Nearly four decades ago, Harvard law professor Michael Sandel described a certain view of humanity as “the unencumbered self.” To be “unencumbered” means our identity is not defined or limited by the fundamental relationships into which we are born or the network of relations we inherit. The unencumbered self is defined instead by the capacity to choose, and in an expressive individualist society, the choices we make regarding our future must arise from within. We look inside ourselves to define our identity and establish our destiny, not outside to any other source of authority or obligation.
In our society, many have fallen for this mirage that imagines humanity as “unencumbered.” In response, church leaders should ask: What happens when this way of thinking seeps into our view of the Christian life?
Isolated Individuals Before God
For starters, the “unencumbered self” would have us see ourselves not merely as persons before God, but as atomized, isolated individuals who cannot and must not be defined by any outward attachments. We assume that our spiritual flourishing depends on looking inside to discover our spiritual needs and gifts. Only then can we determine a path that involves spiritual practices, habits, or activities that reinforce our sense of spiritual purpose. As Sandel remarks, the expressive individual self is a “self-originating source of valid claims.”
What affect does this mindset have on the church? Not surprisingly, recent statistics show many American Christians claiming the church is optional, not essential to the Christian life. Why is this the case? It’s because, as I point out in Rethink Your Self, an expressive individualist society, where we imagine we are “unencumbered selves,” makes a place for the church only insofar as the community of faith aligns with the spiritual pathway we’ve already charted. If the church opposes our direction, our natural tendency is to assert our independence and individuality over against whatever doctrinal or ethical constraints may arise. A robust, covenantal understanding of church membership (and especially church discipline) seems alien in such an environment.
We may say that our ultimate authority remains God and His Word, but we are less inclined to submit to God’s authority as exercised through His people. We see church as a choice, just one choice among many, and we judge the effectiveness of the church based on how well we feel helped or hindered in our spiritual journey.
The Impossibility of Unencumbered Spirituality
Biblically speaking, there is no such thing as the unencumbered spiritual self. The Christian life is not a solo effort. It is not an individualistic project. As John Stott wrote in The Living Church, the idea of an unchurched Christian is a grotesque anomaly that has no place in the New Testament.
Just as we are born into a family, we are born again into the family of God. And just as being part of an earthly family involves a matrix of relationships and obligations, being part of God’s family means we do not enter the Christian life, nor do we grow as Christians, without being encumbered in some way.
Consider several reasons why the “unencumbered spiritual self” is an impossibility for Christians.
1. The Christian life is one of radical dependence.
We depend on God for grace. It is by grace we are saved, not by our own efforts.
What’s more, we depend on others for growth. We all begin the Christian life in a state of spiritual vulnerability. Just as newborns enter the world with needs others must supply, so the baby Christian depends on spiritual nourishment from believers further along in the maturation process.
Discipleship involves individual Christians, yes, but it is not an individualistic endeavor. It is impossible to learn how to follow Jesus on your own. You cannot fulfill the commands of Scripture apart from a community united by the gospel of grace. As humans, we need support when we are born; as Christians, we need support when we are born again.
When we imagine we are “unencumbered selves,” we lose sight of our dependence. We fall for the lie that spiritual maturity can happen apart from dependence on others—by establishing relationships that reinforce the spiritual journey we have marked out for ourselves. That leads us to a second reason why the “unencumbered spiritual self” is impossible.
2. The Christian life is one of self-sacrifice.
True selflessness becomes impossible when we see ourselves as unencumbered. When we fail to recognize our dependence on others, and when we choose to look past the obligations and responsibilities that come to us in light of our belonging to the people of God, we wind up doing good deeds on behalf of others that, in reality, are designed to help us along in our own journey. In other words, even the spiritual activities we get involved in for the sake of others are redirected to our own needs and desires for spiritual growth.
Carter Snead writes about how this works in society:
A purely inward-looking and individualistic anthropology can give no intelligible or justified account of uncompensated, unconditional, and often self-sacrificial care of others. There is no warrant to give more than one could ever hope to receive. There is no imperative to give to those from whom nothing will ever be repaid in return.
The same is true when applied to the Christian life. The unencumbered self has no place for a community where people have moral obligations or spiritual requirements that don’t somehow connect to self-interest.
3. The Christian life is grounded in history.
There’s one more reason why the unencumbered spiritual self is impossible from a Christian perspective. It removes us from networks and attachments that would impinge upon our self-definition, thereby erasing history from the picture.
Just as people believe they can form their identities apart from their family influences, Christians begin to view their spiritual life as beginning and ending with themselves. We see the church as an aid in our life story, rather than seeing ourselves as members of a community with a history that extends across time. Alasdair MacIntyre comments: “From the standpoint of individualism I am what I myself choose to be…a self that can have no history.”
In short, we become spiritual selves with no roots. We have no backstory. The treasures of history are mined only for the help they may provide in the spiritual life we make for ourselves.
The result of living as if we are “unencumbered selves” is spiritual loneliness. You can’t truly feel fulfilled in cheering on a brother or sister in their spiritual walk because only they can determine what spiritual flourishing means for them. The reverse is also true. You and you alone must look inside to your spiritual needs and determine what is best for your spiritual journey. Others may participate, of course, but only on your terms.
The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton critiqued the idea of a society based merely on individual choices:
For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and suffering of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider that the field of choice. We are bound by ties we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements.
The same is true of the Christian life. The church’s values intrude upon our individual comfort and our self-focused spirituality. Paradoxically, it’s in embracing those obligations and responsibilities, by blinking and shaking our head until the mirage of the unencumbered spiritual self disappears, that we find deeper joy, truer freedom, and lifelong transformation into the image of the One who redeemed us.
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