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Yes, we’re all individuals, thank God

OPINION | Greg Clarke

Tuesday 22 September 2015

In politics, it is considered a sign of disaster for any given leader when he or she “no longer has a narrative.” At that point, their individual decisions look shallow and their motives start to seem selfish. When blighted MPs can no longer explain the larger story that shapes the choices they are making on our behalf, they are dead in the water. Why?

Author Larry Siedentop would say it is because human behaviour is always the consequence of the interaction, consciously or unconsciously, between beliefs and social institutions. In his 2014 book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop endeavours to bring to the surface the ideas behind the West that have sunk out of view. And they are precisely the key ideas which inform the narrative of our social lives that we now seem to be struggling to tell.

Among the most important of these ideas, Siedentop argues, is the notion that individuals matter. We are so used to this concept that it is hard for us to imagine a world in which it isn’t true. We are so used to our preferences being taken into consideration, that if they aren’t we are immediately outraged.

“I ordered a double shot decaf skim cappuccino,” we cry, “not this full-fat weak flat white garbage. I am an individual; I have rights; bring me the coffee I ordered!”

More seriously, our legislation and social customs instinctively consider equality of individuals to be basic. Siedentop tells us that this is thanks to the apostle Paul, who taught that “the identity of individuals is no longer exhausted by the social roles they happen to occupy” (p.62). Or, in Paul’s words,  “there is no neither slave nor free … for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28) Everyone has equal value, because of the primacy of Christ; our “secondariness” actually makes each of us more important than we would have been in the ancient world of inherited social status, innate inferiority theories and set roles.  That’s why you care about getting the cappuccino you ordered.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that we have taken this notion of the individual way too far.”

Siedentop also argues that it wasn’t the European Enlightenment that brought liberty to downtrodden human beings, as they escaped oppressive religious bonds. On the contrary, it was properly construed Christian thinking about the individual that gradually reduced human enslavement of many kinds across twelve centuries or so throughout the Middle Ages. The Modern age merely built on that Christian foundation. Freedom emerged from the difficult task of applying the gospel in practical ways to the stubborn beliefs and calcified institutions that we had constructed for ourselves from ancient times.

This means that the cappucino-orderer needs to know that his very highly developed sense of self-worth actually owes a great deal to the apostle Paul’s radical inversion of ancient values, following his encounter with the loving Christ. Try explaining that to him across the cafe counter!

But it doesn’t take a genius to see that we have taken this notion of the individual way too far. We have placed it on an unreachable pedestal, insisting that we get our cappuccino regardless of the consequences on those other, equally valuable, individuals who make up family, friends, neighbours and strangers. We see the damage that this hyper-individualism has done in everything from traffic congestion (mainly caused, I understand, by one-occupant vehicles) to credit card use (I have to have it now, to keep up with everyone else) to relationship contracts (I promise to love you until you no longer satisfy my needs).

A properly Christian understanding of individualism will always balance individual value and conscience with social needs and responsibilities. We have to use our hard-won liberty well, not merely on our own preferences and interests but also on pursuing the common good, on the actions and attitudes that will build something greater together.

When each of us knows we are individually loved by God, we are free to love our neighbour unselfishly. That kind of individualism sees us playing a part in the larger narrative of our lives – not just our own inner story but the unfolding social narrative of the coming of the kingdom of God.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

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