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Friday, October 23, 2015

Individualism, Community, Authority, And The Difficulty Of Balancing All Three–Lessons From The Early Church

The New Testament is very clear about the importance of community.  Only if new Christians can cohere, be faithful to each other, and believe steadfastly and uniformly in Christ, can they survive.  The disciples were members of the core community within the larger, expanding Christian one; and their work was not to gather new converts, but to consolidate the support of the nascent Christian community.

Paul, whose evangelizing missions were uniquely responsible for the early spread of Christianity, returned many times to the churches he helped establish throughout Asia Minor.  He understood that the church, regardless of how small or large, would be the locus of worship and the foundational center of Christianity from which the good news could be spread to others.

St. Paul preaching


The story of First and Second Century Christianity is one of community, evangelism, and perhaps above all management. Paul understood that given human nature, the precepts of the new religion as taught by Jesus could easily be distorted, and the churches required frequent supervision. He also knew that the without guidance, they could easily disassemble because of doubt, unanswered questions, and an erosion of early faith.

All of this made complete sense.  In practical terms, the spread of any new idea, ideology, or religion in days of limited if not primitive means of communication, could only be effected through word of mouth; but relying on individuals alone to preach the gospel would certainly result in misstatements, distortions, and untruths. If individuals, however, went out into the community on their own but returned to a reinforcing community, the chance of misinformation would be less.

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In marketing terms, the establishment of mini-communities (affiliates) was also an intelligent strategy.  Each church would have its own sales territory, salesmen, target, and projections as well as its recorded mission statement and basic principles.

In social terms, basing the expansion of Christianity on mini-communities which were built on the natural human tendency to group together and enjoy the confraternity of like-minded people, was logical..

Finally, the establishment of small Christian communities which followed Jesus’ precepts as enunciated in the gospels was all important for the consolidation of the faith.

In the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries as Christianity took increasing hold and spread far to the West and East, theologians and religious politicians saw the importance of codifying the religion, creating a canon and an institutional structure that would accommodate a faith which was no expanding geometrically. Over the decades the foundations for a real ‘Church’ were established, and Constantinople and then Rome became the imperial centers for Christianity. The Christian community had become so large that it had far outgrown the simple visits of Paul and other early evangelists, a much more authoritative Church had to be formed.  The Church soon became large enough and influential enough to become a political power, and the history of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance illustrates this rise to prominence.

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Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (The Grand Inquisitor) challenges the Church, and in an encounter with the returned Christ, the fictional Inquisitor says that Christ has sold mankind a bill of goods. His refutations of the Devil’s three temptations in the desert set the groundwork for a venal, manipulative, and uncompromisingly untrustworthy church. All man wants is ‘miracles, mystery, and authority’, the Grand Inquisitor says to Christ, and you should have known that.  You, he says to Christ, only offered promises and no guaranteed rewards for obedience; and as a result you enabled the rise of the Church to continue the myth of the promise of salvation while exploiting believers.

At what cost, however, challenged the Grand Inquisitor?  You could have eliminated poverty, misery, hunger, and suffering, he says to Christ; but you did no such thing.  How derelict, and inhumane.  The Inquisitor’s worst calumny if for the Church. Built on human frailty and man’s fear of free choice, it arrogated to itself the supreme power to arbitrate between Man and God and did a miserable job of it.

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Authority, therefore, was a natural outgrowth of community. This phenomenon, of course, was not unique to the Church.  Secular society has always been characterized by the same trajectory. Individuals form small communities which are subsumed into larger and large ones, and finally individuals owe allegiances to governments, dictators, and despots.

The role of the individual is less clear in the New Testament.  The gospels are filled with stories of Christ, his lessons and parables, and the fundamental precepts of the new theology.  The individual is insignificant within the context of community.

Yet, Paul makes it clear that salvation is attained only through individuals’ faith and the bestowal of Christ’s grace. Paul, especially his Letter to the Galatians, was used by Luther and later Protestant reformers to reject the notion of a mediated religion.  There was no need for the Church in this new dynamic of personal salvation.  The individual did indeed have an important if not key role in the theology of Jesus Christ.

ST. Paul

Today, all three elements – community, authority, and individualism – exist within religious faith and secular society; but the divisions between and among them are far more disputatious and divisive than ever.  Institutions have lost their authority both because of an erosion of principle and purpose; and individualism – especially in the United States – seems to have entered a Baroque phase. Individual rights, liberties, and opportunities take precedence over community; and individuals are more and more likely to challenge authority.  In other words there is no longer equilibrium among the three pillars of both religion and society – community, authority, and individualism – but it must be restored in order to have a more just, fair, and still dynamic culture.

The early Christians had community with a purpose.  As above, they knew that the expansion of their new faith could best be accomplished from the base of a strong and committed community of believers. Affiliation was first and foremost part of an evangelical movement, and only secondarily a social benefit.

Some communities today – Environmentalists, for example - have some of that evangelical spirit, but for many it is is looked at more as a respectable cloak conferring identity in a highly competitive, atomistic society.  Belonging to a group is necessary in society to give legitimacy when individuals are lacking in power. However, belonging to a community for social recognition is far different from the attitude of members of the early Church for whom belonging was fundamental to their lives, a sine qua non of existence, the be-all-and-end-all of life itself.

Modern community is mediated. Thousands of online petitions circulate on the Internet every day.  Signing them allows one to join a virtual community of subscribers to social or political causes.  Few ‘believers’ ever join a rally, a protest, march, or join a local flesh-and-blood organization.  Community is more and more defined with the realm of the virtual world of social media; and belonging as easy as a the click of a mouse.

Government is criticized if not vilified in most quarters.  It is either invasive, intrusive, and corrosive of individual values and prerogatives; or it doesn’t do enough for the marginalized and disadvantaged.  It either projects American strength and moral values abroad, or is considered interventionist and ignorant.  Congress is widely seen as morally and intellectually corrupt, venal, and at best do-nothing.

How have we come to the point where neither individualism, community, or government seem to satisfy our needs? Where is the spirit of the early Christian communities which seemed to understand the relationships among the three, and to offer spiritual fulfillment, the growth of faith, and a fruitful compromise with authority?

Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov argues strongly for subsuming the State within the Church, not the other way around.  What better way to order and control the most dysfunctional elements of society than through the force of moral law? The Church has always hewed to the fundamental theological principles set forth by Jesus and interpreted by Tertullian, Origen, Clement, and Augustine; and up until now has been the moral anchor for Christian society.

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It is with some concern that traditional Catholics see the current Pope moving away from orthodoxy and bending to secular pressures.  Unlike his predecessor, John Paul II who loudly condemned ‘the culture of expediency’, Francis is much more accommodating. Without an inflexible moral center, say traditional Catholics, the last bastion of religious uniformity and sanction will be gone.

In an age of moral relativity, the decline of the authority of the Church is troubling; for without its authority, with the expansion of religious sects who preach salvation without the context of reason and tradition, and the increasing secularization of society, there is little hope for a cohesive, purposeful, and more just society.

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Nor is there any chance that the secular values taught by Cato the Elder to the future leaders of Rome which have been foundational principles of every successful civilization – honor, justice, respect, honesty, discipline, courage, and compassion -  will be reestablished as the core principles of educational and community life in America. The emphasis on diversity and inclusivity has tended to dismiss these core principles as archaic, serving only the ruling elites, privileged, and advantaged.

The United States has based its foreign policy on exceptionalism.  We know what is right, and therefore feel the obligation for evangelizing to the rest of the world.  Yet few cultures see us the same way. New regional boundaries are being drawn on the basis of faith and community.  The ideas of the nation-state and democracy itself are being rejected in favor of a faith- or ethnicity-based reality.  Islamic fundamentalists for all their destructive terror have a point in principle, one no different from Dostoevsky’s vision.  A religious caliphate would reorder society towards the only important goal – respecting and meeting God – and would foster a community universally adherent to God’s law.

It is highly improbable for these aspirations to be fulfilled. Christianity in its early days expanded not through militancy but the salience and relevance of the gospel, good management, and an occasional coup de main by powerful secular authorities (e.g. Constantine). Democratic pluralism aided and abetted by aggressive Western capitalism are such influential forces today, even in the Arab world, that such hegemony is unlikely.

The lesson is only that a reversion to religious and moral principles may be the only way to limit the centrifugal tendencies of Western society.  An insistence on a traditional moral code in schools and local communities; an electoral process which values moral and ethical principles over ‘experience’ or connections; and a legal system which adjudicates less on the conferring of individual rights than on a restitution of the legitimacy of individual moral actions are reasonable reforms.

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If such a reemergence of a moral society is ever to occur, individuals will have to give up many of their venal and self-centered demands.  Communities will have to be reorganized around real, substantive, and meaningful purpose rather than convenient ways to establish identity and credibility.  Governments will have to become less intrusive and arrogant in their assumptions about the will of the people and the role of individuals.

A pipe dream, I know.  The train has left the station, and secular pluralism, moral relativism, and social inclusivity will be around for a long while; but it still is important to look at the rest of the world and how it is reconfiguring itself according in more purposeful ways.  New regions are less ‘democratic’ and ‘inclusive’ and more organized around similarity and homogeneity. Community is more important than authority; and the individual less important than community. This may be the eventual cast of American society.

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