Thursday, August 11, 2011

Individualistic thinking and global concerns

The western world is a very individualistic place. It suits the market economy for it to be that way. Not only do people make more purchases when they're thinking as individuals, but they make specific purchases that express their individuality. People don't just buy one phone for the family anymore, without really caring what it looks like. Instead, they purchase a mobile phone for each family member, as well as all the accessories that show the style and personality of each mobile phone owner.

But this individualism does not just affect the way we buy. It also impacts the way we live and how we think. Its influence can even be found within the Church.

Every church is different. So it would be ridiculous to suggest that Christians as a whole are focused on certain things. Some churches focus more for global and national problems. Others focus on concerns closer to home.

However, it would be fair to say that, within some churches, there is an incredible amount of focus on the individual. In these churches, Christianity is all about an individual's relationship with God. They pray for individuals. They try to save individuals. They look for transformation of individuals. They acknowledge sin as individuals. Their sermons are addressed to individuals. And when something goes wrong, they tend to blame individuals.

But thinking in such individualistic terms often prevents us from acknowledging societal sins and working towards the transformation of social structures. Not everything that is wrong in this world can be thought of in terms of individual decisions or changes needed in individual lives.

When it comes to environmental problems, this heightened individualism is not only hindering us from addressing the problem, it's hindering us from even acknowledging the problem.

Our initial response to a problem is generally not how is this going to impact everyone? But how is this going to impact me? It's not what might our communities or societies be doing wrong? It's am I doing anything wrong? It's not how can society address the problem? It's what can I do?

And the answers to those problems quite frequently are - it won't impact me much, I'm not doing anything wrong and I'm either doing all I can do or nothing I do will make an impact anyway. Or, in answer to all the questions above, I don't see a problem - with the emphasis on the "I".

People who might be considered environmentally conscious aren't immune from this either. Take a look at enough green magazines or websites and you'll come across quite a few eco-friendly stores and products. And I'm not criticising them. I quite like the eco-friendly stores. If people are going to buy something, it makes sense that they buy something that doesn't harm the environment. But again, we're back to purchases as individuals. And in a world where we define ourselves by what we buy, looking after the environment has to be much more than just a consumer choice. For one, many people are going to decide that the 'eco-friendly, greenie' choice is really not their style.

For most of our lives, ads, TV programs and magazines have been saying 'It's all about you!' Now suddenly it's not about me. It's about us. It's about what we have done to the world and what we can do to fix it. And (particularly for those of us who are over a certain age), getting into that way of thinking is not particularly easy.

So how do we stop people from thinking only in terms of individuals and start them thinking of society as a whole? I don't have any answers for that. After so much conditioning by the media, it's a difficult problem to solve. And I'll leave it to people with far more expertise than I have to figure it out.

What I will say, though, is that the Church has something valuable it can add to the discussion.

For one, churches are community centres. Admittedly, some of them aren't very good community centres. Some of them try their best to become an individual's choice and promote individualistic thinking. But some of them (mine included) really are places where the community gathers, where people feel part of the community and that reach out to the wider community. The people in those churches know that they are one part of a whole - and that the church is not just there to meet their needs.

Secondly, Christians who take their decision to follow Christ seriously know that this world is not all about them. They realise that they need to look outside themselves and consider other people. And certainly that's not a trait specific to Christians. But with so many sources telling us that it is about the individual, we need as many sources as possible that tell us that actually it's not.

Thirdly, the Church is used to thinking of itself as the Body of God. So that means, while it may think of itself in terms of individual parts, those parts still make up a whole. They are united, despite their differences. And that's the kind of thinking that the world needs.

The Church alone is not going to get people thinking the right way about environmental problems. And the Church's only role is not to challenge today's individualism. But by addressing our individualistic ways of thinking and by showing other more communal ways of thinking, it will at least go some way to helping us address environmental problems.

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