes of which had never been seen. We prized individual liberties that allowed us to speak our own minds, cast our own ballots, hold our own property, carry our own weapons, and make our own decisions regardless of what a bishop or King would have us do. Ideas born in Europe were brought to the new world and the new world carried these back to Europe, where today monarchs and churches are respected, but weak. We are individuals and we prize this more than anything.
The debate is now being had whether this individualism meshes with Christianity. Today the argument is had by many Christians and secularists that the current culture resides outside of Christianity. This, however, is ignorance of history. Western culture may not be Christian in the sense that it was a 1000 years ago, but it was birthed in a certain “Christian” understanding, though it can be argued that it was a corrupted Christianity. Not to go into it too much, but the Reformation which separated the spiritual and secular realms did have God own both realms and even the revolutions of the Enlightenment often spoke of individual rights as coming from the Creator, language that drew from a Judeo-Christian understanding of God.
In short, we cannot deny the influence of Christianity on the West, though we must ask if the West has veered so much in the direction of individualism that this cultural Christianity is becoming merely a thing in tandem with a new culture that deserts the centrality of community and in so doing may even one day endanger the individual.
For evidence of this, we need look no further than families and households. Demographics are showing a new cultural pattern that is making the household smaller and smaller driving us ever closer to an individualism, which the world has not known. Where this will take us, no one can say, but it will be to a place very different than the world we have known and it may be one where the individual alone (without the support of any sort of community or the divine) is tantamount.
III. Individuality, Theology, and Psychology
There is a place for the individual. Holy men and women travel alone. The great explorers charted new lands without their families. Soldiers win security in their units but without their wives and children. Kierkegaard could develop his thought only by being alone and O’Connor penned stories of (grotesque) redemption in solitude. In these cases there is and was the necessity not to be with others. But to not be with another is not to be alone. In any good place of solitude, there is the presence of that greater than ourselves. In the absence of knowing this communion with the divine and without another, we are truly alone and this feeling of being without love can take us to the place that Kierkegaard says has no eternal reparation. To rise above that place is Christianity’s strength….the Christian even away from others recognizes he or she is not alone, for they know the presence of God. In this the Christian stands against this improper solitude, which Tillich says is loneliness. Unfortunately this improper solitude may be the direction society is going.
To illustrate I refer to one of the most poignant excerpts from Camus. From The Plague:
The old woman smiled. “Is she nice?”
“I think so.”
“Ah, she nodded, “that explains it.”
Rambert reflected. No doubt that explained it, but it was impossible that that alone explained it. The old woman went to Mass every morning. “Don’t you believe in God?” she asked him.
On Rambert’s admitting he did not, she said again that “that explained it.” “Yes,” she added, “you’re right. You must go back to her. Or else — what would be left of you?”
This passage always gets to me because it points to a sense of utter abandonment one can have when individualism is taken to a place of being without another and thinking of the absence of God. The truth is we are not equipped to be alone. We will perish in that place as what we are doing is commiting mental suicide. Where a believer and a non-believer are different is that belief lets one see they are always being held even when they are in the place of utter individualism. Without this one has only the presence of others, where whether they acknowledge it or not, dwells the image of God. And without either, they are in the place of true despair.
If Paul were writing today, he may be more informed by psychology than an apocalyptic understanding of the end times. His words may not only be about the companionship of marriage quenching the fire of desire, but also about it driving away loneliness and despair. No doubt he would see it as preferable to know God in the community of believers and in the individual life of prayer, but if being with another gives you a sense of the imago Dei, whether you call it this or not, leads you away from an improper and lonely individualism, then it is preferable to apartness.
IV. Finding the Divine and True Individualism
The current context in the West leaves Christianity in a peculiar place. Save for a few, we no longer know the Pauline concept of Christian community and we are quickly throwing off the family which has been the cornerstone of all societies. We have also abandoned the inner life of asceticism. We are being left in a very shallow place.
I wish I could say we are on the verge of something radical and new. I wish I could say that where we are is just part of the natural evolution of society filtered through such things as early Christianity’s replacement of family life with celibate communities, the Protestant Revolution’s idea of God being at work in different spheres, or the Enlightenment idea of liberty, but at some point the baby goes out with the bath water.
And it true that early Christian ideas impacted family life and the Reformation wrested relationships from the Church, and the Enlightenment made the individual tantamount to society, but it is a far leap to get from these to the abandonment of family, religious life, and civic responsibility that is starting to take hold in the world today. Besides I will leave those arguments to academics that do not have to worry about the everyday functioning of the world.
What I and everyone else have to worry about is where the world is going and where we are going. To do this it helps to know where we have been and where we are. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think we are in a good place.
What I observe is that we have taken to individualism and not acknowledged that God and others are to inform this. Individualism is a remarkable gift, but it must be done in a righteous place. The list of those who have done great things on their own and even when the world conspired against them is long. Even Jesus knew solitude and acted in that place. But one thing I can never see as tenable is to be there without God. That is not even that theological of a statement. It is just that when we experience God or community which reflects God (though often in an imperfect way) we are capable of being individuals without the despair that comes from our perceived absence of God.
What is important now is that we build our individualism from a good place. How to do this is more than can be addressed in a simple blog post, but it starts by asking if we are in a good place now. Certainly many can answer that question with an emphatic yes. But if we look at the state of the world and others who are in our lives, we often observe a place not so good. But it is not a place beyond redemption.
We have become a society of individuals. That has been the evolution of culture and there is nothing wrong with this, but we must also ask ourselves some grave questions. Foremost is whether we practice individualism without God. As we experience God so directly in the Church, nature, and one another and as these things give our lives their greatest meaning, I take that answer to be no. But you do not have to start with that question. Merely ask what gives my life meaning. That answer will never be without companionship, for whether it is acknowledged or not, the answer will include God.