I guess I grew up taking the idea of the ‘individual’ for granted. It was up to individuals to succeed or fail in life, each shaping his or her own destiny from the opportunities around them.
In my Canberra high school there was little local community. We all came from somewhere else, and that’s how we learned about the world. Biology was about individual creatures. In economics people were either consumers or units of labour. In English we read individual authors. In history and geography we studied separate time periods or countries, and so on.
Only in the church did I hear of community, and that was through the divine service which we called liturgy. We were small, but we weren’t alone. We sang with the angels, confessed the creeds faithfully, prayed with the saints, and received forgiveness with fellow sinners around the world. The church gave me community as I attended six schools in six towns and cities. It was ‘home’, even though, truth to tell,
I scarcely knew what that was. I just knew about Jesus. The church had taught me about him and I believed in him. It’s the only reason I eventually spent seven years studying for the church’s ordained ministry.
I am, therefore, deeply grieved when individualism trumps community in our church. Individualism says ‘I decide’, ‘I’m in command’. It favours the individual over the collective. We lose sight of our humanity, that God created humankind (male and female) in his image, (see Genesis 1:26). And when God created us, he spoke in the plural: ‘Let us make humankind …’. Individualism impoverishes us. It makes us less than we truly are. Something essential is lacking.
We can’t survive without each other. That’s how our Creator has wonderfully made us, and how he has made his church.
Our emphasis on the individual as separate entity is reasonably recent. Luther is sometimes held responsible, but he struggled with it – was he the one person to stand against the authority of Rome? He did this only for the church, because of the gospel. He did not set himself over against the church. He understood the truth expressed one hundred years later by the English poet John Donne: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main …’
I don’t believe individualism is sustainable. It might promise much but ultimately it’s a fake. We can’t survive without each other. That’s how our Creator has wonderfully made us, and how he has made his church. Faith is a community event. Scripture is the book of the community. The living God gathers us humans together to serve us and for us to serve each other.
The age of individualism is beginning to wane. We are starting to re-join the dots. Scientists now study the connectedness of things. Biologists study ecosystems. Doctors treat our bodies as living communities, complete with bacteria and other necessary organisms. Environmentalists remind us that Earth is a community in which living beings depend on each other.
Perhaps we are finally relearning the wisdom of the ages, which lay forgotten in the age of reason. May we in the church also relearn who we truly are, people of God collectively called into being by him, dependent on him and each other, redeemed by him, and finding our destiny with him together with all the saints in heaven.