A Better Individualism

Much has been said recently lamenting the rise of individualism — in fact it’s quite popular in Christian circles to make a specter out of individualism as the bane of both true Christianity and as the leading cause of our current condition (anxious, separated, afraid, lonely, etc., etc.).

What if this isn’t really the case? That is to say, what if individualism itself is not the problem — it’s the false individualism that we’re sold that is a problem.

The reality is that we cannot escape our individualist stance. We are bound to it, no matter what we do (thanks Descartes!). We are, before anything else (in the order of being, anyway), individuals — individuals before the world, individuals before our social contexts, individuals before the infinite.

So, perhaps, rather than deriding individualism, we ought to reclaim it as a viable understanding of our human condition. We should reclaim it from the secularists who use it to uphold individualistic autonomy (necessarily leading to consumerism, and a free-for-all libertine stance towards economics and the political realm. We should also reclaim it from those who think it has brought about the downfall of civilization and the end of true Christianity. We need a better individualism.

What do I mean by that? I’m not exactly sure — I only really know that I’m convinced the either/or that we currently experience is a false binary. It’s not individualism or communalism. We are already and always individuals. What we need is a robust understanding of what individuals are made to be.

Perhaps, then, we should work with defining individualism by running through my two-question test in helping define the telos of a thing:

  1. What is an individual?
  2. What is an individual for?

Inherently, this allows us to approach the question without judgement. No longer is it a debate about whether individualism is a bad thing or not. It’s about recognizing that we are already, necessarily individuals, and determining the best way to understanding our stance as individuals in the world.

A Teleological Thesis

On its face, my thesis consists of exploring Kierkegaard’s models of epistemology and determining whether it would be a helpful model to appropriate in the present. I think it’s worth it for many reasons, especially because, as I’ve said previously, “Many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.”

The deeper reason I’m focusing on Kierkegaard is because he’s helping me do what I mentioned in my recent post on teleological blogging. In other words, for something to be worth our time and energy and focus, we need to be able effectively answer two questions about that thing:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

My thesis is going to be a long-winded, academic treatment of the issue of religious epistemology, or what we can know about what we believe ethico-religiously. The questions I’ll end up asking (and attempting to answer) are (1) What is religious knowledge? and (2) What is religious knowledge for? I find the model of applying these two questions to a problem helpful, because it forces me to parse down the categories further, and helps me to think analytically and historically. For example, I cannot answer question 1 without first answering the question “What is knowledge?” in general. And then further, how do we justify the claim that we “know” something? What can we know with absolute certainty, and we can we only know approximately? And are those things that we “know” even knowable in those ways? Are there other types of knowledge (knowing “that” something is true vs. knowing “how” to do something)? How do we determine which things we say we “know” belong in which categories?

This is how my thesis gets built. Keep asking the questions until I get to a point of clarity. I cannot honestly say whether I’m even in complete agreement with Kierkegaard. He offers what I think is an extremely useful model through his Johannes Climacus literature, and I hope that it helps me to clarify my own thinking. But even more than that, I hope that it helps me to live my life in a truer way than I did before, and that he serves as a guide for living a more faithful, Christian life.