Did Jesus Give Us Our Individualism? July 27, 2017

Patrick Deneen has warned that modern ‘liberalism’, which includes American style conservatism, has stressed the individual and dominion over nature so much as to weaken community.  In trying to liberate the individual, the state, and for conservatives the market, expand to protect us from the arational [as Fukuyama calls them] spheres of authority, which is to say, religion, social communities, neighborhoods, and the family.  So all we have left is the state and the individual.

I agree that individualism has gotten out of hand in the modern West.  But I think that the roots of Western individualism do not lie in Greece, [though I am willing to be corrected on this] but in the hard sayings of Jesus, such as Matthew 10:34-37:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

And Luke 14:26:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

It is pretty much admitted by all commentators that ‘hate’ in this context means ‘love less’ rather than indulge in hatred.  I agree.

C. S. Lewis in several places also points out that individuals last forever, and states and human institutions do not.  And Jesus affirms that not even marriage lasts into eternity.

When I became a Christian in 1973, I, and my contemporaries, were exposed to much teaching about the ‘chain of command’ and that God works through various human authorities, and that we were to obey them rather than our self will, but God’s revealed will rather than them, if it came down to it. And, coming out of the Sixties, it was something we needed to hear, however painful.  However, these authorities have not always been content with this ordainment.  The state in particular has not always been content with the elevated commission given it in the famous Romans 13 passage:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.

The state has not always been happy, however, with being a mere instrument of the ‘Sky Fairy’; it has wanted to be divine in its own right.  Paul himself was ultimately beheaded by the state.  And we have seen plenty of states in our own time [North Korea is only the worst one left] that claim ultimate divinity.

On the other hand, individuals wishing to become Christian out of families of other strong faiths often run into precisely the situation that Jesus described.  Jesus intended that people in that situation should look to God, not the state, as their savior.  At the same time, I can’t believe that the state has no role in protecting people [and they do seem to be disproportionately young women] against forced marriages and honor killings.  Paul declares in I Corinthians 6 that indeed the Christian church should have ‘sharia courts’, you will pardon the expression, but the most severe penalty they can impose is excommunication, and there is no possible suggestion that any church ‘sharia’ court ruling would ever be upheld by the state.

Deneen quotes Aristotle as saying ‘man is a political animal’.  Apparently Aristotle means something like ‘relational animal’, but in Greek thought the polis was total, and there was not a clear differentiation between the ‘state’ and the ‘community’.  According to the typology of Fareed Zakaria, the Greek polis is what he would call an ‘illiberal democracy’, one governed by the votes of the people but without any real limitation on its authority.  The Hebrew commonwealth, if the Torah had ever been fully observed [we aren’t sure that it was] was to be a sort of liberal autocracy; not elected, but the state had a body of law [a few, like the stoning of adulterers, we find harsh, but many others we find admirable] and could not arbitrarily add to it under political pressure.  Zakaria’s ‘liberal’ here means the rule of law, and does not necessarily envision the project that Deneen fears, of the state liberating individuals from their other situations in family and community.  But there is nothing unbiblical about asserting that authorities, especially the state, should have limits, not so much for the sake of individual ‘freedom’ as for that of justice.  Witness I Samuel 8, a rather popular sermon topic around the time of the Revolutionary War.

I might add, in view of my current passion for Market Urbanism and the liberalization of land use law: City Hall, and even the Homeowners’ Association, are the State, not part of civil society.  Many of these ‘conservatives’ would argue with me about this.

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