Monday, December 05, 2011

The Individual and Community

For thousands of years, the primary way that a human identified himself was through a community. And then came the Age of Enlightenment, the Light of Reason, the Way of the Individual. And we live amongst the confusion, a few centuries later, mired.

When people fail, we look at them with disappointment, assuming that they didn't take responsibility as an individual for their own life. We discount the role of their community and lift up too high the assumption that people have great power as an individual over their destiny.

We see people succeed and we admire them for taking their life by the reigns and victoriously surging forth as an individual. We downplay the contribution that any kind of community played in their life to prepare them for there accomplishments.

This downgrade of community and obsession with individuality has been part of our heritage for a few centuries now. It's too easy to look at our parents or older generation and reject their traditions and perspectives - for that's what they did in their days, and so on. We inherit from our parents the desire to think for ourselves - which means we must reject any accumulated wisdom they might be able to pass on. How smart is that?

What are the fears associated with a renewed emphasis on community? People don't like to be told what to do. They don't like to be forced into a routine, to have a tradition enforced. People don't like being accountable to people outside their family. People don't want to feel obligated to care for others outside their selective network of friends.

Christians are born into this aura of individualism. It's why we struggle so much with community. Yet Jesus places a high value on community, almost more so than on individualism. In our age, we think that community results from the gathering of individuals. But for Jesus, community is both the origins and nexus for individuality.

Christians are identified as the body of Christ - which implies that we only exist because of our connections to each other. How can a foot increase it's value to the body by insisting on its individuality? Of course the foot is a sort of individual, differentiated from the hand and heart. But it's value is not just that it is different, but that the difference plays a substantial role in giving life to the community to which is attached.

The greatest command for Christians is to love. God is love. We are go give God, to give love to the world. But we can't do that as individuals. Love can only happen in community. You can't love by yourself. You can't even come to know God or love by yourself. It requires a community to give birth to you and those ideas and structures and history from which you benefit and are nurtured. Love is can't be just an exchange between two individuals. Love is what makes community possible, what makes individuals able to be attached and make a contribution to the life of others.

It's almost as if you have to pick one: love or individualism. If you pick love you get community. If you pick individualism, you get yourself, your way of doing things, your thoughts, your attempts to relate to God and know love on your own terms. But God seems to insist on being first and primary - often at the expense of your individuality. God wants you to love and be loved, and that means embracing community, his way of becoming.

The funny thing is, people throw away their individuality in dozens of ways, all the while insisting that they are not going to be bound to community and let someone tell them what to do. So they live in this shadow world, rootless, anchorless, drifting. They claim to be an individual while at the same time embracing the fashion styles of celebrities. Just like a few million other fans. The individual asserts the ability to think for himself, and then aligns himself with a popular modern writer. Just like a few million others.

Oh, we want community. We want to be led. We want to be bound to tradition. We want love. But we've drank so long from the toxic well of the Enlightenment. Even our readings of Scripture, our thoughts on God are fueled by this pervasive attitude of individuality. We think of God as the supreme individual. Except that he exists as the Trinity. And he bound himself up to Israel, and the church. And the world. God lives in community. It's how he expresses love, himself.

We ought to reconsider our attachment to individuality. I am just as much an individualist as the next person. I was born into it, like everyone else. And yet. As powerful as the drug is, the call of community continues. The desire to love and be loved - God, my wife and children, friends, church - results in a draining of those individualistic energies that drive me towards loneliness. I want God's kingdom to come. I want to love. I want to see my city flourish. I want the church to prevail as a blessing. Those are all community-oriented themes that undermine my individuality. So be it.

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