This is not all bad. The fact that individualist philosophy values the individual’s worth is fantastic.
Not so fantastic in light of Christian theology is the individualist insistence on rejecting all forms of external interference on one’s interests. This is not simply because of the existence of God, the ultimate “external” authority, but also because of the unrealistic, even naive, view of human existence it represents.
What human is able to live according to their own interests, unabated by the interests of society? We live in a world of social connections in which even our most basic needs are dependent on relationships. I think for example of food whereby most of the people I know are completely disconnected from the production and manufacture of almost everything they eat.
How would individualism even work in a world such as this?
The political philosophy of libertarianism falls into a similar pitfall. Libertarianism espouses individual liberty over government intervention, and thus extols personal responsibility. Any time you hear a politician or commentator talking about the need for individuals to take responsibility for their actions, chances are they are coming at it from a libertarian perspective.
This is not to say that taking responsibility for oneself is bad, or wrong – it is certainly neither.
But it is to say that in any society, particularly in a globalised one, people can not always overcome the problems imposed on them through sheer desire.
And of course desire is the foundation stone of individualism.
But the irony is that desire is not the creation or choice of the individual. Augustine taught that desire is not an internally generated act of choice, but that, as Cavanaugh summarises, “desire is a social production.”* Speaking about his theft of some fruit as a young man, Augustine recounts:
Yet had I been alone I would not have done it – I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time – alone I never would have done it. Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it. Does it follow that I loved something other than the theft? No, nothing else in reality because association with the gang is also a nothing. (Augustine, Confessions, 33)
If Augustine is correct then individualism, built on desire, is in fact socially conditioned – an ironic paradox.
Capitalism almost demonstrates Augustine’s point. Would we really desire all the things that we do were it not for social conditioning? Indeed such desires, when fulfilled, will never satisfy. Such desires are futile, yet they reign – why?
And of course in a capitalist society the notion of individualism falls apart, since our consumerist desires are fulfilled at cheap rates only on the backs of slave labour and imperialist trade systems, and in the trivialisation of cultures as consumer choices – where are the interests of the people on the losing end of these transactions? Individualism reveals itself to simply work for some at the expense of others.
Where then is the identity of the Christian to be found? In the self? No. Cavanaugh says:
In the Christian view we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation – appropriating, consuming and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual self is de-centred and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life.**
In other words the Christian self is no longer autonomous, but is in Christ. The Eucharist, though an act of consumption, proves to result in our consumption – by God and the body of Christ.
Should not then membership in Christ’s body cause the Christian to reevaluate their place in the world as an individual? Perhaps, in terms of our desires and consumption, this would mean ensuring that all transactions, economic or otherwise, bring life to all parties involved.
This is, of course, an affront to the concept of sheer personal responsibility as the arbiter of wealth and success. But so too I suppose is the concept of grace.
* William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2008), 9.
** Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 55.
Matt Anslow is the National Young Adults Coordinator for TEAR Australia, an Australian movement of Christians responding to poverty, and is also working toward a PhD in New Testament theology. He blogs at life.remixed.net, and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter.