The Faithful Church in an Age of Expressive Individualism

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In earlier columns (see here and here), we looked at the definition of expressive individualism and the challenges it poses for the church that seeks to be faithful in this cultural moment. This emphasis on being true to yourself and discovering the “real you” to express to the world can make discipleship and Christian faithfulness more difficult.

But opportunities accompany the challenges. Here are three we should consider.

1. Cultivating Community for the Isolated

Expressive individualism is inherently isolating. Yes, it may seem heroic to cast off whatever expectations others may have of you, but in the end, when you “let it go” (like Elsa does in her anthem from Frozen), you wind up in an ice prison of your own making. You’re free, but at the cost of social relationships.

The authors of Habits of the Heart recognize both the thrill and terror in this way of seeing the world:

American cultural traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation. . . . 

This clear-sighted vision of each individual’s ultimate self-reliance turns out to leave very little place for interdependence and to correspond to a fairly grim view of the individual’s place in the social world. Self-reliance is a virtue that implies being alone.

Advanced stages of expressive individualism are characterized by isolation. (It’s no wonder that the United Kingdom has appointed a minister of loneliness!) Over time, we lose the willingness to create and sustain close bonds of friendship, because these relationships may require something of us.

In this environment, the church has the opportunity to be salt and light—to resist the trends pushing us toward loneliness and alienation. Our beliefs should not be inherently isolating, but should turn us outward in love to God and neighbor. We need the community of faith, with all its flaws and foibles, with all of its gifts and obligations, in order to flourish on mission together.

The church has the opportunity to cultivate meaningful community among people who stand out in a world of loneliness, people whose beliefs and experiences unify them around the gospel—a message we steward and uphold, not because we’ve created it, but because it has created us.

2. Standing Out in a World of Fitting In

A restless, individualistic pursuit of happiness evolves into a strange conformist impulse. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville pointed out the irony in how compatible American individualism is with conformism. We think we’re blazing our own path, but the paths we make look strangely like everyone else’s.

In the exhilarating rush to bypass all external traditions and authority, we grow exhausted and eventually discover that our cultural rebellion has no significance apart from the community we’ve spurned. The reaction, then, is to look for others to confirm our decisions. We aren’t satisfied with declaring our own lives to be “good” and “acceptable.” We need—no, demand—others do the same.

This ironic pursuit of approval is why the constant demand for affirmation of another’s personal life choices seems necessary today if our decisions are to have meaning and significance. Without others affirming us, our expressive individualism remains unsatisfying.

How can the church respond to this challenge? What is the opportunity we have before us? For starters, we don’t look inward to discover our inherent dignity but upward to God who bestows his image upon us. Hannah Anderson writes of the humbling elevation (or elevating humility) of this truth:

In God’s wisdom, our identity as image bearers simultaneously elevates and humbles us. It reminds us our calling is too grand and too glorious to be contained in human categories. But it also confronts our pride by reminding us we are not God. In this sense, finding identity as image bearers centers us, putting us in our place in the best possible way.

Second, we recognize in the gospel that the affirmation that matters most is that of our heavenly Father who looks at us, baptized into the death and resurrection of his Son, and who says over us what he said over Jesus at his baptism: You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. In Christ, we have the affirmation we crave, and it’s not something we have earned, but a gift of grace that has been given.

Third, we have the opportunity to stand out in the world by choosing to die to ourselves, to lay our lives down for something greater than ourselves. The New Testament tells us to crucify the self the world tells us to be true to. Nothing is more non-conformist and radical and rebellious than seeking conformity with Christ and the death of your old self. Mark Sayers is right:

To be shaped by grace in a culture of self, the most countercultural act one can commit . . . is to break its only taboo: to commit self-disobedience. To acknowledge that authority does not lie with us, that we ultimately have no autonomy. To admit that we are broken, that we are rebellious against God and his rule. To admit that Christ is ruler. To abandon our rule and to collapse into his arms of grace. To dig deep roots into his love. We don’t just need resilience; we need gospel resilience.

3. Offering Rest to the Exhausted

Another problem with expressive individualism is that, once the exhilaration wears off—the idea that you are making your way through the world against opposition on all sides, finding and staying true to whoever it is you believe yourself to be—the “freedom” offered in this kind of society turns out to be a different form of slavery. Exhilaration leads to exhaustion.

Thankfully, the gospel has a fresh word for the weary and guilt-ridden. “Our hearts are restless until they find themselves in You,” Augustine wrote. The gospel frees us from judgment—from God or from others. In Christ’s death on the cross, our guilt and sin are absolved. Our reception into his family, apart from any merit on our own, is a lavish display of grace that is amazing precisely because we are unworthy to receive it.

Christianity has a fresh message for an exhausted generation pursuing happiness: salvation doesn’t come from mustering up your willpower and making your mark on the world, but in recognizing your dependence on God and receiving the mark he made on the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

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