Saturday, October 24, 2009

9.2 The Rise of the Individual (philosophy)

Been trying to get this one out for a good while. The draft of the first section of this chapter, "What is a Human Being?" is here.
9.2 The Rise of the Individual
The default human sense of identity would thus seem to be group-oriented. That is to say, humans by nature tend to identify themselves more in terms of the groups to which they belong than by some identity they as individuals self-determine. We stereotype ourselves by gender, by race, by nation, by social status, by family reputation, by region, and so forth. Throughout history, such forces have by far exercised greater influence on how we understand ourselves than the relatively recent sense that we as individuals decide who we want to be.

Humans are "herd animals" by nature, or what the philosopher Aristotle called "a political animal." [1] We are social creatures. Societies like the Ik people, where individuals completely abandon any sense of common value--even toward their own children--are by far the exception rather than the rule. [2] The democracies of ancient Athens and of modern times have also been more unique in history than the norm, and arguably they have only been as successful as their members have agreed on profitable common values and laws. [3]

Because of the way he formulated his thinking in terms of the individual, St. Augustine (AD354-430) has sometimes been called the "first modern man." [4] He had no concept of democracy or radical individualism, to be sure. But his interpretations of Paul's writings in the New Testament did subtly shift the focus of God's relationship with humanity from a relationship with His people, corporately, to a relationship with each of us as individuals. Protestants in general have a tendency to read the writings of Paul in the New Testament and think they are about how to "get saved," meaning how I as an individual can "go to heaven." While this trajectory largely was not picked up after Augustine till the Reformation in the 1500s, it has no doubt played a very significant role in the individualism of modern Western history.

For example, when we read Romans 3:23--"all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God"--we as Western individualists naturally think "every individual has sinned." Probably Paul would have agreed with this claim too. But it is fairly clear from the context of Romans 3 that the "all" Paul had in mind was the groups into which he initially divided the world, namely, Jews and Gentiles. When he says all have sinned, he means to say that Jews have sinned as well as Gentiles--all have sinned, meaning both Jews and Gentiles, "all."

It is a subtle shift, but one with significant implications nonetheless. It subtly changes the question Paul is dealing with. Paul is addressing this question: "Can Gentiles escape God's judgment even though they are not Jews." To be sure, Paul is also dealing with the question of how anyone can be in right standing with God. But the "anyone" he was thinking about is not a human being as a free standing individual (Augustine), an "autonomous," self-directed individual. Paul is thinking about a human being as a Jew or Gentile.

Again, when Paul speaks of "works of Law" not being able to make a person right with God, we do find an element of no human individual being able to earn God's favor in their own power (e.g., Rom. 9:32). But surely the "works of Law" he most immediately has in mind are those aspects of the Jewish Law, especially those Jews might boast about when comparing themselves to Gentiles (e.g., Rom. 2:25). In other words, when Paul talks about the Law in his writings, he is not primarily thinking about some abstract moral law that all human individuals should know. He is not talking about some universal conscience that is built into each individual head. He is surely talking about the Law of the Jewish people, as found in books like Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

At point after point, we can see Augustine subtly changing Paul into an individualist. Paul's thought had everything to do with the idea that Gentiles could be saved as well as Jews. Augustine shifts the issue to the salvation of individuals. Romans 9 originally focused on God planning ahead of time to save Gentiles as well as Jews. Augustine turns Romans 9 into God picking out specific individuals to be saved and others to be condemned. Paul speaks of Sin as a cosmic power over the world. Augustine turns it into a sinful nature inside each human individual.

These subtle shifts do not always contradict what Paul was saying. Indeed, in some respects they may represent a more timeless and universal way of thinking about Christian theology than Paul's own thinking. But they nonetheless do reorient Paul's words around us as human individuals rather than as groups and thus potentially change how we understand ourselves as human beings.

The Protestant Reformation picked up these seeds in Augustine's thought. Martin Luther (1483-1546) found himself focusing on individual justification by faith as the center of Paul's thought, when ironically this idea only really is focal in two of Paul's letters. By contrast, the notion of Christians as a collective whole being incorporated "in Christ," dying with Christ, rising with him, arguably appears far more often in his writings. The sense of us as the corporate body of Christ gives way to the primacy of us as individual Christian believers.

The earlier sense that Christians read the Bible in the light of common Christian tradition eventually gives way to the idea that every individual can read the Bible and determine its meaning, with the resultant fragmentation of Christianity into tens of thousands of little denominations. We become a priesthood of (individual) believers rather than a holy priesthood, a spiritual household (1 Pet. 2:5). As the idea of corporate identity continues to disappear, infant baptism comes to be rejected in many circles. No longer can the Philippian jailer have his whole household baptized (cf. Acts 16:34). Now only an individual Christian who has reached some hypothetical "age of accountability" can get baptized or be saved.

We can characterize most of the thinking of the Renaissance and the Reformation as individualist. As we move toward the Enlightenment of the seventeen hundreds, the common ground between the leading figures increasingly becomes not religion but Reason. It is assumed that each individual has access to this universal truth. While each individual now is on an individual quest, at least the assumption remains that everyone is in pursuit of a common Truth and the rules for its pursuit are a matter of common agreement.

René Descartes (1596-1650) is usually called the "father of modern philosophy" for the way he especially turned the focus of philosophy from the world "out there" to each one of us as individuals looking at the world. He asked the question, what can I as an individual be certain about. Or to put it another way, what can I not doubt. As we saw in a previous chapter, he finally concluded that the only thing I cannot doubt is my own existence, I (as an individual) think; therefore, (at least) I (as an individual) am. [5]

The effect of this line of thinking was to push the focus of philosophy inward, toward ourselves as individual knowers rather than on the "outside world" as an object of knowledge. We will discuss in the next section Descartes' new way of looking at the soul. It was also highly individual in focus and thus has contributed to our Western sense of individualism ever since. Romanticism in the 1700s and 1800s actuated individualism even further. The ideal was a highly idiosyncratic artist, misunderstood and misrepresented, a genius set apart from everyone else.

Modern psychology was largely built on the assumption of autonomous individuals. For example, it is interesting to compare the approach to identity of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) with that of ancient biographers. For ancient biographers, you could categorize people into certain stock types. You have heroic men; you have traitors; you have virtuous women; and so forth. If a person is destined for greatness, then you expect to find that they were exceptional as a child as well, perhaps that they were born under remarkable circumstances. People do not change or develop from one type to another.

By contrast, Freud looked to formative events in your childhood in order to explain what you turned out to be. We joke about lying on a couch telling a psychotherapist about your mother, but we have thoroughly bought into this understanding of individuals. The often predictive power of one's childhood has demonstrated itself time and time again.

Many theorists of development have appeared on the scene since. Erik Erickson (1902-94) plotted out an eight stage sequence of individual life development starting with a need for basic trust and hopefully progressing to a peaceful death. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) plotted out the same for the development of the ability to think, cognitive development. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87) applied the developmental principle to moral development and James W. Fowler (1940-) has applied it to faith development.

All these theorists suppose that individuals undergo similar steps of development, and in that sense they suppose that their theories are somewhat universal. [6] But in practice, they have a tendency to turn us inward, to foster a sense of introspection. We tend to use these theories to identify ourselves as individuals and to distiguish ourselves from others. Personality tests and, in Christian circles, "spiritual gift tests," have a tendency to push us toward looking at ourselves as individuals with particular strengths and weaknesses.

Finding a balance between corporate and individual identity is not usually something we can go out and invent. We all live in particular cultural contexts with their own senses of such things and rarely does a person have the freedom to alter a society. There are great strengths to a Western sense of individual freedom and responsibility, but if we are herd animals biologically, we will also need to group together as well to find fulfillment. As Christians this is especially true, as we will discuss in the last section of the chapter.

[1] Politics ***

[2] The Mountain People. The accuracy of this famous study has recently been called into question. In my opinion, however, we are increasingly seeing a similar attitude among the more desperate in America. A typical case would be a crystal methodone adict whose problem leads them to sacrifice the needs of his or her children in order to feed the addiction.

[3] E.g., by the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), The Great Philosophers: Plato and Augustine **. In much of what follows I am presenting the seminal ideas of Krister Stendahl, "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," ***.

[4] This observation has immense implications when it comes to modern foreign policy. Extreme caution must be taken when the West attempts to "better" other countries by forcing democratic systems on them. By default, such democracies largely reduce to "one vote, one social group." In reality, the situation is not much different in Western democracies, except that the social groups may be more difficult to identify.

[5] See chap. *

[6] One does wonder, however, whether some of these developmental theories are somewhat Western in character rather than universal.

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The rise of the individual, it seems to me was the rise of modernity. Luther's challenge to Church authority left churches isolated from 'Mother". And ever since the Reformation, denominations have split over questions of faith.

The Founders were influenced by the "romantic notion" of reason, the ideals of Greek and Roman society and the influence of religious conscience. All seem to be the "rise of the individual" in regards to liberty and justice.

Both individuation and rationalization are needful for democracy.