Monday, October 3, 2011

The Christian Collective: Shedding the Individual

How important is individuality to you? For many within western society it’s one of the highest callings. You can see this in the pursuit of fame by many in the upcoming generation, it is highlighted in the fervor of political debate when some individual freedom or right is perceived to have been reduced, and it is perpetuated by the gears of capitalism that prod people to purchase items that simultaneously accentuate their individuality while binding them to the acceptable public image.

The challenge for the believer is that we were created for community. The Genesis account makes it clear that we were not created to be alone (Gen 2:18), the narrative account of the Old Testament describes the formation of a covenant community in the people of Israel, the church in Acts is described in terms of fellowship and gathering (Acts 1:14; 2:46), John’s apocalypse describes the throne room of God as being filled with worshipping saints all in white robes (Rev 7:9), and if you need any other motivation, the pivotal doctrine of the Trinity demands the existence of community within the godhead from eternity past through all time (see the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds). We are a people of community.

One of the difficulties of being a people of community is that we are at war with individualism within society. I was recently confronted by how pervasive this battle is by way of an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Within this science fiction series, one of the prominent enemies of the intrepid crew of the USS Voyager is the Borg. The Borg are the ultimate collective community. All individuality has been suppressed and all action is in service of the good of the collective. When new alien species are encountered the Borg respond by callously assimilating them into the collective consciousness of the community. If a species tries to resist, their response is simply, “resistance is futile” as they overwhelm the weaker race. Set in contrast to this collective force is the crew of Voyager. Their philosophy of individuality is what allows them to overcome the collective mind of the Borg. Constantly, the heroic value of individuality is pit against the cold conformity of the villainous hive. Time and time again individuality proves to be what gives the crew the strength to overcome this foe.

In many ways I think the creators of Star Trek are providing a commentary on their worldview; a humanistic worldview that sees the church as a danger to the right of the individual to develop and thrive. When the Borg speak, they speak as an eerie chorus of myriad unison voices that sounds remarkably similar to a church congregation reciting a creed or some other corporate reading. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The church is the enemy of the humanistic ideal of individual freedom. If one places individuality too high on his or her priority list then the church becomes a villainous entity that seeks to override individual identity and replace it with a collective identity. For many in western society (including many within the church) this perspective is probably familiar, and the censure of the church for destroying individuality is applauded.

If we are to follow Jesus’ teaching, though, then we are called to give up our individuality for the sake of entering the covenant community of Christ. Is not one of the two greatest commandments to love your neighbor? Does not Paul in Romans 12:10 exhort us to, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another”? Does not Jesus teach that love is being willing to give up your life for a friend? (John 15:13) Does not Jesus, on the night before He is sentenced to die, pray that the unity of those who believe in Him through the preaching of His disciples would be “one” in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one? (John 17:20-23) We are called to enter into a collective community that stands in stark contrast to the predominant perspective of our world.

I would encourage you to examine the role that individuality plays in your own worldview. If community is not high on the list than I would challenge you to find out why. We are called to collective community, and for the believer that collective is the church. While this collective is not heartless and villainous like the Borg, in so far as the gates of hell cannot prevail against it (Matt 16:18), in the end we can boldly say, “resistance is futile.”

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