by John Ellis
Expressive (radical) individualism is a phenomenon that has long intrigued and saddened me. Our communities barely function as communities because our social imaginary is so littered with expressive individualism that the disparate parts rarely collate into an actual whole. As a result, our communities lack ontological realness. And the effects are obvious. We are not only at war with each other, we’re at war with ourselves because we lack any existential touchstone apart from the marketplace of individualism. Most often, when communities are believed to exist, it’s a consumerist driven falsity; it serves the definition we’ve collected and attached to our self (a definition that can’t be separated from the marketing that plays on us). Unfortunately, the solution is so counterculture as to render it unspeakable in many contexts – or at the least, unable to be heard by those most in need of the antidote.
In his book When the Church Was Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, Joseph Hellerman makes the argument that the rise of our therapeutic age can be traced back to the domination of expressive individualism in our culture and the subsequent rejection of a collectivist mentality. While I do believe that he oversimplifies the rise of our therapeutic age, he makes a good point, concluding, “I suggest that therapists, like the rest of us who work in people-helping professions, are out-gunned by the thoroughgoing socialization that has seared the consciences of the persons to whom we minister. Our clients and congregations are American individualists. Convincing them that their ultimate hope for healing lies in engaging with – instead of running from – significant others is an almost insurmountable task [emphasis kept].”
Hellerman’s book correctly diagnoses a problem while pointing towards a solution, encouraging us that, “we must embrace the fact that our value system has been shaped by a worldview that is diametrically opposed to the outlook of the early Christians and to the teachings of Scripture. As church-going Americans, we have been socialized to believe that our individual fulfillment and our personal relationship with God are more important than any connection we might have with our fellow human beings, whether in the home or in the church. We have, in a most subtle and insidious way, been conformed to this world.”
By and large, I agree with Hellerman (I haven’t finished the book, so I reserve the right to disagree with further propositions and/or solutions/conclusions). Expressive individualism is a cancer that has altered and undermined our communities, including our churches. Ironically, expressive individualism is used as a tool by organizations, including the State, to manipulate individuals into serving as cogs in a machine. And this is not part of God’s design/desire for human flourishing.
We are designed to live, love, and serve in community. In doing so, our definition of self should be inextricably connected to our community. Ultimately, as followers of King Jesus, our identity is in Christ. Everything else about us should submit and conform to that ontic reality. I am not my own because I am bought with a price. And as the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:23).” Being in Christ not only changes us, but it’s also the (should be) only controlling reality within which we live. Ethics precede from ontology. Expressive individualism demands otherwise.
There are riches to be mined and important conclusions to be drawn from what I’ve written above that can help redirect us, but while reading Hellerman’s book this morning I was reminded of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, and this is the direction I want to head. In his seminal book, Anderson unpacks how modern nation-states, especially in the West, are no longer centered but are bounded sets. This terminates, I believe, in a concept of patriotism that is at odds with the Bible’s understanding of community.
Before the modern conception of nation-states could develop, Anderson argues that three main cultural propositions had to “lose their axiomatic grip on men’s minds.” The first of these now overthrown propositions is, “that a particular script-language offered privileged access to ontological truth, precisely because it was an inseparable part of that truth.” As an aid to understanding, we can see loud echoes, if not an exact parallel, to this in KJV-only faith communities.
Anderson makes the case that the rise of “print-as-commodity” – the publishing industry – has replaced the ontic importance of a communal language. Even though, as a nearly fifty-year-old man living in Central Florida, I’ve little in common in terms of my daily experiences and concerns with a college-aged female living in Portland, OR, I can sit at my breakfast table and read The New York Times (or any other newspaper or magazine) and she can sit in her local park and read it too, both of under the pretense, although we have no idea of each other’s existence, that we’re united. This creates a communal boundary that is minus any real center; it has no ontic reality. The symbols and markers of consumerism have replaced the transcendent. By and large, the publishing industry gets to determine via focus groups, marketing, etc. what our shared language looks like and what it’s going to say. And it’s beholden to nothing above itself apart, possibly, from the so-called free hand of the market.
Interestingly, and this is important, the current fracturing of our society can be partially, at least, traced to the rise of technologies that freed us from being almost completely beholden to the market-driven whims of the publishing industry. Now, while eating our breakfast, we have a buffet of voices to choose from online. What we listen to now separates us instead of unites. There are multiple boundaries that have crisscrossed and are portioning off a boundary that we believed existed. That “unified” boundary has been revealed as merely a mirage. Make no mistake, the overthrow of Anderson’s first cultural proposition made this inevitable. Our “shared language” of modernism has always been false. Our understanding of personhood and community have shared a falsity that allowed us to paper over existential holes left by the absence of true identities and community. And even that falsity has now been shorn away, and the devolution is not over.
The second of the three cultural propositions that have been dethroned according to Anderson is that “society was naturally organized around and under high centres – monarchs who were persons apart from other human beings and who ruled by some form of cosmological (divine) dispensation.” Citizens were connected to a King (or priest) – a center with transcendence. The farther removed from that center, the more porous allegiances became.
The Incas, while creating an empire of disparate people and language groups, realized that the Emperor’s hold could only stretch so far. Even with their restraint in expanding the empire past certain points, the porous nature of the edges of the Inca empire helped Pizzaro overrun and defeat a vastly larger Inca military than the Spanish conquistador had crossed the Atlantic with. Closer to our own Western history, the farther the Roman empire stretched, the more garrisons of soldiers were needed to remind the far-flung people groups of their “allegiance” to Caesar.
No matter what we’re told and what you may believe, this country is a business not a nation in the pre-Enlightenment sense of the term. There is little that centers us apart from stories that have been ironed out to serve propagandic purposes. The GDP is king, and boundaries/borders are commercial. Desires to protect those borders aren’t transcendent; they’re purely motivated by the consumerism embedded in the story of the so-called American Dream. We’re (as Americans) a set bounded by commercial interests that feed us our expressive individualism.
The third cultural proposition for Anderson, “was a conception of temporality in which cosmology and history were indistinguishable, the origins of the world and of men essentially identical.” Charles Taylor speaks to this. In A Secular Age, he wrote of how we moderns have embraced a Chronos perspective on time at the expense of a Kairos perspective on time. Taylor distills it into the difference that exists in the perspectival shift from cosmos (transcendence) to universe (immanence). The result is that, “Humans are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time.”
Time has been shorn of its meaning apart from events in time serving as dominoes in a Hegelian journey towards the end of history (this applies to both Libertarian Capitalism and Marxism). And by “meaning”, because Hegel would protest my previous sentence’s accusation, I mean that we are ontically connected – really connected – to the past. The modernist notion of “the end of history” erases ontic connections. For example, as a follower of King Jesus, the times/dates of his crucifixion and resurrection are irrevocably attached to me in ways that July 4, 1776, never can be (that’s Kairos time). You see, an “end of history” worldview says that the moment in 1776 exists in an ontological conception reduced to individual anthropological moves (Chronos time). It has meaning for us because it provided the framework that establishes our ability to choose who we are – freedom/liberty within this framework is ultimately solipsistic. Because our identity is related to the market, there can be no real ontic connection to 1776 for us. And there can be no real ontic connection to even our self, much less other selves that cross into our space.
Within a Kairos time, things – symbols/signs – carry cosmic meaning, centering the community on things transcendent. With a Chronos perspective on time, there are no symbols/signs. There are only moments that terminate in the next moment. Little, if anything, exists to center us. All that’s left is a boundary that demands a buffered mechanistic ontology. We’re individuals made up of individual atoms who bump into each other. All that bumping into each other – all those individual moments of “dominoes falling” time – has meaning only if we invent meaning. This results in meaninglessness being an option in modernity. An option much less likely to invade our anthropology if our communities are centered and not bounded.
All three of Anderson’s cultural propositions that have been overthrown, “rooted human lives firmly in the very nature of things, giving certain meaning to the everyday fatalities of existence (above all death, loss, and servitude) and offering, in various ways, redemption from them.”
There is no longer a “nature of things”, only meaning that we bring to things. This is as good of a definition of expressive individualism as any.
There are many factors that have helped propel expressive individualism into the heart of our anthropology, and the rise of the modern nation-state may be one of those factors. Or the rise of expressive individualism may have played a role in the rise of the modern conception of nation-state. I think the former is more likely, but there may be a “chicken and egg” aspect of it, too. Regardless, there’s no question that divorcing ourselves from a center and replacing it with artificial boundaries has been problematic.
In opposition, the Bible views community as an ontic stretching of ourselves outwards from a center. That center, of course, is Christ. Our union with Christ frees us and compels us to view the whole as greater than ourselves, and a whole that is minus boundaries and that is porous in a way that allows everyone entrance. Being defined in Christ opens us up, it doesn’t close us off behind the false constructs of borders. As such, we’re not called to protect the center (Christ); we’re called to aid in his expansion.
Unfortunately, our phenomenological understanding of patriotism works against a Biblical model of community within our churches. Patriotism connected to the modern nation-state tells us that a bounded set is real and a set that demands defending to either preserve the boundaries or, even worse, expand those boundaries in a lust for further markets. Make no mistake, we bring this contra-Biblical definition of patriotism (and community) into our churches because many churches are products of the modern anthropological reworking/redefining of communities.
In their book The Churching of America, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark unveil that the rise of the most American of denominations – pietistic evangelicalism – was because the circuit riding preachers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries tapped into the hyper-individualism of America as well as the consumer mentality which accompanies that hyper-individualism.
Joseph Hellerman is correct. A return to a collectivist mentality (not in the Marxist sense which is simply the other side of the expressive individualism coin) is necessary for us to reclaim the depth and riches of true community in our churches. Our churches should not be defined by how they serve our needs, but in how we view our gifts, talents, and resources as at the disposal of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our individualized “personal” relationship with God is not the raison d’etre of the church. A collectivist mentality will also recognize that our true identity is in Christ and not in our job, our temporal citizenship, nor our dreams and ambitions. Our identity in Christ calls us to a Kingdom allegiance that doesn’t seek to preserve the status quo but that desires the center to grab hold of all, no matter how they may challenge and upset our temporal definition of flourishing. The call to “love it or leave it” has no place in true community. For those of us in a community, specifically the community called the local church, one of our jobs is to love those who are trying to leave and to invite in those who don’t think they belong.
(The song in the video below is more than tangentially related to this article. If I’ve done my job, and if you are familiar with the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself and readers via many of my articles, you’ll understand why I included the video.)
Soli Deo Gloria
 Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), 30.
 Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family, 7.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016), 36.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 36.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 37-46.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 36.
 See William Hogeland’s Founding Finance, Gary B. Nash’s The Urban Crucible, and Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, to list three sources. I can provide more, but these three are a good start.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 36.
 Charle Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 327.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 36.