Individualism Vs. Communalism

Post-Enlightenment philosophy creates a problematic distinction between individualism and communalism.  The Enlightenment Compromise warps our thinking by creating an unnatural separation between religion and politics. Religion is reduced to a private individual sphere while politics is consigned to a public sphere stripped of its natural religious dimension. In order to maintain the desired distinction between religion and politics, Post-Enlightenment philosophies have to pretend that individuals can be separated from their social context. We have all been taught since birth that this is not only possible but the proper way of understanding people that we fail to see this is an unnatural abstraction. People never exist as individuals stripped of any social context. People always have a social context. We are born the son or daughter of our parents. Our family has a religious association (or not) and a social class that is tied up with where my parents work and where they were educated. We are all born a citizen of a country. Everyone is a person in a complex web of social contexts. No one is ever found as an individual. An individual is an intellectual abstraction similar to a number. A number is an abstraction. We never see a 3 but we often see three people, three cars or three dollar bills. Abstractions are useful intellectual tools but we must not confuse something in our mind with something in reality. Individualism was a useful intellectual tool for Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to strip people of their traditional way of thinking. If we could think of a person abstracted away for their traditional social context then we could stripped them of their customary way of thinking of themselves and refashion them in their own image. Individualism has been a very effective tool in deceiving Christians into reading Scripture through Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment glasses.

Individualism is not the only problem we need to avoid. Along with individualism we need to address the corollary problem of communalism. The problem is that when we warp reality with our ideas in one direction, we invite others that warp reality in the opposite direction. Thus, Enlightenment individualism has invited Post-Enlightenment communalism. Communalism objects to decontextualized individualism but accepts its premise. The communalist is an anti-individualist. They get their identity by being against individualism. The problem here is that they compound the problem rather than resolving it. Once the individual has been abstracted out of his or her social context all that is left is the social group without the person. Just as there is no such thing as an individual stripped of his or her social context, likewise there is not such thing as group without a person. The social context becomes all important while any individuality within the group is categorically excluded. Thus we get the truly warped idea that the group is all important and the individual is inconsequential. The only way to get our head wrapped around this is to start imaging that a group is like one great super-individual. I call this the Great Individual of the Group.

Karl Marx was one of the first thinkers to fully develop this way of thinking (Hegel might be less remembered, but a more proper starting point). He insisted that our inclusion within a social class was all determinative of who we were. If I was a member of the proletariat, I must believe according to my class interest. My personal opinion did not matter. If I did not agree then this was only a sign that I have been deceived by the bourgeoisie and I must be made to think the proper way. Membership in a social group becomes all-important. Yet, how could a de-indiviualized group think? Who would explain what the groups interests were and how would we know that it was the groups interest and not the spokesman’s own interest? Marx did not explain. He only assumed that he was the spokesman for the whole proletariat. The group is envisioned as one big individual (the Great Individual of the Group) that everyone in that group must emulate. Thus Karl Marx is the Great Individual of the Group. Karl Marx and the proletariat are one.

From this misplaced thinking all types of ideologies have sprung up: Nationalism, Racism and Feminism. Over time these have become increasingly improbable. While many in the past could buy into Marxism and believe that inclusion within a class primarily determinative of who you were. Yet, today were are told that whether you are male or female is all that matters or even more incredible whether you are heterosexual or homosexual?! Thus, within feminism, the Great Female (who ever this might be conceived to be) informs us that abortion is in a woman’s best interest. If a real live woman disagrees then by default she must have been deceived by our sexist society and, not only does this real person’s opinion not matter, she is not even a true woman! Communalism does not redress the problems of individualism but magnifies them. The group is envisioned as one big individual (the Great Individual of the Group) that everyone in that group must emulate. All individuality within the group is lost. Even more problematic, all personal responsibility is undermined. All people within the group that do not share the opinion of the Great Individual of the Group are discounted. They are not responsible for their thoughts and actions because they have been deceived and not properly been reprogrammed (i.e., educated).

Both individualism and communalism are intellectual children of the Enlightenment. Christians, if we are to avoid serving two masters, must avoid both warped perspectives. People should to be respected for who they are. Christians should respect all people even those who disagree with us and persecute us because we are all created in God’s image. Respecting people means acknowledging them for who they are. A Hindi woman who is the wife of a member of the lowest caste must be acknowledged for who she is within her own context. Pretending that we know better who she is than she does herself is extremely demeaning. She is not an individual stripped of her context and must really desire what other (Western) individuals want. She is not a “woman” who must want what other (Western) “woman” want. This is highly disrespectful and disingenuous. These ways of thinking claim to be respectful while imposing their ideas on others. Christians strive to acknowledge people within their social context and respect them even when they disagree with us. We desire to share with others the good news that Jesus is King over all. Jesus is a different kind of King who does not seek to impose his rule by force but to freely persuade others of his Kingship through his sacrificial love.

While should not look at the Scripture individualistically this does not imply that we must look at it exclusively communally. The Bible does not explain our salvation in terms of the individual, but neither does it say that if we are in God’s chosen people then we are saved. We must be a faithful person within God’s people. Individualism rips the person out of its rightful context of the community of faith. Communalism over-emphasizes the context of community but forgets the personal responsibility of the person.

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