Thursday, October 06, 2016

I or We

I'm reading a book right now (don't worry, a review will be forthcoming) that talks about the importance of interdependence. It contrasts the notion of ubuntu, "a person is a person through other people," with Descartes' maxim, "I think therefore I am" as competing notions of human foundation. The idea is that humans are made for relationship and community; we cannot be self-sufficient because we are human. This tends to be in conflict with the enlightenment (although I'd argue that Descartes isn't saying individualism is king, only that individualism is where we must start) that tells us to be autonomous, self-sufficient beings.

I see this difficulty often when talking about the Bible - the Hebrew scriptures operate in a tribal understanding of the world, where the community is more important than the individual. This is usually seen as an early sociological development - one that is built upon by individualism, which culminates in the enlightenment. So people tend to see the biblical call to interdependence as walking back sociological "progress." Participating in the Kingdom of God, as Jesus reveals it, means giving up something valuable we have earned through the course of human history: I think, therefore I am. Independence. Personality. Me.

We make a real mistake when we look at things this way, although it seems to be, by far, the most common way people see the gospel. It's because of this hesitancy to abandon individuality that we get individual faith - Jesus is a "personal" savior who provides a way for you to enjoy the afterlife. This really has nothing to do with the gospel as scripture records Jesus revealing it, but it makes more sense in a post-tribal social context.

But we don't have to look at it this way. We can see the call of scripture as pre-visioning the continued growth of our sociological understanding, so instead of reverting from individualism to communal understandings of life, we can move beyond individualism to true interdependence. No one, least of all a God who created with such care and intentionality, wants to negate the beauty and value of individuality. That's some of the best stuff we've got in this world of ours.

The real challenge of the gospel is to embrace our individuality as the gift it is, to accept responsibility for just how much of our world we can control, and to submit that great personal will to the common good. This is true interdependence and it is the next stage of human evolution.

I'm not good with charts or visuals, so I'll try to describe them well with words. Think of tribalism as one large bubble, the tribe, and we are individuals floating around within the bubble. We can distinguish ourselves from one another because we're physically separate from one another, but our identities are subsumed by the whole. We are us only insomuch as we belong to the tribe. Moving to individualism, each person has their own little bubble. This is you. We each exist in these bubbles, bouncing around in interaction with each other. From time to time, we'll group a few of these bubbles together for whatever benefit that provides, but its always a collection of individuals.

If this is our working illustration, think of gospel interdependence then, as the large bubble from the first example, filled with the little bubbles of individualism. There is still an intentional connection - we have to choose to permeate the tribe with our own identity, and when we enter, we're necessarily connecting ourselves to others and to the whole. We're sacrificing some of our independence, but retaining our individuality. It's a move forward that, while risky, also provides breeding ground for trust and the capacity to reach our highest potential.

Yes, this means that we're binding ourselves to other individuals who may not live up to our expectations. We may end up carrying more than our fair share of responsibility - especially when our tribe, the Church, is so open, gracious, generous, and loving - but we do so in faith. We believe that this kind of selfless love does indeed change the world - it has; it is; and it will.

It's a steep learning curve to be sure, and it requires us re-writing all our preconceived notions of success from an individual model to one of interdependence, but I do think it makes the most sense, given the world in which we live. It's not about giving up ourselves, but putting ourselves to our best use within the purposes and realities of the universe. It's a move forward, not backward.

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