Individualism – Living Faithfully in a Fallen World

Jimmy JoChrist and Culture, SermonsLeave a Comment

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about some specific challenges of living faithfully as Christians in a changing world.  As most of us know, Christianity does not hold the same pride of place in Canadian culture today as it did several decades ago.  Whereas in the past, one could assume that most other Canadians you encountered shared largely the same faith, values, and morality, it’s simply not true anymore.  And it’s not even simply a matter of talking about Christians and non-Christians; even among those who call ourselves Christians, we can’t necessarily assume we share the same values or beliefs (hopefully, they’re largely the same, but there are wildly different shades of colour). 

Now we’re not getting into all of that, but it’s hard to ignore.  And I’m not trying to give specific answers – what’s right and what’s wrong; or more to the point, who’s right and who’s wrong – nor am I trying to suggest that there is one right answer (though of course, there is only one God, I believe none of us know Him or about Him perfectly).  So what I’m trying to do is help us understand some of the particular challenges of the changing culture, how to pay attention to some of what’s going on – because if we don’t pay attention to what’s going on, it affects us and changes us in ways that we can’t anticipate – and how we might approach living faithfully in the midst of that.  There’s obviously much more to say about that, but we’ll leave it at that. 

So in the first week of our series, we began by considering worldview – that framework or lens through which we look at and make sense of the world.  And it’s important to understand that the prevailing worldviews in our culture (specifically Canadian culture) are, and have been for a long time, changing – it is no longer commonly shared that there is a god, and even if we believe in a god, what kind of god that is.  Consequently, in our second week, we talked about idolatry.  And our main consideration when talking about idolatry is that, in the absence of God, or the absence of a biblical God, we are prone to fill that void with some other god (though we are not certain to call it that).  One of those things we used to replace God is humanism, the perspective (essentially) that human beings are capable of creating or achieving paradise (however conceived) on our own – therefore, what need have we of a god? 

So we can see (I hope) how our previous topics are related to one another, indeed have led to one another (in some sense – though we can’t consider any of that comprehensive or definitive).  At any rate, I think about this kind of thing a lot, and in particular I think about how it affects our understanding of, and therefore how we live out, our Christian faith.  So in continuing our series, there were a lot of things that I thought about (indeed, think about).  When I think about our current place in Canada (which, as I’ve said before, needs to be understood as part of the western world, broadly speaking), there are a number of things that concern me.  Now, of course, the things that concern me aren’t necessarily the things that are concerning in an absolute sense – but I have to start somewhere. 

I worry that our world is becoming more and more polarized.  Polarization is distinctly linked to tribalism – I think that’s clear.  Basically, what we mean by tribalism and polarization is the tendency for people to divide into distinct groups (tribes) and for those groups to self-define in ways that move them further and further away from each other (towards the extreme poles).  What that leads to is a vanishing center – or to put it another way, we find less and less common ground. 

I worry that consumerism is becoming a defining characteristic of our culture.  We are all aware that the western world has become largely consumer-centered, but I’m particularly concerned that this has seeped into our spirituality, and especially our Christian spirituality.  Religion (and again, the Christian religion) has become something that we shop for – we look for the church, the doctrines, the experiences that suit us, that make us feel better, that promise us a bright and happy future.  Increasing consumerism means that fundamental question that shapes how we view faith and religion is, “what will I get out of it?” 

I worry that ego-centrism has become the default posture of most people (and I do mean people as opposed to persons, if that makes sense).  Essentially, by ego-centrism, I mean precisely what the word says:  that we put the “I” at the center of everything.  This manifests in a number of different ways, but it’s the tendency to make my own being, my own experience, and my own perspective the reference point for everything else.  We are inclined to evaluate, to agree or disagree with, or position ourselves according to how it fits the “I.” 

Now with respect to all of these, I think they share a common root – and that is, Individualism.  Western societies, especially over the past several centuries, and intensely over the past several decades, have become distinctly individualistic.  By individualism, we mean a belief, or approach to life, that says that the individual is the basic unit of being or of reality.  Another way to put that is to say that individualism privileges the individual above all else. 

I would argue (again, with little research and no evidence) that Individualism arises out of a context in which Humanism reigns, and in which a distinct biblical understanding (that is, worldview) of God and His kingdom are missing (or, perhaps simply, skewed).  And Individualism gives rise to things like ego-centrism (most obviously, though it is not the same thing), consumerism, tribalism, and polarization, among a host of other things (I won’t, at this time, get into the how or why, but it seems to me that this is the case). 

Now at this point, I think it’s worth distinguishing between individualism, individuality, and identity because we may have a tendency to conflate these terms.  We might think that being an individual (individuality) must mean being individualistic.  We might think that asserting or holding onto our identity necessarily means an individualistic identity (an identity that is purely internally located and nothing else).  Now I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of the distinctions between these terms, but I’ll give you an example of what I mean when I say they are distinct. 

Part of the legacy of the Protestant Reformation and especially the specific expressions of revivals in western society such as the (various) Great Awakenings was the movement to separate salvation from the Church (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) and locate it in the individual.  What I mean was that, in the Roman Catholic Church as an example (and I’m generalizing and simplifying here), one attains salvation by becoming part of the Church.  This wasn’t completely eliminated during the Reformation, but it was certainly challenged.  The Great Awakening(s) served in part to make people realize that salvation is an intensely personal matter.  It’s not enough to simply join the Church or a church, it’s not enough to have parents who are Christians, but one had to have a personal relationship with Christ (And of course, this is very much true).  The degree to which this was influenced by or contributed to the rise of individualism, or more particularly the subjective turn of postmodern culture, is an interesting question, but not one I’m talking about now. 

My point is simply that the legacy of these movements of revival is to make one’s spirituality a more personal matter – the relationship between oneself and God matters.  It’s not enough to fulfill the requirements of a church, but one must enter into a personal relationship with God – To know God and be known by God. 

This was a movement in Christian history towards individuality and personal identity.  One must, oneself, know Christ.  One must, oneself, cling to the sacrifice of Christ.  However, that one’s faith must be individual (or personal) and that one’s personal identity must be formed and shaped by Christ does not mean the same thing as being individualistic.  To be individualistic would mean that only one’s own relationship with Christ matters.  Or that one’s own relationship with Christ matters in isolation.  To be individualistic would mean that one’s own identity, and especially one’s own understanding and interpretation of his or her own identity, is a separate and isolated thing (that is, it is separate from and detached from every other person). 

In other words, and in short, to reject individualism does not mean that you are not an individual. And to reject individualism does not mean that your unique identity, who you are, doesn’t matter. 

As usual, I want to avoid the temptation to get overly theoretical about all this.  What we’re concerned about is how this matters to how we live, and how this matters to how we live in Christ.  I feel like I don’t have to talk about this too much, so what I want to say simply is that the Christian faith, as far as I understand it, does not conceive of a kingdom of God that consists of isolated, detached human monads.  Or, to put it another way, and borrowing the concept (if not the exact phrase) from Gordon Fee, there is no concept in the Bible of a Christianity that is lived alone.  There is no understanding in scripture of a saved life that is lived apart from community.  The kingdom of God is intensely and inherently communal.  Or again, we are created to be a part of a people. 

As our grounding text today, I want to focus on just one passage (in part, because we talk about this so much).  1 Peter 2:4-10 says,

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and,

“A stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:4-10

Now I don’t want to ignore the context of 1 Peter, here.  Peter is talking specifically to a community who is facing persecution for their allegiance and commitment to Jesus Christ.  And in that context, Peter tells them (we will remember), to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)  And then we get the verses on submission. 

So it’s in this context that Peter writes these verses to the persecuted church.  And he’s essentially telling them that how they live as a body, a body that is shaped by and devoted to the work done by Jesus Christ, is a testimony to what Christ has done and what Christ is doing.  Peter is saying that how they live as a people points people to God.  Certainly the individual acts matter (as we will see in the subsequent verses on submission), but they matter because they point to what people you are a part of.

Now Peter is not just talking about morality or civic duty here.  He’s saying something along the lines of actually being a people is part of the testimony.  He certainly talks about what kind of people we are supposed to be – this is a large part of the epistle.  But it seems to me that part of what Peter is saying is that part of the witness to the work Christ has done is the actual lived reality (that is, not just a metaphysical reality) that we are a people. 

The key image in this passage is that of a spiritual building, a spiritual house (verse 4-5).  Because of the work accomplished in Christ, we are being made into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.  We are a holy priesthood inasmuch as we mediate the relationship of God with the world – we mediate the work of Christ to the world.  And in order to be that priesthood, we are being made into a spiritual house.  In other words, being a spiritual house is a pre-requisite for being the priesthood, or by being a spiritual house, we are able to function as a household. 

I’m obviously skipping a lot of exegetical steps here (and I’m actually making some interpretive leaps) but understand the significance of this.  It’s not saying that by being a member of a spiritual house, you the individual can then go out of the house to be an individual priest.  The passage is saying that it is the house itself that is the priesthood.  Now we can extrapolate from that the responsibility of individual members, but the emphasis, what Peter is talking about, is Christ creating the house. 

Now there’s a lot more that needs to be said about this passage.  For example, significantly, Jesus is the capstone or the cornerstone.  Which means not only that He is the most important part, the stone that holds the entire building together.  But it also means that He is part of the building.  It’s an obvious point, but also easily overlooked.  He doesn’t just oversee its construction, doesn’t just ensure the building functions as it should, but He is part of it.  Or, and perhaps more to the point, we are a part of Him.  But, having said that (and again, skipping the more that needs to be said), I just want to close our consideration of this passage by noting the last verses

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Petr 2:9, 10

And of course, there are a plethora of other verses, psalms, narrative arcs that we can consider.  We remember Genesis 2:18 where God says of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  We remember the words of Jesus in John’s gospel when after washing his disciples feet, he says:

Jn. 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” 

John 13:34-35

We think of the image of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth in Revelation, and we hear,

Rev. 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 

[And then immediately after, the angel says to John]

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  And the bride is not a person, it’s a city.  It’s a city of the twelve tribes of Israel, the chosen people of God. 

Revelation 21:3, 10

All of that is simply to say, as we have said many times before, that we are created to be a people.  Human beings are created to be in relationship with one another; to be in community with one another.  And there are all kinds of reasons why other people are terrible or annoying or infuriating.  There are all kinds of ways in which sin shows itself a reality of human life.  But it’s not the final word.  In Jesus, we will be restored in relationship with one another as it was meant to be. 

Therefore, the practice and discipline which I want to commend to you this week should come as no surprise.  Of course, it’s the practice of community, of fellowship, of loving one another.  Because in the practice of community, in the act of loving one another, we have to realize that we are not alone and we are not in this alone.  In the realization of community, we come to the recognition that it is only in the presence of brothers and sisters that we are truly human.  That without the other, something in the “I,” something in the “me,” is lost.  And we can’t do this by effort or ingenuity.  There’s no secret technique to being a community of Christ.  It’s simply a matter of loving one another because Christ loved us first.  Because Christ is the cornerstone, not our similarities, not our agreements, not our structures or our programs or our activities, because Christ is our cornerstone, we can truly (though not fully on this side of eternity) live out the community that Christ has created to be. 

But it’s not a passive thing.  It does take effort and intentionality.  And it’s certainly not an easy thing.  It takes our work and especially reliance on the work that Christ has done in and for us.  But it’s a crucial thing. 

Because [we] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once [we] were not a people, but now [we] are the people of God…

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