Individualism and Christianity

Imagine two nutritional scientists arguing about cholesterol. One of them argues that it is good and cites all the benefits of high density lipoprotein (“good cholesterol”). The other argues that it is bad and cites all the reasons why low density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”) is unhealthy. This peculiar incident is an example of arguing over nothing. It is an easily solvable problem once detected, but the detection often requires either external knowledge or a high degree of insight. Because we have external knowledge about good and bad cholesterol, this strange argument seems completely trivial. But there are countless incidents when we are confused for the same reasons as these two nutritionists, while failing to identify the problem. I will explore one such incident and attempt to make the best out of a question that very few people seem to have tackled in an efficient way.

Father Thomas Hopko, a priest in the Orthodox Church of America, once made the following statement during an interview:

Orthodox Christians are radically opposed to individualism. The individual doesn’t exist. We are persons in communion with other persons, like it or not. And the real issue is: which persons are we going to be in communion with? […] Who are we going to share life with? […] We Orthodox say [that] we share it with the saints, […] the prophets, the apostles, the holy people. The church is a communion, […] because we are created for holy communion with God and with each other.

Marcus Grodi of the Franciscan University of Steubenville (who is a Roman Catholic) has a somewhat similar opinion:

The biggest heresy that is running rampant in America today, if not around the world, in Christian traditions […] is this individualism of the “Jesus and me” religion. […] We are not saved merely as individuals but as part of the family of God.

Clearly there is a position against individualism that is common in both the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity.

But then there is the seemingly contradicting view that Christianity emphasizes the value of the individual, the rights of the individual, and the responsibility of the individual. The human being is created in the image and likeness of God, with the ability to think freely and act freely. Every individual has unique value to God and must therefore have unique value to his fellow man. Infringement upon the free will of an individual is an attack on what he has in common with God and therefore a kind of rebellion against God.

So which is it? Is Christianity opposed to individualism (as Fr. Hopko and Grodi suggest), or is Christianity inherently individualistic, especially compared to other religions? I will argue that asking this question is much like arguing whether cholesterol is good or bad. For this purpose it is helpful to distinguish between good individualism and bad individualism. The lack of this distinction creates the illusion that there is a substantive debate about the relationship between individualism and Christianity. We will explore both of these new concepts (with surprisingly creative names) in an attempt to clarify what has been both over-complicated and oversimplified.

Good individualism comes down to (i) recognition that the individual has certain properties that are independent from his interaction with others, or with any common features he has with others, and (ii) the ability to create original thoughts and think independently from the collective. The first point is a confession that every human being has inalienable rights in the form of freedoms and dignities. They are inalienable because no interest of the whole collective can be placed at the expense of these properties. Every person is an icon of Christ, and it is therefore a form of blasphemy to torture him or to kill him, no matter how much evil he has done. And when a person is innocent, he also has certain freedoms that are invariant to the common good of society and other features of the collective as a whole. These are forms of individualism that have brought peace and prosperity to the cultures that embraced them.

The second point of good individualism is about the ability to stand out from the mob. It is a theme throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament that the prophet steps forward to be persecuted by the group for a kind of wrongthink. In the New Testament, Christ epitomizes this theme with His criticism of the pharisees, and He is in turn met with a mob that yells “crucify him.” This ability to think independently from the crowd is directly related to the individual’s existence in the likeness of God by sharing the ability to create. God is the ultimate Creator, and our ability to create original ideas is another way in which God made us in His image and likeness. Independent thinking is a way of generating original thought, which is a way of creating an original idea.

What, then, is this individualism that Fr. Hopko and Grodi are so opposed to? Defining bad individualism is somewhat more difficult and less straightforward. My understanding of it comes down to (i) failure to distinguish between a group and a set of individuals, (ii) taking full credit for achievements that would not have been possible without external factors, and (iii) reduction of meaning to the satisfaction of the self.

In mathematics, there is a distinction between a set and a group. A group is a special kind of set, defined not only by its elements but also by a binary operation that can be performed between any two elements. Groups can have properties beyond just a single binary operation between two elements, which leads to concepts such as a ring, a field, or a space. In the same way, a group of people with properties beyond merely the individuals of which it is composed can be called a community, a society, a collective, or even an organization. To serve a group is not merely to serve the individuals in the group, but to also consider the relationship between the group’s members as well as other properties of the group, such as a common purpose. As we saw with good individualism, this common purpose is not to be placed above certain innate properties of the individual. But it is also common to forget about these special properties of the group and viewing it merely as a set. This failure to understand the group may lead to a view of Christianity as a set of personal relationships between each individual and Christ. It is this view that Marcus Grodi criticizes in his opposition to individualism. Misunderstanding of the group can also directly result in the second point of bad individualism. When we see a group as merely a set of individuals, we forget that our achievements are completely dependent on our interactions with others.

The third point is what Fr. Thomas Hopko addresses when he claims that the individual does not exist. The context of the quote is a discussion about millennials who are “spiritual but not religious.” Versions of spirituality that are available on the market are all attempts to satisfy our selfish desires to fulfill ourselves spiritually. Yet such a desire is an itch unscratchable without the humbling of ourselves to be followers of a person. Any attempt of the individual to make the journey of faith on his own is a form of self-worship. As Fr. Hopko adds shortly after: “the only thing you can do alone is perish – go to hell. If you’re saved, you’re saved with everybody else.”

Now I was not able to articulate the points of bad individualism as precisely as it would have been ideal. But one thing is clear – it is completely distinct from the other kind of individualism, and there is no significant rift between acceptance of the good kind and the rejection of the bad kind. They are at least compatible on blog paper, and whether they are compatible in practice is up to us.


One response to “Individualism and Christianity”

  1. S KAUFMAN Avatar

    Vlad, Thank you for writing this. I came across it looking for commentary on the individualism of Christ’s message.

    For me I feel this is an important in His message and His methods. The section where you point out the “inalienable rights in the form of freedoms and dignities” and the individuals ability to think independently from the mob are strong points to me. I believe this is a key reason totalitarian gov’ts fear Christianity so much.

    Christians are still part of a group but a group of individuals. Much like my marriage, where my wife & I are very much different and yet so often the same. This is a strength.

    From a secular individual. (“I do not mean “godless,” a usage from the 1850s; I use the word in its medieval meaning of ‘not pertaining to religious occupation.’” – VS) 🙂

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