Saturday, May 22, 2010

Goodbye individual, hello personal.

The human vocabulary is filled with first person pronouns: I, me and my. As a citizen of the United States, and an inheritor of contemporary Western culture, I understand the national ethos to be "rugged individualism."

We see this in our consumer approach to reality: "be all that you can be", "have it your way", "don't you deserve the very best?", "sink or swim", "my bologna has a first name" and other such sloganeering aimed at the individual. Life is about you and your individual choices. Life is about whatever makes you - the individual - happy.

Nevertheless, It's one thing to appeal to the individual in advertising, but another altogether to allow individuality to become the ruling metaphor for culture. You see, the end of individuality is isolation and separation. The individual becomes the center of interpretation and thus inhabits an increasingly isolated reality. This is one of the serious handicaps of American Christianity. We construct our own theologies - our own "God talk" - in order to satisfy or even justify our own self or better, selfish ends. (Once I had a student argue with me about the nature of the imago Dei - they insisted, contrary to scriptural and historical precedent, that the image of God in humankind is radically individual; ironically they did this in order to justify an obviously sinful behavior!) Thus, in this way we can objectify the other and in doing so, somehow make it more manageable. Yet interestingly, all we do is increasingly alienate ourselves from reality, rather than engage it.

The very essence of sin is individualism. It is the choice to place "I" before "Thou" as eminent Jewish philosopher Martin Buber reminded us. It prioritizes self preservation above all else and thus elevates the individual to divine status. God then becomes a pawn to do the individual's bidding in life. How quickly Christians forget the admonition of Jesus, "yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39 NASB95).

The human reality is that we are "persons in relation" as the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas reminds us. Our individuality results in isolation; our personhood depends upon community. We can only be who we are when related to community. Our person is defined by the communities and other persons to which we relate. We relate to God, to each other and to the balance of creation. When we fail to live in an I-Thou relationship to God, none of the rest of our relationships function correctly.

Christians, John the Apostle is right - do you desire to be a disciple of Jesus and live eternally? Then let it begin now: love one another. That's how the world knows you are Jesus' disciples. Far too often we are Christian gnostics - as long as we have "salvation knowledge" it doesn't matter how we live. In the process we become exclusivists; justifying all sorts of unrighteous attitudes and behaviors in Jesus' name. Nothing could be further from the truth. To believe is to live a life of agape love. If you love like that you will live, truly. And if you live truly, you will not simply be an individual, but rather the 'person' God created you to be.


  1. I have always wondered about the line between the collective and the individual. On the one hand I understand that community is at the heart of the gospel, and salvation is corporate as well as personal. However, as a Baptist I am very disturbed by those who would try to stifle individual freedom in favor of collective uniformity. Believe it or not this sort of thing goes on in Baptist life ;-)
    So I try to walk a line that stresses the importance of community but also the freedom of choice that each individual has. Soul Competency I think is what E.Y. Mullins called it.

  2. Understanding Mullins in his 19th century context is interesting work. As much as my ultra-conservative Baptist friends want to exalt the Princetonian triumverate of Alexander, Hodge and Warfield (Presbyterians living at the same time as Mullins!) and their lock-step influence on Boyce, my more moderate friends want to exalt Mullins, Conner and Ramm. I am predisposed to side with my M, C, and R friends - but I also see the inherent danger as well. Soul competency relates directly to personal accountablity towards God but also stands in tension with Jesus' call to community with God. In our postmodern context, soul competency is often misconstrued as license to to indulge the self in the name of God. In other words, the very concept of soul competency stands in direct relation to God's call to community in Christ. Bill Pinson notes this in his article on the topic (see,
    Bless you for wrestling with the issues my Mullinsian friend!

  3. I’m not sure what anonymous means by ...”salvation is corporate as well as personal.” In my church the corporate body is not “corporately saved”. There are a number of individuals who by their open rejection of certain doctrines mandated by Jesus, do not attain salvation within the group. I certainly have the individual freedom to choose any lifestyle I want, HOWEVER, if I desire salvation, it MUST be conformed to Jesus standard, not the group. And actually, that’s what I thought “soul competency” referred to.


  4. LeRoy: I'm hoping he/she means that a person is saved "to-for" community with God and "to-for" community with other believers and now experiences the right relationships for which he/she was created. In other words, although salvation is intensely personal, it is not isolationist. A person is saved from sin and death, yet is saved to-for community with God unto eternity, which is experienced in God's community - the church. Good point.

  5. As always, and as I always hope and look for on your blog, you explain perfectly what I have such a devil of a time expressing! Thanks, again.