What is the most deeply prevalent worldview in western society? Naturalism you might say? Post-modernism? Presently I’ve been become convinced that what is more fundamental than even these is individualism. Don’t be fooled, individualism here doesn’t refer to a mere self-centredness, but to a distinctly modernist way of viewing identity and perhaps even goodness itself as located “within.” You hear individualism at work in expressions like “stay true to yourself” or “you know in your heart what is right.” I’d like to capture the essence of individualism in a series of neat propositions but being quite near the start of my journey to understand it, I’m as of yet unqualified. I feel that individualism, whatever precisely it is, is so deeply embedded in Western though that articulating it requires waking up out of a dream you didn’t know you were in. I find myself groggy and occasionally tempted to hit 'snooze'.
My first guide into exploring the whats and whys of individualism has been Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self – the Making of Modern Identity. It’s a fairly weighty tome that I haven’t yet finished [at the time of writing] but what I’ve read so far has deeply intrigued me with its apologetic significance. For instance Taylor argues that individualism is necessarily connected to a sense of what's good which has resulted in the modernist sensitivity to suffering in the administration of justice. I am instantly reminded of the strong repulsion felt by many, sceptics and Christians alike, at the apparent harshness of God’s judgments in history and in the afterlife. If indeed there is a connection between individualism and these offended moral intuitions then the apologist will do well to understand it. Perhaps a study of individualism will yield an opportunity to critique it and the objections to Christianity that result from it? What other typical objections might spring from an individualist perspective?
A more obvious benefit of becoming conversant in the ins and outs of individualism is an understanding of the views it is contrasted against. The Biblical social world, in contrast to our own, was collectivist – there was less emphasis placed on individuals and more on communities, participation in which constituted one’s identity. Understanding the collectivist mindset is therefore invaluable for Biblical exegesis (the interpretation of the text) and indeed exegesis seems to be the main undertaking where this sociological knowledge is wielded. But its relevance exceeds the project of merely understanding the Biblical text (and would do if only because this contributes apologetically to the resolution of “problem passages” that are grist for the sceptical mill.)
What if certain central doctrines of the Christian faith presuppose components of a worldview at odds with individualism? J.P. Holding, an apologist who is very savvy with the Biblical social data argues that the atonement presupposes an honour-shame dialectic that is largely perplexing to modern sensibilities (links to a basic exposition of the differences between a shame culture and our guilt culture as well as to JPH’s argument can be found at the bottom of this post.) If this is true (and it seems to me very plausibly so) then many questions arise. Is the honour-shame paradigm thus legitimised as the Scriptural position on identity and individual worth? Is the non-universality of an honour-shame understanding of an individual’s worth a challenge to this Biblical doctrine? Does individualism in any sense successfully refute these key premises presupposed by Biblical theology? What if individualism is a key factor that prevents that gospel from being clearly understood in Western culture? These are questions I can’t yet answer but feel deserve attention.
It seems to me that there is a wealth of activity the apologist can participate in by studying individualism and its historical peculiarity. Maybe the church will benefit in the future from its young defenders taking this task seriously now?