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:
- What is an individual?
- 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.