Saturday, February 28, 2009

Freedom and Individualism

Charles Taylor's Malaise of Modernity is an excellent critique of individualism. We have traded the values of community and belonging for the lure of a false freedom that we were convinced came from becoming less dependent and connected to everyone else. The liberal dream is really the American Dream - one that falsely promises anyone can be anything. But the reality is we have become a people desperate for identity and cut off from the ways that we really come to know ourselves - that is, through community and dependence. It should not surprise us that there is a passionate desire for people to return to roots, to ancient rituals within religions and to spiritualities from foreign contexts. That is a desperate move. One we've hard won the freedom to allow. And a move that disturbs modern church leaders even though they hardly seem to understand why.

Like Taylor, who contests the knockers and the boosters of individualism, I'm torn on the issue of retrieval within faith communities. On the positive side there is an influx of richness coming into our liturgical practices, and that is actually bringing some life to people. But it is a bit indiscriminate and unfocused. I think the answers are there, but at the same time not there. And what I mean by that is this: you can do all those nice things and still not find the identity you are looking for. Let me make a jump and come back to this point.

The primary means of defining oneself has shifted from our relationships to people to our relationships to economy. Society, despite the rhetoric of freedoms, really values only certain things. Productivity being one of them. But this is productivity measured in specific ways - it isn't about having healthy productivity, but about maximized financial profit potential. (My move from a high paying IT career to a questionable future in academics is very counter-cultural.) So we define ourselves in terms of our jobs, what we do and how "successful" we are at doing it. This is an unfortunate shift - because our occupations are hardly stable identities let alone meaningful in ultimate terms (with some exceptions of course).

Just look at the expansion of cyber-dating, we don't forge relationships in our work environments, and lets face it, we don't have that much other community. So we turn to the internet. I'm not against this, but it is symptomatic. Before, we would meet our mate in our communities - church, school, social clubs even the bars. But now those places represent, at best, truncated communities and in their current form we are unsatisfied because we expect them to form identity for us.

So here is where churches come in. And the move towards ancient-future practices is part of this quest for identity. In some sense it the church trying to validate its identity - I did a lot of work on how this dynamic functions in evangelical communities (and I dare say that ended up saying a lot of the same things Carl Henry said, but in a different context). But the church is also responding to the demands of a culture of individualism - when the adherents see the church only in terms of what it can do for them. This is exactly the attitude that turns ancient-future treasures into vacuous fad. It is precisely our attitude towards church that will determine how and if church can help us understand ourselves.

Individualism robs the church of its potential to help define a people (Imago Dei). But it also robs individuals of the real freedom of participation - being free to be part of something bigger than themselves, something which can truly give them/us/me a sense of identity. I long for that. I long for real freedom. Not the truncated, do what you will, swill liberal philosophy has offered us. Rather the grounded call to participate, to be dependent on, and to even be hurt by - the other. To be community. To break bread, not as an individual - but as a body. Incomplete without the whole. The trappings of the ancient must look so odd to those looking for fulfillment within individualism. It is not personal piety, it is corporate identity. It is not individuality, it is cooperation and belonging. It is body and community, Trinity and belonging. I hope that we retrieve these things - but we do it in the spirit in which they were forged, not twist them to the culture of individualism.


Anonymous said...

The anti-"culture" of hyper-individualism has its roots in the European Renaissance and the rise of the "culture" of scientism and its "religious" twin, individualistic Protestantism---both of which share the same reductionist presumptions about what we are as human beings and our relation to the World Process and Reality altogether.

Prior to the Renaissance the culture of Europe was focused on the contemplation of The Divine, or more accurately the culturally proscribed images and ideas of The Divine.

After the Renaissance the idea of The Divine was put aside and human beings and their latent possibilities became the entire focus of European culture.

Inevitably it did not take very long before the even the still existing half-baked ideas of The Divine were put aside altogether.

The godless anti-"culture" of modernism was thus born and completely solidified enabling Nietzsche to make his famous "god is dead" declaration.

He was completely correct.

The Divine Radiance and the possibility of an authentic Divine Life were completely banished from the European cultural land/mind/heart scape.

And where is this individualistic anti-"culture" most strong?

In Protestant/Puritan America.

One of Freedom said...

Definitely it is strongest in the systems that were created to protect the freedom to practice religion - yet in essence shut down the very freedoms meant to protect. As Taylor puts it - renders the conversations inarticulate.

Thanks for the comment.