Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reading Individualistically

I have begun to ponder the fact that most of our theological conversations have been shaped in the age of Enlightenment, which has been shaped in a large way by the agenda of individualism. After 300 years of imagining life as centered around individuals instead of around a community. Our imaginations are shaped in a way that we think first about the benefit to the individual and then for the wider community. 

This directly impacts the way we read the Bible. For instance, Paul says in Gal 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." All of the pronouns her are first person singular. So when we read this today, one might assume a way of reading and interpreting Paul that makes this about his personal salvation and personal relationship with Jesus. This seems like the obvious common sensical reading of this verse. However, when you read this verse in its larger context, it becomes obvious that a privatized individualistic reading of this verse does not make sense of the whole. 

Our individualism has tainted how we read this verse. We have made it about me and my experience. But Paul did not think as an individualist. His worldview was not shaped by that imagination. He saw himself as a part of larger community, as his life within a people group through whom God was working to save the world. 

It is so hard for me to even imagine how Paul thought because I swim in the water of individualism, a kind of water that was foreign to his worldview. He simply saw things differently and therefore he wrote and thought differently. When he wrote about "I", his imagination did not see the "I" as an entity that was distinct and separate from a community, a larger entity to which he belonged. This is not my world, which is one that begins and ends the the imagination that has the individual at the center. No one expresses this better than the Adam Smith when he promotes a view of economic systems where individuals make choices that best suite them as individuals. We have been shaped by a worldview that tells us that the best economic systems are developed when individuals make choices based on what they want as individuals. 

And oh how this mindset has crept into the church, especially the evangelical stream in the North American context. Anything corporate or communal or even groupish is only of perceived value if it benefits the individual. And if the individuals don't like it, and thereby vote with their feet by refusing to participate then we change that which is corporate, communal or groupish to better fit what individuals want. 

We are caught in a catch 22. The only way to get people to participate in something corporate is to design is so that they desire it and might as a result understand what it means to be a part of something larger than themselves, but in doing so all we do is feed the consumerism that we have inherited form Adam Smith which means that we create an association of individualists, which really is not communal at all. But if we really design an experience that is in fact a community where the individuals understand that their individualism is submitted to the larger community, most of us will be excluded from the experience because none of us really want that. 

I have more questions than answers. I just hope they are the right questions.

1 comment:

Mat said...

Good thoughts Scott. I agree we are in a catch 22. The Western way of thinking is Greco-Roman in nature which is completely antithetical to Kingdom thinking. The best example of Kingdom thinking is Hebraic and there in lies the problem in the Church. Our hearts have been transformed, but our minds and world views have not. There is a schism in our thinking; everything intellectually screams “me, me, me” and not necessarily in a overtly selfish way. Our thoughts in our very own salvation and theology are focused on MY relationship with Jesus. The Hebrew way of thinking (communal) is born out of hundreds of years of persecution, slavery, lack of a “home”, etc. I am a firm believer in “if you build it they will come”, but in this case it's if He builds it they will come. We, as Westerners – Americans, may think we like rugged individualism and no doubt some do, in the end those of us that have had our hearts transformed and are truly seeking Him long for community, because that is what he longs for in us. I have been a part and witnessed true community in everything from teen small groups (25+ years ago) to current day communities that are thriving. It is rare, but since I've seen it happen so many times I have hope that if, as leaders, we set our hearts on Him and provide a little structure mixed with a radical paradigm shift communities develop almost organically.

By the way, your one of the few people that I know that can throw in an Adam Smith reference into a Christian community discussion. Good job I think I might even have difficulty doing that and I have a History and Econ. Degree. ;-)