Charles Taylor has famously called our era the “age of expressive individualism”. This is evident even in the constant tweets, Facebook posts, news articles, and advertisements which beckon the person to ‘be yourself’. Just let it out. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. Chase your dreams. Don’t be defined by some distant authority. You decide what is right for you. Do what feels right to you.
This individual autonomy has deep roots in American history. As a nation, we have always been prone to individualism (prioritizing the individual over the collective) and a rejection of authority (e.g. the British Empire, the federal government, a state church, etc.). For a summary of how this liberal impulse to individual autonomy clashed with mass media and hyper-modern society, see George F. Marsden’s recent “The Twilight of the American Enlightment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief”. (Interestingly, the late psychologist Erik Erikson stated that Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms was the first instance of modern individualism.)
It is a rich irony that as our culture has become more captivated and controlled by mass media (originally newspaper, radio, television, and magazines but now the internet and social media especially) there has been a pronounced increase in the rhetoric of individual autonomy. As culture has become more dependent on conformity (for example, cookie cutter houses and neighborhoods), so too has the anxiety for individual identity blossomed.
But this is perhaps best seen in our culture’s approval of nearly all sexual expression. The narrative goes something like this: “If you feel a certain way, don’t deny it. Don’t let anyone tell you its wrong. Do what feels good to you. And if you don’t act on your feelings, it must be because you are repressed and controlled by domineering (read: conservative and religious) authorities”. Thankfully, this logic is not applied to rapists, pedophiles, polygamists, and the incestuous. Yet, the modern ‘individual’ is still being controlled. He or she has simply changed Masters. No longer is the church the dominant authority. Buzzfeed is. And the tragic fact is that the modern sexual revolution has proven to be a harsh Master indeed indeed. Statistics of divorce, remarriage, single parenting, STDs, rape, and depression need not be multiplied here.
This would be destructive enough. However, much of modern theology, especially of the liberal variety, has been infiltrated by such a worldly philosophy. It is surely true that Jesus calls us to avoid hypocrisy (see Matthew 5-7, 23). But this is never at the expense of condoning sin. As Christians we are never called to rejoice in our sins, stating “This is who I am and you (whether God or neighbor) had better deal with it”. In many instances expressive individualism has promoted pride, selfishness, and blatant sin in the church of Christ.
But the problem of individual autonomy, divorced from biblical and Theological wisdom, is not new. It has been present seen the the Fall (see Genesis 3). Indeed, as Judges 21:25 states, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. So while our post-modern Western mood may exasperate the problem, it is plainly evident that we are the problem. Fallen humans are ever seeking approval to act on their sinful intuitions. And we will go to any lengths to secure such approval–whether that entails rejecting authority or appealing to it.
How then is the Church to respond? We turn to a biblical rejoinder soon.