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The Forgotten Good of American Individualism

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?

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • John Médaille

    Does this article equate the ability to choose with individualism? Is that the point?

    • John,

      The third paragraph outlines the characteristics of American individualism. Borrowing from Bellah, these are ” the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual,” the primacy over person relative to the group and the inviolate nature of conscience. At least its ideal, or maybe better, biblical and civic forms American individualism advances what I call the “symphonia between rights and responsibility and the koinonia of person and society.”

      The not unpleasant irony of both Storck and Metropolitan Jonah’s essays is that both men are converts to their respective traditions. Without prejudice to divine grace, both men chose to join their respective Churches. Implicit in this choice is the claim of each that he has “the right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit.”

      So while the ability to choose is central to the American form of individualism I don’t think we should reduce individualism to mere choice. Again, Bellah is helpful here when he says that “some of our deepest problems both as individuals and as a society are also closely linked to our individualism.” At the same time, and this is the point of my argument, the Church–East and West–needs to be aware not only of the real dangers of individualism and the marketplace of ideas but also the opportunities that they offer the work of the Church. Again, Stock and Metropolitan Jonah are good examples of this.

      Hope this helps and thanks for the comment!

      In Christ,

      +FrG

      • John Médaille

        I appreciate the response, but it appears that you are merely repeating the formula “Choice equals individualism.” But is that really necessary? I don’t understand why that formula should hold. Human choice is always within a social context; you cannot choose to be Orthodox or Catholic unless those choices are available within your society. And so it is with every other “choice” we make. After all, most Christians did not “choose” their Christianity; we dunk ’em in the font before they have much say in the matter. They only get to choose what they will do with that gift after it has been received.

        I think there is a confusion here (or at the very least a lack of clarity) between the terms “individual” and “person.” The distinction is not trivial. Do we speak of the Trinity as three “persons” or three “individuals”? No where in Christian theology is the term “individual” applied to the divine persons. Rather, being at its very core is communal; the names of the divine persons are names of relationships: Father, Son, and Spirit (of the love between Father and Son.) The divine persons are always “beings in relationship (persons),” and apart from those relationships they can have no being.

        And what is true of the divine persons absolutely is true of the human person as well. We are all called into being through communities of love (however imperfect that love may be) and are graced by this community with gifts of life, language, culture, values, and so forth. Our life consists entirely of appropriating these gifts and deciding how to use them. We are, like the Divine Persons, “beings in relationship,” and without these relationships, we can have no being. So where would you locate this alleged “individual”?

        The great irony is that the idea of the “individual” is itself a social construct, and one that had a specific (and evil) purpose: to break down all the natural associations and create the isolated “individual,” naked and powerless before the engines of the corporation and the State. I do not think that we, as Christians, should have any part in advancing such a view, but must oppose it with all our hearts, strength, and will.

        • John,

          Forgive me, I must not have been clear. I don’t think that “choice equals individualism.” What I said is that yes, choice is key to individualism but, as Bellah argues, choice is not the whole of American individualism.

          I don’t think we are that far apart in our views. Where I would strongly disagree with you is your assertion in your last paragraph that the idea of the individual has the “a specific (and evil) purpose: to break down all the natural associations and create the isolated ‘individual,’ naked and powerless before the engines of the corporation and the State.” If this were true, I would agree with you that “as Christians, should [not] have any part in advancing such a view, but must oppose it with all our hearts, strength, and will.”

          Yes, there are those, radical individualists that advance the naked anthropology that you (rightly) condemn. But you paint with too broad a brush here. It’s worth noting that for all they argued about the dignity of the poor, the enslaved and the socially marginalized, the fathers did very little to change the social structures that perpetuated these great evils. The abolition of slavery, to take one example, was not a patristic or medieval concern but a project of the Enlightenment.

          That said, you are right, there is some confusion between the terms “individual” and “person.” Though he doesn’t reference him by name, Metropolitan Jonah’s talk relies on the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras’ (Freedom of Morality, it should be in UD’s library–it was when I was a grad student there) distinction between individual (idiote) and person (hypostasis). While as he say the former is not unrelated to love, it is only the latter in which we experience freedom in the full sense. As I mentioned in my response to Daniel, in this life freedom is experienced in and through the sacraments as a foretaste of the life to come (see for example, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion).

          Turning toward the West, Boethius defines the person as a individual substance of a rational nature. In this context, individual doesn’t mean exactly what it means in either Yannras’s work or an American context. Rather it means something more like “unique” or “indivisible.” In this sense we can, with care, I think refer to the Persons of the Holy Trinity as “individuals” but I will defer to those better trained than I in Thomism! 😉

          Back to the East, while I appreciate Yannaras’ work, his typology is tinged with more than a measure of anti-Westernism and a preference for socialism rather than a free market economy. As a result, he fails to explore the “convergence between American individualism and Christian anthropology.”

          I would suggest that there are 3 points of convergence:

          (1) The primacy of the person (the “individual” in American parlance) relative to the community. This doesn’t mean the community isn’t important–it is–but, as in the Holy Trinity, it is the person that is the source or principle of unity (at least in Orthodox theology).

          (2) A shared emphasis on freedom (what Hippolytus calls God’s call to our “liberty”) and so

          (3) the necessity that human beings acted free of external and internal coercion. The former requires a just society, the latter ascetical effort rooted in the sacraments.

          All of this is firmly rooted in patristic anthropology. God woos but He does not compel the soul. Or, to quote Hippolytus again, faith is not the fruit of the “force of necessity” but God “summoning” us “to liberty through a choice involving spontaneity.” Yannaras makes the point that the life of the idiote is bond by the laws of biological and social necessity. While there are some important differences, I do think that American individualism fosters a relative freedom from social necessity even if we have lost the living sense of the importance of inner freedom rooted in virtue.

          This however is not to embrace unreservedly American individualism.

          For me the point of divergence between American individualism and Christian anthropology is in our cultural indifference to asceticism. This is a state of affairs that reflects the almost universal abandonment by American Christians of all but a token asceticism. We have lost, as Bellah observes, that rights are in the service of responsibilities and so the “moral and religious obligation[s]” that justify freedom also command obedience.

          In Christ,

          +FrG

          • Christopher Hall

            This was touched on above, but, St. Thomas expressly denied that the term “individual” could be applied to the divine Persons. 1) As has already been pointed out (though not in this context) the term as it is used today antedates Thomas by centuries, and comes from a specific ideology and intention that is antithetical to his understanding of humanity. 2) In S.T. I Q. 29, A. 3, St. Thomas tentatively grants “individuality” to the divine Persons on the grounds of incommunicability (i.e., the name and person of the Father cannot be communicated to the Son or Spirit, etc.), because with good reason he accepts Boethius’ definition of person–though the use of the word “individual” in that definition refers to an ontological issue, the individuation of substances by matter, as was pointed out above. Yet, in the very next article, he says that “person” in God signifies relation.

            Just clarifying things, on that point.

            Yet “individual” as used in American parlance means so much more (and so much less) than “an undivided or incommunicable substance.”

          • Thanks for this! Most helpful!

      • Christopher Hall

        I think Medaille’s point is that the existence of choice does not depend upon individualism, so that it isn’t at all ironic that Storck chose to become Catholic and his Beatitude chose to become Orthodox, and yet both critique American individualism. Their ability to make that choice really doesn’t depend upon American individualism, though that idea is very popular among many Americans.

        Whatever the case may be, It seems to me that more implicit in the respective choices of Storck and his Beatitude is not the claim that we are free “to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit”, but the claim that their respective Churches have the truth, and that they are not free from truth, but beholden to it.

        • Christopher,

          I agree that the existence of choice doesn’t depend on individualism but I didn’t argue that it did. In fact, I would find it odd for any Christian to argue that freedom was dependent on anything other than human nature as it comes from the hand of God.

          Nor have I argued that it is ironic that Storck and his Beatitude critique individualism–a critique that (as I said in my original post) I thought fair and necessary. I will also grant that both men were convinced of the truth claims of their respective Churches. The irony is, as I said in my essay, “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.”

          Now I’ll grant that there have been similar conversions in other cultural circumstances. But while this would be an interesting essay in it’s own right, it isn’t the argument I’m making here. Like it or not, in the contemporary American context, individualism plays a significant role in religious conversion both to–and from–the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

          One last point, while I stipulate for this conversation that both men accepted “the claim of their respective Churches have the truth.” Unfortunately, since the Catholic and Orthodox Churches make different truth claims, at least one of these men is wrong. It is, I would suggest, precisely the AMERICAN form of individualism that allows us not only to live peaceably with but to do so in a manner that doesn’t grant dominance of one Church over the other.

          I don’t say this to be polemical but to point out that this has not always been so. Certainly Orthodox Christians are not innocent of violating what today we would call the religious liberty of Catholics. So yes, each man feels beholden to the truth, neither man seems inclined to impose upon the conscience or political liberty of the other in the name of truth.

          Both men, and both Churches, have made a practical peace with the American form of individualism. I’m assuming that the critical comments on this thread are from Roman Catholics. Assuming I’m correct in this, it suggests, to men at least, for some Catholics at least an uneasy, and possibly even unwelcome, peace.

          While there are Orthodox Christians who disagree with me on this, I think there is something good in American individualism. Chief among these goods is the religious free marketplace that allows people to become Orthodox.

          That said, I don’t American individualism as an unalloyed good or that I seeing it as even a limited good means that I must accept uncritically the Enlightenment. Just as an example, I do think–as I said above–asceticism is essential to freedom.

          I’ve gone on enough.

          Thanks for your comment.

          In Christ,

          +FrG

          • Christopher Hall

            Thank you for the response, Father. I’ll follow up with a more detailed response of my own, later. For now, though, I don’t think it necessary to assert that American individualism is completely deprived of good (what is, given the nature of being and goodness?) or totally depraved and vicious in order to make the kinds of criticism of it that Storck, for instance, makes. Now, you will say that you’re not putting forth such a false dichotomy: either one must completely accept and unabashedly laud American individualism, or one must assert that there is no good to be found therein. I agree that you’re not putting forth such an argument. But, still I must ask, then: what exactly IS the argument? Particularly when you venture forth criticisms of Storck and Metropolitan Jonah? As converts, how would Storck be less free to choose Catholicism in a Catholic polity, or Metropolitan Jonah Orthodoxy in an Orthodox polity? Rather, wouldn’t the respective freedom of each be increased by the respective polity? And isn’t that precisely a large part of each man’s argument?

            Thanks for the lengthy response.

          • Christopher,

            Thank you for your observations and questions–I look forward to your more detailed response. Please forgive my delay in responding–pastoral obligations have kept me away.

            I don’t think in a Catholic polity that Storck would have been necessarily any less free to become Catholic or Metropolitan any less free to do as he did in an Orthodox polity. I do think that each man would have faced significant obstacles, however, in an Orthodox or Catholic polity respectively. For that matter, if they were Muslim by birth and lived in the Ottoman empire conversion would have been even more difficult. (Though as the college of Eastern and Western Christians martyrs attest, “difficult” doesn’t mean impossible.)

            It does seem to me that the criticisms of American individualism that I’ve read here assume just the scenario you outline: Living not only in a Christian polity but a polity that supports one’s own understanding of the Christian tradition.

            I’ll let Storck and Metropolitan Jonah answer for themselves, but I don’t think “the respective freedom of each be increased by the respective polity.” Living in an Orthodox country might help me more fully embrace the Gospel but I don’t think that this is necessarily the case. Or this at least is the conclusion that I draw from reading the sermons of St John Chrysostom.

            A Christian culture can be of value but (as with American individualism) the value is limited. Freedom in the full sense requires not only sacramental grace but ascetical effort. A “Christian” culture can hinder the latter even while fostering the former.

            Hope this answers your question about what I think.

            In Christ,

            +FrG

  • Daniel Schwindt

    “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.”

    I think the observation of Gomez-Davila is probably more accurate: “Modern man believes he lives amidst a pluralism of opinions, when what prevails today is a stifling unanimity.”

    • Daniel,

      I agree (at least to a point) that we are becoming more uniform in our views. I’m the Orthodox chaplain at the University of Wisconsin here in Madison. Thew new chancellor of the University (Rebecca M. Blank) spoke to the chaplains about the need to diversify the voices heard on campus to include conservatives!

      At the same time, I do think American culture is a competitive marketplace of ideas. I’ll grant that the market seems to be shrinking. But if it is then I think Christians–and specifically Orthodox and Catholic Christians–need to ask ourselves how we have failed.

      Diversity in the sense of pluriformity, is a Christian idea roots in the events of Pentecost. The fire of the Holy Spirit comes to rest on the heads of each disciple. St Paul builds on this when he talks about the Church as a body with many members all of whom are dependent upon each other. And of course, there is the celebration of the Eucharist in which each person received the Body and Blood of Christ personally thus affirming his or her own membership in the Church.

      All this happens without loss of the uniqueness of the person. And all this, I would suggest, is what American individualism–at its best–aspires toward. Like all cultures, American culture makes a promise it can’t fulfill. This happens not because the culture is corrupt (though to a degree it is) but because the promise can only be fulfilled in the life to come. The sacraments, especially Baptism and Holy Communion, give us a foretaste of what is ultimately eschatological. But this is a topic for another day.

      Thanks for the comment!

      In Christ,

      +FrG

  • John Médaille

    Fr. Gregory,

    I am somewhat at a loss to discover any real difference in the
    statements “choice equals individualism” and “choice is the key to
    individualism.” Perhaps you will explain. But in either case, “free choice” is
    the issue. That has some real implications which need to be considered. More of
    which anon.

    As a mere historical matter, the whole purpose of
    individualism, from its founding in the Enlightenment, was the severing of the
    newly-created individual from his ties to God, the Church, the King, the
    community, and especially the family. We were all to be “citizens of the world,” and thus of
    no particular place. It is no surprise that that the philosophers of this new order (and it really was new) immediately
    set out to establish a universal dictatorship rooted in an ideology; they
    really had no choice but to do this, having destroyed all the institutions that
    could give meaning to life and direction to man. That’s the whole problem with
    individualism: if man is alone, he will be nothing and the state (or its
    shadow, the corporation) will be all.

    But if you find the Enlightenment too remote, you could
    consult contemporary thinkers like Michael Novak, who finds in the corporation
    a formation superior to the family, because the family is “hegemonic” while the
    corporation is “freely-chosen,” and isn’t free choice the best thing of all?

    I can’t say anything at all about Yannaras, but I am pretty
    sure you cannot find support in Zizoulas. As for Boethius, he is speaking of an
    ontological issue, the individuation of substances, but nowhere does he attempt
    to found a psychology or a sociology, much less a politics, on such an
    individuation. Despite the similarity of sound, individuation of substances and
    individualism deal with quite different topics. And the exclusion of the term “individual”
    from the Trinity is not just something you find in Thomas, but in the whole of
    Christian tradition. If you substitute the individual for the Persons of the
    Trinity, you no longer have a unity, but a committee, and we should pray to the
    “Chairman, the Secretary, and the Treasurer.” There is a reason that the Sacred
    Tradition has carefully chosen its words; without that, the Word becomes
    obscure.

    I think it is somewhat glib to say, “The primacy of the
    person (the “individual” in American parlance)…” It is simply NOT the
    case to say those terms are synonymous. Granted, there is a well-funded effort
    to confuse and confound the terms, so that persons with certain political
    interests can pass off St. John Paul’s personalism by claiming, “oh, he’s just
    talking about good, ol’ American individualism!” No, he’s not; he is
    deliberately opposing it.

    What is it precisely that you mean by “freedom”? It is not
    clear, but from the very next sentence, you seem to mean what is called by
    Isaiah Berlin, “negative freedom,” the mere absence of coercion. But that has
    never been the Christian meaning of freedom, which was only free to the degree
    it was directed toward the good. Indeed, this “negative freedom,”
    indistinguishable from license, is advanced precisely to free us from the
    implied coercion of damnation. God does indeed woo us; but he also threatens.

    And indeed, if absence of coercion is the issue, then there
    are absolutely no grounds to tell a man that he cannot “marry” another man, or
    his cousin, or indeed six of his cousins, serially or all at once. And here we
    come to the real point of this discussion: the emphasis on individualism and a
    mere negative freedom must mean that all is allowed that is not coercion. And
    to be absolutely clear about my own position, I have absolutely no objection to
    coercing a man to fulfill his obligations, whether he voluntarily choose those
    obligations or not.

    Finally, you do take exception to individualism’s rejection
    of asceticism, and of rights only in service to responsibilities. But that was
    the whole point of individualism, from the first, and to this day. We would
    have only those responsibilities we freely choose, and only for as long as we
    choose them (think “no-fault divorce”) and not those nasty old hegemonic ones
    we were born into or to which we bound ourselves permanently. After all, we
    wouldn’t want “coercion,” would we?

    • John,

      I think we might be talking past each other. I agree that American individualism is not without its shortcomings and real dangers. But as I’ve said several times, that’s not my concern here. Rather I want to argue that there is something good in individualism even if that good is limited and obscure.

      So let me ask you, do you see anything good in American individualism? I think “no” is a reasonable answer–and one which I get frequently from my fellow Orthodox Christians–but it would help me if you could tell me whether or not you saw anything of value in American individualism.

      Thanks!

      In Christ,

      +FrG

      • John Médaille

        Well, at least we agree that the “good” of individualism is “limited and obscure.” But I can’t see exactly what the good you see in it is, since you won’t define that good for me. I gather from you article that the “good” is “liberty,” but without knowing what you mean by that term, how am I to proceed? I gather that by your reckoning the “good” is that Thomas Storck could convert to Catholicism, and that certainly is a good, and a good of liberty. But is it a good of individualism? It is totally unclear to me how you connected this conversion with individualism. I gather that neither Mr. Storck nor His Beatitude share this view. I think your view might be summed up like this (and please correct if my reconstruction is not accurate): individualism leads to a gov’t indifferent to religion; it therefore leads to “tolerance” of all religions; it therefore leaves a space for the librarian and the Metropolitan to convert to any religion they choose.” Is that a good summation of the chain of reasoning?

        Certainly, the last link in the chain is correct. But the first two are doubtful. Rather than “indifference,” the state and the major institutions (primarily the corporations) do indeed push a “religion,” the religion of secularism and a liturgy of consumerism. Their tolerance of competing religions does not extend to allowing those religions into the public square (read especially, Locke on “tolerance”); they “tolerate” religion only to the degree that it agrees to be marginalized. Rather than “tolerate” religion, it would be more correct to say that it has tamed religion, domesticated it, made it no more potent than the house pet, so that can no longer be a threat to the powers that be, any more than the house cat can be a threat to the master.

        The good of conversion is obviously found in other systems, and there is nothing necessary for it that is found in the dogmas of individualism. So, no, I don’t see any good in individualism.

        • Got it, you don’t see any good in individualism. Fair enough.

          • John Médaille

            I guess I was too subtle, a quality I am not normally known to have. But in deconstructing the one good identified, I thought I made the answer clear. But if not, the answer is “no”; I certainly see no essential good that can’t be gotten in other ways, and with fewer dangers. Individualism always doubles back on itself to become conformity; that a few exceptional minds can escape this conformity merely forms the exceptions that prove the rule. Here is a wonderful documentary on just this topic: Adam Curtis’s “Century of the Self.” I highly recommend it. You should at least watch the first of the four episodes: http://vimeo.com/67977038.

            I trust there is no further doubt on this point?

          • Yes, individualism doubles back on itself. So? We live in a fallen world and all cultures double back on themselves at different points.

            In any case, I haven’t argued that the positive elements of individualism are unique to it. As I said in another comment, if we believe in human nature we would expect just this kind of cross-cultural convergence.

            In Christ,

            +FrG

          • John Médaille

            Well, we can go on, but this much agreement seems to be clear: The “good” of individualism is at best limited and obscure and can be reached by other means. Now we have reached the point of damning with faint praise.

            As for everything doubling back to become its own opposite, this is true, but the process is different. Christianity becomes its own opposite by becoming less Christian; individualism doubles back by becoming more individualistic. The problems or Christianity are the problems of decline and failure; the problems of individualism are the problems of advancement and success. Those are quite different problems; to solve the first you must strengthen it; to solve the second you must weaken it. And in this particular historic moment, to accomplish the first you must also accomplish the second; to restore Christianity, you must destroy individualism. That is why I strenuously object to articles in praise of the disease that is killing us. It is not personal.

            Watch the film; I am sure you will find it entertaining, and perhaps even enlightening.

    • Thomas Leith

      Once again, Professor Medaille has said better than I can what I should have wanted to say. I tell people “there is no such thing as an ‘individual’ — Individualism is an ideology and a lie.” This is all Individualisms’ “shortcoming”. The Personalism of Peter Maurin and St. John-Paul give us the key here — they deal with the whole person-in-relation.

  • Thomas Storck

    Fr. Gregory,

    I appreciate your response to my essay, along with that of Metropolitan Jonah. Without attempting any exhaustive analysis of your own essay (I may essay a reply at a later point), I’ll only point out a couple of things. First, the odd fact, as many observers since at least Tocqueville have noted, of the real lack of diversity in Americans’ thinking. Individualism indeed is a dogma of the American way of life. It does not, however, for most people provide real freedom of thought, but restricts the ability of most Americans to think outside of rather narrow bounds, and within those bounds, thinking has pretty much been reduced to repetition of slogans. Is it true that liberal individualism offers people freedom to seek the good and to embrace it? Only in the sense that any social situation offers that freedom. People embrace Christ in concentration camps and the gulag. I admit that I prefer liberal individualism in that I am not physically punished as a result of my becoming a Catholic. I’m not sure that this is of much benefit to the state of my soul, however. But to credit American individualism because some have embraced the truth would seem to detract from those many Christians who embraced and held onto the truth despite very adverse circumstances.

    Moreover, what does the state of the American religious and intellectual mind say about this individualism? If the purpose of freedom of speech, for example, is to aid us to discover and embrace truth, it appears that it’s not going very well,doesn’t it? The Christian social orders of the past certainly had their faults, but they offered the average person a public framework for his thinking and for the conduct of his life. He was free to deviate from that framework, at least within limits, but the framework was available to him to give his life meaning. American individualism offers no such framework, certainly no Christian framework, really no framework at all, except to suggest that there is no framework.

    • Thomas,

      Thank you for your comments and I look forward to your
      essay!

      As I said below, I’m not suggesting here that American
      individualism is perfect only that there are some good elements to be found in it along with the negative elements that you and Metropolitan Jonah point out. I take my starting point for trying to articulate these positive qualities from St Paul “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philip 4:8).

      Whether or not American individualism provides us with a framework to give meaning to our lives I think rather depends on which of the various tradition within American individualism that Bellah identifies we are talking about. In its biblical and civic forms I suspect it might very well. Unfortunately, and I think this gets to you the political and concerns you outline in your last paragraph, these are not the forms of individualism that hold sway in our culture.

      Anyway, I look forward to your essay!

      In Christ,

      +FrG

  • Ralph Coelho

    Individualism is an attitude of self-belief. Choice is an action.
    Individualism establishes the right to choice. Choice can range from being entirely
    self-centred to being totally other-centred. Modern man convinces himself that he
    has a plurality of choices but does not superimpose a moral code that directs the
    choice between the two extremes.

    When man chooses to be other than other-centred he is aware (by
    conscience) that he is falling short. He looks for principles like Human Rights
    (his own) as a rational means of choosing what does no harm himself or minimises
    his loss.

    How many times did Jesus
    advice us to be perfect, be good, and be merciful – like his Father. Goodness is
    the source of love as respect (as opposed to familiarity) is the foundation of genuine
    love for the other.

  • Dove Weed

    You wrote – “At the same time, and this is the point of my argument, the Church–East and West–needs to be aware not only of the real dangers of individualism and the marketplace of ideas but also the opportunities that they offer the work of the Church.”

    So, the “good” of individualism/secularism is that it allows The Church to present herself as counter culture to the failings of individualism/secularism.

    By definition of individualism, the “individual” is only responsible to “self” and not society, and has the right to serve their own interests, without taking the interests of society into consideration. As such, individualism is directly tied to “free market” theories of “economics” and to libertarianism (which is part of the history of liberalism). If society becomes a marketplace of ideas (and “products”) that compete for our attention, acceptance and “purchase”, then the more individualism/secularism holds sway, the more it fails the deeper, spiritual, real needs of humanity, the better The Church ultimately appears by way of comparison to those with a conscience who hold their self interest (i.e. their salvation/sanctification/communion/community) above the consumer culture/society that worships in the mode of individualism/secularism at the feet of mammon.

    Individualism/secularism returns Christianity back to its early days, albeit for now without the physical persecution, when being a Christian was a function of “choice” not culture. It was the corrupted culture (homogenous hegemony) of The Church of Rome following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the purging of the Roman Empire of pagans and heretics that gave rise to individualism which in turn gave rise to political individualism/secularism and liberalism. Liberalism is rooted in reaction to the abuses of the Church of Rome, and in the Enlightenment reaction to Rome which transferred divine primacy from the Church to human reason. As such, liberalism rejects many foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as the Divine Right of Kings, hereditary status, and established religion (i.e. Latin, Papist “Christianity”).

    Therein lies the litmus test of “conservatism” and “liberalism”. The former really holds that legitimate government rules by “divine right”, the latter by “consent of the people”. As much as I’m repulsed by modern western American liberal culture/society, I for one do not want to return to being ruled by a conservative arrogant, earthly monarch within a homogenous “Christian” culture, like is the case with so much of history. One need only look to Eastern Europe to see the effects of such “conservatism” (“cradle” Orthodoxy which equates Christianity with nationality) and to Western Europe to see the effects of such “liberalism” (“anything goes” consumer “culture”).

    Human reasoning apart from God gives rise to such proverbial extremes that pit one against the other – totalitarian “Christendom” vs. licentious secularism. Such hubris is apparent today in the way “right” vs. “left” butt heads. The problem with “liberalism” is that it’s made it easy to challenge the supremacy of God. The problem with “conservatism” is that it makes it hard to question the supremacy of the market (its globalism and militarism protection), thereby confusing supremacy of the market with supremacy of God.

    The “good” of individualism encourages analysis and critical thinking . . .

    Upon closer look at “liberalism” today, it becomes apparent that it’s really just a new form of “conservatism” of old. “Liberalism” has been made into a boogeyman destroyer of “culture” while the real culprit remains an elephant in the room – the “culture industry” (media and entertainment – radio, tv, news, sports, music, movies, etc.) is private enterprise, corporate big business, which has replaced the monarchy and aristocracy with an oligarchic plutocracy. The political left does not “own” such industry and has no control over it. The corporate owners of the “cultural industry” have and continue to push the envelope of cultural degradation because such trash sells – in other words for purpose of mammon worship. The political “right” has always been about support for advancing the interests of such big business, having been founded for the benefit of the railroad monopoly, and putting Lincoln in office for that purpose, under the “moral” guise of abolitionsim, just as today it hides under the “moral” guise of anti-abortionism and anti-homosexuality even though it does nothing about either despite having had more than enough opportunity after having achieved majority political control.

    The Corporation was a means by which the crown gave monopoly over economics to an oligarchy, which makes it completely understandable why the liberal “conservative” agenda of today puts such blind faith in the “liberalism” of the “market” even though it’s anything but “free”, and has such devotion to militarism. Modern corporations have tended toward monopoly from their beginning; it’s in their “nature” because their goal in life is to minimize costs and maximize profits. Competition reduces profit. All the talk about “free” trade and competition is just that – talk, hot air, propaganda to keep the masses supporting corporatist consumerism as if it’s democratic “individualism”. The military has always been the “protector” of the Corporation. See Smedley Butler, “War is a Racket”.

    Also see as suggested elsewhere, Adam Curtis’ “The Century of the Self”
    Douglas Rushkoff, “Economics Is Not Natural Science”, and “Life, Inc.”
    City of NY, ASHP (American Social History Project) “Who Built America” Vol.1&2,
    Anthony Sutton’s corpus of works (e.g. “Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution”, “The Best Enemy Money Can Buy”, etc.)
    “Who Rules America? Power, Politics, & Social Change” by G. William Domhoff
    “The Corporation” – documentary film
    Thomas Frank “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, “The Conquest of Cool”
    Alex Carey “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda vs. Freedom and Liberty”
    Etc. etc. – too many sources to name them all

    The Church can only be in the world but not of it. When she becomes of the world, she stops really being The Church and becomes the church in apostasy no differently than Latin Papist Rome fell into apostasy. “Christendom” is human hubris. The Church is a spiritual hospital and a spiritual family, which is what the parish model should be – family; one for all and all for one like early Christians, based in sharing, each and every member sharing with all others like a family supporting each others “cure” of selfish “happiness seeking sickness”.

    Individualism/liberalism/secularism has been co-opted by corporatist consumerism which thrives by feeding the flame of “happiness seeking sickness” in “individuals” within “society” which it views as the unconscious masses to be manipulated and controlled but never trusted to rule by themselves. The only “good” of such is the right to choose without persecution that the corporatist oligarchy grants to such “individuals”. As such, The Church exists as counter culture indictment of such dominant modern consumerist “culture”. For The Church to be in such “world” but not of it, Christians must reject consumer culture and start supporting one another in attempts to find another “living” by way of economic sharing that is not part and parcel of consumerism, that does not aid and abet consumerism in its production of happiness seeking sickness and fragmentation of humanity from interdependence with God, each other and Creation.