“Effortless Christianity:” Individualism vs. Personhood (Part Four)

Individualism

One of the major ways the modern effortless-Christianity movement has gained popularity is through its conformity to the western ideal of individualism.

Most of us in the west have made a clear mental link between individualism and freedom in such a way that it is difficult for us to even think of one without the other.

So, when Christianity merges with our western paradigm of freedom we have a tendency make individualism of paramount importance in our faith. In a sense, if Christ came to set us free then it follows that He came to enhance our individualism.

This is, in part, why many in this movement tend to view the Church’s Tradition as the enemy of freedom in Christ. They see tradition in general as a faceless, impersonal entity that wants to round everyone up and force them into a faceless, impersonal existence.

But what do we really mean by “individual?” I think it’s of extreme importance to consider the realities of individualism and demythologize our conceptions of it. The focus of this article will be to contrast the “individual” with the “person”. Further, we will see how salvation becomes effective when one is released from the mindset of individualism.

Salvation: an individual affair or a communal affair?

To understand why individualism is antithetical to salvation, one must consider what individualism is in reality, and what constitutes salvation. The discussion of these two concepts have filled more than a few libraries, thus it would be impossible to discuss them here at length, but the following thoughts are what I believe to be some of the necessary points to understand:

1. The ancient Church made a clear distinction between an “individual” and a “person.” This distinction may at first seem to be a needless detour of semantics, but it is actually a very important concept in understanding Christianity’s claim of what it means to be “saved.” In an effort to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity, the early Church Fathers identified the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as the three “Persons” of the Trinity, rather than the three “Individuals” of the Trinity. The Persons of the Trinity are inherently communal – the Persons are distinct yet never separate; God is three divine Persons (hypostases) who are one in essence (homoousios), as stated in the Nicene Creed. They understood true personhood as that state of existence constituted by communion, hence one cannot conceive of the true God as “One God” in the sense of existing as a lone individual. Rather God is One as a communion of three Persons. God did not “become” love after He created the universe. God was always love because God is eternally Trinity. Thus, our true being (the likeness and image of God, Genesis 1:26) is communion – personhood – and not autonomous individuality.

2. Individualism, in reality, is the antithesis of the Christian concept of communion. The individual presupposes exemption from community. The more individualistic one becomes the more he becomes isolated in his self-directed existence. Isolation has more in common with a prison cell than with freedom.The fall of man can be understood as mankind’s descent into an existence constituted by individualism. Prior to the fall, mankind’s existence was constituted by communion in true personhood. As Robert Lloyd Arnold puts it, “The more a person acts to satisfy the demands and appetites of his own human nature, the less of a person he in fact becomes” (Orthodoxy Revisited, p.158). The more individualism becomes our means of life, the more hardened our fallen state becomes.

3. Salvation, then, is a return to true “personhood,” i.e. a return to an existence constituted in God’s likeness – Trinitarian communion. Just as God’s very being is communion, our true being is communion. Without the communion of God we have no life in us. Hell is the ironic state of an eternal life of death; that of lacking communion with God. True communion is accomplished when we are “grafted” into Christ’s Body, the Church. If one is not “in Christ” then he does not have salvation.


Does Christianity want to wipe out my uniqueness?

So far this discussion might lead one to believe that Christianity is essentially a denial of the uniqueness of each person. In fact, the opposite is true. Radical individualism, if it does anything, serves only to deny the uniqueness of the individual. What can one claim of him or herself as unique in a biological and psychological sense? As humans we are far more alike in all of our “natural” needs, desires and thoughts than we are different. Treating any aspect of our natural existence as something of absolute importance is to subject our truly unique being to that which is ephemeral and ultimately meaningless.

Christos Yannaras (Orthodox theologian and professor) makes this point, saying: “Christ affirms that in order to save your soul, you have to lose it (Mt 16:25). What this means is that you have to reject the deep-rooted identification of yourself with your individual nature and with the biological and psychological self-defense of the ego. It means renouncing all reliance on human strength, goodness, authority, action or effectiveness. Whoever wishes to live must lose his life – the illusion of life which is individual survival and self-sufficiency – in order to save his life as personal distinctiveness and freedom” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 58).

The life that Christ offers, far from obliterating a person’s unique self, is the only way to realize one’s unique self. In contrast, the individualistic approach to salvation offered by effortless-Christianity obliterates one’s unique self and further entrenches the believer in the isolated, autonomous, self-directed existence of individualism. It encourages the would-be believer to be content with “me, my Bible, and Jesus,” a phrase quite foreign to both Scripture and the Tradition since Jesus actually calls us to communion in His Body. The Church and its place in our salvation will be the subject of the next article. It will highlight many important aspects of the Church that is rejected wholesale in the effortless-Christianity movement.

Thanks for reading!

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