When this is over, and it will eventually be, perhaps we will have been reminded that what really matters is each other.
Jonathan David Faulkner
As a student of 19th Century Church History at Mercersburg I have little patience for Princeton, as a human being a struggle with Twitter because of how negative it has become. Yet, yesterday both of these combined to surprise me. This time in the form of a Tweet from Princeton Professor Kate Bowler about how the Coronavirus marks the end of individualism
This is the end of individualism.
There is no shame here, no denying it now.
We need each other. We always did.
— Kate Bowler (@KatecBowler) March 20, 2020
I could write an entire article on how entertaining it is for someone who has studied the “Common sense” theology that Princeton was born into to hear someone from Princeton claiming the end of Individualism, but that is not the point of this article. What is the point is to explore what that means for society going forward.
Lifeway Research, Barna and Pew have all marked an increase in anxiety and its contributors in both Millenials and Gen Z compared to the other two living generations (Baby Boomers and Gen X) who make up much of the population. That means that isolation, depression and loneliness are all on the rise among people 15-35 and as a result we are suffering more anxiety because we have a much weaker social network to fall back upon. Instead we have one that, for all its claims to be social, is increasingly proving to be fake and in fact, toxic, to our mental heath (Social Media). Social Media creates the illusion of togetherness and interconnectedness but does not fulfil either human need. Jean M. Twenge has warned us about the effect Social Media is having both on us and our kids as the pressure to present a perfectly curated world based on your personal preferences overwhelms them.
Individualism, especially the radical American brand that was handed down to us and expanded upon from the time of the Enlightenment says that the individual is prime, and nothing should interfere with the individuals personal autonomy. That translates to an attitude that “no one is going to tell me what to do and as long as it feels good to me, I am going to do it.” If you are on Twitter today you know that this very attitude is being blamed for why the virus is spreading at the alarming rate that it is in the United States. We all saw the videos of college kids partying in Florida and then saw the new report that most of those kids have tested positive for the virus. The idea that “I am young and invincible” is one that has affected every youth, but individualism says: “I am going to do what feels good, consequences be damned.” Individualism fuels our other impulses, consumerism, stuff will make the individual feel secure, identitarianism, personal identity is the path to harmony and perfect happiness, hedonism, I want to do what makes me happiest and most fulfilled. These all look to the self as the greatest authority, again, the individual is prime.
Yet we have seen recently a rise in strong group think the extremes of the right and the left. Tribalism is our word for it, and though incompatible with individualism, it makes the same claim as individualism, the self of group is primary, and no one can tell the tribe what to think or to think differently. I remember sitting in a meeting with one of my professors for a “Readings and Research” course on Jonathan Edwards and Charles Chauncy’s debate over revivalism. Revivalism being a key contributor to the spread of individualism in America. I remember telling her that individualism is breaking down, but that tribalism is as well, leading to some kind of primalism that is purely emotionally driven which corresponds with the breakdown in language and increased isolation caused by Social Media. This observation came after an article in The Guardian about the use of Emoji’s in communication and the idea that we had reverted back to Hieroglyphs on tablets with glowing screens. The relationship between individualism and tribalism is thus that they both reject dependence on the other, in the case of individualism, prizing personal autonomy and in the case of tribalism, prizing group autonomy. It is the same idea, applied to two extremes.
Both individualism and Tribalism are dangerous to the public health and well-being of a society because they both reject anything other than what they have accepted as personal truth. This operative principle of relativism means that doing anything that does not see to the wellbeing of the central idea or person is evil is extremely destructive both to society and to the individual in general or persons involved. Believe it or not, this is how cults operate, loyalty to the leader or central idea is absolute and if one diverges from that then they are punished by the group. Think Westboro Baptist or Jonestown, they often seem like great places to be, but if you step out of line you become public enemy number one. Yet we have embraced both mediums unquestionably and are going to long pay the price for our obstinance.
If you do not believe me, look at this week’s debate over the stimulus package. Everyone is trying to get a piece of pie for their constituency, their tribe, and the result is ultimately an abandonment of the American People. Meanwhile Lobbyists want what is best for them, a juicy bonus from their employers, and so they bend the ear of their allies on the hill. That is not how a representative republic is meant to work and we are learning that the tribal mantra “America First” does not actually mean “Americans First.” We should be ashamed of ourselves. Individualism and Tribalism, two extremes, predicated on the same utilitarian principle. Do what is best for me and forget everyone else. Who cares if someone dies, they are not part of me or my group, I have nothing to do with them and they have nothing to do with me? How perfectly Stalinite of us saying “one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic.”
Yet, as a Christian I know that this is not how the world is meant to be ordered. As a Historian I know this ordering of the world is abnormal when compared to the strong group societies that are still much of the world today. As a Pastor who believes what the Bible says is true (I should not teach it otherwise) I have a responsibility to teach my congregation that Jesus gave His life so that we could live a life that was radically different from the world around us. For the Christian, self-seeking is unprofitable and unuseful (Titus 3:1-11) and leads to fights and quarrels and schism. Self-seeking leaves us self-condemned while living the Christian Life that we can only live because God made it possible through Jesus Christ, should make us work for the benefit of one another. That includes those who think differently than we do, those who the world would naturally label our “enemies.” The Christian Life is meant to be lived for the benefit of our neighbors, not for the benefit of ourselves. We have received out reward and it is well beyond what we could ever gain on this Earth (i.e Eternal Life).
In times of crisis then, we should not look to ourselves, but looking to the good of one another and to the world that does not know Christ. I work just as hard for the benefit and shalom of my neighbor who is unsaved as I do for the saved neighbor. I do this not because I am obligated too, but because I am grateful for that Christ as done for me what I could not do myself. This does not mean there is not an inward quality to Christianity, we are commanded to work out our salvation, but that is also done in the context of our relationship with God and with others. The Churchman John Williamson Nevin, in his writing on the Two-Party System in the days leading up to the Civil War says this: “This does not mean there is not room for individual opinion, but that individual opinion must be brought into the group and be examined by all to see if it aligns with the word of God and the teachings of the Church.” Christians believe in an absolute truth, but we should be gracious in how we live and apply that truth because God has been gracious to us. We confess essential doctrines, but we also confess personal conscious and 1 Corinthians 10 tells us that there are some things that are left up to the personal conscious of the individual, but that considerations of conscious should take into account the conscious of another. If such and such an activity will be harmful to my neighbor, I will abstain from that activity in their company.
Both individualism and tribalism advance the individual conscious over the good of the people around us. Both make the individual conscious a self-contained god that declares its independence from every other god around it and is superior to everyone else’s god. Thus, no one is superior and no one’s individual truth is absolute. I am also under no obligation to do anything for my neighbor because my neighbor is my enemy. I have excused myself from doing anything for anyone, the self is my god and people better not play in my canned goods or challenge the high place I have built for myself. This has to be an exhausting way to live, but our culture has adopted it as normal, even voted it into office at the state and national levels.
The Coronavirus and COVID-19 challenge this mentality. I know last week I posted a piece about the need for more helpers, but that was because I wanted to see more of the few positive things I was seeing (I need to adjust my algorithm because my wife was seeing nothing but positive stories while all my headlines were about hoarding and toilet paper). I have seen how many of us have laid down our self-contained gods and self-worship to reach out to the other. We are self-quarantining because we understand how easy it is to transmit this virus and how deadly it is for older and vulnerable groups. We are adjusting store hours so that elderly men and women can go to the store without fear. People are baking bread so that their elderly neighbors who cannot get to the store can have bread. Yes, there are people hoarding, but there are a growing number of people who seem to be breaking from our usual American individualist way of life for the sake of helping others. They seem to be realizing that the benefit of helping one another far outweighs the benefit of helping themselves alone. In the words of Mr. Spock, “the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the one or the few.” I can only hope that this trend continues, and individualism does die a quick death. This may be optimistic; we may go back to business as usual in June or July when this thing finally ends. But I can dream right?
Think about it this way:
If COVID-19 were a grease fire, then a spirit of individualism is water. It’s not just that water won’t do the job; water actually makes the problem worse.
Our country’s individualism has proven to be a bigger problem than the actual pandemic.
— John Onwuchekwa (@JawnO) March 24, 2020
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.