One For All or Every Man For Himself?
Updated: Jan 18, 2018
“Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another.” –Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
There is a new book called Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen that is making a splash in the politisphere. I haven’t read the book, but I have read two reviews of it, one by Ross Douthat and one by David Brooks, both in the New York Times. The book is an indictment, not on leftist liberal ideology as the title may imply, but on the grand experiment of a liberal, democratic, capitalist social template “with freedom and justice for all.” Deneen points to several factors which have led to the decline of liberalism – consumerism, mediocrity and moral decay to name a few – but the factor David Brooks sees as the strongest (and I agree) is individualism.
“If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomized, distrustful and divided.”
The initial quote above is a prophetic lament from Russia in 1880. I’d venture to guess that Russian individualism in 1880 doesn’t hold a candle to modern individualism. Today, we have far less need for neighborly help, far more options to satiate our appetites, and far greater skepticism of humanity and its institutions. Today’s world is inhabited by ever more lonely, self-reliant, suspicious, isolated islands. I could spend all day discussing how we got here (capitalistic greed, rampant consumerism, the sexual revolution, race and class divides, media and technology), and that would be interesting to some, but I’d rather spend the rest of this post pointing out the traumatic effects individualism has had across the cultural spectrum, and call us to a different way of living.
For years, Christians have been publicly bemoaning the downward slide of morality, with each decade growing more immoral than the last. So, I’ll start there.
There is no denying that a major consequence of the focus on individual freedom has been an untethering of personal ethics to religious conventional norms. Distrust in institutions has made us unaccountable to a higher power and scornful of absolute truth. The line in the sand is no longer, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” but “As long as you’re not hurting anyone.” The liberating freedom to choose an identity not grounded in old fashioned markers like geography, family, ethnicity, even gender has made us tolerant of almost every form of self-expression.
And so conservative Christians have much to wring our hands about—abortion, homosexuality, gender confusion, the deterioration of the family, decline in church attendance. I would argue that even the #MeToo movement is partly the result of decades of individualistic thinking around sexuality – men and women approaching sex from a purely selfish standpoint and not within the protective biblical bounds of a marriage covenant. (Much more could be written about this, and I will probably blog about it in the near future.)
“Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them.”—The Brothers Karamazov
In some ways, it is not fair to discuss these issues as “liberal problems” and “conservative problems.” They are human problems. What Christian has not also fallen prey to individualism in the realm of personal ethics? However, to prove the point that all are guilty, and to expose our hypocrisy in only pointing out the sins of the other side, I feel I must generalize. So fellow Christians, beware. Liberals are not the only ones suffering the consequences of radical individualism.
I recall a Facebook conversation I had years ago with a Christian friend who did not appreciate her tax dollars going to aid public schools when her family did not take advantage of them. I tried in vain to help her see that she has a responsibility to the collective and not just the individual. The same Christians who are hard-nosed about abortion are reticent to allow their tax dollars to address causal factors such as poverty and education. Many Christians are waking up to matters of social injustice across this country, but still many are living isolated lives, concerned only with the well-being of their family or their church members, but not of the outside world. I grew up in such a Christian bubble, and I can attest to the fact that in isolation, Christians cannot be effective salt and light to the world around us. Christ called us to take responsibility for our neighbors, not to shut our doors to them.
Isolationism is one manifestation of individualism in Christian conservatism. Protectionism is another. Since when did Christ command us to protect our tribal identity, our borders, our financial security, our second amendment rights, our religious freedoms, at all costs? When did safety become more important than love? Didn’t Jesus call us to risk it all by dying to ourselves? Any member of the persecuted early church would be astounded by what the average Christian considers politically important today.
Conservative Christians are also not immune to the intellectual arrogance produced by individualism. We may not shake off religious restrictions completely like our liberal counterparts, but we are prone to cling stubbornly to belief systems rooted in culture but cloaked in spiritual terms. A rogue, biblically illiterate syncretism of Christian traditions with staunch patriotism has taken hold in many parts of this country, and God help you if you try to point out their error, even with Scripture. They are not the only ones who hold onto man made truth for dear life. I count myself among the guilty here. It takes humility and a solid understanding of identity in Christ to admit when we are wrong.
Liberals may tend to manifest individualism in casting aside personal moral restraints. Conservatives may tend to manifest it in isolationism, protectionism and intellectual arrogance. But all of us need to reckon with our consumerism, utilitarianism, and tribalism. In what ways have we become “slaves to our appetites?” Are we cultivating self-control through denying our desires? How are we using people and loving things, rather than the other way around? And has our loneliness driven us into earthly tribal loyalties, when our true citizenship is in heaven?
The Gospel calls us to life in submission to our heavenly Father, and in community with our fellow image bearers. We were put on this earth, not to amass wealth, make a name for ourselves, or gratify our desires, but to imitate, represent and glorify our Creator. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
I do not believe liberalism is dead. It may be waning, but it can yet be revived by if we reject individualism and live out the Gospel of love.
“Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die.” –The Brothers Karamazov