In western civilization in general and in the United States in particular, individualism is hailed as a virtue. It is actively promoted in law (individual rights), society (the American Dream), and even in religion (a personal relationship with Jesus Christ).
So much of this individually-focused living has proven worthwhile. Ambition and drive are valuable tools for survival. In this way, many would point to the western way and declare it superior. We’ve built a society on this fundamental belief and, for the most part, it has gone quite well.
But for every celebrated truth there is a shadowy side of that same truth.
Hyper-individualism — however common or constitutional it may be — has (quite ironically) done great harm to many individuals. It has done even greater harm to community — faith communities in particular.
As I examine the state of modern religion — specifically (though not exclusively) that of American protestantism — I see a grave reality that we must confront if we are going to continue to grow as a community of faith.
We must reduce our emphasis on hyper-individualism (or eliminate it altogether) if we wish to exist as a community of faith in another hundred years.
That might sound hyperbolic, but I don’t think it is.
Everyone knows that we’re made for community and connection. That’s why we are moved by music and think a lot about sex and enjoy wearing our favorite sport team’s logos. And yet we often (in every practical way) check this instinct at the door when it comes to religion.
Oh sure, we attend worship gatherings (although fewer do so regularly each year) and we might even give an extra hour each week to a small group gathering. But when it comes to true and deep connection with God, we often consider that an individual enterprise. We talk about personal beliefs, personal relationships, individual quiet time, and the like.
In the past 20 or 30 years, it is this individual emphasis that has hurt American religion the most, I believe. In his good book Immortal Diamond, Father Richard Rohr provides this insight:
“…most of religious and church history has been preoccupied with religious ideas, about which you could be wrong or right. When it is all about ideas, you don’t have to be part of “it,” you just need to talk correctly about “it.”
We are quite good in American protestantism at talking about it, but are we a part of it?
We have spent a lot of time sorting into groups where our individual beliefs can be validated and we don’t have to put up with those who don’t think like we do. It makes sense — American protestant churches are the product of at least three divides: The Great Schism of 1054 splitting the Church into East and West, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century splitting the Church of the West from Catholic to non-Catholic, and an additional denominational schism of their own making sometime since — at least one. They were all done in the name of believing the right thing and resulting in a distancing from union not only with the Church universal, but the God who called all this “good” in the first place.
“Religion” itself has increasingly been called bad. In the name of possessing a right individual relationship with Jesus, many have sworn off religion altogether. But “religion” is meant to connect. It’s right there in the word! To re-ligio is to re-bind or re-connect, Rohr points out. It’s from the same root word that gives us ligament. Tearing a ligament in our bodies is awfully painful and traumatic, and yet we increasingly are swearing off the ligaments meant to bind us together and to God. If we have not right religion, what will bind us?
I agree we should swear off being connected only to our “right” ideas. But to be bound to the fulness of God, we must be less exclusive and more open to the movement of God throughout the Church. All of us.
Religion isn’t the problem here, I hate to say, just the common flavor of it most of us have come to taste and know. A personal relationship with Jesus is a good thing, of course, but it’s only a start.
We’re being called deeper than that.
We are called to community which, in the fullest sense, is oneness. Oneness with each other and oneness with God. If you think I’m getting a little new-agey here, check out your Bibles and see that I’m not saying anything the inspired authors don’t say and, in some cases, Jesus Himself.
Remember all those “one another” verses from the New Testament? There are about 100 of them. We’re one-ones, a bunch of the same thing, meant to closely connect not just on ideas but in being. We get this concept in the family, but most of us like to keep our families small. I believe we’re called to a bigger family, the one Body of Christ. That’s oneness.
But we’re also invited into oneness with the Divine.
Rohr reminds us that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27, Galatians 5:2), but laments that we stress likeness (our individual manifestation of connection with God) in the West and often overlook the impact of image (our corporate manifestation of connection with God) that is so monumental in the Eastern Church.
All of this leads to fatigue, because we sense deep down that we’re missing out. You can continue to blame social media for the oft-quoted “increased connection with increased loneliness” problem facing our society today, but it is just one of many symptoms indicating a deeper issue. We run ourselves ragged with various forms of synthetic connection while missing out on the deepest form of all (connection with God) because we love our individualism way too much.
The words of Rohr resonate deeply with me, and I suspect they will with you, too, if you think about this sort of stuff at all or are nagged by what might be missing:
“The West never got the core right but danced around the circumference.”
Being one with God — what so far most of us have only been willing to call an indwelling of the Holy Spirit — has always been the point elsewhere, but never in the West. This will always leave us feeling quite lonely indeed, if we disbelieve we can be connected at that deep of a level with the only Being who can truly make us whole.
So we pile on our individual rights and freedoms and dreams, lonelier and more disconnected all the time.
When we “dance around the circumference” we miss out on the beauty of the core that is oneness.
And we’re dancing in the shadows, not the light.