Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Individualism and Relativism

By God’s grace, over the past few weeks I’ve been able to spend some time with a few people under 30, chatting to them about the gospel. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who does this regularly, but being the minister of a congregation where the average age is a bit more than 30, I’ve been struck by how closely individualism and relativism are tied together. Let me unpack that a bit more.

There’s no doubt that the majority of people in our society are individualistic. The primary unit in which they think is themselves. This is not to say that individuals do not see themselves are parts of communities, or of larger groups, rather that the base unit in which they think is them-as-an-individual. I would suggest that as you rise in age in our society, individualism generally decreases (I’m talking very broadly here), and also that individualism also decreases (in terms of how predominant it is in people’s thinking) as you move in distance away from cities – country folk appear to be less individualistic than city people.

There is also no doubt that relativism is our new creed. I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for ever time someone says “we’ll that’s good for you, but for me…”. Again, I think there is a relationship between age and geographical location and relativism, but I don’t think it is as strong as what we observe in individualism.

As I’ve been observing this, I’ve been asking myself which one leads to which. Does our sense of individualism lead us to relativism, or does our adherence to relativism lead us to individualism. At this stage in my thinking (which may change!) I’m not sure that this is the right question to ask. For it seems that they are inextricably linked. They breed and feed off each other.

For if the base unit of thinking and identity is the self, then any external demands on that (such as an objective, absolute truth) immediately (or at least potentially) threaten the self which you are. And if there is an absolute out there, and I adhere to it, then my identity is formed not so much in relation to myself (as the individual) as in relation to it, and those others who adhere to it. Similarly, if my belief and value system are of my own selection, I am not tied to anyone else (necessarily). I am free to be me, and if I want to be joined or in relation to another, that is my free choice - it is not of necessity.

I wonder, too, if these factors sit very close to the heart of sin. Don’t hear me wrong – I’m not saying that to think of oneself as an individual is sin – the Bible clearly calls on individuals to take responsibility for themselves (although it also calls on them to take responsibility for the collective groups of which they belong, but that’s another story). However, when you think of the fall, both individualism and relativism seem to come into play. Humanity’s decision is individualistic. It was a choice to promote the individual (man and woman) over the community (man and women in relationship with God). It was a choice to relativise (through the serpent’s help) the word of God. ‘Did God really say…’. It was a move from absolute to choose your own adventure. Of course there is a lot more going on in the garden than this – my concern is to observe that individualism and relativism are Siamese twins – they are, I think, organically joined together.

And of course the gospel deals with both. For in the gospel our identity is created not in relation to ourselves, but to Jesus. We are His. United to him and the Father by and with the Spirit. We are united to each other by that same Spirit. We are, to borrow a phrase, beings in communion. And this communion and community grows out of and is formed by the absolute gospel. Jesus is Lord.


Roger Gallagher said...

Hi Dave,

How do we go about changing the mindsets of the people in our pews who imbibe this mantra of individualism & relativism every day?

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