individualism, desire and the christian self

It is frequently said that we live in an individualistic society.

This is not all bad. The fact that individualist philosophy values the individual’s worth is fantastic.

Not so fantastic in light of Christian theology is the individualist insistence on rejecting all forms of external interference on one’s interests. This is not simply because of the existence of God, the ultimate “external” authority, but also because of the unrealistic, even naive, view of human existence it represents.

What human is able to live according to their own interests, unabated by the interests of society? We live in a world of social connections in which even our most basic needs are dependent on relationships. I think for example of food whereby most of the people I know are completely disconnected from the production and manufacture of almost everything they eat.

How would individualism even work in a world such as this?

The political philosophy of libertarianism falls into a similar pitfall. Libertarianism espouses individual liberty over government intervention, and thus extols personal responsibility. Any time you hear a politician or commentator talking about the need for individuals to take responsibility for their actions, chances are they are coming at it from a libertarian perspective.

This is not to say that taking responsibility for oneself is bad, or wrong – it is certainly neither.

But it is to say that in any society, particularly in a globalised one, people can not always overcome the problems imposed on them through sheer desire.

And of course desire is the foundation stone of individualism.

But the irony is that desire is not the creation or choice of the individual. Augustine taught that desire is not an internally generated act of choice, but that, as Cavanaugh summarises, “desire is a social production.”* Speaking about his theft of some fruit as a young man, Augustine recounts:

Yet had I been alone I would not have done it – I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time – alone I never would have done it. Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it. Does it follow that I loved something other than the theft? No, nothing else in reality because association with the gang is also a nothing. (Augustine, Confessions, 33)

If Augustine is correct then individualism, built on desire, is in fact socially conditioned – an ironic paradox.

Capitalism almost demonstrates Augustine’s point. Would we really desire all the things that we do were it not for social conditioning? Indeed such desires, when fulfilled, will never satisfy. Such desires are futile, yet they reign – why?

And of course in a capitalist society the notion of individualism falls apart, since our consumerist desires are fulfilled at cheap rates only on the backs of slave labour and imperialist trade systems, and in the trivialisation of cultures as consumer choices – where are the interests of the people on the losing end of these transactions? Individualism reveals itself to simply work for some at the expense of others.

Where then is the identity of the Christian to be found? In the self? No. Cavanaugh says:

In the Christian view we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation – appropriating, consuming and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual self is de-centred and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life.**

In other words the Christian self is no longer autonomous, but is in Christ. The Eucharist, though an act of consumption, proves to result in our consumption – by God and the body of Christ.

Should not then membership in Christ’s body cause the Christian to reevaluate their place in the world as an individual? Perhaps, in terms of our desires and consumption, this would mean ensuring that all transactions, economic or otherwise, bring life to all parties involved.

This is, of course, an affront to the concept of sheer personal responsibility as the arbiter of wealth and success. But so too I suppose is the concept of grace.


* William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2008), 9.
** Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 55.

Posted on November 17, 2011, in Economics, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. What of the individualism that isn’t built on desire but on an idea that we arent to be held responsible for someone else’s actions? Cf. God’s rejection of the aphorism; “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”

    Libertarianism advocates free choice and personal responsibility BECAUSE we can’t control the malicious actions of others.

    If we are to accept the thesis you put forward, then you are responsible for (my) libertarian worldview, but I think that it is a ridiculous notion to attempt to live out.

    • Hi Josh,

      Great to have your insight on here.

      The understanding of Libertarianism you posit makes perfect sense, if you believe that socialising factors have little, if anything, to do with one’s actions.

      Again going back to Augustine, he makes clear that his choices of actions, and assumedly his worldview, were the result of a kind of socialisation, and not merely a “free” choice.

      I suppose this whole issue will be decided on the basis of what level of socialisation one subscribes to. Certainly I am not denying the need for personal responsibility (as I made clear in the post), but equally true is that I am saying there is far more to “freedom” than my own personal responsibility.

      I’m not saying that we can control each others’ actions, but I am saying they are all inextricably connected. In a way I am responsible for your libertarian worldview… Well maybe not me personally, but certainly others, and society as a whole, are largely responsible for your narrative world. To me that is not as ridiculous as maybe it seems to you.

      I would love to hear from you about how your libertarian perspective takes into account systemic problems that oppress the marginalised e.g. sweatshop labour, child slavery etc.



  2. Late reply, however, I just remembered I posted here:

    Jean Paul Sartre argues in true existentialist fashion that we all (individually) remain condemned to our freedom. It is the unavoidable brute fact of our humanity.

    Regardless of the strength of socialisation, it is “bad faith” to simply relegate one’s own actions to the choices of others, or even the perceived inevitability of human social cause and effect.
    Whether that be in the case of human society’s failure to completely educate me or my failure to completely educate human society.

    I don’t subscribe to the complete determinism of socialisation. Sociology is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one. Its manipulation can only operate within a range of preferences, which are held by individuals, who, if Nietzsche was right, operate within and prescribe their preference of power.

    Your thesis seems to make too much of the weight of sins of omission.

    I’m reminded of Yoder, who, in arguing against a social determinism within the church, makes the argument that we’re not held responsible for allowing people to be able to make the wrong choices.

    Otherwise, God is responsible for not preventing Adam and Eve’s sin via various social methods, and God even MORE responsible for allowing us (socially and individually) to kill his Son.

    When David stole Uriah’s wife, slept with her, got her pregnant, lied to a bunch of people to cover it up and eventually having him killed, his response to God was “Against you, you only God, have I sinned”

    There is an intense individuality at work there, so much so that his actions were ignored in his prayer on an interpersonal and social level.

    If David only sinned against God, then those who injured me haven’t sinned against me, but God alone.

    The victimising event isn’t grounds for my perpetuation of sin in human society. Nor is it grounds for human society to be victimised by me.

    Just a thought.

    At the end of your reply you asked about Sweatshop labour and child slavery:

    Slavery, as holding a free individual in absolute captivity, is abhorrent. Captivity is the inverse of Liberty. Also, treating free individuals as if they were NOT free, is also abhorrent.

    As to sweatshop labour, the libertarian (and to an extent the existentialist) in me holds that the individual absolutely and inviolably owns their labour and is free to choose where to trade that labour for goods.

    Sweatshop employment, by which I assume you mean extremely cheap labour, in certain settings are preferable to absolute starvation. However, it is for the individual to choose whether or not to work in that setting or to work elsewhere, or to allow someone else to retain some semblance of income in their place.

    You’re no doubt fully aware that some of our aid drops do just as much harm as good by flooding the local markets for production. Our previous aid practices of dumping second hand clothing and grain into Africa, for example, destroys domestic textile and clothing manufacture and domestic agriculture markets.

    A good libertarian would also see trade tariffs removed from African and South American exports as well, which would contribute somewhat to the economic conditions there.

    After all, a good libertarian, in recognising and appreciating their own freedom, should recognise and appreciate the freedom of others.

    We all know what the bad ones do.

Leave a Response

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: