10. Our individual pursuit of the divine leads us away from community.
The Great Western Heresy
When the Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori addressed the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in 2009, she spoke to a church on the front lines of our next reformation. A church which was still in conflict over its ecclesiology and theology. And a sudden main battlefront in the culture war.
Schori’s words were prophetic. Not only for what they said, but for what they provoked.
She called individualism “the great Western heresy”:
“that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”
Out of context, these words are certainly challenging. But so are the words Martin Luther took out of context to develop an entire theology: faith in Christ.
Evangelicals swarmed on her description of individualism with daggers raised, eager to pronounce the murder of the Episcopal Church was really a suicide. They wanted to convince the world that the attacks they make against another body of Christ were just the defensive struggles of a church in peril.
Others channelled their inner Pharisees, declaring the idea of a modern heresy to be a heresy. Without the hint of irony.
In responding to her critique of rampant individualism as our common heresy, Schori’s detractors proved she was right.
The Presiding Bishop began her remarks by explaining the necessity of conversation in the midst of crisis. She was kicking off the triennial convention by describing how important this is: to speak and to listen. For General Convention is the most powerful grass-roots gathering in the church and all people get a voice.
That’s the context for her words about individualism:
The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.
Of course, those who would misunderstand these words were going to harangue her for them. They had been doing so since her election. But listen to the structure of her argument.
To believe one can make oneself in right relationship to God is to make one the center of existence–to steal God’s work from God’s hands–and make an idol of the individual.
Rather than hear Luther’s call for the sovereignty of God in the granting of grace, they heard something else. Schori’s words would only bite those who felt they could be the arbiter of grace.
This exposes the true flaw in Protestantism is its dependence on individualism.
Schori’s address wasn’t a big attack on evangelicalism. It was actually a prophetic call to unity. She doesn’t call out an opponent, but names a common problem. And that’s why she names the next step in dealing with it. Ubuntu – the theme of the convention.
Ubuntu doesn’t have any “I”s in it. The I only emerges as we connect – and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others. There is no “I” without “you,” and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the one who created us.
There isn’t an “I” except in community. Or an I without a “you”. And as Christians, we know there isn’t an “I” without a God to reflect out to a “you”.
In Ubuntu, we have an African concept which resounds with Jesus’s sense of withness. Ubuntu embodies the sense of a we which is more than the sum of its parts. But one which embraces both the diverse voices and the common voice they create.
A voice which embodies the withness of us together and our withness with God.
And a voice which would require all to come to the table.
This reveals the true intentions of the venomous response.
For those rejecting Schori’s statement on individualism are also rejecting this common table. A table in which the people gather to both speak and listen; to give and to receive.
There is a natural connection between a vigorous support for individualism and wanting your way. But these evangelicals want the freedom of their beliefs and the silencing of other beliefs. They want to be heard, but they don’t want their theology challenged. They don’t want the first female primate in the Anglican Communion challenging their theology. Or to let the withness of African spirituality move them.
In this way, the common table is a threat. In fact, there are a whole list of threats, including
- a woman in leadership
- the invitation of multiple voices
- non-Western spirituality
- declining evangelical power
- diverse theology
- a post-protestant theology.
In this regard, the attackers have reason to be afraid.
Of course these evangelicals hated the statement! She all but calls the flaw in their theology the church’s version of a four-letter word. And it goes firmly against the grain of what our culture (and many of our churches) encourage.
I can see how Schori’s statement upset them. Because she described why they’re wrong.
Despite the common culture and traditions of personal religion, individualism isn’t the gospel.
Individualism runs counter to the gospel as revealed in Jesus. It runs against the teachings of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches which encourage a broad sense of community participation. And its antithetical to Martin Luther’s formulation of repentance and grace being about God, not us.
What it does resemble, however, is a Protestantism devoted to personal salvation and sincerely held beliefs. Unlike the grand streams of faith, which run all the way back through to Jesus, the modern protestant mutation is ultimately devoted to the individual. It takes Luther’s nugget of truth and extrapolates a system of belief which ultimately only cares about the individual.
And the individual precedes God.
This is why individualism is heresy.
Even as it brings a person to church, it also drives them away from community. Community with neighbors, family, friends, and God. And community is the foundational element of our faith. It is the thing Jesus called us to do and how he comes to be with us.
Many of my friends found the wilderness of spirituality without religion. They’ve built a faith in a divinity they don’t call “God”.
And many have only found pain in Christian communities. They now spend years wandering and wondering if they’ll ever know this peace.
This isn’t heresy; but it’s the byproduct of it.
You aren’t damaged or evil or wrong. In fact, you may be on the right path. If you’ve found someone else there, someone like you; if you’ve found love, then you’ve already found God.
[This is Thesis #10 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]