Friday, May 30, 2008

Individualism, Hospitality, Missions & Evangelism

Mark Driscoll, a pastor of young church in Seattle, in his recently written book, The Radical Reformission critiques our individualistic culture stating,

“people are increasingly busy, isolated, lonely, disconnected, and without any helpful solutions in the culture. The isolation is now so entrenched that many people don’t know how to practice hospitality. This trend is even reflected in new architecture, which replaces large dining and living rooms designed for human contact with walk-in closets, home offices, and personal entertainment rooms. Here lonely people can watch sitcoms about friendships and reality-based shows in which characters pretend to interact with human beings, a thing apparently fascinating and foreign to many lonely, isolated individuals…Meanwhile, our neighbors, whom we do not know, are spending their evenings in much the same way.”[1]

Boersma would confer that individualism has distorted hospitality. The introspectiveness and the privatization of religion has turned the church itself inward as well as an exclusive group of individuals. The hospitality of God, through the good news of Christ, chose not to regard his own rights with personal advantage, instead invites all to come. However, the individualistic self or community is a danger to true hospitality because such an offering of self is largely unheard of. For the inward looking individual and community hospitality, if offered at all, likely bears a utilitarian nature of exchange. Hospitality is offered as a selfish quest for recognition or where the gift is tied to expectation.[2] The cross marks a profound danger in true hospitality, but for the receiving individual of such a strange grace from another it is an open door to abuse and consumption by the individual.

Evangelism and Missions
If religion is solely a matter of individual conscience, evangelism could be a very difficult thing. When all beliefs are on equal grounds, tolerance may grant one a hearing of the case for Christianity, but final belief is up to the individual. Depending upon the means of evangelism, it may be easily construed as the oppressive authoritarian structures of the church dictating what one must believe. If seen from that perspective, the individual is likely to dismiss it easily if an individual even has the courage to broach the subject of faith and thus breeching “good social manners.” The inwardly turned collection of individuals is not likely thinking about doing evangelism or missions either except recruiting more from their target audience. It is again the lifestyle enclave.

[1] Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 81-82. Driscoll is often lumped in with the Emergent but he would distance himself from that group and the subtitle is likely a shot in their direction.
[2] Boersma, 210.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Saul Leiter

October of 2006 I made a mad trip around the Midwest visiting potential PhD programs. After visiting Marquette in Milwaukee I made a return trip to the city’s wonderful art museum. I say return as it had been the summer of 1997 that I was last there when we made a trip out for Summerfest. This trip was indeed special. Not only had they completed the renovations and additions to the facility that had just recently been announced on my first visit but I also had the opportunity be introduced the woderful work of Saul Leiter.

The show highlighted his early color work in the 50’s before the color process had been perfected as it is now. There was a significant collection of images as well as a small viewing room that clicked through a battery of slides. As I sat for several cycles of these images washing over me I began to see patterns rise through his view finder: the human element, repeated colors, reflections, and distance made foreground objects. What was this former Rabbinical student up to?

I have collected a few of his images from a variety of sites and made a few comments on them below.
I love this seems to blend all four distinctives together. We see the red of the brick building behind and the reflective red of the taxi. And of course the human element...a hand balancing a hidden body. In the foreground we see the out of focus colored reflection of another car. Perhaps we, as viewers, are in another taxi in another car. Perhaps we are stuck in traffic as they are. We are voyeurs...or less provocatively we are people watching.

While this image is not the most captivating of his work it again follows the much of the pattern I have seen. Again the reflection forms a barrier between the viewer, ourselves and Leiter himself, and the car. And again we see the the human foot protruding from the right suggesting that there is more. We know that there is physically more to this man than what the foot allows. Are we also to see that there is more to humanity than the surface than we are allowed to see? I also love the patterns on the floor and the shine of the nail heads.

This is an interesting image. Structurally it is a strange composition with the largest part of the image being a black window canopy in the foreground. We see indistinct grey and black figures fighting a winter storm. While this is a color image, it is nearly all in the black/white tonal ranges. Also notice how the nearest tree in the background extends vertically into the seam or tear in the awning. But again we are reminded of our viewing perspective by the ominous awning which covers most of the image. We are viewers protected by this canopy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Individualism & Ecclesiology

If speaking about individualism, most commentators point out its effects on evangelical ecclesiology. Individualism infects people and the structures or communities they inhabit. The church may then be seen as a collection of individuals, but also as individualistic communities bearing the same tendencies of individualistic persons.[1] So central is individualism to contemporary assessments of evangelical ecclesiology, even the definition of individualism in The Pocket Book of Theological Terms, explicitly points to its effects as a lack of “sufficient emphasis on the believer’s relationship with and responsibility to the larger faith community of the church.”[2]

If salvation is through a personal relationship with Jesus what makes it personal? To have a personal relationship with anyone requires them to have a body. In one rather stretched sense we can have a personal relationship with Jesus because of his incarnation. Yet since the ascension, Jesus and his body are not visibly around. What we do have, we do have is Christ’s body the church. Perhaps we need to reclaim the physicality of the phrase by referencing the church. To say that we have a personal relationship with Jesus means to have a living relationship where we can actually bump elbows with others as his body within the church.
The physicality of a body of believers suggests a deeper understanding than a purely privatized individualistic religious conversion or personal Christological spirituality. Certainly both the visible and invisible have their theological potentials. And certainly the invisible church with its emphasis on connecting believers to the “cloud of witnesses” and historical church is a wonderful corrective to overcome the amnesia of the modern church. However, a one-sided emphasis on the invisible church seems to allow the privatized faith and Gnostic tendencies of evangelicalism to flourish. The invisible church is an incorporeal reality that has no witness to the world. Where religion is relegated to the private and invisible sphere, it is sapped of its witness in the world. Christ is made into a spiritualized figure for individuals rather than being Christ’s physical embodiment into the world. The internal must be made external. The intangible must be made tangible. The embodied church inhabits social space and places in particular and engages the world by making Christ present in its beliefs and practices within the world.[3] Without the emphasis on the visible church, the private self will seek public expression through the only “valid” physical expression: the state. Individualism, says Craig A. Carter, comports well with theocracy…which serves as the guardian to individual rights.[4] Without strong visible communities, will naturally connect their “welfare with the nation-state that make the pursuit of self-fulfillment possible.”[5] But a visible or tangible collection of people is not enough to constitute the church either. Grenz suggests that the visible church in the hands of individuals “becomes an aggregate of the individual Christians’ ‘contract’ with each other to form the society of Christians.”[6] It seems that individualism cuts off communication of the Church at both ends: keeping individuals away from authoritative groups and contractualizing its nature when people choose to enter in.

Community is a buzzword these days in the church and is often proffered as the postmodern cure for individualism. The church is often called a community, a loving group of people committed to living out the ways of Christ and committed to each other. These are good things. Small groups, or perhaps even accountability groups, are for many the most intimate expression of the church, and have exploded across the nation and around the world. Often the community and small group explicitly offered as a counter to the loneliness of radical individual. Again this can be a good thing. Yet, I worry that there is confusion between the means and the ends. Construing the church as a cure for anything is a distortion of its purpose; whereas a gathering of the true church will inevitably bring about such effects.

Several theologians dealing with ecclesiology have utilized Bellah’s “lifestyle enclave” to describe the state of ecclesiology. Rooted in self-expression, leisure, consumption, and a retreat into the private life the lifestyle enclave is most basically an exclusive group of like-minded individuals who have no deeper connections to each other beyond self interests. Each enclave is a social contractualism in agree to put aside certain rights and enter into a group setting but still with individual goals clearly in mind. Micheal Jinkins suggests that this voluntary contractualism is a “two-edged sword” for Protestant ecclesiology. Positively, it offers a certain liveliness in a distinct evangelical piety. Negatively, points to the exclusivity and “spirit of schism” so prevalent in Prostestantism.[7] While there are a few positives of the contractualist society such as the lively spirituality of evangelicalism, however participation in such a group more likely reflects personal preferences of the expressive individualist than commitment to a larger community.
Recalling Miroslav Volf again suggests that a community of individuals does not make an ecclesial “we.”[8] To some extent, modernity’s individualism is only recast on a slightly larger scale and renamed “community.” This collective individualism still suggests the priority of the individual to choose which commitments and when to retract ones commitments to a particular group. The church is still considered a voluntary association that does not necessarily entail submission to or even acknowledging the collective authority.

The church is condensed to individuals who gather to worship and celebrate their personal relationship with Jesus. Camaraderie among peers is not enough. Meeting the emotional needs is not enough. Both suggest Bellah’s therapeutic tendency and the lifestyle enclave. While fellowship of believers is a key to the churches existence, it cannot be the explicit goal.
As human nature needs to be rooted beyond itself in the Trinity, so should our ecclesiology. An inward looking community of inward looking individuals has not fully experienced the hospitality of God. Rooted in the Trinity the church, like Christ sent to rescue the world, is also sent into the world.

[1] I have wondered for sometime to what extent does free-church ecclesiology reflect American individualism. This is one question I wanted to explore in the project which has grown well beyond my expectations. But it seems from initial impressions that they often model the same tendencies of individuals at the associational level.
[2] Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, “Individualism” in Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 66.
[3] William A. Dyrness, “Spaces for an Evangelical Ecclesiology,” in The Community of the Word: Toward and Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 254-260.
[4] Craig A. Carter, “Beyond Theocracy and Individualism: The Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Ecclesiology,” in The Community of the Word: Toward and Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 174.
[5] Carter, 174
[6] Grenz, 314. Evangelical Futures
[7] Michael Jinkins, “The ‘Gift’ of the Church: Ecclesia Crucis, Peccatrix Maxima, and the Missio Dei” in Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion?, ed. John G. Stackhouse Jr., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 181-183.
[8] Volf, 10.
[9] Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 209.
[10] Boersma, 211.
[11] Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 81-82. Driscoll is often lumped in with the Emergent but he would distance himself from that group and the subtitle is likely a shot in their direction.
[12] Boersma, 210.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Individualism & Hermeneutics

According to Nathan Hatch that having cast off tradition, clergy, and trained theologians, early Americans “agreed to defer to only one source of authority, the rule and guide of scripture.” [1] Americans could now discover the literal and self evident message of scripture for themselves. I have already explored briefly the American populist hermeneutic premised on the inalienable right of every person to understand scripture for him or herself.[2] Perhaps it is our post-modern awareness of our cultural and social positions clearly evident as adding subjective distance and presuppositions into our interpretations. Should this na├»ve objectivity of the interpreter be traced back to Descartes’ desire to locate the self as the most basic element in knowing?

If individualism is our first language our scriptural interpretations will bear these marks as well. Individualism infects our view of the people we read about in scripture, our interpretation, and application.

Bruce Malina suggests that it is our tendency to read scripture as “unique persons, as individualistic selves, as personalities with opinions and conscience and feelings of guilt and anxiety.”[3] He also suggests,

Americans live in an individualistic culture that centers on the value of self-reliance. Individualism may be described as the belief that persons are each and singly an end in themselves, and as such ought to realize their “self” and cultivate their own judgment, not withstanding the push of pervasive social pressures in the direction of conformity. In individualist cultures most people’s social behavior is largely determined by personal goals that often overlap with collectives such as the family, the work group, the tribe, political allies, coreligionists, compatriots, and the state. When a conflict arises between personal and group goals, it is considered acceptable for the individual to place personal goals ahead of collective goals. Thus individualism gives priority to the goals of single persons rather than group goals. What enables this sort of priority is focus on self-reliance, in the sense of independence, separation from others, and personal competence.[4]

At this point, we can look to the social sciences to help see past our Western individualistic context and perhaps get a glimpse of 1st Century Mediterranean context. What happens without such a careful endeavor is to project our cultural values upon the texts. Individualism is a subtle but powerful eisegetical force. Where Westerners likely read individuals, social scientists encourage us to see collectives which are defined by family integrity, group goals, and group solidarity.[5] Identity is rooted in the collective and not constructed by the individual. Perception of oneself is based typically the central person of the collective and the collectives health.[6] Without seeing ones individualistic tendencies in reading scripture we cannot rightly interpret scripture.

Individualism also infects the framework for scriptural interpretation. Hatch has clearly shown how the lack of framework beyond the individual effects an individualistic interpretation. Sola Scriptura was essential to the Reformers task, yet this idea has been usurped by sovereignty of the individual. Many have readily shown the shortcomings of Luther’s principle from Hatch and Americans desire to create a “novus ordo seclorum”[7] to Stan Grenz’s critique of propositional systematics created by autonomous individuals.[8]

Theologically we see other problems start to arise. With the interpretive community dismissed as an impingement upon the autonomy of self, there is a personalizing of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit revealed it to me) and decreased necessity of tradition and ecclesiology. In this light, Clark Pinnock rightly warns against interpretive individualism leading to uncontrolled subjectivity.[9] Interpreters need to be reminded that Spirit guides interpretation from within the community. Is it enough to locate hermeneutics within the community? Ecclesiology has faced and succumbed to the same individualizing tendency attested by the variety among American Protestantism. This raises a few questions about the extent of contextual theology. Grenz suggests, “our desire is to hear what the Spirit is saying to this particular congregation and these particular believers.”[10] How do we balance the particular needs and questions answered in local theology without devolving into an ecclesial particularism?

Without tradition and communal authority, interpretation is left to un-encombered individual persons and churches. Is tradition, the guiding principle? Does a community framed by tradition, guided by the Spirit offer the true interpretation within the particular? What is the correlation then between one particular community and that of another? Or between the particular and the larger whole? I think my tendency is to want or expect too much from the church which though guided by the Spirit, is still made of fallen humanity.

[1] Hatch, 43.
[2] Ibid., 71.
[3] Bruce J. Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons,” in The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 41.
[4] Ibid., 46.
[5] Ibid, 47.
[6] Ibid, 45.
[7] Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Knoll, The Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 59.
[8] Stanly J. Grenz, “Articulating the Christian Belief-Mosaic: Theological Method after the Demise of Foundationalism” ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 124-125.
[9] Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 234.
[10] Grenz, 126. Evangelical Futures

Monday, May 19, 2008

Individualism & Trinitarian Theology

Perhaps there are many reasons for the resurgence of Trinitarian theology in the last century, but whether an impetus or an outcome, Trinitarian theology forces substantial reconsideration of the individual. Yet I think the Trinity can still be subject to individualisms tendencies. The common expression of God as the “three in one” and “one in three” highlight the dangers of individualism penetrating from both ends by an over emphasis on the unity or diversity of Persons. I do not think that the struggle to define the Trinity throughout our Christian history is will ever be over. We may arrive at balanced theological assertions but the full practice of such is much more difficult.

Certainly Christians are monotheists and must retain the witness to the scriptural witness of a God who is one. I wonder, could the unity of the Trinity have the potential, like the individual, to take priority and be solidified as an undifferentiated, monistic entity.

Or perhaps the opposite is more likely where the danger lies in our common usage of “persons” which we tend to think of as individuals each with a distinct ego and center of consciousness free to exercise their wills against each other.[1] It again is no large step to transfer the self-contained, self-sufficient autonomy of American individuals upon the Trinity. According to Bellah, the “individual is prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self interest.”[2] This cannot be for God. “Although God’s being is characterized by the hypostatic distinctions…all three persons are one in their will and activity.”[3] The loving essence of Trinitarian relations would be exchanged for the self seeking of each person. Bellah’s concept of the individual renders the divine Tri-unity into tri-theism and makes no further sense when applied to the Christian story and the cross.

Potentially, the individuating tendency will dissect each Person from the others and subsequently overemphasize that one member. Migliore recounts H. Richard Niebuhr’s accounts of theological unitarianisms. Unitarianism of the Father, often highlighted by American civil religion, acknowledges God as the “source of life, of certain inalienable rights, and providential guidance of American destiny.”[4] Accompanying this unitarianism of the Creator, there is also a diminished sense of sin, need for forgiveness and repentance, or transformation of life. Unitarianism of the Redeemer renders Jesus is more like a sentimental “cult figure” than the Jesus of the Gospels.[5] Salvation is consummeristic and exclusive. Unitarianism of the Spirit overemphasizes the gifts of the Spirit for the self rather than building up of the church.

[1] Roger E. Olson & Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 36.
[2] Bellah, 143.
[3] Olson, 36.
[4] Migliore, 64.
[5] Ibid., 65.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Individualism and Soteriology

Robert Bellah states that “most Americans see religion as something individual, and prior to any organizational involvement.”[1] I think Bellah has understated the problem and I would extend this further to include salvation being prior to and outside any organizational involvement. Dennis Hollinger helpfully notes that “one of the hallmarks of Reformation theology is salvation by faith on the part of the individual.”[2] One is able to approach God, through personal faith in Jesus. These points are essential but Hollinger reminds us of the corporate nature of salvation. Individualism tends to reduce election to individuals rather than corporate body of Christ and its effects beyond.

If the individual is given priority in our hermeneutics it is no surprise then that the “us” or “we” of Paul’s letters in regards to the church are still conceived of as a collection of individuals. Miroslav Volf is right to point out that “several I’s together…do not yet constitute an ecclesial we.”[3] At one end, where salvation is made a personal matter between the individual and Jesus, there is a narrowing of interpretation of what the church is and is for. At the other end of the spectrum the church can be eliminated all together for lack of need because a personal decision about Christ has been made by the individual. While the original referent of “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus,” is the ark of the Catholic Church, I doubt that many American Evangelicals would even consider such a statement as it is an utter affront to their individualism. For the individual, salvation is through “personal faith in Jesus.” A radical individualist may well ask what do faith and Christ have to do with the Church? Such a question would seem to ignore Paul’s metaphor of Christ’s body: the church. Perhaps the subjective personal relationship with Jesus that Evangelicals champion can come only through a personal relationship with Christ’s body the church.[4]

Our individuating tendency separates us not only from fellow humanity but also from physical creation; salvation becomes mental or spiritual decision making only concerned with humanity. Yet Romans 8.22-23 suggest that creation too groans for rescue. This inward or privatizing tendency of individualism only fosters another plague upon Christianity: Gnosticism. Salvation does not bring about new relations for that would acknowledge or relegate persons as individuals prior to salvation. Rather, salvation transforms all existing relations with fellow humanity and creation.

[1] Bellah, 226.
[2] Dennis P. Hollinger, Individualism and Social Ethics: An Evangelical Syncretism (New York: University Press of America, 1983), 242.
[3] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 10.
[4] This raises a host of other questions about baptism and church membership that I will not go into here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Individualism, human nature, & sin

The Psalmist’s question persists today, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8.4). This glory and honor is the indelible image of God created within them (Gen. 1.26). What does the “image” actually refer to? At times in our Christian history it has represented our physicality, our reason, dominion over the earth, human freedom, and our creative abilities.[1] All of these seem to be rooted in a distorted anthropology. The definition of the “imago Dei” cannot be rooted in self perception or similarities seen in both humankind and God because we inevitably see ourselves first and fashion God in a likewise manner. Rather the question about what humanity is like as created in the “imago Dei” is really a question about the nature of God. Without Calvin’s well known dialectic of two part knowledge of self and God, resting finally in the knowledge of God shaping our anthropological perceptions we will surely stray into anthropomorphism.[2]

We must return, as many are right now, to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be the source of all theology including our anthropology. Our nature then is constituted within the otherness of the relational Trinity rather than humanity’s inherent ability as individuals or collectively. If God is conceived of as a monistic being, it only follows that as God’s creatures we would assume the same of ourselves as individuals. Without this rootedness in the Trinitarian economy, we are free to imagine ourselves as autonomous, creative, and rational, beings. From this vantage point, faith becomes solely a vertical matter between the individual and God. The essence of the social Trinity emanates from the indwelling service to the other Person’s of the Trinity. This Trinity, perfect community in itself, reaches out and invites humanity to join in the dance. Yet this is not just an individualistic venture. This loving and selfless serving within the Economy is to be taken up as the model for the relational life of the Church. But where human identity is not rooted in the interdependence of the Trinity, and subsequently in the body of the church, the individual inevitably takes priority.

We should be careful at this point as well not to continue individualistic approach to God. The individual approaching the Trinity is not much better than the individual approaching a deistic or monistic conception of God unless it drives the individual out of him or herself to others. It is here that we see the Trinitarian shape of ecclesiology mirroring the heavenly Trinity and the individual entering into participation in both.

With such vulnerability, it is likely the individual will balk at giving ones self over to another person or larger entity for fear of exploitation or loss of individuality or uniqueness. These fears are not unfounded in common human experience. Yet the Trinity can set the example to overcome misperceptions and abuses of uniformity. Though being an indissoluble unity, the immanent Trinity functions in eternal distinctions as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and is expressed in differentiated agency. Individuality of each member seems to come from the expressed agency of the larger Trinitarian community. Each person of the Trinity has specified roles. If we take this as the model for human identity and social interaction, our identity is tied to the larger constituting body in the source and use of, and not negation of, individuality.
I wonder too about the ones perception of sin. Where the individual is the primary reality, can we rightly understand the original sin or the corporate nature of sin? Some weeks ago, I noticed in our Sunday morning liturgy that most, in singing the Gloria, changed the phrase, “You take away the sin of the world” to “You take away the sins of the world.” I began to ponder the significance of such a small change. Without a proper understanding of our fallen state through Adam, where sin entered through one and spread to all (Rom. 5.12) and through which all will die (1 Cor. 15.21), we cannot rightly understand our state before God. Where the pervasiveness and radicality of our sinful nature is reduced to sins, individuals are easily led to believe that they become a morally neutral or blank slate before God once sins are forgiven. Sinful nature is reduced to sinful actions. Where the Gloria continues “have mercy on us” the mercy the atoning sacrifice is made into asking a favor of forgiveness. If the blank slate is granted by the individual, Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not even needed because we can choose to live a sinless or moral life.
For the radical individualist, sin likely pertains only to individual actions and not corporate. Certainly personal sins are important to confess to our Creator and Redeemer, but we must look beyond ourselves and our own actions to those wrongs that we may be implicitly and explicitly involved in at all levels of participation. While it becomes increasingly hard to explore our responsibilities within the wider societal circles in the global interactions of today’s world we must be attempt to be aware of the consequences of corporations and nations, economic policies and beyond.

[1] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 121-122.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), I.II

Friday, May 9, 2008

Individualism & The Sacraments

The consuming individual is not likely to grasp the depth of mystery involved in either sacrament because they each involve a radical re-orientation from the self to God and the church. Baptism is reduced to a marker of ones salvation with Jesus. Baptism as the initiation into the visible and invisible body of Christ, where one takes on a new identity is diminished. And where that connection has not been severed the individual may still view it as a membership card to the communion club.

Communion for individuals is likely seen as celebration of the personal relationship. It is an acknowledgment of God’s hospitality, but only to the one. In a certain scene on an airplane in the film Fight Club, the main character remarks to another, that he is the most interesting “single-serving friend” he has ever met because all food on airplanes are packaged for the individual. Reflecting on Bellah’s lifestyle enclave and the cubed communion bread in so many churches, it seems all too easy connection that those we dine with as the body of Christ are reduced to “single serving friends.” Communion becomes concerned with remembering what Jesus did for me, not re-membering of the body of Christ.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Individualism & Spirituality

Spirituality is the favorite playground of the postmodern expressive individualist. Spirituality is perceived as the perfect means to cultivate the private self and self-expression. Yet with little to no connection to anything historical or theological framework Christian spirituality quickly becomes syncretistic; a strange blend of Holy Spirit and self help. Yet, the purpose of Christian spirituality is not “developing a better self-image, achieving self-fulfillment, or finding self-affirmation, nor is it the development of individualistic qualities.”[1] Rodney Clapp states what orthodox Christian spirituality is not.
It is not opposed to the body, it is not non physical. It is not removed from history, the ongoing flow of time. It is not asocial, a solitary activity or state of being. It is not primarily inward and invisible, a hidden affair of the private heart...[It is not] a compartmentalized experience, customized by and for the lone individual, removed from any pesky, constraining traditions or social bodies (institutions).[2]

Rather it is about developing patterns and virtues that help incarnate Christ’s social body in the world. Clapp concurs stating that “Orthodox spirituality is participation and formation in the life of the church that is created and sustained by the Holy Spirit.”[3]

Evangelical spirituality, as I have noted many times, is a personal Christological piety. Yet when this eclipses the preaching and the Sacraments or that which constitutes the church as the church there is a serious problem.[4] When this type of spirituality is the center of ecclesial unity, “the individual is prior to the church in such a way that a cafeteria style approach to Christianity is inevitable.”[5] The tendency of American individuals is to “leave the church” which may or may not actually entail a physical leaving but rather making “faith their own.” Real or valid faith is determined by a process of internalization not by just accepting what ones parents believe. Particularity of faith is swallowed by subjectivity.[6] Without the framework of church history and theology a flimsy spirituality ensues.

Within individualism, a consumerist tendency fills the self-created void of others with desire for desire. Tolerance and pluralism relegate belief (and practice) “to one more item on the market shelf”[7] where we are free “to treat these narratives, roles, and symbols as disposable commodities: things to be played with, explored, tried on, and, in the end, discarded.”[8] Not only do our individualistic spiritualities succumb to consumerism. Consumerism is a spirituality itself. Not recognizing the irony, culture implores individuals to cast off or empty the self of all things external. The empty or impoverished self may selectively be filled with “commodity based self-enhancements”[9] as salvation from the emptiness of self. Miller’s comments on consumerism are telling about the state of Christianity. Individualism promises wholeness within self-sufficiency, but this leaves the individual in radical isolation, where selves never fully comprehend the other. “Relationships are reduced to acts of consumption, a consumption that, because it is completely determined by the monadic self, can never free it from itself.”[10] The empty self must consume, but gets consumed by the process of consumption where even our Christian spirituality and practices, designed to cultivate and channel our desire of God, are commodified. Consumer desire does not end in possession, rather it is endless desire itself.[11] Christian spirituality, even in the most individualistic sense longs to go to heaven – or more appropriately the coming of God’s Kingdom. The empty individual, consumed by consumerism, desires endlessly, and is thus perpetually seeking a unique spirituality from the “wisdom of many religious traditions stripped from their supporting communal infrastructures.”[12] The perceived freedom of choice in plenty of the spiritual cornucopia distracts us from recognizing the “structures that that maintain our dissipation.”[13]

[1] Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVp, 1998), 102.
[2] Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 14.
[3] Ibid., 14.
[4] Carter, 176.
[5] Ibid., 176.
[6] Chan, 109.
[7] Beth Newman, “Pluralism as Idolatry” ( Accessed on December 7, 2006.
[8] Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2005), 6.
[9] Ibid., 54.
[10] Ibid., 111.
[11] Ibid., 141.
[12] Ibid., 142.
[13] Ibid., 142.

Raining Jane

Last night Karina and I had a remarkable time with Raining Jane, a L.A. based independent that traces the highways and interstates of this great country. For nearly four years now this band has been entertaining their audiences with their wonderful music as well as their humor. Last night was the band’s third stop through Sioux Falls and Augustana College. They certainly are a campus favorite. Perhaps not just because of their music and beauty, but they really give themselves to the Augie audience after the show. Their approachability and openness following their shows were exciting to see.Thank you Raining Jain for gracing us with your gifts and presence in our community.
Come back soon.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Individualism or Individuality?

One of the difficulties in discussing individualism is that at its heart, it affirms and negates. On one hand affirms our created worth. On the other, it separates us from everything else. For someone to say that they have a personal relationship with Jesus can be affirmed as a good thing. However we cannot slip from the communal aspect of that claim. Christ cannot be had apart from his body. We must affirm both the corporate and the individual. To swing back with the pendulum into a pure communitarian perspective would diminish the created individuality of all people. Perhaps there needs to be a reclamation or clarification of terms. If individualism is about self realization and self-re-creation perhaps a better understanding of individuality versus individualism would be in order. Perhaps people are afraid of being swallowed by the corporation – to become a number. Rather than being born as individuals, we are born with individuality. We are uniquely created beings who seek to cultivate those particulars for a greater good beyond oneself. Paul’s conception of the body speaks of individuality not individualism. If all were a hand where would the sense of smell be? What good is the hand severed from the body? Is it still even a hand without its identity to a larger context.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man and Personal Values

Last night we went to the opening of Iron Man. While I’ve never been into comic books nor their superhero’s the film is excellent. Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit as the womanizing jerk Tony Stark. But after being betrayed and captured in Afghanistan by people using the weapons he designed Stark has a change of heart as he watches the man who saved his life die.

In one sense, this is a conversion story where the character goes from a producer of weapons to the protector of people. Stark creates the ultimate weapon but uses it for “good.” I loved the story, but I struggle with the individualized sense of ethics that Stark converts to. What are his orienting points that guide his new moral compass? Certainly his change is laudable, but what we need to think about is where do we get the framework for what is good in our life. How do we define what is good? Can we leave it up to the individual? The state? Can that individual help others achieve that same type of conversion?

The struggle with individualized values is that there is no larger framework beyond the self to uphold and re-enforce ones chosen values. They can be matters of convenience able to increase or decrease in value (essentially what is profitable for that person) depending on the circumstances. The idea of value comes from the market economy built on needs, wants, and scarcity. Is this where we really want our moral values to emanate from? Values shift from person to person based on what is effective for their own self advancement or fulfillment.

To what are we looking for the moral ideal? From whom or which tradition are we learning our behavior? Who’s traditions are we using and being used by?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Individualism & Doctrine

Has individualism affected our doctrine and practice? Most certainly. If individualisms tendencies are to jettison all external authority and tradition, leaving construction of meaning for the individual, then all doctrines and practices are potentially at risk. An individual may “pick and choose” from among the options, but also feel free to “mix and match” as he or she sees fit. I do believe there is hope. Many today are working to reclaim theology and practice from radical individualism.

One of the difficulties in discussing individualism is that at its heart, it affirms and negates. On one hand affirms our created worth. On the other, it separates us from everything else. For someone to say that they have a personal relationship with Jesus can be affirmed as a good thing. However we cannot slip from the communal aspect of that claim. Christ cannot be had apart from his body. We must affirm both the corporate and the individual. To swing back with the pendulum into a pure communitarian perspective would diminish the created individuality of all people. Perhaps there needs to be a reclamation or clarification of terms. If individualism is about self realization and self-re-creation perhaps a better understanding of individuality versus individualism would be in order. Perhaps people are afraid of being swallowed by the corporation – to become a number. Rather than being born as individuals, we are born with individuality. We are uniquely created beings who seek to cultivate those particulars for a greater good beyond oneself.

If individuals cannot be fully autonomous from others, neither can doctrines. As you begin to lift one doctrine the rest come along with it revealing their participation in the conversation. What follows will be a meager attempt on my part to explore the actual and potential distortions that radical individualism effects upon Christian doctrine and practice.