At the beginning of 2018, Trevin Wax, who is an author for The Gospel Coalition, wrote an article called “4 Big Challenges Facing the Church in the West today.” He identified the following as one of the 4 big challenges… “Expressive individualism poses a challenge for the church because God’s Word challenges the “Me” with the “Us” and then sets the “Us” under God. The human tendency is to look inward when God’s Word says to look upward. We resist the upward look because it implies that someone or something is above us, and that Someone might have authority. And, formed by Western assumptions about freedom and happiness, we chafe against claims of moral authority over us, or institutions that ask something from us. We resist anything that might stifle our self-defined freedom.” When I observe the society I live in today I believe this is the biggest obstacle to overcome when we share the love of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only is this the biggest obstacle, but it is also the biggest facade of our society; that somehow individuals all are capable of having equal truth, equal morality, and equal ability to decide the biggest answers to the biggest questions of life. But, as the old saying goes “If everyone is an expert then nobody is an expert.”
In Trevin’s article he quoted Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic whodescribes “expressive individualism” this way:
“. . . a desire to pursue one’s own path . . . [and] 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.”
This all sounds fine and dandy upon first sight, and if we are honest with ourselves, living in a post Enlightenment, Transcendentalist, existentialist, and post-modern world has made this sort of language seem like second nature too us. But, what this way of thinking is actually affirming is that each individual, since we are all autonomous, has an equal opportunity and is equally qualified to be correct in determining our own identity, and to ‘define the terms of their own existence,’ and therefore also defining and establishing our own basic rights we should be entitled to. So our society has made it to where it has become acceptable for individuals, regardless of any qualifications, to actually determine our own self-understanding and then to build reality in such a way that fits our own consciences. To put it quite simply, our society has given each individual an equal opportunity to be irrational in our entire approach to life, because our identity and therefore our actions are necessarily based off of personal feelings rather than objective deduction. There is now no reason to reason. There is now no need to be qualified, because we are all qualified, we are all capable of being experts since we are all experts in our own self-determination. Nobody can know you better than you do, so nobody should thrust their “opinion” onto you. But what if there is somebody who can know you better than you do? What if what is being “thrust” onto an individual, in terms of identity, morality, and truth is actually being graciously given by the One who does know the individual better than they do. You see, for expressive individualism of our day to be true it must throw out the possibility of this One who knows better than we do to actually exist, and therefore, it must rule out an objective God. The only problem with doing this is nobody can prove this One doesn’t exist. Humans can will God to not be real, but humans cannot prove God is not real, and so therefore we have good reason to doubt the “expressive individualism” of today’s context.
So, what am I suggesting? I’m suggesting the way in which our society should deal with our “expressive individualism” problem is to regain deductive reason, rational thinking and critical inquiry. We should rediscover there are some who are more highly qualified to speak to truth and reality than others, and not everyone has equal abilities to determine human identities and self-understandings… Simply put, somebody may perceive something is true of their existence and yet that person may simply be wrong. What this person needs (if we are loving them as our neighbors) is not to be validated in their being wrong, but they need to seek the truth and re-align themselves to what is actually true. They need to submit their identity to the truth of reality rather than determining their own identity and demanding they have the right to establish their own reality suited to their own self discovered, perceived, and determined identity. In the article, Wax articulates this issue quite well, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” is what the catechism says. Expressive individualism turns that around. “The chief end of religion is to glorify man so he can enjoy himself forever.”
To help us all feel the weight of the insanity of the “expressive individualism” of our society consider this… If you tear your achilles tendon, like I recently did, you wouldn’t say everyone is equally able, qualified, skilled, or wise to put your achilles tendon back together would you? If you wanted your child to be an astronomer would you say that each astronomy teacher was equal in how well they are able to monitor the universe and teach it to your child? Of course not, you would want to find the best teacher who knows the most about what they are talking about… So, why do we as a society continue to entrust the most important claim of human existence to ourselves? We are talking about life after death, heaven or hell, eternal existence, so why wouldn’t we want to seek the wisest, best, most able, most suitable person to answer this big question of “why do we exist and what are we here for?” If you want the best doctor, best teacher, and best hair stylist, how much more so should you want the best Being able to help you know and understand your own human existence? Why settle for allowing yourself to determine your own existence and identity when you could have the all-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely loving One determine this ever important question for you? If this One helps you to see who you are, why you are here, and how you can experience eternal bliss then I don’t think you, me, or anyone in our society would cling to our “expressive individualism” in comparison…. Unless of course it doesn’t really matter, and if that is the case for you then you have already decided to trust your own ability to determine your end, telos, eternal significance, and so I ask you “Do you really trust yourself to make this determination?” Think about it.