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A defense of individualism

Views 38 | Time to read: 3 minutes | Uploaded: 3 - 27 - 2019 | By: Nate Tudor, Matt Metz

NatHan Tudor
Staff Writer
Matt Metz
Guest Writer

In Christian circles, particularly intellectual ones such as Westmont College, individualism is often decried as Western narcissism that has no place in the Church. However, we think that a form of individualism is actually conducive to healthier communities. To qualify our argument, we are not defending the ‘American individualism’ that has often been critiqued for promoting selfish, egoistic behavior with no regard to others. Rather, we are arguing for individualism as a philosophy that considers the individual to have inherent moral and social dignity by virtue of existing. This philosophy stands in contrast to collectivism, which assigns value to persons based on their place in the group.

We are not rejecting community values wholesale--far from it! We actually think that an individualist perspective provides a better framework for the mutual love and care that nourish healthy communities and societies. Individualism, as expounded by John Locke, maintains that every person has inherent value by virtue of the imago Dei, the image of God. As such, individuals must treat one another as equals, since no one person has more of a claim to the imago Dei. In this sense, the identity of the individual describes both differentiation and social connectivity. It is an integrated individualism. There is a tension between the individual and the community, and if this tension collapses one way--either wholly in favor of the individual or the group--then the culture becomes disordered morally and socially.

One area of moral and social import is individual rights. Individualism holds that the individual has value simply by existing, not because he or she is attached to a larger group Individualism is the foundation of our modern idea of universal human rights. This is not to say that collectivist cultures do not recognize the idea of basic human rights, but the concept arose from an individualist framework. In many collectivist cultures, people have greater value the more they cohere to the collective standard. As a result, those who fail to conform to the ideal are looked down upon and shamed, and those who exist outside the group are oddities at best, subhuman at worst.

Matt’s experience with collectivist culture in his Hong Kong upbringing highlights the values of conformity in such cultures. Though he is half Chinese, a Chinese speaker, and a birth citizen of Hong Kong, he has been constantly seen by locals as a foreigner for his nonconformity as an English speaker, an American citizen, and being multi-ethnic. The callous ways Matt was treated reflected this identity clash.

No person is an island. The picture of the early Church in the books of Acts--sharing property and providing for one another’s shows that all Christians have obligations to one another. However, Jesus exhorted people that to join the Jesus community, they must set aside fundamental obligations to their worldly relations (Matthew 8:21-22). This cost of identifying as a citizen of the Kingdom and relinquishing wordly citizenship seems to demand that the individual choose their path. This is not an identity that the collective can assign--it is one that each must choose.


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