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

Preaching A and B (Or, How Preaching is Like Feeding Your Kids Vegetables)

I don't think I was ever this cute--my mom says I was cuter.

I don’t think I was ever this cute–my mom says I was cuter.

I didn’t like eating broccoli as a kid. I don’t think any kid does. In fact, I distrust people who tell me they’ve always liked it. I mean, I’ve made my peace with it over the years–I had freakishly high cholesterol for some reason, so my parents fed it to me almost every night–but you never really like broccoli. That’s why parents usually try to find some way of feeding it to their kids. It’s good for them, but they won’t willingly eat it. It has to be fed to them.

Biblical truth is like that sometimes. There are a number of doctrines that we need to believe for our spiritual health, for us to have a correct view of God, the Gospel, and our lives, that aren’t particular appealing to us given our life-circumstances, intellectual history, etc. This is true not just at a personal level, but also at a cultural level. Certain aspects of biblical truth are just going to be harder to swallow in each culture given the dominant paradigms within them. For instance, in our relativistic-individualist culture teaching about truth and authority won’t be particularly popular. Still, we need to understand the nature of truth and God’s authority or our lives will go off the rails. Or again, the doctrine of God’s judgment is ridiculous, harsh, and arbitrary to the vast majority of Americans and secular Westerners, but it’s a core biblical teaching we need to understand if we are to understand the Gospel of the Cross, the Kingdom, or God’s promised salvation.

So, how do we preach and teach these truths in our culture in a way that they’re received and heard?

Keller on Preaching A and B
KellerPreaching to skeptical Manhattanites Tim Keller’s become a bit of an expert on this sort of thing. In his book Center Church he says that preachers need to be able to distinguish two types of beliefs in our culture: “A” beliefs and “B” beliefs. “A” beliefs are those bits of biblical teaching that people in the culture already hold by common grace. For instance, after a couple thousand years of Christian influence, our Western culture places a premium on forgiveness, or on the notion of human rights, so they readily accept those parts. Still, there are “B” beliefs in the culture, beliefs that function as ‘defeaters’ that make other Christian doctrines seem implausible and problematic as we pointed out above. (pg. 123-125)  You’ll have to do some thinking and research on this because these will change from culture to culture.

Keller says there are two things we need to do once we’ve identified those two sets:

  1. First, we need to make sure and affirm the “A” doctrines. God’s common grace has given people in the culture real wisdom, real truth, and we need to be as positive about them and preach them as forcefully as we can and show them that, in fact, we believe these truths even more strongly. “You believe in human rights? Great! So do we, but even more strongly because of the doctrine of the Image of God.” We do so first because they are scriptural. I mean, we should be talking about forgiveness, the Image of God, and grace anyways. Beyond that though, these ‘A’ doctrines form points of contact with our culture that enable us to gain a hearing within it.
  2. The second thing we need to do is challenge the “B” doctrines that make the Christian faith implausible. We need to engage our hearers to show them that their doubts are rather doubtful, or more problematic than they realize. One of the ways we do this is on the basis of the “A” doctrines we already identified and affirmed. The goal is to show that their “B” beliefs are inconsistent with their “A” beliefs. This is why it’s particularly important to emphasize the “A” doctrines. Keller uses an illustration about trying to make rocks float. Logs float and rocks sink. If you’re going to get rocks and logs across a river, you have to lash the logs together and put the rocks on top and “float” them across. In a sense, the same thing is true with doctrines. Your goal in preaching is to connect the dots between doctrines that people like, their “A” beliefs, to the ones that they’ve rejected on the basis of their faulty “B” beliefs.

Making it Concrete
What does this look like? Well, an “A” belief we’ve already identified is that of human rights. Our culture has a particularly keen sense of the rights and worth of the individual. Despite the abuses and confusion surrounding the issue, I think that’s a good, biblical insight. As we already said, the Image of God gives us good reason for affirming basic human rights. Now, a “B” belief that our culture holds which undermines basic Christian doctrines such as sin, judgment, God’s authority, etc. is the pervading moral relativism that relegates moral judgments to the sphere of mere personal opinion. Our culture strongly assumes that everyone has the right to make their own judgments about what is acceptable behavior, and that no one view can claim to be the “right” one. It’s a matter of individual preference. But “A” and “B” can’t both be true. If you want a robust notion of human rights, you can’t keep your relativism. If you think the Civil Rights movement was a good thing, a right thing, a thing that ought to have happened, not just something that suits your particular fancies, then you can’t consistently be a relativist.

Again, I remember having a conversation with my friend a few years ago on how to preach the difficult doctrine of the wrath of God. In a traditional Reformed fashion he argued that God’s holiness and righteousness require his wrath against evil and that’s generally how he approached it. Now, I think he’s basically right, but still, when it comes to preaching I favor recent approaches like that of Miroslav Volf who argues for it from the reality of God’s love. He points out that most of us will concede God is a God of love, but if God does not have wrath and judgment against the creation-destroying sin we participate in, he can’t truly be love. A God who doesn’t strongly reject and judge that which destroys the objects of his affection, can’t really be said to love them. To have a God of love, you need a God of judgment.

Or again, our culture is currently rediscovering community. We realize that we need each other–we don’t function well as islands. That’s a thoroughly biblical thought, taught over and over again in the Gospel. At the same time, our radical individualism and worship of the autonomy of the sovereign individual makes any idea of standards of belief or practice very distasteful. No one has the right to tell me there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to believe and act that I don’t determine for myself. The problem is that any community, even the most inclusive and anti-authoritarian, if it is to remain stable and safe, needs standards and norms governing its shared life.  If you want community, any kind of community, you’re inevitably going to have to accept norms of belief and practice.

Examples like this abound (cf. Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17 for a biblical model) but to sum up, in preaching and teaching you move to establish “A” because its right, but also because it is your best way of undermining “B”, enabling you to teach counter-intuitive but necessary truths to your people.

Conclusion
This is why preaching is like feeding your kids vegetables. Often-times the only way you can get your kids to eat their vegetables is to feed it to them clothed in other food, or connected to some promised dessert. To many these suggestions might seem like over-pragmatic suggestions to water down the Gospel. They’re not. God’s truth ought to be proclaimed and I’d never ask anybody to not speak the difficult truth. I think it’s perfectly fine to affirm God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice in and of themselves, especially in theological discussion. I’m just saying it’s better to not adopt the “you’re gonna sit there and you won’t eat anything else until you eat these” school of preaching.

The point, as always, is to “preach Christ and him crucified” like Paul, knowing that our words will be foolishness to the Greeks and an offense to the Jews (1 Cor 1-2). At the same time, like Paul, we should care about getting our hearers to listen to us so that they might come to know the beautiful Gospel of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria