Monday, October 18, 2010

Luther as the Rugged Individualist

I’m slightly perturbed by the bad PR that the concept of “rugged individualism” gets from the Tim Keller/Tullian Tchividjian brand of evangelical Christianity. This hyper individuality, the narrative goes, is a uniquely American ego trip that places the individual above community, relationships, and even the need to be saved. In sermons and books, I’ve been told that “rugged individualism” is a deterrent to godly fellowship and true, Gospel-oriented lives. By pulling ourselves up by our boot straps, we deny total reliance and affection for Jesus, and fall into the American/Western capitalist cowboy trap: living life on our own.

Obviously and of course, there are pitfalls, downsides, and levels of emotional emptiness in this rugged individualist stereotype. I would just ask for some perspective on the issue. The way I see it, this super-individualized, American cowboy trope that is lamented by a popular evangelical leaders actually got its start with one of Protestantism’s founding fathers: Martin Luther.

It was Luther, after all, who nailed home the point (literally) that you don’t have to go through a certain church, or a certain group of anointed men, or succumb to herd-mentality religion to be saved. His message focused on the fact that you – you, the individual – are capable of having an intimate, redeeming and personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. Some guy wearing a big hat and fancy robe has no business arbitrating your relationship with God.

Luther made salvation personal again. The Protestant Reformation was revolutionary precisely because it called attention to the individual, but not in a way that glossed over our sinful nature and need to be saved. Luther recognized that we each have a sin debt owed to God, and no amount of corporate worship activity can redeem and regenerate the individual soul.

The pervasive quality of freedom enjoyed by Americans was born precisely out of this same belief: that the individual alone is accountable to himself and to his God. The government shall have no “positive” rights over the individual, and our fates – as well as spiritual/religious affinities – should not be tied to the “collective” population. I am free. Hear me roar. The Catholic Church heard that roar via Luther, and the British crown heard it all the way across the Atlantic in 1776. What’s the lesson here? That once an individual realizes his freedom in God’s eyes, he can then begin to free the rest of society.

Sure, maybe two hundred years down the line this individualized society has taken that freedom to some unfortunate outcomes: The value, need and importance of building healthy communities – especially the church – can be downplayed in this environment. iPod spirituality says I can still belief in God, pray and read the Bible, but I don’t need those hypocrites at church telling me what to do. Or, individuals become so confident in their own abilities, wealth, and mistaken assumptions about the nature of sin that they don’t think they need to be saved. Epic fail on both counts.

But I fail to see how that is only an Americanized problem – let alone the direct result of “rugged individualism.” Are we the only society in the history of the earth – bloated by wealth, arrogance and pride – to not seek God for fulfillment and purpose? Are the social democracies of Western Europe, crippled with group-first socialism and “let’s all get along” multiculturalism, teeming with spiritually-alive, God-seeking populations? By devaluing the importance of the individual, Europe is choking under a “tyranny of good intentions,” where over-regulation trumps creative choice, and the State poses as a benevolent (albeit a financially insolvent) deity that doles out service after service for the “good of the whole.”

The rampant socialization/communalization of government and society is just as much of an anathema to vibrant, Gospel-focused communities as unchecked rugged individualism. It might behoove evangelical/Reformed leaders in America to pay tribute to the heritage and value of Western individualism, while still exposing and correcting the dangers that come from blind self-reliance.

Otherwise, I think we risk alienating a good chunk of the population that sees “rugged individualism” as more virtue than vice – especially in an election year featuring heavy evangelical involvement and rife with backlash against an increasingly socialized, anti-individual government.

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