Several years ago, we examined the very American characteristic of hyperindividualism. We noted many examples of how extreme forms of a characteristic that generally has positive goals and outcomes often leads in our culture to putting the onus, stressfully, on individuals to improve our lives (in contrast to the fact that citizens of our peer nations have many fewer worries in these areas), which then undermines the common good and often benefits only the very wealthy and privileged.
It can be argued that one of the primary ways that hyperindividualism has been promoted and nurtured has been the way that Christianity has been interpreted in some circles; such a “brand” of Christianity has undergirded our political and economic systems since the beginning of white colonization. While our US Constitution enshrines the separation of church and state (fortunately, in the opinion of many), the primary ethos of the Europeans who colonized our continent (and, of course, wreaked total havoc on Native populations) was Christian of one kind or another. Out of these “religious” beliefs emerged strands of profit-making, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, the self-made “man,” and often a disparagement of (or pity for) the poor (under the belief that their situation is their fault, not the fault of a system). All of these strands are inherently focused on the worth of the individual over against the health of the wider community (made up, of course, of other individuals).
Christian Fundamentalism takes individualism to an even more extreme level by claiming that only individuals who believe in “Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior” will be “saved” when they die and earn a place in heaven. Proselytism is a primary goal of Christian Fundamentalists – saving souls, in their particular definition of salvation, not improving our overall society in any significant way. These interpreters of the New (Christian) Testament quote a number of passages that support this stance. Read literally in English translation (even though the passages were originally written in Greek), and ignoring the wider social context that has been revealed by hundreds of scholars over the past 200 years, one can see how their interpretation might be understandable.
It should be noted that Christian Fundamentalism is a fairly new and modern phenomenon (Armstrong, xii, 266-77). Many Christians do not hold to this mindset or theology, nor has it been a primary belief system historically. Christians in many of today’s more mainstream denominations – United Church of Christ, Unitarian/Universalist, Anglican/Episcopalian, Methodist and Lutheran to some extent – are considerably less literalistic in their interpretation of Biblical texts and hold to a more social justice-based theology. Roman Catholics can be sympathetic to certain traditional theological perspectives, such as being against abortion and not ordaining women, but there is a strong social justice thread in Roman Catholic polity. These differences are significant but not often well understood today, especially in the context of individualism.
While we do not have time or space to delve into analyses of the passages held dear by Christian Fundamentalists, we can make a few observations about the complexity of the context in which they were written, which impacts their meaning.
- The notion of salvation in antiquity does not mean being saved from sin or eternal damnation, as Christian Fundamentalists maintain. Rather, the ancient Greek concept of soteria refers more broadly to “deliverance from an external threat, safety from natural disasters, and preservation of … political constitutions. For individuals, this could be deliverance from war, safety at sea, recovery from illness, a smooth childbirth, economic security, and physical well-being more generally.”
- The gospels – those documents from the early centuries of the Common Era that tell the story of Jesus – were written starting at least one generation after Jesus’ death. The earliest canonical gospel, Mark, was probably written and circulated (in Greek) around 70 CE. The version we have of the Gospel of John was probably written as late as 120 CE. These gospels (and many others that did not make it into the canon) were not in any way, shape or form eyewitness accounts – or history or biography as we understand those genres.
- Life in the early Roman Empire was very different from the lives of middle- and upper-class Westerners in the 21st century.
- Three quarters of the Roman population were slaves and freed men and women (Boulding, 304). Even low-status people might own a slave or two. Household slaves lived in very close proximity to their owners. Bonds were developed, but owners could also be extremely cruel – even to the point of legally murdering their slaves. Slaves were constantly subject to abuse and exploitation, including sexual (Boulding, 305). So, we must always remember that slavery was an integral part of the scene, which means that this type of household – and living conditions that could be crowded if not squalid – forms the background behind the early literature about the Jesus movement.
- Relatedly, much social interaction took place in the agora or forum of each city and even in public baths. Thus society, while composed of individuals, was highly communal at many levels.
- As we have seen earlier, St. Paul was instrumental in spreading the news about Jesus in the first century, and it is St. Paul’s authentic letters that are the earliest Christian Testament documents (written 50-60 CE, before Mark’s gospel). Paul, and other early missionaries whose letters we have, wrote to communities, and the letters were read out to assemblies of people (in part because not everyone was literate, and the letters were hand-carried to their destinations). Even the letter to Philemon was sent by Paul and Timothy and addressed to several other individuals.
- We must also be cognizant that second person references (that is, “you” and “your”) that might appear to be singular in our English translations are often actually plural in the original text; see Phlm 25 as a case in point.
With this background in mind, let us look more closely at a significant passage of Paul’s that shows the relationship he has in mind between the individual and the community: I Corinthians 12 (NRSV). The first part of this chapter focuses on individual gifts – the “utterance of wisdom,” gifts of healing, prophecy, “various kinds of tongues” and their interpretation. Part II, however, speaks eloquently of the body (NRSV translation; italics added):
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ… Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
These two parts of the passage – each person’s individual gifts and the unity of the body – work together toward the common good. Ideally, everyone is important – and knows his or her importance – and contributes to what is best for the community.
How does this relate to hyperindividualism in the American context and the Christian Fundamentalist goal of saving souls?
First, a persuasive argument can be made that the particularly Fundamentalist theological stance of saving individual souls is an egregious misinterpretation of the early Jesus mission. One can safely argue that individuals are very important to Jesus, God and the early Jesus followers. But so was the overall health of the “body” – the community.
Similarly, the hyperindividualism of our American context is also an extreme, and wrong-headed, version of the cherished value of individual worth, initiative, resilience and independence.
In the face of poverty, exploitation, violence and oppression, early Jesus followers stuck together and supported each other through communities (often originally meeting in households). Of course, this was not always smooth or without rancor and division – those problems come through in the texts and social context as well. We can also argue that the hope of a blissful afterlife was not off the table – there are definitely strands in the tradition of the desire of followers to be united with Jesus and loved ones after death, the wider cultural notion of “heavenly banquets” that await us “on the other side,” and the like. There is also a strand in Christianity (as there is in many other traditions) of mysticism and individuals connecting directly with the Divine; even these gifted persons, however, almost always lived and functioned in community.
In today’s American society, it is vitally important that we balance a dangerous and even narcissistic hyperindividualism with a healthy valuing of individuals and a robust and active concern with our wider society – our fellow Americans and, yes, our fellow citizens of the world. We can look for an example to St. Paul’s admonition to the Jesus followers at Corinth in the middle of the first century CE – all of us have gifts, and those gifts are to be used toward the common good. In the ways in which we think, spend our money and time, vote, and conduct our lives in general, we must train ourselves to operate with both strands at once.
Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Boulding, Elise. The Underside of History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1976; rev. ed., Sage Publications, 1992.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. Original hardcover edition Oxford University Press, 2002.