11. And our communities have driven the divine into individual pursuits.
If the command is to love God and neighbor,
and if Jesus is present when we are together,
and the missio dei (mission of God) is to build the kin-dom,
then individualism is the stumbling block,
the temptation for power,
Let us define individualism as focusing on the needs of the individual over the needs of community.
Again, over the needs of the community. Not in light of the needs of the community. Not in balance with the needs of community. Hear that.
So when I speak of individualism, I speak of the great selfish desire which infests the Western world. This is the idea that our humanity is defined by our individual accomplishment and our freedom against our neighbors.
It is the the need to be right and claim of power over another.
So therefore, correcting individualism is also not focusing on the needs of the community over the needs of the individual. It is naming one imbalance. It is not the trading one imbalance for the other.
Praying to the Idol
Yesterday, I shared an example of what happens when we name the idol of individualism: much of Western Protestantism takes offense. I suppose, in a way they should.
They should take offense in the way Jonah does when God changes the hearts of the people in Nineveh. Really, it isn’t fair to watch people change and grow.
I always feel for Jonah because I can be so like him! But we shouldn’t want to take his example!
When we’re so desperate to be right, it’s hard to be right about God and wrong about mercy.
But this rightness in the need to be right and wrongness about mercy is everywhere. It rings through all parts of the Protestant landscape. Whether it was true at the beginning of the reformation is irrelevant. It’s true now.
Now, we’re living in the divisiveness brought on by the modern protestant mutation: that the root of Christian faith is found in individual belief and not the transforming power of God.
A Best Faith Now
I don’t like criticizing other faith traditions. I was kicked out of an ecumenical group for asking its participants to be more charitable to other denominations. And I do mean to single out any one particular group as being most wrong. For this mutation of the gospel isn’t found in a single cell in the body of Christ. It has spread throughout.
And yet, the modern protestant mutation of individualism has no more public example than the prosperity gospel: a way of pursuing earthly enlightenment and cultural success through an incantational faith. And it has the perfect slogan: that we can have our best (individual) life now.
Of course, there is some support for such a view, particularly from the gospel of John. My funeral homilies are full of descriptions of John’s phrase “eternal life” being a call for present, vibrant living. The impulse to give our best, pursue hope, and truly live are throughout the scriptures.
But these calls to vibrant living are always tempered by love of neighbor, sacrificial giving, and community building.
So in other words, the problem isn’t the pursuit of the “best life” in the moment, but replacing a robust faith of individual and corporate commitment with one of personal satisfaction.
It is a selfish mutation of the gospel, not the gospel itself.
This is ultimately why I don’t preach daily living sermons. Because it is idolatrous to reduce the breadth and massive scope of the gospel to a couple of nuggets of wisdom we can try out over the weekend. We can’t self-help our way to a faith built on the principle that there is no such thing as “self help”.
Perhaps The Lord of the Rings trilogy can help us better see our intellectual folly around faith.
The human tribes were so easily conquered by Sauron by an appeal to their selfishness. Not only in the straight offer of power, but the offer of power from the side. Power for good.
It is easy for the reader of the books or viewer of the movies to see the folly in the grand expanse of the idolatrous history of Middle Earth. Or simply look at the story’s personification of greed: Gollum. The selfish desire to possess his “Precious” transformed the simple hobbit, Smeagol into the monstrous Gollum. That makes the folly easy to see.
It’s much harder to wrestle with the constant desire to possess the ring for good. The idea of controlling the ring and defeating the enemy with his own weapon is supremely attractive.
And even the isolation Frodo is forced to feel, carrying the burden of the world’s destruction on a chain around his neck is deceptive. For he is almost never alone. He is not on this mission in isolation. Even when he carries the burden alone, he is carried by his friends.
Like the Fellowship of the Ring, we aren’t in the business of solving individual needs. We have a common purpose: to save the world.
We are building community. A community where all needs are met. And this reveals the hardest part.
It isn’t about you so it doesn’t get to stay being about you.
While we are trying to meet the needs of others, sometimes that means it is our needs which get met. And that is the most amazing thing! We can be transformed by Christ in the most amazing works of community.
It is from our place of need which Jesus saves us.
But…you don’t get to stay in your place of need.
For many of this, such a thought is obvious. But to the full breadth of the church, such a suggestion is blasphemous. Not because we don’t believe in the transformative power of Christ. But because we only access our theological conviction through our place of need.
We argue that we are broken and Jesus heals the broken! So we need Jesus! To heal our brokenness. Over and over. Like it doesn’t actually take. Like Jesus isn’t ever really saving us. The brokenness is removed only to show back up seconds later. Like Pigpen taking a bath. The dust cloud will find him again so the viewer can identify him as Pigpen.
This isn’t just the problem with the Prosperity Gospel; it’s the problem with all of consumption Christianity. It’s the problem with a belief which can be consumed. In our gathering for worshiptainment or liturgy as individualistic as receiving candy from a Pez dispenser. Pull back Jesus’s head and help yourself!
This is the problem with getting what we want from our church and from our divine one: it feels too much like a McDonald’s drive-thru or a fine restaurant where everything is made to order. We think we need to receive from God what we want.
And we foolishly believe getting what we want will eliminate the pain and frustration. We go to participate in something bigger and only find that it builds greater isolation.
This isn’t only the church’s problem. It’s ours.
We want something the church has no business giving us. But it does. Because in the West, we vote with our feet and our dollars. [And if that phrase doesn’t raise some red flags, I suggest you read some more about who we are called to be. Or start from the beginning.]
This isn’t an expression of health or our best faith now! This is sickness and dysfunction. Churches and church members reinforce this sickness in one another. And it breeds a way of being which doesn’t resemble the gospel’s call to blessed community.
Instead we create non-communal gatherings of individuals where the greatest concern is meeting an individual’s needs. Meanwhile, the church is their to endorse the culture’s dominant values and encourage it’s people to be nice.
I have no doubt the Hebrew prophets would call consumption Christianity a whore.
[And you might have thought my words above that were divisive! Those men and women could bring it!]
Let’s update that metaphor to liken it, not to the prostitute, but to the pimp who extorts his or her people for profit.
Or better yet, let’s compare the church to the married man who pays for sex. It knows it is sinning. But the problem isn’t just it’s individual sin. The John is being unfaithful and exploitative.
Is the church we’ve inherited truly helping all of us together find our best faith now?
[This is Thesis #11 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]