There is great concern in the church today about individualism. From Carl Trueman’s work on expressive individualism to other works revealing its deficiencies and threats to Christian spirituality, ours is believed to be an age of individualism. These critiques are often incisive and accurate. However, one thing often lost amongst the criticism is an appropriate sense of individuality. More specifically, it is often overlooked, or at least taken for granted, what Christianity offers in terms of personal responsibility and agency.
To put a finer point on it, Christian spirituality in our age has been poor at developing an appropriate sense of “mine.” Children are taught to not use the word “mine” and instead the virtue of sharing is celebrated in a very all encompassing manner. This reflects the spirit of our age in which boundaries and borders are seen as impediments to connection and community. In attempting to steer the church which appears to be careening towards the ditch of individualism, we can overcorrect into that of collectivism. Even within some circles, relational boundaries are being rediscovered as an essential developmental reality for healthy relationships.
There is an appropriate biblical reality of “mine” in the sense of personal responsibility for work and preservation of life and protection. There is a place at which I am in charge of and responsible for my own sins and virtues. In many ways, our culture seeks to diminish this independence but not in the way you’ve been taught.
Modernism dehumanizes people and cherishes individualists. It lauds the rugged individual who conquers the world. The one who is able to say that “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul” receives praise and adulation. We admire those who can rise above the odds and conquer the obstacles to their own self-actualization. However, by misunderstanding the biblical nature of the imago Dei, this individualism as it appears is actually subjugated to corporatism. Or as Chad Pecknold has said, “under a liberal anthropology, what we find is that conformism, social proof and consensus become the only operational test of truth.” On the one hand we deny the outside influence of other powers and people on our personhood, all the while completely giving ourselves over to them blindly. One need look no further than the way in which teens tend to create a supposedly individual identity by conforming to different stylistic patterns of other groups to see this is true.
In pastoral ministry, pastors are charged with helping people grow into maturity. One way to assess the maturity of any given person is through their relationships. Relational attachment patterns give insight to the various capacities of people in our churches. On one end of the attachment spectrum is detachment. This is where we avoid attaching to others in an effort to avoid the possibility of pain and vulnerability relationally. The other end of the spectrum is called enmeshment. In that space, we are relationally united in such a way that our identity is lost in the identity of others. The classic example of enmeshment is codependency (also known as idolatry). The sweet spot relationally is in the middle which is called differentiation. This is where we have an appropriate sense of self and yet we do not avoid relating to others. A differentiated person is able to establish boundaries and enjoy the freedom of knowing where they end and where someone else begins.
Instead, our age fosters enmeshment. Of course there are resistors to this enmeshment who veer to detachment, the opposite of enmeshment. From Romantics like Walden to more popularized notions of Into the Wild, the idea of fleeing connection in search of a sense of self is notorious in our age. And yet, this reveals the gnostic heresy. Modernism, in its supposed quest for individualism, prides itself in detachment. That is, it is proud of it’s lack of dependency and relational permeability. Detachment is an act of self-preservation by avoiding attachment with others. However, much like the horseshoe effect, in avoiding attaching to others relationally, they succumb to the idols of the culture around them. Our world desires to live detached and isolated and yet we actually live incredibly enmeshed lives. We have no sense of self.
You can see this in the borders of churches and nations. Church membership is perceived as controlling and borders are understood to be unloving. These merely reflect the modern Gnosticism where we are actually enmeshed with one another so that we cannot separate our ideas from our personhood, our self expression from our identity. We cannot speak plainly to someone if we believe them to be wrong without risking the perception that we are a bully. To disagree strongly and publicly with someone is taken to be the height of offense. Why? Not because of our individualism but because of our enmeshment with one another. We do not know where I end and you begin. We do not know how to be identified apart from a complete acceptance from others. We were made to have a sense of self. The goal is relational differentiation. A sense that I know who I am and for what I am responsible.
Without a recovery of this biblical reality, we will continue our enmeshed degradation. We will despise critique because to critique someone else is to destroy their sense of identity. We will not have an appropriate sense of personhood because we have believed the lie that we are our ideas and our ideas are both extrinsic to our humanity and attach themselves to ideologies. To riff off Carl Jung, people don’t have ideologies, ideologies have people. We will not be able to have borders because we cannot even establish boundaries for ourselves. The gender binary must be done away with because that would seek to create a place where one gender ends and the other begins. To defend oneself is seen as sinful because what is self-defense but the harming of someone else? Property rights are diminished in favor of more collectivist notions because what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine. Church membership is not valued because that would seek to establish boundaries and differentiate Christians. It is seen as unloving. Policies which reflect our enmeshed age are favored. Socialism is very attractive right now for many people because it reflects the values of enmeshment. There is a conviction that the free market is somehow less loving as it requires people to take more personal responsibility. Reparations make complete sense because we don’t have individual responsibility, we have group responsibility. Hate speech laws are completely normal to an enmeshed culture because to speak against someone’s idea or conception of themselves is to diminish their own personhood. Open marriages are good because once again any boundary that would limit my supposed autonomy is bad. But in rejecting the boundary we actually reveal our own enmeshment to others. Doctrine itself becomes a tool of division not because it is inherently divisive but because people sense it is trying to thwart connectedness and community.
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence of which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, mine!” -Abraham Kuyper. This sentiment should also be seen as stewardship on our part. There is an appropriate sense of “mine.” In fact, it is not just appropriate but necessary to live out the great commission. We are to take ownership and control over which we rightly say mine. Our families, our churches, and our country deserve defense and need us to declare “mine.” But we must recapture from our secular age a vision of human personhood in which we know what is mine and what is yours. We must recapture the vision of differentiation. Christianity offers this vision of a healthy individualism. And individualism where I am not just a cog in a machine but I am also not a molecule standing alone. Without it, we waffle between enmeshment and detachment. Without it, we relate sinfully towards one another. Without it, the world is left to chaos.