This week I’m reflecting on individualism and the precious treasure of our individuality. Thanks as always for stopping and thinking with me!
Yours with gratitude,
Few concepts have been so attacked as individualism in recent times.
“The Enlightenment” and “modernity” are routinely blamed for producing individualism. “The West” is condemned for exporting individualism to the rest of the world. The easiest way to cast suspicion on a choice or philosophy is to show that it comes from or leads to individualism.
When I was teaching at Wheaton College, I noticed among my students that “individualism” was often the taken-for-granted villain in what’s wrong with the contemporary world. I have seen the same pattern in my work in Ethiopia.
But I believe this is a serious mistake.
Of course, humans are fundamentally relational creatures. We are born from parents before our wanting or choosing into a particular place and time. We are buried by others after we die. In between womb and tomb, we learn love, language, how to walk, and much else from others. Our lives are saturated with sociality.
There is perhaps no more crippling emotion than loneliness, no more devastating experience than the loss of a loved one. We are made for each other. As Genesis 2 says, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” This is one of the most profound and powerful verses in the entire Bible about what it means to be human.
Still, that’s not the whole story.
We are born into the world as singular individuals who have never been before – each of us as an unknown mystery until we reveal ourselves. In fact, Christians believe that each person is made in God’s infinite image (Genesis 1:26). There is something stamped into each person that is fundamentally new, something that can’t be captured or reduced to someone else or a group. Our unity and singularity is found precisely in all of us being made in the image of God, because God is inexhaustible. What we share is also what makes each individual a unique expression of the divine.
We have our own bodies, our own minds, our own voices, that can see and think and speak out of the uniqueness of our own experience and conscience. When everyone else is going right, we can go left. When everyone else is saying yes, we can say no. When others say the earth is flat, we can set sail and circumnavigate the globe.
Inside each person is a mysterious power of independence and freedom – me myself. To deny or suppress or condemn this reality is to dehumanize ourselves. It is the ultimate mutilation. The individual is inexhaustible.
Now, perhaps it is more helpful to affirm “individuality” rather than “individualism.” If we take the “ism” to mean that people are fully self-made or only obsessed with themselves and consumptively use others as a means to their selfish end, we deface the image of God and deceive ourselves. A society in which lustful self-interest is the governing principle will produce alienation. (Though we should remember that societies can be equally driven by group self-interest, and it produces the same result but behind the mask of “community” or “ethnicity” or “identity.”)
But to lose our individuality – the fact that we are singular persons who are not the same – is to lose our humanity. Freedom-loving societies build respect for the individual into their political and cultural DNA, creating the opportunity for individuals to discover themselves, to develop themselves, to express themselves, and to be protected under the law – even if they are defiantly divergent from the mainstream. As long as the individual’s exercise of their individuality is not materially harming others, their freedom must be defended as inviolable. (The debate about what constitutes “harm,” reaching back to John Stuart Mill and before, is extremely complicated and important.)
This is the treasure of liberal (freedom-loving) society, which is rooted in a profound vision of what it means to be human: yes, we are relational creatures, but our participation in a group never exhausts who we are as individuals in our totality. In fact, genuine participation in community requires our individuality, lest we turn into a crowd or mass that absorbs and erases our unique personhood.
We are entering into a dark age of resurgent tribalism, populism, and nationalism – an anti-liberal world. Group “identity” is increasingly becoming everything. The irony is that these identities champion themselves as liberation movements, and yet they often brutally oppress those within their own groups who do not conform to the group’s leaders or the cultural consensus. These tribes become collective, oppressive mass-individuals that police, silence, and punish individuals at will in the name of their identity. Many societies see individuality as a dangerous illusion or invasion. Some societies do not have a robust concept of the individual at all.
But beneath the romantic surface, we find that these societies are often held together by a desperate fear of rejection and exclusion, policed by a merciless system of gossip, labeling, and outcasting. As Nietzsche observed, their morality becomes a system of internalized cruelty – the certainty of being marked, kicked out, or even killed if the individual steps out of line. This results in habitual self-censorship and self-alienation.
A code of silence dominates, and people are trained not to ask questions or interrogate the status quo. Behind the veil of traditional virtue and piety rages a ruinous epidemic of favoritism, corruption, and violence, all defended by an outraged sense of innocence that refuses to reflect on itself. Belonging and brutality easily become two sides of the same tribal coin. (“How dare they question our identity? This means war!” It is rarely admitted that some of “our” people may also have different, even divergent ideas and aspirations.)
There is no future in tribalism. Nostalgia for a group-governed past is moral amnesia. Tribalism – of whichever kind but especially religious, ethnic, racial, and national, which often defines itself negatively by what it is not – attacks the heart of our humanity: that we are all human and that essential to our humanness is our individuality, our uniqueness as singular persons who can never be replicated or reduced to a group. Paradoxically, what makes us the same is that we can never be fully the same. This is God’s gift, God’s generosity to make each of us an expression of the infinite in all of our beautifully shared finitude.
We must recover a robust, rich vision of individuality. We must revitalize freedom-loving societies that protect and celebrate the individual in spiritual community, legal justice, and cultural innovation. We must cherish the mystery that none of us is the same and that the good life creates space for the mystery of the individual to flourish. We must rediscover that community is only possible with individuality.
Individuality is God’s precious gift to all and each of us. It is our birthright, wonder, and responsibility.