Individualism and the Curse of Isolation

OhuaoPEvpCat_0One of the hallmarks of Western civilization and the Enlightenment worldview is individualism, the recognition that each individual is a person of value and worth and “has certain inalienable rights.”

Individualism actually has its roots in Christianity; that God numbers the hairs on our heads, that he leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for the lone lost one, that he doesn’t want any to perish but all to come to repentance—shows a God who cares, not just for humanity as a whole, but for each individual who makes up humanity.

We are, none of us, just another brick in the wall.

There is, however, a dark side to individualism. We can so value independence and self-reliance that we become blind to the reality of how interdependent we are and how much we rely on each other. These are not weaknesses of the human condition but part of the fabric of who we are and what it means to be truly human.

It’s common for Christians to say that each person is created in the image of God, but that’s not actually what the Bible says. In Genesis 1 it is humanity in it’s male-and-femaleness that is declared to be made in the image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, NRS) While an individual male or female is fully human, it’s humans-in-relationship that form the image of God, reflecting that three Persons comprise the Oneness of God. This individuals-in-community is the essence of the imago dei.

What shouldn’t go unnoticed is that after the first creation story declares that everything is good, good, and very good, the second creation story declares that the creation of a solitary human is “not good.” “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’” (Genesis 2:18, NRS)

In our culture people often view community and individualism as if one mitigates the other; and usually, when the two come in conflict, it is community that loses.

The Bible doesn’t hold the two in tension, it rather declares that both community and individualism, together, are good, and that privileging one over the other is not good.

If the evil of communism and fascism is that they both devalue the individual for the sake of the state, individualism becomes evil when it privileges the individual over the community. Instead of the biblical model of humanity as individuals-in-community, the model of hyper-individualism is the individual-over-against-community, which, when you get right down to it, pits individuals against individuals, each person responsible only for themselves.

Is this what we mean by “personal responsibility” and “self-reliance”?

Isolation is the curse of individualism. Not only do we ourselves end up isolated, we also isolate people from us. We keep our distance from them, and we keep them at a distance from us. If we congregate, it’s usually with people like us while we keep our distance from those who are not like us.

And that distance and isolation alienates us from them and them from us.

We do this to the poor. We isolate them and we keep our distance from them, and from that distance we make judgments about them. It’s amazing to me how fashionable it has become to speak so poorly of the poor. For instance, we denigrate them all as lazy, and while you can certainly find some poor people who fit that description, it’s my experience that lazy people are found in all economic groups, as are the industrious.

The Bible does not speak poorly of the poor. The writer of Proverbs often speaks poorly of the lazy, but doesn’t identify the poor as those who are lazy. In fact, the Bible more often identifies the rich as lazy: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’” (Amos 4:1, NRS)

But to listen to people today, including a lot of Christians, if a poor person doesn’t work they are lazy, but if a wealthy person doesn’t work, even if the wealth is inherited, they are a man or woman of leisure.

The biblical model is of community, all humanity in it together, taking care of each other because we recognize the worth and value of each individual, rich and poor, native and foreigner, intelligent and not-so-intelligent, red-and-yellow-black-and-white-they-are-precious-in-his-sight.

That’s when the image of God is reflected in us.

Image from The Quote Factory

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