Contemporary science has put the lie to notions of the isolated, atom-like individual, revealed the deep interdependent nature of human life, and shown the importance of empathy in learning, social organization and human survivability. We might call the new scientific paradigm, "I need you."
When Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, opened the Church’s general convention last week by condemning as heresy individualist notions of salvation, she had truth, science and justice on her side.
Of course, many conservative Christians immediately expressed outrage. In an online poll at OneNewsNow (American Family News Network), 42 percent branded Jefferts Schori the heretic. It must be noted though, that even at this site there were a substantial number of commentors who agreed with Jefferts Schori.
Here’s what she said:
The crisis of this moment has several parts, and… they’re all related. The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.
It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.
Ubuntu doesn’t have any "I"s in it. The I only emerges as we connect – and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others. There is no "I" without "you," and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the one who created us. Some of you will hear a resonance with Martin Buber’s I and Thou and recognize a harmony. You will not be wrong.
Ubuntu, the theme of the Episcopal convention, is a classical African concept that Archbishop Desmond Tutu called "the essence of being human." Tutu further explained (in the video above):
In our culture there is no such thing as a solitary individual. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons, that we belong in the bundle of life. And I want you to be all you can be, because that’s the only way I can be all that I can be. I need you. I need you to be you so that I can be me. That’s why, you see, when you dehumanize another, whether you like it or not, inexorably, you yourself are dehumanized.
This turns out to be empirically true. It is not ideology. It is biological fact. This paper (pdf) has a good summary of the science.
Ideologues of hyper-individualism, and many of their antagonists as well, like to say it’s an "either/or" choice. It’s either about me. Or it’s about everyone. Misinterpreters of Emerson and Nietzsche claimed those two chose "I." Misinterpreters of Marx claimed he wanted to destroy the "I" in favor of the collective. It’s a false dichotomy. It may be our original false dichotomy. Remember Muhammed Ali’s famous spontaneous poem at Princeton?
Capitalism, of course, loves hyper-individualism. Why sell a family one television when you can sell it four, one in every room, upon which targeted advertising can be aimed at Momma, Poppa, Sister and Baby Brother? And, how can you make them anxious enough to buy the relief you are advertising if they’ve found love, comfort and fulfillment in one another? Better to keep them isolated.
More deeply, the "I got mine" notion of salvation condemned by Jefferts Schori is what makes cutthroat capitalism possible. This would make Adam Smith roll over in his grave, of course. He thought a market free of elite, protectionist interference would make us more, not less, sociable. He was not all wrong. He just failed to see we need to keep a firm, compassionate and very visible hand on the market. We have to shape the market to human nature, not let the market deform our nature.
Many of our political disagreements today can be traced to misunderstandings of the individual and the social self. Health care reform, for instance. We are fighting against "I got mine" special interests, and their worldviews are premised on notions of hyper-individualism. This is exactly why the central frame of the anti-reform effort is, "You’re going to lose the health care you have."
To these exploiters of our sad and destructive cultural inheritance of hyper-individualism, John Donne is the heretic (as so many Renaissance thinkers and poets were to the masters of the Reformation). Donne wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Ernest Hemingway, the very model of the rugged American individualist, took the title of his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, from Donne. The book, of course, is about self and other in war. For all its humanism, the novel does fall victim to the false dichotomy: selves must be sacrificed for the common good. But the raw honesty of the book and its grappling with our central dilemma are what make it a great American novel.
I grew up in the Southwest, in the land of the so-called rugged individual. In some ways, I fit the stereotype. I don’t like to be told what to do – by anyone. I don’t like it when authoritarians do it. I don’t like it when sometimes sanctimonious progressives do it. Of course, I don’t always know what’s best for me, so it’s a damn good thing I have, now and again, listened.
Still, my individualist inclinations aren’t challenged by ubuntu. "I need you to be you so that I can be me," Bishop Tutu said. Empathy, compassion and recognition of the interdependent social self do not require me to sacrifice anything at all. In fact, it’s the opposite. To avoid the disappearance of the self, I must believe it when I say, "I need you."
We talk often about frames, about changing frames and challenging frames. Of all the frames that need challenging, the false dichotomy is at the top of the list. It is not, "It’s either me or you, buddy." It is, "It’s me and you, buddy." Just like the heavyweight champion of the world said.