Recently, two Christian social critics—one Roman Catholic, the other Eastern Orthodox—tackled some of the problems that emerge from individualism in American culture.
Thomas Storck (“The Catholic Failure to Change America”) does so in light of the tradition of Catholic Church; his Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah (“Secularism and Depersonalization”) looks at the same intellectual territory as an Orthodox Christian. While both men have done a good job in explicating the negative consequences of individualism for the life of the Church—both East and West—and the larger society, they left unexamined the opportunity for human flourishing and growth in Christian holiness, implicit in American individualism.
During my doctoral studies in the 1980s, Robert Bellah and his colleagues helped me see the positive side of American individualism. In Habits of the Heart, they write that individualism “lies at the very core of American culture.” They go on to identify, without any note of irony, the four profoundly individualistic “traditions” that exist in uneasy tension in American culture: “biblical … and civic … as well as utilitarian and an expressive individualism.”I don’t wish to fault either Storck or Metropolitan Jonah for not making the argument I would have. However I do think that both men paint with an overly broad brush and so miss the convergence between American individualism and Christian anthropology in both its Catholic and Orthodox forms.
“Whatever the differences among the various traditions” of American individualism, write Bellah et al., “there are some things they all share” and so are “basic to American identity.” What are these core values? Most fundamentally, Americans believe “in the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual.” Moreover, this is not something that we see as exclusive to American culture but rather the right of all human beings to be free not simply of external coercion but of anything “that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit.” To force others to violate their conscience, to see themselves primarily as members of a group rather than as unique persons “is not only morally wrong,” they write, “it is sacrilegious.”
Though a noble theory, individualism is not without its problems in practice. Storck and Metropolitan Jonah both point out that (in Bellah’s words) “some of our deepest problems both as individuals and as a society are also closely linked to our individualism.” Yes, American individualism creates undeniable risks to those who would live the Gospel. Chief among these risks in the embrace of those forms of individualism that would forgo the “moral and religious obligation[s]” that justify not simply freedom but obedience; in large part we have seen severed the organic connection (the symphonia) between rights and responsibility. And we have done so, as both Storck and his Beatitude point out, because we have forsaken the natural and Eucharistic communion (koinonia) between the person and the community.
But Christian apologists and social critics would do well not simply to point out the limitations but also the strengths of individualism and so the dangers as well as the opportunities it affords the Church—and again, both East and West. Thomas Storck and Metropolitan Jonah in their personal lives are good examples of the opportunity that American individualism affords the Gospel. Both men are critics of individualism in light of a shared Christian tradition that emphasizes the foundationally communal nature of the human person. The irony, however, should not be lost on us that both men advocate for a tradition that they chose and which they were able to choose precisely because of the very individualism they criticize.
Looking at the persecution of the faithful, Tertullian said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. But now, when Christians (at least in North America) are not violently persecuted we find that the Church—again, East and West—often appears weak, frail; do we really think that political and economic freedom are corrosive—that the Church can thrive in all situations except liberty? Is American culture really more destructive to the Church that the cruelties of the Roman, Ottoman, or Soviet empires? Or is it rather that we have failed to discern properly the evangelical and pastoral opportunity afforded by modernity?
Today Christians find ourselves in a highly competitive marketplace of ideas more akin to what the Apostle Paul encountered on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) than the largely mythical unanimity of the American religious landscape of the 1950s. Our current situation requires from us, even as St. Paul’s did of him, more than merely criticizing error; we need to be able to demonstrate intellectually and practically both the truth of the Gospel and its ability to foster human flourishing.
Hippolytus, a saint common to both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, offers us some insight as to what this might mean. He tells the Christians of his day that they ought not be “persuaded by empty expressions, nor caught away by sudden impulses of the heart, nor beguiled by the plausibility of eloquent discourses” of pagan philosophy, but rather “obey words that have been uttered by divine power” by Jesus Christ. It is, however, what he says next that is important for those of us would preach the Gospel to individualistic Americans living in the free marketplace of ideas.
… [T]hese injunctions has God given to the Word. But the Word, by declaring them, promulgated the divine commandments, thereby turning man from disobedience, not bringing him into servitude by force of necessity, but summoning him to liberty through a choice involving spontaneity.
Fidelity to the example of Christ means forsaking force and appealing instead to human liberty. Yes, we must criticize when human freedom is misused and becomes the enemy of liberty—that is to say, sin. We must also, however, be ever vigilant for the ways in which our culture fosters those authentic expresses of human freedom that comprise the symphonia between rights and responsibility and the koinonia of person and society.
Doing this requires not only humility but also recapturing something of the human foundation of the Gospel in light of contemporary experience. What modernity highlights, or so it seems to me, is that God appeals to our freedom, to our love of liberty and our desire to be creatively self-expressive. And why shouldn’t He? Aren’t these, after all, qualities that reflect His glory? Aren’t human freedom, liberty, and creativity part of the image of God in each and every single human being?