Is Christianity Individualistic or Collectivist? “Yes” – C.S. Lewis and J. Gresham Machen

Americans like feeling unique and special--being one innovator who sticks out from the crowd.

Americans like feeling unique and special–being one innovator who sticks out from the crowd.

People have often wondered whether Christianity was more of an individualistic religion, with an emphasis on the person, or collectivistic, with a emphasis on the whole race or community. At different points in history the church has emphasized one over the other and then had the pendulum swing turn back on them within a generation or two. In fact, we’ll probably see something like that happen in our own day as churches begin to realize they need to stop feeding into the rampant, modern individualism of our consumer culture. In any case, the answer, as usual, lies somewhere in-between, or rather, off the grid.

With characteristic clarity J. Gresham Machen and C.S. Lewis both answered the question for their own generations in ways that are still relevant to ours.

I offer you Machen’s answer first with an important note–the ‘liberalism’ he is speaking of is not the current, political liberalism, but rather the theological liberalism of the early 20th Century:

It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social.

But though Christianity is individualistic, it is not only individualistic. It provides fully for the social needs of man.

In the first place, even the communion of the individual man with God is not really individualistic, but social. A man is not isolated when he is in communion with God; he can be regarded as isolated only by one who has forgotten the real existence of the supreme Person. Here again, as at many other places, the line of cleavage between liberalism and Christianity really reduces to a profound difference in the conception of God. Christianity is earnestly theistic; liberalism is at best but half-heartedly so. If a man once comes to believe in a personal God, then the wow ship of Him will not be regarded as selfish isolation, but as the chief end of man. That does not mean that on the Christian view the worship of God is ever to be carried on to the neglect of service rendered to one’s fellow-men − ”he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, is not able to love God whom he hath not seen” − but it does mean that the worship of God has a value of its own. Very different is the prevailing doctrine of modern liberalism. According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man. But the social element in Christianity is found not only in communion between man and God, but also in communion between man and man. Such communion appears even in institutions which are not specifically Christian.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 137-138

And now C.S. Lewis on the twin errors of ‘Totalitarianism’ (Collectivism) and individualism:

The idea that the whole human race is, in a sense, one thing —one huge organism, like a tree—must not be confused with the idea that individual differences do not matter or that real people, Tom and Nobby and Kate, are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth.

Indeed the two ideas are opposites. Things which are parts of a single organism may be very different from one another: things which are not, may be very alike. Six pennies are quite separate and very alike: my nose and my lungs are very different but they are only alive at all because they are parts of my body and share its common life. Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.

On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are “no business of yours,” remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. 4, 6

So, is Christianity collectivistic or individualistic? Machen and Lewis answer: Yes, and so much more.

Soli Deo Gloria