I’m currently writing a few blog posts and the question which constitutes the title of this piece has cropped up. Rather than take a long side argument in one of those pieces, I wanted to clear the ground here.
In much of my reading through historically based theology (such as N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God) I keep coming across comments that state that individualism is an anachronistic way of looking at society in the Middle East in the 1st century. However, I’m not wholly convinced.
That’s not to say the criticism is incorrect, I do agree with it quite a lot, just not entirely. Anyone who has done much reading on the early church and its relation to its Jewish roots will see that there was far less individualism then than we find it today’s western culture.
Yet I cannot escape the idea, when reading through the New Testament, that within early christianity were the seeds of a less corporatist mentality. Not that the worldview was switched entirely to individualism, but rather that it shifted to a mid-way point between the two. There was to remain a “group identity” though radically changed from membership of the people-nation of Israel, but at the same time individuals were to take a greater responsibility for their roles within this reformed community.
In 1 Corinthians we get to see most clearly amongst the epistles this half-way house that I described above. The communal view may be seen in chapter 13, epitomised by verse 12:
“For just as the body is one and has many members and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
There is a recognition of our individuality, and the rest of the chapter looks at the different roles individuals play, yet at the same time, there needs to be a unity. So there is an appreciation that a lung is very different from a finger, just as within a single congregation the person who operates the sound desk serves a very different task than the one who makes the teas & coffees. On a wider scale, the small Anglican church is a rural English village might appear very different from the large Pentecostal church in South Korea. Yet all are to be cherished for who they are, whilst recognising that though they may not come into contact all that often, they are part of a bigger, more complete picture.
The duties of the individual are not lost in this. In the same letter, just a few pages before, we have Paul’s more “physical theology” in 6:12-20. Here, although the metaphorical overtones refer to the church as the body, the instruction is for each individual as a microcosm of the church.
Also, if we look at Romans 10:9-13 (within the wider context of Paul’s discussion) then there can be very little doubt that the referent is the individual and that although Paul does discusses collectivism in both the previous and the subsequent chapters, the idea is firmly that of a single person. This is further backed up by Philippians 2:12.
This New Testament perspective is very different from that we find in the Old Testament. If you read through the prophets, there are numerous references to Israel as a whole and how the nationhood was thought of as a collective.
The example that jumped to my mind was that of Lot’s pleading for Sodom & Gomorrah. Of course, I take this story with more than a pinch of salt (pun intended) as my personal belief is that stories of such “conversations” with God are a shorthand literary device to convey a more general point. But nonetheless, the ideas it contains are those which shaped Judeo-christian beliefs. In this story, God is appears willing to destroy the cities even if a few people are found to be “righteous” – in other words the sins of the city as a whole meant that potentially those who were innocent would be included as part of the punishment.
I still find this profoundly challenging to my innate sense of justice, and is pointed out (rightly) by opponents of christianity as an example of God appearing capricious or unjust. I am still thinking this point over.
But for the purpose of this piece, the implication is clear: collectivism was a standard part of the mindset of Judaism that was transformed by the Jesus’ death, which heralded a step towards, but not by a long way reaching, individualism.
One may further note the story of Jonah, where he was told to go to the city of Ninevah (which was very large, according to 3:3,4) and speak judgement upon it. Yet one wonders how a city, which by its very nature has no consciousness or will of its own, could possibly take heed. Yet that is the understanding that was present at the time. The city was represented by its king and the actions of the city as a whole reflected that of the king.
It seems clear to me that along with the sea change that was precipitated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the idea of collectivism/individualism also underwent a paradigm shift. So while collectivism might be needed for understanding the culture before the 1st century, I don’t think it’s right to try to apply that, unaltered, when talking of early christianity.
Yet there’s still something that bugs me about collectivism. It just seems to fall short of good sense. While there may have been a perception of collectivism, but I still think that that perception was simply wrong.
How can God be a just god if it is willing to pass judgement on an individual based on the beliefs and behaviours of their peers?
It may have been that this paradox influenced the change in view from Judaism to Christianity. I’m not asserting that it was, I am merely musing.