Sunday, June 17, 2007

Religious Individualism

I wrote, not too long ago, about change. As it is a persistent question bearing directly upon spirituality, I have wanted to address it further.

I consider myself to be a modified individualist, that is, I believe that I am created as an individual and have a divinely-created sphere in which I have been given authority. I am self-governed, where most of the importance governance of my life happens. There are areas within that sphere in which the State and Church cannot legislate, prosecute, or ban. This does not mean, though, that I believe myself to be autonomous or atomistic. I can never be autonomous, because I am a creature under the authority of God--nothing can change that and I do not wish for it to be changed anyway. Also, I am a communitied individual (here's the modified part): I live in a genetic family, with my wife, in a neighborhood, within a nation, part of creation. All of these things bear down on the questions I can ask and the answers that are possible. However, this does not make me parochial, part of being an individual in the midst of other individuals is that if I want peace and prosperity, I must look outside myself to the wisdom, idiosyncracies, and faults of others. Humans are both one and many, both being equally created, equally ultimate, and equally good. Throwing them out of balance by being atomistic or borg-ish perverts God's good creation. However, I don't believe them to be in dialectic tension; instead they are to work together in harmony, which I believe only happens as individuals are joined to the body of Christ (the metaphor itself being a wonderful example of the one-and-many).

Acknowledging that I have a sphere of self-governance is a good thing. There are aspects of my being that, from my human point of view, are under my control. I have chosen to ask Bethany to marry me (her choice, at this point, of course bears upon the questions I could ask and the answers that could be received). I have chosen to write this blog post. In other words, no immediately coercive force has determined my life. One of those aspects, if you read the Torah, is my choice of sin or not sin. However, I've noticed that when I try and excise certain sins out of my life, they persist and even get worse. The two questions that invariably pop into my head are: do I really want to not sin [and] am I one of God's people after all? Both, however, while not being bad self-reflective questions in-and-of-themselves, are missing the point.

One of the difficulties of being a Reformed Christian is that, by and large, we don't believe in the Holy Spirit. Beside believe in God's absolute sovereignty, we often work that "Protestant Work Ethic" into what is classically called sanctification. In other words, we don't work for our salvation, but we sure as hell make ourselves morally pure. Or we get the State to do it for us (Prohibition, anyone?). However, this religious individualism always ends up in a bad conscience. Just as in salvation, we cannot change our spots or the color of our skin, nor can we change the way we act. However, unlike salvation, God isn't the only actor. In our change towards being more human, God's Holy Spirit gives us the ability and power to change, sometimes seemingly in spite of us.

Not only the Holy Spirit, though, but also the rest of the body of Christ. If a part is sick, the whole body is affected and the whole body is needing to administer the cure. Does a member of the body sin? Confession to other members, rebuke (if necessary), and reconciliation through others is necessary for any long term change. Yes, the change starts between God and myself, but others are a part of my long-term growth into true humanity.

That is why I've grown impatient lately with my own attempts to change (and my public vows to do so). If I'm going to be public, it needs to be as one who is seeking restoration, not as a lone-gunner for Jesus who doesn't need anyone else on this road. Unfortunately, in a religious tradition nourished on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, it is hard to get around the inherent (and dangerous) atomism of the Protestant heritage.

1 comment:

Baus said...

On the Holy Spirit, the Reformed tradition (especially Presbyterianism) has perhaps the most rich "Pneumatology" of any other, perhaps trumping the patristics. Consider the entire soteriological section of the Westminster Shorter Catechism... it's all about the Spirit.

Also, A.Kuyper, J.Owen, and M.Kline have done some of the most remarkable (and massive) theological work on the Spirit.

Also, see HERE.

On Sanctification and Corporate Covenant Nuture, see HERE.