[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]
In 1624 a cathedral Dean wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” which ends with the famous lines “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The relationship of the individual with the community is one of the ongoing tensions of life. To what extent is the individual sovereign and how much is the community sovereign?
To what extent should the individual enjoy the freedom to live as the ‘master of my fate and captain of my soul’; not just in the stoic acceptance of suffering but as the motto of life’s action. To what extent is life doing it “My Way”, or as the new Academy Award song would have it “let it go… no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free”?
To what extent should the community, by its culture, its socialising education, its family structure, and its government authorities—limit, shape or even determine human behaviour and the individual’s life?
Our sinful nature loves ‘autonomy’. The word is derived from two Greek words: ‘auto’ meaning self; and ‘nomos’ meaning ‘law’. Self rule, self government is the essence of eating the fruit of tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was the rebellion of becoming like God, determining good and evil. Sin is not so much breaking the law as making the law—putting ourselves outside the law—being lawless, an ‘outlaw’.
Yet, humans, in rebelling against God’s authority, did not gain self-government but rather changed government from God to Satan; from serving the creator to being enslaved to a creature; from the wisdom of truth to the folly of idolatry; from the morality of creation to the decadence of perversion (Romans 1:18ff). The promise of freedom and individualism is a lie. We were created for God, to live in his image, as social creatures united as one humanity. We are born into families as part of the whole society and leaving our families we form new families to give birth to another generation.
However, without God’s authority the community’s capacity to tyrannically dominate the individual has no limits. Be it the family or the culture, the government, the market place or a religious organisation—the individual can be crushed by society. Communal dictatorship and the struggle for freedom is one way to understand the narrative of human history.
Sydney demonstrates both the failure of individualism and the oppression of the community.
Governments don’t help when they constantly bow to the pressure exerted by those with deep pockets and media control. Our media, especially the entertainment industry, does not help as they undermine what little is left of our society’s cultural consensus. The freedom of the market to sexualise young girls, to promote pornography, prostitution, alcohol, gambling and materialism has government backing and comes at a great price—not only paid in political donations but even more paid by the victims of society’s dysfunction. Why should the average citizen have to pay for hundreds of police to protect the profits of the owners of late night bars and clubs? Why should the profit of shareholders be put before the needs of families to have time off together on weekends and public holidays? Seven days a week shopping may be convenient for the individual—personally I love it—but it’s not good for society, especially the poorer members of society. We have the wonder of digital TV giving us all these extra free-to-air stations demonstrating the entertainment industry’s lack of quality and providing a host of channels given over completely to advertising!
Individualism has the profound problem that it is at heart a myth. I am not all alone, unaffected by my culture and in charge of my own life and destiny. My behaviour is affected by others and affects others as well. I am not an island but a ‘piece of the continent’. We want the government to stay out of our bedrooms. We naively believe that what we do in the privacy of our own lounge room does not affect or harm others. However, your children go to school with my children, and our home-life directly impacts each other’s children. The pornography we allow our children to watch will be the standard the peer group at school will be influenced by. The marital disharmony the children have to endure comes into the classroom affecting the quality of the education of the whole class. The binge drinking may be out of school hours on the weekend but the teacher, and the rest of the class, has to cope with the hangover on Monday.
In most societies there is a moral consensus, which governs individual behaviour. Without such consensus in the community, individual self-centredness has free range to damage the life of others. The alternative is a heavy-handed government, making laws hastily to clamp down on the worst excesses of selfishness. Western democracy’s pursuit of maximising individualism has inevitably undermined its social capital and created dysfunctional and disconnected societies. Parents and teachers feel this pressure most acutely as they try to raise vulnerable juveniles in at best a moral vacuum, and all too frequently, an immoral current. The solution to the individual-community tension is not to be found in turning education into social engineering. The curriculum must not be crowded with solving social problems. Teachers are educators not social workers. Nor is it to be found in more police, heavier fines and longer mandatory gaol sentences.
The tension will never be solved until we return to God and place ourselves and our society under him. This will not happen till the Lord returns, but it happens to individuals long before that as they discover the warmth of the sacrificial love of the one who died and rose again for us, and individually come in from the cold to enjoy the family of God’s people.