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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Does Christianity promote individualism?

If there is one thing that separates Western thought from non-Western thought, it is the concept of individualism. As Americans, we are products of Western culture. Our cultural icons are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, men who did it "their way." We admire those who do what they think is right regardless of the opinions of their family and their communities. This is why young people in our nation are constantly searching to "find themselves" and to "be different" even though they end up looking like nearly everyone else in the same struggle. In short, the Western mantra is-to thine own self be true. The concept of individualism also leads to concepts of equality and human rights. We believe that all people should be treated fairly and equally.

As Westerners, we tend to think these ideas are obvious to everyone, but they are not. In terms of world history, individualism is a very recent development and to this day is not the assumption of the vast majority of people living in non-Western societies. When we say that all people should be treated equally, they see this as a sign of disrespect to established authority. Non-westerners see individualism as leading to materialism, feminism, sexual immorality, the breakdown of the family-and just plain disrespectful to established institutions.

When my wife and I led a young man named Jean Pierre to Christ while we were missionaries in Senegal, Jean Pierre payed a price. His family rejected him and tried to place a curse on him to kill him. Jean Pierre's faith did not waver and now, although his family is not converted, they all respect him. What is remarkable about this is that Jean Pierre lives in a society that values conformity. The Senegalese like to eat from the same bowl and drink from the same cups during meal time to emphasize their unity as Senegalese. Their is no such thing as an individual hairstyle because everyone actually wants to look like everyone else. To embrace evangelical Christianity for Jean Pierre was to go against the grain and assert his ability to make a free choice over his culture's expectation of conformity.

Individualism can be great, but it also has its drawbacks. Communities break down when people care only about themselves and not about the group as a whole. My question is: to what extent does Christianity promote individualism? Jesus did not seem all too concerned about the fact that His message would divide families. In fact, He even said that was exactly what He came to do!(See Matthew 10:34-39) Is individualism merely a product of Western culture or is it explicity a Christian virtue? Furthermore, is it possible to separate individualism from Christianity? If so, how do we cultivate a godly individualism without equating Western culture with Christianity? Or better yet, is that even necessary?

Once again, discuss!

2 comments:

Pete said...

Once again, it boils back down to balance. The Bible clearly states that one is responsible to think for themself. The problem is that many write it off as an excuse to think about themself. This leads to all of the problems that you mentioned. There is a difference in not letting your culture/peers/family control you and being out of control. Also, there is a line between thinking for yourself and being able to take advice from those who are qualified to give it. For example, while I am responsible for my own beliefs and thoughts about the Bible, I often have depended on my pastor as a guide in the process of making these decisions. Balance!
Pete

toby said...

christianity promotes both individualism and a group mentality. it's not an either/or type of situation. it's both at the same time.

jesus said you must hate your own family in comparison to how much you love him. he also prayed for unity among the church that was the same strength as the unity he shared with the father. how can you choose between the two? it's both!