Modern Christians living in the U.S. will always struggle with individualism. It’s woven into the fabric of our country, and it’s part of our historical identity.
What Is Individualism?
For the purposes of this article, it might be helpful to refer to Robert Bellah’s definition of individualism: The idea that the individual is “the primary reality whereas society is a second order, … artificial construct.”
For more on this definition of individualism, see Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, edited by Robert Bellah.
Yet as Christians we are also citizens of a different realm, and in that realm the experience of the individual is not the primary reality. God is the primary reality and he calls us to love our neighbor as our selves.
As we social distance, self-quarantine, WFH, and shelter in place, we must also wrestle with this tension in a deeper and more urgent sense. During this crisis there is a pull towards a destructive form of individualism that is at odds with our fundamental moral identity as Christians. However, in this urgency is the opportunity for spiritual transformation and moral growth.
Perhaps the clearest expressions of destructive individualism during this pandemic can be heard in statements like, “I’m young and healthy so this doesn’t affect me,” or, “I’m sure if I get it I’ll be fine—only two percent of people die from the coronavirus.” Perhaps statements like those have passed your own lips or crossed your own mind. If they did, that would be understandable. After all, social distancing and self-quarantining make little sense from an individualistic perspective. If I am not in danger, what is the point of all this?
But the purpose of these measures is not to protect the individual. They are civic measures, meant to mitigate the spread of the virus in order to prevent an overwhelming of hospitals. Thus, ignoring social distancing is not just about taking on the individual risk of contracting the virus. Ignoring the intrusive and potentially economically harmful measures governments across the nation have set in place means choosing to potentially spread the virus to others and put our health care systems at risk of failure.
Right now, going out to crowded places, refusing to wear a mask, having friends and family over to visit means prioritizing your own individual wants and desires at the cost of other peoples’ health and safety.
As the pandemic worsened globally, many of us began to take measures like social distancing more seriously. But our struggle with individualism persists. As news broke of universities, business and even sports leagues shutting down indefinitely, many of us realized that we would be alone in our homes for longer than we expected, cut off from our normal comforts and necessities. This led to runs on grocery stores—I’m sure we’ve all seen at least one image online of individuals buying all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and bottles of water they can fit into their grocery carts. This past week was the first time I’ve seen toilet paper on shelves into the afternoon.
Even if we are not hoarding goods right now, I’m sure that many of us understand the fear of going without and the impulse to get as much of whatever goods we can. This impulse of seeing scarcity in what we all need and want is rooted in the same individualism that tempts us to ignore social distancing protocols. The tendency to see scarcity in the goods that we normally have no problem accessing only occurs when we view other people as objects of competition, rather than subjects who deserve our love.
As we struggle with our individualistic impulses we can wrongly assume that we are able look out for ourselves first while at the same time loving our neighbor as ourselves. Augustine, the 4th century African Bishop who knew firsthand what it meant to survive a national catastrophe, makes this point well in his book Of the Morals of the Catholic Church. He says,
We often and incorrectly think of love merely as a sentiment. However, if we spend all our energy on looking out for ourselves and only a moment or two feeling for others or hoping that others are okay, we are not loving. Like Augustine says, love requires more than just good-will.
Christian love requires spiritual transformation and is only possible through practiced moral growth. It requires letting the Holy Spirit, in the grace of Christ, transform us into people who no longer prioritize our individuality. That means we have to actually practice love. This difficult and scary time presents us with an opportunity to die to individualism and practice loving our neighbor as moral virtue. Again, Augustine is helpful in seeing that virtue is nothing else than perfected love. In other words, we must practice giving up some of our own precious needs and desires for the sake of others’ because they deserve love. What would this pandemic be like if we were looking out for our neighbors and judging our own actions in light of Augustine’s description of Christian love?
Even if we only consider a few moral practices –virtues that have been practiced for millennia–
we can already begin to see how we can approach the pandemic through an Augustinian lens of love. For instance, if we practice fortitude during this crisis by counting others more important than ourselves, seeking the welfare of the communities around us, and choosing life and healing, the struggles of social distancing and self-quarantine may become more bearable. How we consume, spend our time while in isolation, and interact with others will transform as well. For instance, we can practice justice by purchasing only what we need and leaving goods for others—a modern analogue of gleaning or practicing restraint when we collect mana. This also puts less stress on supply chains so grocery stores don’t have to become arenas of competitive consumption, where only the most committed shoppers get the chance to buy essentials like laundry detergent.
It is important to remember that practicing moral virtue is not easy. It takes time and dynamic, habituated repetition, because moral virtues are always interconnected. That is, we need to practice them all in order to practice one. For instance, we need prudence to determine what is just—which actions will help others and which actions will put others at unnecessary risk. Additionally, practicing justice might mean missing out on something at the grocery store so that others can “glean” in their own shopping—and making a deliberate decision to risk missing out requires fortitude.
Some of these practices are easier to discern than others. Going to public places only because you feel like it is neither prudent nor loving. Other decisions, such as whether to support a local business and its staff by ordering takeout despite the risk of potentially helping the virus spread, are decisions that require practiced loving virtue.
Regardless, let us as Christians take this trying time as opportunity to be a witness to our wider individualistic culture. Let us show them that we are a transformed community that practices love.