Everyone is a philosopher. The common American may not often think deeply about works of philosophical reflection but everyone functionally lives a philosophy of life every single day. In other words, every single human is pursuing their version of “the good life” (for more reference to this subject, please see James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love). We make plans, set goals, pursue hobbies, and conform our life around a particular vision of what will bring us satisfaction and delight. Perhaps one of the most prominent philosophical systems that most Americans orient their life around is expressive individualism, yet few would actually use the proper term. So what is expressive individualism? A survey of popular slogans illustrates just exactly the ethos of this way of life:
- You do you.
- Be true to yourself.
- Follow your heart.
- Find yourself.
These slogans reveal what Westerners chiefly value: individual freedom to decide what is best for oneself. Our highest good is to be true to our selves and thus, if we were to deny ourselves certain impulses, desires, or loves, we would be denying that which is ultimately good. As Americans, we are hard-wired culturally to see ourselves as individuals who “isolate themselves from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends” (Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart). What does it mean that as individuals we must express ourselves? Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic is helpful:
That term suggests not only a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are. The capacity of individuals to define the terms of their own existence by defining their personal identities is increasingly equated with liberty and with the meaning of some of our basic rights, and it is given pride of place in our self-understanding.
A culture that values expressive individualism is a culture dominated by people yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. Your identity does not come from any external factors, rather, it is a call to bend yourself inward, to discover what is most true about yourself. But then, you are not only called to find your identity inwardly, but you must express it to the rest of the world. To hide your true identity or values denies your right to self-understanding.
Therefore, any culture, religion, or ethical system that imposes rules, regulations, identities, or expectations on an individual is seen as threatening and oppressive. If I am my own authority and if my identity is found by finding “the true me” internally—a community of faith, a government, or a hobby group that asks me to conform to their way of life not only infringes upon my rights to self-understanding but also places me under bondage so that I may not experience my true identity.
20th century Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls this Western phenomena the “age of authenticity.” For Taylor, authenticity is less tied to integrity and honesty but rather is set against conformity. In this way, your purpose of life to find your deepest self and then express it to the world. You are to forego what those around you say, you must pursue what feels right to you. In respect to our current age of authenticity, Taylor notes:
I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.
The Silent Killer of Community
In this ideology, my highest good is finding my identity in myself and therefore, outside authority is a challenge to my vision of flourishing. But, the Bible paints a vastly different picture to this view. In the beginning, before there was any sin, humans were designed to submit to God’s authority while at the same time flourish, in the deepest sense of the word. Even now, we believe that the best life is not found in isolation from authority but in conformity to God’s authority. Therefore, the highest good that I can pursue is to find my identity outside of myself—to find it in God himself. While it may seem counter-intuitive or even flat-out wrong to find good in submission to authority, that is only because our lenses have been colored by expressive individualism and we are unable to see authority and submission without our presuppositional and cultural baggage.
If the average American believes that the fullest life is found by turning inward, shedding of cultural, religious, and political expectations, then unfortunately, the church will be seen more as an enemy than as a friend. But is the problem with the church/Bible or with the cultural presupposition? How then will Christians interact with one another if our primary philosophical presupposition is one of expressive individualism? How will we handle conflict? Disagreements? Put bluntly, expressive individualism left unchecked will be the silent killer in the church in the West. Because of the work of Jesus, we can now turn outward to those in need, giving our time, money, talents, and lives for the good of others. Our lives no longer revolve around ourselves but for they revolve around the good of others.
If the expressive individualist says that the highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression, what happens when that expression goes against what the Bible says or leads to the harm of another person in the community? How can serve one another in love, humility, and service when our highest pursuit is ourselves? How do I consider others more significant than myself, if I believe the most significant thing in life is my own happiness (Phil 2:3)?
Much like the old adage of the frog slowly boiling to death, if expressive individualism is left unchecked, it will silently kill the health of a church. After all, as Americans, expressive individualism is the air we breath. Therefore, let us be vigilant in our analysis of our church culture, so that what we are reflecting is Christ and not a cultural phenomenon. Let us look to Christ, who did not bend himself inward but rather, extended himself outward on the Cross for you and I, so that our selfish hearts may in turn bend towards the needs of others.