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

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

  1. Great blog, Derek. I love how you take a rather simple provocative query, providing literary “food for thought” for all to ponder, digest…, and then share. We had a great discussion this am. during Bible Study when sharing your blog! THANKS and God Bless!

  2. Individualism is the homo incurvatus en se of original sin. I don’t see any reason to defend it. Christianity is both *personal* and social, but it is never individualistic. I become a person through my incorporation into Christ’s body; prior to that, I’m not really a person but an accidental amalgamation of social forces. The myth of the Cartesian self is a much greater enemy to Christianity than the critiques which tear it down even though many Christians think that they need to defend it against those who blame “society” for moral problems.

    Individualism implies autonomy and self-reliance, which is the prevailing delusion in our society that we’re up against, liberals and conservatives alike. I don’t think so-called “conservative” evangelicalism really stands up to this delusion much at all. “We built it” is the ethos of practical atheism. People who like to think of themselves as tough, disciplined, and self-reliant invent a God who serves their self-justification needs no differently than people who like to think of themselves as open-minded, forgiving, and compassionate. They might vigorously profess a “theocentrism,” but it serves as its own subtle works-righteousness.

    Also notice the difference between Machen and Lewis. Machen feels no need to refer to a body of Christ which is the place Lewis first goes to define how we are persons. Machen’s reference to the social dimension of Christianity between people is an afterthought. Lewis is immediately Trinitarian where Machen speaks in monotheistic terms. When “image of God” means that humanity emulates ontologically the three hypostases who share one ousia, you end up with Lewis’s account. When it’s just the covenantal ethical stamp of a radically sovereign God, I suppose you end up with Machen’s account.

    I wonder to what degree Machen is channeling the nativist anti-Catholicism of the early 20th century. I realize he’s primarily knocking the social gospel, but his caricatures sound like how a Protestant would describe Catholicism, because in the rock and roll services of Protestantism, the purpose is to prove to God how awesome you think He is, while in the liturgical services of Catholicism, the purpose is to enter into Jesus’ eternal sacrifice and receive healing (which would come out in caricature as man existing for God vs. God existing for man). Machen reminds me of that kid who made the “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” video a year ago.

    • Various response comments:
      1. I think you’re getting caught up on semantics. Realize Machen and Lewis are writing 50 and 100 years removed from our context. “Individualism” and “personality” are roughly synonymous.

      2. “I become a person through my incorporation into Christ’s body; prior to that, I’m not really a person but an accidental amalgamation of social forces.” This is a dangerous statement. I’ve seen it in the theology of Ziziouslas and while I get where this is going, do we really want to say Christians are non-persons? Just an amalgamation of social histories? Is the Imago Dei really that destroyed? Man, I thought Calvinists were supposed to have the negative anthropology.

      3. Machen is writing against early, 20th Century liberalism, much of which was caught up in a ridiculously naive socialism and we need to keep that in mind.

      4. Machen has an entire chapter on the Church. He does plenty with the body of Christ. He’s also very Trinitarian, defending a Chalcedonian and Nicene Christology against his liberal interlocuters. (Whom he favorably distinguishes from faithful Roman Catholics whom he still considers Christians.) This is a single quotation. You can’t say everything at once and, in this case, it is particularly off-mark to extrapolate the rest of his theology on the basis of one quote as well as impute to him the majority of your problems with current evangelicalism.

      5. As for the rest of your social commentary: sure. That’s true of a lot of contemporary evangelicalism. Not the best of it, of course, but yes, a lot of it. This is part of why I’m Reformed. You’ll never hear a better take-down of Enlightenment notions of autonomy than from a Reformed theologian. They’ve been doing it long before Foucalt or Nietzsche came on the scene. 🙂

  3. I want to thank you for recommending Machen’s book last week … interesting read. My family was Unitarian when I was a child, and Machen does point to some of the main reasons I found that practice unsatisfactory. OTOH, I guess I’m not “Christian” either!

    On topic, it seems to me that Machen is to some extent talking about political as well as theological liberalism. Rather a libertarian point of view.

    “This unprecedented decline in literature and art is only one manifestation of a more far-reaching phenomenon; it is only one instance of that narrowing of the range of personality which has been going on in the modern world. The whole development of modern society has tended mightily toward the limitation of the realm of freedom for the individual man. … Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority.” [p. 9-10]

    I don’t quite understand how “individual choice” gets squared with his very strict Westminster creedalism.

    Isn’t Morgan’s remark about “an accidental amalgam of social forces” tending in the same direction as “personality … in the realm of individual choice”? I think Morgan is saying that *only* Christians become persons (through personal choice). And that does seem to me a contemporary problem … many have a tendency to gobble down big chunks of stuff (social or theological creeds) without digesting them properly.

    • I think you’re right, there is something of political liberalism involved as well, but I think that’s more of subsidiary issue, a side-effect of sorts, of the more pressing doctrinal liberalism that he’s focused on. The focus on the realm of personal choice, yeah, I don’t see the strict contradiction with his Westminster Creedalism in that you can freely adopt the Confession, or not, you’re not compelled by the state. In order to be an officer in the Presbyterian church you have to, but then again, as he points out, that is a voluntary organization.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Good stuff!

  4. Derek, thanks for those powerful quotes, and for hosting great give and take in the comments as well. Everyone is coming up with ideas that are provoking thoughts right and left for me.

    I’m linking back to this post in my piece going up this coming Friday (11/7) on the Church and the Borg Collective. It’s a re-post from my archives, but I’m updating it a bit and your post here is going to be a great addition for the resources I can direct my readers to.


    P.S. I think there might be a typo in your Machen quote. Should “the wow ship of Him” be “the worship of Him”?

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  10. Interesting quotes. However, I think both are used as straw men.

    In the second, CS Lewis is talking about the egocentric (one who considers it important to be “Individualist” with a capital I, with no regard for his neighbour). I doubt this is the view you have in mind, at least I hope.

    In the first, the agent of communal (or and importantly accurately, concern for one another) is a person, an individual. The sociological studies suggest only about twenty five percent of a group of people have to change for it to be felt throughout. This is the parable of the yeast. This is what happened in the first two centuries until by the third, the whole world had changed. Arguably our skin deep (white skin or black) “religion” is the problem. Which is to say it is not penertrating each of our lives it is just floating around our communal sensibility – and that was the source of the other kind of yeast taught about: the yeast of the Pharisees.

    Jesus didn’t say “you all love your neighbours.” He does quote Leviticus which is addressed to Isreal as a “collective” so to speak. Yet, neither Moses nor Jesus spoke in plurally. They said YOU (“who has an ear to hear”) love YOUR neighbour (not someone else’s). And to emphasis the point He does NOT generalized the object of that love: it is not some group (“neighbours”) but the person, the individual, who lives next door.

    And this is revealing, and underlines the point. Jesus is specifically challenged on this issue: “who is my neighbour?” And to that Jesus told the second most famous parable in the world (“the good Samaritan”) which of course was actually: the “good neighbour” is anyone you encounter along the way.

    And who asked this to test Jesus and justify himself: a lawyer? For the lawyers and the Pharisees believed in their self-righteousness and using the laws and rules and traditions (social policy) to apparently fulfil the law, while actually using it to avoid honouring the law – ie they were hypocrites.

    These twin attributes have always been with us: self-righteous hypocracy. And they hide in plane sight, professing care for the poor, widow, orphan and parent while, while exploiting them for their own power and mamon.

    Consider the reality of the great collective: the huge payroll, charitable giving, foundations, professional cliques who have consumed all the money spent on social programs for five decades of “war on poverty” – while the poor have got poorer, women and their children abandoned. And yet there is this glowing self-congratulation and this incessant insistants on blaming the poor suckers who have been paying their wages for all this time. And heaven forbid anyone should ask for some ROI on their collectivised neighbouring.

    It is not about a false dichotomy, painted by these selected quotes, it is about truth and honesty. As Jason Riley puts it, in relation to blacks, but it’s true who ever is the victim of fake love (and the title is more generous then Jesus was):

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