Home Page

Posts Tagged ‘The Reformation’

Radical Individualism

In Worldview on March 28, 2016 at 6:26 pm

Human relationshipsThis idea, that meaning resides in the individual human mind, has been a long time in development. We take it for granted and it is no longer considered a way of looking at reality, but the way reality is. It has not always been so; 500 years ago, meaning was external–context mattered.

In the Medieval world and before, the human self was understood in terms of three key relationships. That between God, other people, and the world. Everything that existed was placed in a hierarchy; the most spiritual things were on the top and the most physical things were on the bottom. Angels were at the top, with humans just underneath, then animals, birds, plants, planets, and the purely physical elements. Each of these categories were structured in their own hierarchies–the animal hierarchy was headed by a lion with the oyster at the bottom.  The elements were framed by gold and lead.  Every human lived between the king at the top and the insane beggar at the bottom. One’s identity, and the meaning of all things, had everything to do with where it fit within all these hierarchies.

Then came a series of events that would free the individual from all these hierarchies.

  • Religious Freedom came about with the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517 with Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. This event was the catalyst to a movement that would allow individuals to read a the Holy Scriptures in their own language and interpret the content for themselves.
  • Political Freedom came in a series of revolutions. The English Revolution in 1649, the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution 1789 seriously limited or eliminated the hereditary position of king.
  • Freedom from the Transcendent/Divine. When did we stop believing in God? Some of us haven’t, but let’s just say that it was in 1882 with Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. In it we find those famous lines, “God is dead. . . . And we have killed him.”
  • Racial Freedom continues to be clarified, but two significant events are worth mentioning: the Abolition of slavery and America’s Civil War in the 1860 and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.
  • Freedom for Women – In the first have of the 1900s women won the right to vote in many Western countries. Countries. Progress in even more equality were won in the 1960s.
  • Sexual Freedom was also a part of the 1960s.
  • Freedoms related to Sexual Orientation have been won in many jurisdictions in the last decade.
  • Freedom from Biology – 2015?  The latest emancipation seems to be from our biology. Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are representative of this new-found freedom against biological gender and race respectively.

BufferedThis is where we are now.  For the modern self, context doesn’t matter–meaning is internal, within the individual human mind. There is no authority higher than the self. The modern human is an autonomous human, not to be ruled by God, pope, king, or biology.

There are some consequences to this shift from external to internal meaning.  Just one effect is our isolation from other people and things.

We aren’t as engaged in our world as we once were: In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam points out that civic engagement has been in steady decline in the last third of the century. What is the evidence?  We don’t do a bunch of things as much as we used to, things that Putnam suggests are indicators of civic engagement.

  • newspaper reading;
  • TV news watching;
  • attending political meetings;
  • petition signing;
  • running for public office;
  • attending public meetings;
  • serving as an officer or committee member in any local clubs or organizations;
  • writing letters to the editor;
  • participating in local meetings of national organizations;
  • attending religious services;
  • socializing informally with friends, relatives or neighbors;
  • attending club meetings;
  • joining unions;
  • entertaining friends at home;
  • participating in picnics;
  • eating the super with the whole family;
  • going out to bars, nightclubs or taverns;
  • playing cards;
  • sending greeting cards;
  • attending parties;
  • playing sports;
  • donating money as a percentage of income;
  • working on community projects;
  • giving blood.

As far as I know, there is no proof that civic disengagement is a result of the radical individualism I have described, but it seems to follow.

Freedom and Individuality are good things, but they are not ultimate things.  We’ve made them ultimate things–we judge everything based on the degree to which it aligns with the worship Individual Freedom.  But good things cannot fulfill the demands made of them when we put them into the place of God. They will become very cruel gods before too long, but before that they will move us away from the other.  That they move us away from relationships, suggests their inadequacy as gods, for we find we are most fully human within our relationships–the purpose for which we were made.

Reflections in the Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on August 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm

114I have not posted this summer because my wife and spent several glorious weeks in Europe.  Our trip covered three Sundays and we attended services in the cathedrals of  three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Worshiping in these cathedrals was one of the highlights of a wonderful  trip.

Holidays are a great opportunity to visit other churches.  Each congregation values different things.  If approached with an attitude of humility, it’s very good to worship with Christians of different stripes because it helps to broaden our understanding about ourselves, the Church and the God we worship.

All three of these services were very different from the very large Protestant church I attend every other Sunday of the year, and the experience provided some significant insights that I will share over the next few posts. 

One of this most fundamental lessons that one can take away from a very different worship experience is a challenge to the idea of what is “normal”  in worship.  The essential purpose of all Church services whether in a gym or cathedral is the worship of God–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   It’s very easy to fall into the idea that the way my church/denomination worships is “normal,” and alternative approaches are abnormal and inferior.   Honest encounters with difference can help dispel these harmful notions.  

Before a Protestant participates in a Roman Catholic mass, it is important to appropriately frame the historical relationship between these two branches of the Body of Christ.  It is not productive to adopt the simplistic narrative that says the Roman church was corrupt and encumbered by extra-Biblical doctrines and rituals of which the church needed purging.  Rebellion against corruption and some theological imbalances were a part of the early Reformation,  but it quickly became something else.   The Reformation shifted authority from the Church and tradition to the individual.  Before 1517, the Bible was read in Latin and interpreted by the church through the filter of a long tradition.  The Reformation resulted in Bibles written in the vernacular so people could read and interpret it for themselves.  Individuals could also access God more directly without the mediation of a priest.  These changes were perhaps necessary in that they recognized that faith had both an individual as well as a collective component.  But with reforms such as these, the Reformation also ushered in a significantly different way of thinking about the self and its relationship to authority.  These changes prompted other changes which have effected western civilization ever since. 

It’s why we have so many denominations in the church.  Liberal democracy couldn’t be conceived without it.   Moral relativism is it’s logical end–most of the most contentious issues in our culture today are a result of the individual asserting its autonomy. 

The Reformation may have initially asserted individuality, but this grew into the individualism which dominates our culture today.   We understand the self as autonomous, there is no greater authority.   “My rights, my choice” is the modern mantra. 

There’s no doubt that the church needed some reform in the 16th century because it was filled with the idolatries of the day.  But we fool ourselves if we think we are not equally susceptible to the idolatries of the world.  One of the main idolatries in our culture is Individualism and worship of this idol has permeated the western church. 

One of the ways this is seen is with the emphasis in Christian circles on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”   Although this is an important dimension of the Christian life,  the Bible has much more to say about how we are to live in community than it says about a personal relationship with Jesus.   This imbalance can often be seen in the language we use around baptism of adults and even the professions of faith of those baptized as infants.  We can also see it in our tendency to sing more songs like, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” rather than, “I Sought the Lord and Afterward I Knew.”  We see it in our interpretation of principle of being “salt and light” in the world to be an individual, rather than a collective mandate (for example when we choose and education for our children).

We have the same problem that every church of every age and every place has–we are blind to our idolatries.  By humbly engaging meaningfully with Roman Catholics (or Protestants from non-Western societies) we can more easily see our own idolatries. 

 I hoped that worshiping in a cathedral  would give me a glimpse into a time when we weren’t so immersed in the worship of the self.