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The perils of expressive individualism

Many of us are familiar with books and movies whose plots revolve around central characters finding themselves trapped in a world where nothing behaves in quite the same way they expect. Perhaps Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is a classic example of this in children's literature. Yet this phenomenon is no longer confined to the fictional products of our day. For many people, the Western world in which we now live has a profoundly confusing – and often disturbing – quality to it. Things once regarded as obvious and unassailable virtues have in recent years been subject to vigorous criticism and in some cases come to be seen by many as more akin to vices. It can seem as if things that almost everybody believed as unquestioned orthodoxy the day before yesterday – that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, for example – are now regarded as heresies advocated only by the dangerous lunatic fringe. Nor are the problems confined to the world at large. Parents teaching their children traditional views relating to gender often sense incomprehension due to the fact that the children have absorbed far different views from the culture around them. This is as true within the church as it is within the wider society. The generation gap today is reflected not simply in fashion and music but in attitudes and beliefs about some of the most basic aspects of human existence.

The term “expressive individualism” was coined by American scholar Robert Bellah, who defines it as follows: Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should be expressed if individuality is to be realised. In other words, a modern person's authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with his/her inward feelings. The increasing social sensitivity to criticising anyone for their personal lifestyle choice reflects a view of the world where each person is free to perform life in whatever way they choose, and any attempt to express disapproval is therefore a blow not simply against particular ways of behaving but against the right of that person to be whoever they wish to be. We might even say that the very notion of personal lifestyle choice is a symptom of a society where expressive individualism is the normal way of thinking about self and its place in the world.

Many of us are particularly disturbed by the radical changes in society's sexual norms over recent decades: even more so by the rise of the transgender movement. Many also believe that these elements of what we call the sexual revolution are actually symptoms of this wider turn to expressive individualism in the West. The priority that the LGBTQ+ movement places on sexual desire and inner feelings relative to personal identity is part of this broader accent on the inner psychological life of Western people that shapes us all. Yet for traditional Christians, the world in which we now live is hostile to expressions of our beliefs on such matters. To object to same-sex marriage, to give one example, is in the moral register of today not substantially different from being a racist. The era when Christians could disagree with the broader convictions of the secular world but still find themselves respected as decent members of society at large is coming to an end, if it has not ended already. The last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity are rapidly vanishing, and many of us are even now living as strangers in the world.

Perhaps we should learn from the Ancient Church. Traditional Christians are typically those who take history very seriously. We have a faith rooted in historical claims (particularly the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the events and actions of His life) and see our religious communities as standing in a line extending back through time to Pentecost and beyond. Thus, when faced with peculiar challenges, Christians often look back to the past to find hope with regard to their experience in the present. Protestants typically look to the Reformation, while Catholics look to the High Middle Ages. If only we could return to that world all might be well, but anyone with a realistic sense of history knows that such returns are at best virtually impossible. Neither the Reformation nor the High Middle Ages were the golden eras that later religious nostalgia would have us believe. The societies in which the church operated in those periods are gone forever, thanks in large part to the ways in which technology has reshaped the present world.

If we're to find a precedent for our times we must go back further in time, to the 2nd century and the immediately post-apostolic church. There, Christianity was a little-understood and despised marginal sect. It was suspected of being immoral and seditious. Eating the body and blood of their God and calling each other 'brother' and 'sister' even when married made Christians and Christianity highly dubious to outsiders. And the claim that Jesus is Lord was on the surface a pledge of loyalty that conflicted with that owed to Caesar. That is much like the situation of the church today. We are considered irrational bigots for our stance on gay marriage: we are representing a threat to civil society. Like our spiritual ancestors in the 2nd century, we too are deemed immoral and seditious. Of course, the analogy is not perfect. The church in the 2nd century faced a pagan world that had never known Christianity. We live in a world that is de-Christianising, often self-consciously and intentionally. The opposition is therefore more likely better-informed and proactive than in the ancient church.

Ironically, the LGBTQ+ community is proof of this point. The reason they have moved from the margins to centre stage is intimately connected to the strong communities the various groups formed while on the margins. This is why lamentation for Christianity's cultural marginalisation, while legitimate, cannot be the sole response of the church to the current social convulsions she is experiencing. Lament certainly – we should lament that the world is not as it should be, as many of the Psalms teach us – but also organise: become a community. By this, The Lord says, shall all men know that we are His disciples, by the love we have for one another. Community in terms of its day-to-day details might look different in a city from in a rural village – or in the US from in the UK or Australia – but there are certain elements that the church in every location will share. Worship and fellowship, gathering together on the Lord's Day, praying, singing God's praise, hearing the Word read and preached, celebrating the Lord's Supper and baptism, giving materially to the church's work – these are things all Christians should do.

It may sound trite, but much of the church's witness to the world is simply being the church in worship. When an unbeliever accidentally turns up at a church service he/she should be immediately aware of the other-worldly holiness there. The most powerful witness to the gospel is the church itself, going about the business of worship. Many talk of the culture war between Christians and secularism, and the Bible certainly uses martial language to describe the spiritual conflict of this present age. Perhaps “cultural protest” is a better way of translating that idea into modern idiom, given the reality and history of physical warfare in our world. The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.

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