The Heresy of Individualism: A Lesson from the Holy Family
The greatest heresies in modern times are neither about God, nor about the Church. Rather, the greatest heresies today all have to do with humanity.
In the older days, the devil attacked the Church with arguments about the nature of God. For centuries, Orthodox Christians struggled to defend the dogmas handed down to them from the apostles, that God is one essence and three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. Eventually, the Church triumphed, and these beliefs are the core of Christian faith everywhere. But today, Christianity is attacked on a different level.
Our culture has forgotten what it means to be human.
One doesn’t have to look far to see this. On a national level, we live in a time when the government feels it has the authority to redefine marriage, family, and even gender identity. These are no longer looked at as truths entrusted to us from heaven, but as the whim of politicians and celebrities. But the heresies of humanity come even closer to home. Christians have stopped looking at the world as sacramental. We forget that we are not just saved in spirit, but are also saved in body. Our relationship with God involves our whole being, each of our senses, our taste (in the Eucharist), our sense (in incense), our hearing (in the peace and beauty of our worship), our eyes (in the pictures on the wall), our touch (in the holy water that cleans us) and the movements of our bodies (as we kneel and genuflect). There’s nothing petty in Jesus Christ’s words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
But today, on this Feast of the Holy Family, the Church warns us of a particular heresy about humanity, and one of the most destructive and widespread problems in modern Christianity – this is the heresy of individualism.
What does this mean?
You’ve all heard it said, “I believe in God, but I don’t like organized religion.” If there ever was a cheap cop-out, this is one. We like to blame religion for the problems in the world. When really religion doesn’t have much to do with it. People do. I do. We’re quick to find excuses to distance ourselves from community, when all along, we bring our problems with us wherever we go. I doubt there has ever been a time in history when Christianity was ever so individualistic. We think of religion like an aisle in the supermarket – just pick and choose what you take a fancy to, and when you’re tired off it try a new brand.
We value comfort far more than truth. We want a relationship with Christ, but not with my neighbor who stinks. We tend to forget that Christ is the head of the Church, and the Christians it’s body – you can’t have one without the other, or you end up with a decapitated monster. A minister once put it well, “The great Western heresy…is that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God….[this] individualist focus is a form of idolatry.”
You’ll have to bear with me today. I want to take some time to read a few quotes and verses to really dive into this issue and explore what it means for us.
Fr. George Florovsky explains: “Christianity from the very beginning existed…as a community. To be Christian meant just to belong to the community. Nobody could be Christian by himself, as an isolated individual, but only together with 'the brethren,' in a 'togetherness' with them ... Christianity means a 'common life,' a life in common.”
Another modern theologian, named Fr. Christos Yannarras once taught about this spread of individualism that came about in the protestant reformation. He writes: “With this change, Christianity became an individualistic ‘religion’ dominated by private convictions and the acquisition of individual merit.” Traditional Christianity, he emphasizes, is about a unique life in community and love with God, His saints, and one another here in on earth. Otherwise put, to be a Christian is to be part of a family.
A monk named Abbot Tryphon, who lives in California today, published an article called “The Grass is Not Greener on the Other Side,” where he looks at how individualism has crept into Orthodoxy in America. He writes:
“In an age when people change addresses as often as those in past generations changed their socks, stability of place is almost unheard of. When I was a young man,” he says, “I moved from city to city quite often… If my social life was on the rocks, I’d move. Reinventing myself in a new location became the norm… But, as I grew older and wiser, I realized that the issues which needed to be dealt with had been avoided with each move, and if I was ever to grow psychologically and spiritually, I needed to put down roots…”
He continues, “Frequently moving from one job to another, one relationship to another, one neighborhood to another, or one city to another, is a sure way to avoid spiritual growth….Moving from one parish to another is…a way many people avoid maturing in their faith… Stick with the priest or confessor who really knows you. Spiritual transformation takes time and changing confessors inhibits growth, since you waste time letting the new priest get to know you… Constant movement allows us to hide from ourselves.”
A priest from Romania once complained about how Christians in America treat the Eucharist like a pill. Just swing by and pop it in and that’s all you need. In Romania, to take the Bread and Wine with your brethren is a way of life, an attitude linked to your relationship with your brothers and sisters. It’s a sharing that starts at the altar and spreads out to your parish, family and friends. If there’s no sharing, there’s no Grace.
And what does scripture have to say about all this?
We begin to see what it means to be a human in the first chapter of Genesis. As God sets out to create humanity He declares: “Let us make man in our image and our likeness” (Genesis 1:27). The saints interpret this as a proof that our very creation was communal – God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit put us together, and His Image within us reflects the community of the Godhead. Our God is a unity of three persons loving each other. In the same way, to be fully human is to live in unity of sharing and loving.
God is a family and His family-ness is imprinted in all of us. We will never fully live and thrive until we live as family.
But what goes wrong? The devil gets involved. The word ‘Devil’ in Greek is ‘Diabolos’ which literally means: ‘The Divider One;’ ‘The One who Breaks Apart.’ God brings unity; the devil brings separation.
When the Son of God was born a man on Christmas day he offered us all a chance to get off the boat of brokenness and division, and to start living this new kind of life – a life of love and unity.
We forget sometimes, when we try to live Christian lives apart from a Christian community, that our Lord and Savior didn’t teach us to pray: “My Father, who art in Heaven.” Instead, He showed us the path with the words, “Our Father, who art in Heaven.”
When He prayed to our Father He implored, “For those who will believe in me…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20)
You say that you are a Christian. Well what does that mean?
Here’s what it is to be Christian. The Book of Acts, chapter 2 paints the picture vividly: “And they [the brethren] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And all who believed were together and had all things in common…And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:42-47).
This is what it means to be a Christian. “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:3-6).
Today is the Feast of the Holy Family.
Look at the Nativity Crèche, which we put up every year at this time.
God did not come to earth as an individual isolated from the world. God came to us in a family.
The Crèche is a reminder of what it means to be Christian. It’s a microcosm of everything that the gospel stands for. A free-floating Christian is no Christian. We can only walk out our faith as a parish family.
If we want a private relationship with God then we won’t get any relationship at all. It has to be shared.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard the story of Christ, the young boy, traveling with his parents, Sts. Mary and Joseph. God proves Himself to be a family man. He lowers Himself in order to live in the family life, as a boy obedient to parents, and in doing so His raises Family Life into something Divine.
Why is it, after all, that the Orthodox Church insists on Closed Communion? Why is it that we’re forbidden to take the Eucharist at a non-Orthodox Church and non-Orthodox are unable to take communion with us? Quite simply, it’s because of our radical belief in family. If we are to break bread together it must be in unity, true unity, through sweat and work and perseverance, with patience and forgiveness, and a faith shared in every way. This is what it means to be human – to be family.
If you want union with God, then strive for union with your neighbor.
If you’re looking for Christ, then look in the eyes of the man and woman with whom you break bread.
If you want to become a good Christian, then turn to the Holy Family. It is there only that we learn how to live.
God is family. The Church is family. Our salvation is family.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.