Peter therefore seeing [the disciple whom Jesus loved], said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
— John 21:21, 22
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In recent times a great deal of ink has been spilled and a lot of hot air spouted on the theme of community and corporate life, both inside and outside the church. As a necessary corollary, so-called “rugged individualism” has been given a very bad name. We are constantly told to “Come Together,” “Celebrate Community,” promote “Team Spirit,” and look upon “I, Me, and Mine” as dirty words. Speech has been altered and ancient hymns edited (e.g., from “Be Thou My Vision” to “Be Thou Our Vision”) to reflect the correct viewpoint. Oddly enough, all this is being done at a time when “selfie” is one of the most commonly used words in the English language: the Oxford Dictionaries named it “word of the year” for 2013, and its frequency in everyday parlance has only increased since then. Is it possible that we’re protesting too much?
It’s time someone pointed out that there are two sides to this coin. Certainly community is essential to kingdom life. We have already said that the true Pilgrim places a high priority on koinonia and fellowship. “You fill up what is lacking in me, just as I supply what is lacking in you” – or, to use Dante’s terminology, “I inyou as you inme.”[i] This kind of spiritual sharing and intimacy is one of the primary principles of the Pilgrim way. But having said this, it’s vital to pause and add that koinonia and community are not the same thing as “collectivism.” The Pilgrim knows that any kind of “community” that places the group ahead of the individual and asks him to sacrifice his soul to the interests of the corporation is nothing short of a deadly fraud.
“It is like looking at pictures which are too near or too far away,” said Pascal in his Pensees.[ii] “There is just one indivisible point which is the right place.” For the Pilgrim, that one indivisible point is the place where the value of the individual and the claims of the community can be held in reasonable balance.
Eradication of the individual personality and enforcement of a group-based identity are hallmarks of totalitarianism in all of its various forms, including fascism, communism, the military, and religious cults. Tyranny establishes itself through the implementation of three classic steps to total control: 1) disintegration of the individual; 2) creation of a collective conscience, plus re-indoctrination; and 3) self-criticism and full integration into the system.[iii] In Mao’s China, for instance, the theory of the “mold” became fundamental to the Party’s approach to mass education: “The point is to press man in a mold, placing him there periodically, to ‘re-mold’ him systematically.”[iv] Similarly, in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia there was no room whatsoever for dissent or deviation from the “norm.” And we all know how the People’s Temple, the Children of God, the Alamo Christian Foundation, and the Church of Scientology, to name just a few, have cultivated “group-think” as a way of holding members to a rule of strict conformity.
All of this reflects a dangerously misguided conception of human nature. Important as fellowship and sharing may be, the fact remains that man originated not as a member of a community, but as a distinct individual. This is brought out rather strikingly in the first chapter of Genesis, where every other type of living creature is said to have been created en masse. But not mankind:
Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind … Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind;” and it was so …
Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness …”
Unlike the other animals, man in the beginning was not made to be part of a herd. In contrast to all other species, he was created as a single individual – Adam. Only afterwards did God say, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And at that point He brought onto the scene not a community of people, but another individual. What’s more, this second individual was not simply a copy or clone of the first one. By no means was she cast in the same “mold.” On the contrary, she was in almost every way Adam’s opposite number. Herein is wisdom: for oneness is not the product of sameness. Only in the coming together of the opposites, differences, divergencies, contrasts, and complementarities represented and symbolized in male and female does the true unity of inyou-inme fellowship have a chance to flower.
Meanwhile, you and I live in a society that seeks relentlessly to press us into its ever-hardening mold. Commercialism, advertising, television, technology, pop culture, professional sports, entertainment, news media – these ubiquitous manifestations of conformist propaganda are working round the clock to transmute the unique individual into the standardized mass man or woman. The Internet has compounded the problem on a geometric scale. Armed with our “mobile devices,” we have willingly and almost worshipfully granted it the power to keep each and every one of us locked into the same thing hour after hour, day after day, and year after year. There is no longer an inch of ground left to genuine solitude or original thought. “America voted … ,” Ryan Seacrest used to say, apparently assuming that everyone in the country tuned into American Idol with religious regularity. He was absolutely right, of course. Modern people always do as they are told.
Read John Bunyan’s book and you will find that this is not the Pilgrim way. Christian set out for the Holy City entirely on his own, with neither wife, child, nor friend. Why? Because that is the only way anyone can ever really respond to the Master’s unique call upon his life. “What do you care what others are doing?” said Jesus. “You follow me!”
[i] Paradiso, Canto IX, line 81. Italian “m’intuassi, come tu t’inmii.”
[iii] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 313, footnote 6.
[iv] Ibid., 309.