Empowered Individualism and God

We live in the time of empowered individuals. Commercial messages in the U.S. reinforce the idea that individual fulfillment is the defining feature of both our culture and existence. This hyper-individualism creates expectations and desires that are very difficult to fulfill and that evaporate like mist on a lake when the sun rises because it’s expressed in material things and not spiritual connection.

All we have in life is life,” writes Sister Joan Chittister in Illuminated Life. “Things–the cars, the houses, the educations, the jobs, the money–come and go, turn to dust between our fingers, change and disappear.”

Viewed through this lens, a spiritual lens, hyper-individualism wounds as often as it empowers. In his small book, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, Bishop Ruben Job says this wound can be healed through relationship to others and to God. Through spiritual disciplines and in relationship to others, we find the healing that is more fulfilling and meaningful than the vapid promises of materialism.

I believe the tone of the public dialogue in recent years has been affected by this cultural influence. Hyper-individualism is alienating and diminishing and the harsh rhetoric and verbal put-downs so familiar to us are easier to speak in a fractured culture that disconnects us. Individualism of this extreme kind drains collective voice and influence. It takes community organizing to re-gain that influence and to achieve consensus about how we relate to each other respectfully. And this comes only with a recognition that we are connected. Our behavior affects others and we have a responsibility to each other.

The decline in support for public education, the privatization of public functions and the strangling of government all reflect a distorted view of individual rights that, in their sum, diminish us by weakening our sense of shared responsibility.

In the Christian tradition in which I live and work, faith is a call to serve and a personal source of strength. But one is not more or less important than the other. It’s a tradition that understands personal holiness is interconnected with social holiness and the together the two add up to a faithful response to a gracious love that we believe is shown by the life of Jesus. Someone this week called it “evangelical liberalism.”

However it is characterized, it is counter-cultural if the majority culture is about materialism and individualism. It calls us to love others, and that requires a relationship of a different magnitude than a commercial exchange for services. And it calls for service, to care for others through outward, specific acts of support, encouragement or responsibility. These are not seen as expressions of strength in a culture that doesn’t value community and that reveres individualism.

But it’s clear throughout scripture that “to be in harmony with something larger than ourselves and larger than that which the world values,” (Three Simple Rules, p. 54) is the way of faith in this tradition–Methodism.

And living this way results in a focus and direction that results in connection, not alienation; engagement, not isolation. In the most profound way, staying in love with God means being connected to the source of our strength and to those with whom we share the earth. It is this source that empowers us individually, but we are empowered to serve and to live in connection, responsible to and for each other, especially those who are disempowered and left out because they lack the resources and voice to be heard–the poor, the vulnerable and those wounded by an uncaring and hard-hearted culture of exclusion.

To be empowered is to live in the belief that we are created for community and to know that in our deepest self we are dependent on a source of strength that is beyond ourselves, a source that some of us call God.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

One Response to “Empowered Individualism and God”

  1. Rebecca Kohler November 14, 2007 at 2:32 pm #

    This is so true! The community is important and I believe that the church is guilty of the hyperindividualism also. When pastors speak from a passion of controversy and pull Bible quotes as cover that leads to demagoguery – the short-term gain of excited people wounded the theology and conscientiousness of a life of God. It is the experiential, passionate “feelings” that is actually adding to the church in it’s reputation as “anti-intellectual” to the point where the Bible is nice but the emoting is considered more genuine. Fellowship with other believers is meant to give us support and teach us to be responsible for one another…

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