The Church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is now

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is now

  1. This is an interesting thought. Reading through Acts with a small group in our home and I bring up Acts 2:45-47 where they are selling all of their possessions and giving to those who had need. My husband says” this just isn’t possible in the culture we live in”. No one responds. I sense we don’t want this to be true, but is it?

    • Jenna – I really hope that it isn’t true … but I am terrified that it is. The gap between our kind of individualism and the communal aspect of that society (new testament) is just SO different I think that without addressing it outright it will stay embedded as the unspoken assumption that really drives things – regardless of what we say or believe. At that point, reading the bible is just a veneer over a machine that is already in operation -Bo
      what do ya think?

      • Wow, I can’t keep pace, but here is my reply. I completely agree, but isn’t that exactly what you are saying when you say ‘It can not be resolved because we can no more stop thinking as individuals than that Bible can stop encouraging community.’ So how do we ‘address it outright’? How do we change not only as individuals but as the Church of N.America?

  2. Interesting… Not sure if I would pin it down to enlightenment. It’s probably more Greco-Roman Philosophy. We also see a difference in culture in the New Testament. There was a distinct cultural individual/corporal in Jesus’ Day. The Greeks and Romans we’re also somewhat individualistic. So I would not make the defining fulcrum point the enlightenment. It probably increases the individualistic notion which is more a self-centeredness. I think true kingdom community when a heart is changed by Jesus and then we put other interests above our own!

    • Dan – I get what you are saying but I want to be clear: the type of individualism they had was minor with what we are dealing with. two examples
      1) the Pater Familias codes that were in place in the Roman world meant that people were owned as property. That is not the same as our individualism.
      2) It has been said that when Augustine wrote the confessions and used the word ‘I’ it was the first time that someone had meant it the way that we mean it.

      I am still pointing the finger at the enlightenment ;) -Bo

  3. Great post Bo. I also wanted to point out Augustins “Confessions” but I can see you already mention that in one of your reply.

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