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One or Many?

Question: Which is worse, collectivism or individualism? 

Answer: Yes. 

Collectivism and individualism, while not exclusively modern, have characterized modernity.  Both reduce or dismiss God in favor of the supremacy of group or self.  Without God, modernity, as fancy as it looks, reverts to paganism.

Consider the news out of Syria: tens of thousands of deaths, cannibalism, and rape used by rebel forces to subdue government supporters.  The rebels, at least some of them, thus prove themselves capable of matching the tactics of the Assad regime.

Americans know that we are capable of atrocities ourselves, witness My Lai and Abu Ghraib.

But as a cultural trait, we find atrocities like those in Syria unfathomably horrible.  David Goldman explains this revulsion as the result of the Judeo-Christian rejection of paganism:

The Christian West summoned the pagans out of pre-history on the authority of a God whose love extends to every individual, so that as individuals they might abandon the collective identity of tribe and instead embrace an individual identity as Christian converts. The bright line that separates pre-modern collective identity from the covenantal identity of the Western individual is nowhere clearer than in the matter of atrocity. Pagan tribes feel no compunction about torturing and desecrating the cadavers of members of another collectivity; Western societies cannot abide such acts without going mad. We cannot even observe them from afar without feeling a touch of madness. 

The direct or lingering effects of Jewish and Christian faith govern our society’s reaction to atrocities. Where God’s love wins hearts and minds (as it sometimes does in people and places not obviously touched by Judaism or Christianity), people are seen as persons, and atrocity is rejected.  And the effects of that love persist, for a time, in societies that have in large part forgotten God.

The worst nightmares within the former Christendom flowed from that distorted, collectivized love of patria called nationalism, which treated the nation as an idol.  Displacing Christianity with nature-worship and other pagan practices, the Nazis perfected nationalist idolatry.

When we replace God, to whom Western civilization was once imperfectly ordered, with a collective orientation towards man, we risk the fall into paganism.  When we choose paganism, we cannot escape the collective – tribe, nation, state – and we open the possibility of vast horrors.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict has pointed out, the brand of paganism found in modern post-Christian societies is especially durable.

            In the modern collective, equality is everything, and uniformity is the point.
(Nuremberg Rally, c. 1935) 

Blessed John Henry Newman already saw the likely trajectory of modernity in the nineteenth century.  Chesterton characterized it as a form of insanity, the first stage of the madness Goldman notes in Syria.

C.S. Lewis explains it comprehensively in his essay, “Membership.” Lewis contrasts membership in the Body of Christ to membership in the modern collective.  In the Body of Christ, each member is unique, and diversity properly understood thrives.  Community is essential, but equality is not the point.

In the modern collective, equality is everything, and uniformity is the point.

Lewis, writing during World War II, understood the need for collective efforts to defeat Nazism.  But he warned against mistaking the collective as the ends rather than the temporary means.  And he explained the right ordering of politics vividly:

A sick society must think much about its politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice. . . .But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind – if either forgets that we think of such things only to be able to think of something else – then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

Lewis was realistic enough to understand that the modern collective would not disappear anytime soon.  Democratic forms of government were, he thought, the only available means in a fallen world to preclude tyrannical rule by one or a few.  But he knew that democracy, with its emphasis on equality, could lead to a false notion of membership in the collective that was just as tyrannical and soul-deadening.

In these pagan times, the president, whose party booed the mention of God in its platform, opens his address to Planned Parenthood with, “I’m sorry that I could not be at the party yesterday.  I understand it was a little wild.  (Laughter.)” Making no references to eugenics or abortion – the founding and current causes of that group – he invokes God’s blessings on the abortion industry.  Most people who see photographs of aborted babies know that the president has blessed an atrocity. 

And individualism?  It turns out to be a slightly different route to the same destination, via the triumph of the autonomous self in the dictatorship of relativism.  Without God, the relativist soon turns to the state for authority and meaning.

Our politics will not get us out of this predicament.  In 1960, Fr. John Courtney Murray could write:

In America we have been rescued from the disaster of ideological parties.  They are a disaster because, where such parties exist, power becomes a special kind of prize. The struggle for power is a partisan struggle for the means whereby the opposing ideology may be destroyed. It has been remarked that only in a disintegrating society does politics become a controversy over ends; it should be simply a controversy over means to ends already agreed with sufficient unanimity.

We are now in the condition Murray described. Our common understanding of the most basic questions – what is a human person, whether there is a divinely created order to which we should conform – has disintegrated, leaving both parties with deep pathologies.

The only answer to the collectivist-individualist dualism, the only escape from modernism-turned-paganism, is the renewal across society of belief in the unchanging truth of the personal, loving God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Absent that, our politics will increasingly be its own end, a deadly fight about fundamental principles and purposes, rather than a means – with more atrocious results.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.