Individualism15 Mar 2011
I have been reading Charles Cosgrove’s chapter in Cross-Cultural Paul: Journeys To Others, Journeys To Ourselves on American Individualism. This is a fascinating chapter full of profound observations about how our culture impacts the way in which we view Christianity, church, and living in community. Cosgrove outlines our (American) values and how they stack up against Paul’s understanding of Christ. Americans value self-reliance and independence.
the core message of the American self-reliance myth is that when one works hard and virtuously, even against all odds, powers outside our control - a kind of providence of the American system or of the God who blesses America - will see to it that our efforts meet with success in the end. p. 72
We equate success with independence. As we achieve independence, we are able to live for ourselves; we are free from responsibility to each other. This sort of mindset has made its way into the church. We come together for our individual purposes. There is little responsibility to each other. This bleeds over into our decision-making. The right decision is then a collection of individual decisions. We vote; the vote wins. Somehow we assume that God speaks through majority rule.
Cosgrove points to what he calls “duty-free” individualism. This has not always been characteristic of the American context. Yet, it seems we are rapidly moving toward this sort of mindset. Cosgrove explains this movement.
A close connection between rights and duties also exists in the early American tradition, especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American individualism. The severing of rights from duties belongs to late American individualism; it has become a dominant note only in the last forty years or so. The primary arenas in which rights have been severed from duties are in private life and voluntary association. Or, to put it another way, duty to self is now seen as a paramount duty. Our popular language reflects this. When we justify our freedom from an explicit or implicit obligation (leaving a relationship, reneging on a promise, etc.), our trump card is often a statement such as, “I have a duty to myself. . .” or “I owe it to myself….” p. 90.
Older generations are puzzled by this notion. Loyalty, duty, responsibility are staples of everyday life. Their kids, however, find such ideas distasteful.
Popular conceptions of church membership exhibit the shift to duty-free or expressive individualism in American society. Americans display a propensity to switch denominations and many “surf” without joining any particular congregation. Choice of church membership is based to a large extent on a consumer mentality (church as provider of services), and churches themselves “market” their “products.” Decisions to participate in, join, and remain in a particular Christian community are based to a significant extent on personal judgments about how far that involvement promotes self-fulfillment and other practical considerations about meeting individual and family preferences. p. 91.
It seems that those in their 20s are more like their grandparents than their parents. Many are are finding this sort of church hollow. A lack of responsibility has translated into a lack of community. Paul’s understanding of church could not be further from this approach. When it comes to decision-making, how do we move from self-focused to community focused? Might the Spirit lead us in ways that are based on individual preference?
I found Cosgrove’s chapter an excellent reflection of American cultural values. May we be keenly aware of the water in which we swim.