The Heresy of Individualism
I. “…Television had come. Instead of sitting out and talking from porch to porch on the summer evenings, the people sat inside in rooms filled with the flickering blue light of the greater world.”
Wendell Erdman Berry is an American novelist who writes about our culture and values, and the way they’ve shifted over the years. In a delightful book, he tells the story of a barber named Jayber Crow, who set up shop in a small, rural town from 1937 to 1969. Well, through those 32 years, he watched the world transform. Of all changes in America, one struck him the most: the end of the front porch culture. In the past, if you were to walk down a lane of homes on any summer evening, you’d see the whole community out on their front porches. Greeting one another, borrowing as needed, or simply visiting unannounced was just a way of life. But little by little, television changed that. People moved indoors, neighbors stayed to themselves, the community grew quiet. The front porch culture vanished.
I remember something similar when I lived in the Mediterranean. At the heart of every little town is the parish church with a little yard in front of it. The place feels abandoned during the day because everyone is out at work. Evening brings its magic and the town comes alive. One by one, children, adults, lovers, and grandparents show up in that churchyard to share food, play cards, listen to music, or kick a ball.
We’re not here to reminisce. I’m not preaching about some ideal utopia and certainly not about mere culture. We’re here to talk about Christianity.
II. Of all heresies of the modern times, of all temptations today, which most threaten a Christian community or a person’s walk in Jesus Christ, the first and foremost is summed up in a single word: individualism.
You see it nearly everywhere.
“Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” is the name of a youtube video posted some years back. It went viral immediately and has been watched by over 31 million viewers. Nearly every day, more Christians are saying, “I love God and the bible, but I don’t feel I need to go to church.” This spirit fills the mainstream denominations. The congregations may sing the same tune together, but the idea of a common life, common dogmas, and common creeds is non-existent. After all, if scripture is open to private interpretation, why not everything else?
The same heresy has crept into Orthodox circles in America. Priests and theologians lament at how people treat the Eucharist like a pill. “Just swing by and pop it in,” a professor at seminary once commented. “Back in my old country,” he’d say, “to take the Bread and Wine with your brethren means to share a life.” The Eucharist is an attitude linked to your relationship with your brothers and sisters. We all drink from the same cup. It’s a sharing that starts at the altar, extends to the parish, and then to your family and friends. Where there is no community, no confession, no forgiveness, and no sharing, there is no Grace. And this is where we see the startling difference between real Christianity and its façade.
III. Today, we are celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family.
Our scripture reading takes us to the Gospel of Luke.
“When he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:42-52).
God did not come to earth as an individual cut off from the world. God came to us in a family.
Jesus Christ was born in a home where he loved, obeyed, travelled and matured together with his parents. As an adult, he surrounded himself with His disciples. God Himself, from eternity, is a family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no individualism in God.
Our Lord didn’t promise us private salvation tickets. He left us a Church, His very Body and Blood, and the scriptures describe the life of that Church in great detail:
“They 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…day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:42-47).
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit (Hebrews 10:25),” St. Paul writes, “I appeal to you…that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Our epistle today reinforces this: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-17).
This is what it means to be Christian.
Bear with we. I’d like to read a little more and this time from contemporary leaders in the Church. This is such a vital part of our faith.
Fr. Christos Yannaras emphasized how the way Protestantism shattered Christian unity. “With this change,” he writes, “Christianity became an individualistic ‘religion’ dominated by private convictions and the acquisition of individual merit.”
Fr. Florovsky expands, “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.”
Abbot Tryphon in Washington published an article called, “The Grass is Not Greener on the Other Side.” 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, I moved from city to city quite often…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…Frequently moving from one job to another, one relationship to another, one neighborhood to another…or one parish to another…is a way many people avoid maturing in their faith…Spiritual transformation takes time…constant movement allows us to hide from ourselves.”
You can’t be a free-floating Christian. You can’t have a mere private relationship with Jesus Christ. You can only walk out your faith as parish family, with a father, with brothers and sisters, and in a constant stretch to forgive, to encourage, and to love. To be a Christian is to be family.
IV. I started out by mentioning the front porch culture.
This was once a way of life. It isn’t any longer. We’re not here to reminisce and we’re not here to daydream. We’re here to be the Church.
We can’t change the culture. We can’t change the modern life. But we can change our lifestyle. How?
By anchoring our lives to the life of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
V. For a short while, after leaving Jerusalem, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph lost their son, Jesus. The family was divided. They searched everywhere, but it wasn’t until coming back to the Temple that they found him. That is where we will find God. Remember the Holy Family. Remember the Nativity Crèche. In a culture drunk and dizzy with the fumes of individualism, divorce, separation, and confusion, we can ground our lives on one sure foundation: Our Lord Jesus Christ in His Body, the Church.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.