Monday, January 08, 2007

Redeeming Individualism

Been following a great discussion about ethnicity and individualism over at Abner Ramos’ place.

Abner and friends make a case for the importance of ethnicity and tribe and question the spiritual validity of current popular western notions of individualism.

Certain secular post-moderns and progressive Christians have been kicking individualism around since the 60’s and I've been one of them since before that kind of thing became the critique de jour.

Lots of reasons to kick individualism in its abstract butt and to go easy on deconstructing the pretensions of 'tribes':

No question that the level of individualism in the west--and especially in the US--has weakened families and institutions and produced a kind of spiritual and emotional malaise as people struggle to make sense of life without deeper ties to communities and to older ethnic ‘blood and land’ identities. Christian communities and other religious communities tend to be watered downed versions of their old school selves because people with a deep commitment to individualism resist comitting themselves to 'the group' and to accountability.

Individualism has sometimes served as a cover for European and Euro-Am ethnic oppression disguised as an even handed and rational appeal to ‘freedom.’ In order to control other ethnic groups more easily, breaking down their sense of communal and historical identity helps.

Avoiding responsibility for past communal injustices that still affect the present is a neat trick too. Individualism normally means never having to say you're sorry.

I don’t think most current white Americans feel much responsibility for the Native American genocide, for example, or any real reason to work for restitution. Since we’re individuals who can only be held responsible for what we do individually—a basic tenet of individualism--asking forgiveness or working hard at restitution for past communal wrongs makes no sense.

Other than the rise of free markets, I can’t think of a force that has done more to weaken ethnic identity than individualism.

Having said all that, I’d still say we need a lot more individualism around the world rather than less. Here’s why:

• Much of the violence and injustice around the world right now is rooted in ethnic and racial hostility and arrogance. Sometimes that ethnic and racial dynamic is masked by political or religious committments, but a fixation on blood and land remains the heart of the problem. Though western ideas of individualism carry their own dangers as I’ve already mentioned, they’ve got the juice to dilute that toxic ethnicity.

• A whole lot of Christian history has been about the abuse of tribal and ethnic identity. I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church and have first hand experience of a truly ‘ethnic’ Christianity. A fixation on ethnicity has eliminated most of the prophetic and spiritual power of that beautiful religion. And the mission of the Church has been severely damaged by an inability on the part of Christians to tell the difference between their customs and their faith.

• The western concept of individualism has produced life-giving breakthroughs in human political freedom, economic growth, and even moral development in some parts of the world. Those breakthroughs couldn’t have happened without diluting and at times even discarding our earlier roots in blood and land.

Some Christians argue that the Bible speaks primarily about ethnic and group identity and much less about ‘the individual.’ While I think biblical teaching at its deepest core rests on the importance of the individual, I’ll concede the point.

I wonder how else biblical writers living in a tribal and ethnic universe could have spoken, though?

The bible was written at a time when it was difficult if not impossible to think about the importance of the individual in the way we do now. The whole current concept of individualism is only a few centuries old. As a result, I view much of the biblical emphasis on ethnic groups as ‘descriptive’ and not necessarily ‘prescriptive.’ Or in other words, Christians are free to move more deeply into ethnicity if they choose to do so, or they can choose to move away from their given ethnic identity if that's more useful and relevant.

All this by way of saying, I’d love to see greater overt support for individualism rather than dismissing it or identifying it with 'white oppression.' Just as a modified and healthier emphasis on ethnicity can contribute to peacemaking, I’m convinced that a modified and healthier emphasis on individualism—a sort of Christian individualism—could make just as big a contribution.


Anonymous Abner Ramos said...


great post you've got here. I love seeing people engage the issue from all angles. On my end, I'm not arguing for the complete rejection of western theology and individual thought. I agree with you on most points. What bothers me is that the collective emphasis on the importance of individualism leads western theologians to dismiss everyone else. People (myself included) want to be heard, some of us even want to genuinely engage in the conversation, but it's almost impossible when the status quo has decided to see it one way.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Eddy E said...

I like some of the things you bring up. The contrast seems to be individualism vs. collective/community. I wonder what we mean is unredeemed individualism vs. redeemed community (why we may value community over individualism).

I grew up in both the western (presbyterian) and eastern (Armenian Apostolic) church, and i always sensed those values clash in me. In some ways, I think the people in the western church i grew up in, wanted more of what the eastern church provided, and vice versa.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I think we're pretty much on the same page, Abner.

I spent much of my early ministry career railing against individualism and having people look at me like I was nuts :^). As I've gained more experience around the world I've modified my thinking somewhat, but that's just my take and it might be that I'm just getting older and crustier.

You're right that a real discussion is hard to come by, particularly in the religious and cultural climate of the past decade or so. And I understand the sinking feeling you probably had talking to that midwestern middle aged couple. Welcome to my life.

I'm wading in here against the current progressive grain because I think we may have gone a little overboard with an emphasis on ethnicity and race at this point. I've felt that way for a while.

Yes and yes, Eddy.

I agree that individualism vs. community is key. We're dealing with yin and yang.

And I think the current progressive discussion sets up the all too real spectre of fallen 'red in tooth and claw" individualism vs. the idealized (but rarely realized) hope of redeemed community.

Hardly a fair way to set up a contest.

If we want to make peace I think we've gotta spend at least as much time on reforming individualism as we do aiming at redeemed community.

What parts of what I wrote don't you like? I'm very interested.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous Abner Ramos said...

More than anything else, I have questions that come up as I've been interacting with you on this one.

Is individualism an ethnic expression/custom of white identity in the west? If so, how does spreading more individualism help with the problem of ethnic strife in the world?

Does that make sense?

5:56 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Oh yeah, that makes great sense.

Individualism introduces a whole bunch of practical headaches and problems for pastors and Christian leaders (lower committment levels, resistance to accountability, unwillingness to be lead, etc.) but I think what you've put your finger on is the heart of the 'post-modern' critique of individualism and why individualism tends to get dismissed out of hand by Christian progressives.

I guess I could answer this in two ways:

1. The spread of individualism around the world, like some aspects of globalization, is inevitable at this point. So whether we wish individualism would influence and modify other cultures or not, it's going to do so. Check that--it's already doing so.

I think the folks in those cultures who embrace aspects of western individualism will probably do it because they think it brings something valuable and desirable that they don't already possess. That's the reason people in the west originally bought into it. The old timey Europeans got tired of the prohibitive costs of old skool ethnocentrism and the narrowness of traditional ethnic identity.

Strong ethnic identity--even the healthy version that respects other cultures and embraces the importance of collective reconciliation--has some major downsides to it. Americans of all ethnicities often don't recognize that more viscerally because we live in such a washed out ethnic environment which has been diluted by individualism for centuries. It's easy to get idealistic about tribe and ethnicity in this kind of environment because most of us don't have to live with their worst traditional downsides on a day to day basis.

I'm guessing individualism will spread because people in more traditional ethnic cultures will decide they value the potential for individual creativity, human rights, economic growth and a more fluid personal and cultural identity that tend to develop as cultures embrace the worldview and values of individualism more deeply.

I don't think my ancestors or the many around the world who embraced and are embracing individualism are dummmies. They see the positive elements of individualism even if they sometimes don't fully appreciate the downside. And even when they do see the downside they are often willing to embrace it any way because they believe the benefits will outweigh the costs.

In any case, I'd just like progressive Christian theology and teaching to reflect the reality that individualism is a complicated thing with great power to do good and harm. If we simply continue to harp on the harm we won't be very relevant to our friends around the world who are embracing individualism, and we'll risk being phony in our own context because all of us are individualists to one degree or another and enjoy the fruits of it (anybody in the room against strong individual political freedom or against a strong emphasis on individual creativity instead of tribal custom or against human rights?)

So I guess one way of answering your question is to say I think Christians should be engaged in theology and practice that help our friends from other cultures who are modifying their own values and identities (cultures can be both static and dynamic)to understand the strengths and weaknesses of individualism. If all we have to offer is knee jerk dismissals of individualism as destructive or simply a white, western trojan horse I think we insult their intelligence and don't take seriously their cultural dynamism. I think our views have got to get a little more sophisticated if we're going to be of good service.

Of course, none of that means we can't heavily critique the spread of even potentially useful western values if they are being forced on people through the sheer economic and military might of the west. Take Iraq, for example :^) And of course, it we believe the most radical post modern interpretations all such values transfers are simply power plays imposing an alien worldview and mindset on others. I don't buy the extreme version, but there is enough truth there to require constant prophetic vigilance whenever cultures are interacting and values are being transfered.

If we can be good servants and interpreters for folks who are adopting aspects of individualism--particularly if we've had more experience with both the ups and the downs of it--I think we can bridge a gap and help reduce cultural and ethnic conflict.

2. But I think there's another way individualism can help reduce ethnic conflict in more traditional cultures around the world.

In my opinion, history has shown pretty conclusively that as the intensity of people's committment to traditional tribal and ethnic identities decrease and they move toward a more fluid, multi-polar concept of ethnicity and a greater emphasis on individual freedom, ethnic conflict becomes less intense and less frequent. Compare the current Horn of Africa to post war western Europe for an example.

Though I rarely agree with Bush, he's right about the need for cultural change in the Middle East. No question in my mind that a greater emphasis on individual freedom and creativity, a greater respect for human rights, a deeper committment to genuine democracy and other values that all spring out of individualism would make the Middle East a much better place and would reduce ethnic and political tensions significantly.

I think the best parts of individualism could have that same effect in other more traditional parts of the world too.

Now, saying those values could help reduce ethnic tension is one thing. It's another thing to impose those values on others without real dialogue and by force.

Talking to Indian friends, many of them are very clear about their cultural indebtedness to the British and the tremendous value added of institutions and ideas the British left behind. But to a person they are hostile about having those things forced on them through subjegation.

I think the respectful mutual transmission of values back and forth between various cultures is where a strong theology of ethnicity and reconciliation plays its most practical role, and where the church can take the lead if we don't fall into a simplistic stance that I think may characterize the progressive Christian church's views toward western individualism.

And of course, when hostility between ethnic groups already exists, that experience of being a reconciling church that understands and values various ethnicities is crucial.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous books tothe brown said...

The cost/benefit analysis of communalism and individualism is fascinating enough, but I wonder how our concept of individualism (and or communalism) may determine our soteriology?

9:55 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great comment books. I think the way we think about salvation is definitely rooted in assumptions about individualism and communalism. That's a huge issue in missions. In some parts of the world whole families or tribal groups will become Christians at the same time because a father or authority figure decide that's how it's going to be. That blows an individualistic assumption of 'getting saved' out the window and scares a lot of western missionaries. But I can see no reason to question the validity of it as long as the folks involved are genuinely committed to that communal identity. That's the way lots of people became Christians in the past before the rise of individualism. And I'd say the visions of heaven individualists have can be pretty different from somebody coming out of a truly communilistic environment.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Samer Farhat said...

Tom, Abner, Eddy, Book, I appreciate all of your thoughts on this subject. I'm glad I've caught up, at least thus far. Keep up the good thinking.

5:38 PM  

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