Radical Individualism

Some friends of ours have recently been transitioning into the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, and have written extensively about it here. It’s been interesting for me to observe for a number of reasons, primarily because it seems like they, along with other friends of ours, are seeing many of the same issues we see within the modern, western, evangelical church, and have responded by taking a track roughly 180 degrees opposite the direction we’re headed – that is, a track toward more liturgy, tradition and structure.

As I said, it’s been interesting to watch. I’m glad they’ve found something that seems to be fulfilling for them, and that seems to bring them closer to a relationship with God. I do have some thoughts, though, on why our path has been different.

I think Brooks, the author of the earlier linked post, hits on the heart of the journey my wife and I have been taking, at the very end of his post, when he says,

Of course, one can’t simply decide which Church is right by its spiritual practices. Choosing the East simply for these reasons would have been subjective and, to speak plainly, radically individualistic (Protestant) of me. So, with reluctance, I turned toward the doctrinal and theological differences between East and West, realizing that Apostolic authority, Tradition, and ecclesiology were ultimately the more important factors in this dilemma.

I’d like to break this down in sections, because I think Brooks is getting at some very important things in this paragraph.

First, he puts up a dichotomy between choosing a church based on spiritual practices, or based on doctrinal and theological differences, apostolic authority, tradition and ecclesiology.

In examining this dilemma he’s constructed, I have to ask, What’s the point?

What is the point of choosing a particular church?

It seems to me that the point should be exactly what Christ asks of us . . . an eternal relationship with Him. If a church or other spiritual setting does not further that relationship, what is the point of being there? Brooks hints that this is one of the things he longs for when he talks of some of the Eastern traditions, and says of them that “the goal . . . is an experiential knowledge of God.”

God wants us to experience Him. That is the entire point of His touching our lives as He does.

What, then, of Brooks’ dichotomy? Spiritual practices or traditions and theology?

To my mind, a relationship – any relationship – is about daily interactions. My relationship with my wife is not based in the theoretical constructs of marriage, the history and traditions of marriages through the years, or the authority of church leaders who define marriage for us . . . it’s in the day to day actions that draw us close to one another, and by which we profess our love for each other, to each other, and to the rest of the world. Yes, we engaged in a (marginally) traditional wedding ceremony. Yes we got a marriage license from the District of Columbia. But that is all secondary to the relationship we have with one another.

Why should our relationship with God be any different?

While this may seem that I’m taking the opposite side of Brooks’ dilemma, in truth I think he’s created a false dichotomy. My relationship with my wife is not merely the product of the things we do. . . it flows from who we are. Yes, this results in certain actions, but the actions are not the point. In the same way, even the “spiritual activities” in which I engage are not the point of my relationship with God.

They flow from who I am – His redeemed heir, created in His image.

For myself, then, when the choice is between choosing a spiritual environment based on either “spiritual activity” or “theology, history, and ecclesiology,” I choose neither.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t go to church.

I think the difference here flows from divergent understandings of what a relationship – in its most intimate sense – really is.

I recall, not too long ago, a conversation my wife and I were having with some good friends of ours, about the nature of intimacy. In response to one friend’s question about what intimacy is, I replied, “it’s knowing somebody as deeply as you possibly can.”

My wife disagreed, and when she explained, it opened up a whole new world of thinking to me. She said, “intimacy is knowing yourself as deeply as you possibly can, and sharing that whole person with another.”

After having several months to reflect on what she said, I think this is what God calls us to. I think believers tend to focus so much on others that we lose bits and pieces of ourselves. Over time, we become shadow people – the same kind of person I mentioned becoming myself, in my story of my journey away from traditional church. Certainly God calls us to care for others. Certainly, He calls us to sacrifice ourselves . . . but how can we truly “present our bodies a living sacrifice” if we don’t know what – or who – it is that we’re giving?

In the same way, if I believe that a relationship with Christ is all about knowledge of Him, then of course things like ecclesiology, theology and church history are going to be of utmost importance to me.

If, on the other hand, a deep intimacy with God involves knowing myself, and offering that self wholly and completely to Him, then those things fade in importance, and what becomes most important is a deep and exciting adventure to discover who He has made me, and what He continues to do in, for and through me each day.

That, I believe, is the relationship God calls me to.

This leads directly into the second issue I have with what Brooks wrote. For when one looks at the issue as Brooks does, one cannot help but come to the conclusions he does – for when he says that making a choice in that fashion would be “subjective” and “radically individualistic” he is exactly right!

My problem here is with his degredation of “radical individualism.” First, he decries this as a Protestant characteristic. I disagree. Perhaps it is more Protestant than it is characteristic of the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, but the simple truth is that each denomination with which I have had any experience (and these have all been protestant) is just as hostile toward “radical individualism” as Brooks seems to be here.

Again, I think this stems from the different understandings of intimacy. When intimacy is about knowing others, the collective becomes the most important means of relating to Christ because our understanding of Him is only fully achieved when we are subordinated to that collective.

When, on the other hand, intimacy is viewed as knowing and sharing myself, the importance of a collective does not disappear – after all, I must have someone to share myself with – but the importance of the self as a created likeness of God, in whom He is continuously at work, becomes the key to an intimate relationship with Him, and with other followers of Him.

Now that, dear friends, is a radically individualistic concept – and one for which I am utterly unapologetic. I am a radical individualist.

Perhaps this is why I don’t find myself fitting anywhere in a traditional church setting. It’s not necessarily that I take issue with the theology of every church I’ve visited (though that’s certainly true in some cases.) It’s not necessarily that I disagree with the spiritual practices in which they engage.

The truth is that I just can’t handle being subordinated to the collective of an institution. It flies against not only everything I believe, but against who I was created to be.

I was created to be Michael John Daniels – writer, musician, thinker and friend. I was not created to be “that guy in the third row who sings in the choir, helps in the nursery, and is an occasional usher.”

I am not what I do. I am who I was created to be.

I have heard many sermons on the nature of “body life” . . . you know, the ones that say “everybody needs to take part in the body by doing the things they’re good at doing in service to the body. After all, the hand can’t live by itself, nor the foot, nor the eye . . . ”

You know the drill. I’m sure you’ve heard many of those same sermons.

But the truth is that, while we were created to be the body of Christ, that characterization extends so much deeper than most of those sermons assume. I am part of the body of Christ, not because I clean up after services or play my violin for the offering, but because He has chosen me and given me unique gifts.

I am part of the body because I am me . . . and only by being fully myself – as fully as I can possibly be – can I use that to serve others.

I am reminded of the old Sunday-school ditty “Jesus, then Others, then You . . . what a wonderful way to spell ‘JOY’.”

But the truth is that genuine joy in relationship with Christ, or with others, can only come when one is fully aware of oneself first.

After all, Christ did say “love your neighbor, as you love yourself.” I find it hard to believe that the one who loved the entire world would use that word “love” lightly enough to mean what we have surely all heard that it means. “You’re selfish enough that you always do what you want for yourself . . . so now do those same things for other people.”

I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I have been terrible at making wise choices for myself. My life has certainly not been characterized by much in the way of “self-love.”

Perhaps that’s because what most people think when they hear the words “love your neighbor as yourself” is “love your neighbor at the expense of yourself.”

No wonder we think so little of radical individualism. To my mind, the body of Christ could use a major infusion of it.

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