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Radical Individualism

29 Aug 2017

On October 18 Andrew T.  Walker, Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention will speak in Cedarville University’s Chapel. I have just finished reading Andrew’s new book God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?.  The book helped me understand the issue more clearly and the gracious and compassionate spirit was welcome. I have also found a lecture from The Gospel Coalition’s 2017 National Conference in Indianapolis: Is This the End of Gender to be very helpful on the subject.

I would like to address a peripheral topic to which Walker alludes. In the second chapter of the book, Andrew discusses cultural changes that act as a foundation for the current debate on gender. One of the cultural changes he outlines is “radical individualism”. Walker says:

Individualism says everyone gets to write their own script. In many ways, this follows downstream from relativism. What an individual wills or wants is the highest good, and is wrong to tell someone that his or her choices or beliefs are wrong or immoral. An emphasis on the individual bearing individual rights has given rise to an understanding of the individual that is “liberated” from all forms of other duties. The greatest sin– in fact, the only sin– is judging someone else.

Long ago (and still today in many parts of the world), societies did not think in terms of individuals or individual rights. Instead, a focus on families, clans, and community with the dominant way that each person understood their existence. In such a society the question is not, “What is best for me?” or, “What makes me happy?” but, “What is best for my tribe?” and, “What makes my tribe most secure or honored?”

If this approach seems outdated or unimaginable to us, it shows how “Western” we are, without realizing it! If it seems unfair and restrictive, it shows how judgmental “nonjudgmental” people can be!

Of course, not all forms of individualism are bad. An emphasis on individualism and can and often does prioritize the dignity of each person. The fact that governments believe that citizens have rights that are inviolable is a good example of how individualism has been of great benefit. Radical individualism rest on this idea– but then it goes far further than that.

Walker’s comments on “radical individualism” come in a chapter where he discusses relativism, post-Christendom, the sexual revolution, and gnosticism– cultural changes which most Christians believe have been important in the United States’ cultural “drift”. Few Christians would disagree with his perspective on radical individualism. We are all members of a variety of separate communities. An indispensable element of our conformity into the image of Christ is the reconciliation of relationships with people around us. We must care about others enough to let them know when we believe “his or her choices or beliefs are wrong or immoral”. Further, I would argue that we must be very diligent in the United States to protect religious liberty and our free speech rights which are increasingly coming under attack.

However, let’s not believe that we can go back to some idyllic time in the past to emulate an ancient society as an improvement over Western culture. A properly understood individualism, that as Walker says, “prioritize[s] the dignity of each person”, is an indispensable element of Western culture. Whether or not “a focus on families, clans, and community” seems “unfair and restrictive” is primarily important to individual persons attempting to ascertain the effect of a cultural change on himself or herself–which might in itself be considered radically individualistic. What is much more important is the notion that if we could just somehow organize society away from a  focus on the individual to a larger community (clan/tribe) that the culture would somehow be better. This is a pipe dream. In Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson provide a sweeping historical overview of the problems of attempting to organize societal institutions around a focus that is other than the individual. Exploitation of the masses by some elite group in both the government and the private sector is the invariable result. We might wish that people would choose what is the best for their tribe – but, they do not. They choose what is best for themselves, which means protecting what they have. The more powerful end up taking advantage of others to maintain their own status.

To avoid radical individualism, individual people must choose not to be selfish. Free people must freely choose “a focus on families, clans, and community”. These choices can best be encouraged as individual people are conformed into the image of Christ and their relationships with others are reconciled and restored. I do believe that this is the best and only hope for Western culture. These choices cannot be coerced by return to a better time, but must be freely chosen. Forsaking Western individualized values will not diminish individual selfishness. It is a culture based on western values that has unleashed the economic productivity that has helped diminish poverty across the globe. Turning our back on a properly understood individualism will slow the rate of wealth creation and make poverty alleviation more difficult. However, that is not the primary problem that comes from abandoning the bedrock of Western culture. The worst result of leaving western culture behind is a lack of “prioritize[ing] the dignity of each person”.