The individual and the community.

The topic was inspired by some reading, some conversation, and a student’s integration paper.

The reading came from my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, who, after making a strong case for the priority of the community in the Christian life, turned around — in his typically dialectical fashion — to make a very strong case for the significance of the individual standing before God (cf. CD II/2, §35.1).  An emphasis on the Christian community must not result in an overcompensation that forgets the freedom and responsibility of the individual before God.  There’s a sort of modern collectivism (which Barth witnessed firsthand in Naziism) that is a sort of demonic inversion of modern individualism.  In our zeal for the church as community we mustn’t overreact, constructing a communitarian ideology that crushes the individual.

The conversation was with some colleagues discussing the costs and benefits of infant baptism.  A popular argument today in support of infant baptism is that it stands as a bulwark against the individualism of modern consumerism.  Of course, such an argument must deal with the sacramental questions of what happens in baptism and who should be baptized when in light of those claims.  But it is pragmatic argument that ought to be taken seriously.  Perhaps baptism is the key Christian practice for asserting the priority of the community, for it is the means by which the community ingrafts the individual into herself.  However, baptism is also an irreducibly individual event, insofar as each individual is baptized and thereby given an individual Christian identity.  Who knows?  Perhaps baptism, whenever it takes place, is the Christian practice that busts the categories of individual vs. community.  Perhaps individuality is precisely the gift that the community gives in the sacrament of baptism.

Lastly, the student paper.  One of our students just submitted the exegetical portion of his integration paper.  His topic is “Do Christians grow primarily through engaging in spiritual disciplines individually, or by worshipping together corporately?” He starts with I Cor 12 and Heb 10:25, both of which make a strong case for the priority of the communal worship.  But then he brilliantly brought in Matthew 6:5-8 as counter evidence for the priority of individual, even private, spiritual disciplines.  Very clever!  Then he concluded with Psalm 22, where the individual and corporate seem to be intertwined with neither overdetermining the other.

I think there is wisdom in this student’s dialectical non-resolution of the question.  The question is valid, for the communal and individual aspects of the Christian life must be highlighted.  And the question can be strongly answered in either direction, for the Christian life doesn’t “start” anywhere but lives in the dance between the individual and the community.  Finally, the fullest answer must be some sort of both/and that does not really answer the question on its own terms.

In other words, at the end of the day, the question of the individual and the community, though it must be thought through, is the wrong question.  We must instead speak of concrete Christian practices, and only in seeking to understand them do we make use of the abstract concepts of “individual” and “community.”

So I guess I’m gonna stop thinking about the individual and the community for a while, and think instead about baptism, worship, preaching, leadership, etc.