Before I headed out into the woods for a week, I had posted this over at HBC. It triggered a good discussion and today when I was reading a thing about Joel Osteen’s individualism I was reminded of it. I would love to hear your thoughts.
The church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is today. When those who think as individuals read a text that is communal, there is always going to be an issue.
I know that there is a real danger in painting in broad stokes and speaking in generalities. I normally steer clear of such dangers but once in a while you find something that allows you to wade out onto the normally thin ice with a certain measure of confidence.
I recently finished a term paper on Alisdair MacIntrye’s opus After Virtue which is his attempt to reclaim the Aristotelian notion of character formation within community (to oversimplify a bit). In preparation for writing the paper I went back over some classics like John Rawls and Michael Sandel (the communitarian) and others.
It just so happens that I have also been reading a lot of post-colonial critique during this year and I have a growing suspicion that I wanted to throw out there:
We have individuals (products of the enlightenment) reading a text that was written in a communal framework (a product of a communal society). That provides a fundamental discrepancy that will never be resolved. It will always provide a disjointed experience and thought process that lacks continuity.
Let’s not pretend that we can think another way. We are heirs of the enlightenment – this is our operating system. We can download a new program like ‘christianity’ but it is operating within the individualist code. Talking with my friends who are from non-European descent (Native American, Pacific Islands or certain Asian communities) it is clear that there is no simple conversion that an individual can undergo and simply start thinking in communal terms. We are cultural creatures and this is our culture.
It shows up when we read the Bible. It shows up when we talk of government (democracy) economy (consumerism), status, value, worth, choice, success, identity, rights, laws,leadership and … well nearly every other aspect of Western society.
The famous example of Philippians 2:12 admonishing us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” is but a drop in the pond. It’s not just that the English language doesn’t have a plural ‘you’ (unless one counts the ya’all of the Southern US) but it is bigger than that. It is that we think in individual ‘you’s and there is no way around it.
This will always be an issue. So even when somebody talks about character formation, spiritual community, or some ideal of communitarian discipleship (be it Hauerwas, the Radical Orthodox, or any other innovative group) in the end, the church of N.America will always look mostly like it does now. The reason is that this individualism we think in is not all that compatible with the communal thrust of our very scriptures – and that is irreconcilable at some level. It can not be resolved because we can no more stop thinking as individuals than that Bible can stop encouraging community.