2. Individualism as presupposition of the community round the Word

In many ecclesiological studies, the church is approached primarily as a community. There is, of course, a lively debate about the nature, the extent, the mission and the theological and social interest of the ecclesial community. However, the characterization of the church as a form of community – be it ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ – seems to be taken for granted.

The chances for church communities today are on the one hand estimated to be low, but on the other hand worked out on a new, ‘lighter’ way.

Referring to a longing for fellowship in individualized society, the church can be promoted in old and new ways. Some are warning, that where an abstract leaning toward community in society is embraced from a missionary perspective, the social critical role of the church or the singularity and responsibility of the individual can easily be forgotten.

In the meantime, communities of faith that are proclaimed to do well nowadays are  the clearly profiled ones, aimed at specific social groups, and with a strong network structure.

These tendencies lead to the question: Is there a future for the ‘ordinary’, socially mixed local church?

Starting with the local church as community is not as taken for granted as it seems to be. At least not for protestants. First, in the protestant tradition personal salvation has often been the primary concern. Second, instead of the community, the Word has been put forward as the most essential aspect of the church. The Protestant Church in The Netherlands begins her rules governing church life with the statement that the church has been called tot ‘hear  and preach the Word’. All her activities are perceived as ‘service to the Word’. A recent policy document of the PKN, ´Learning to live out of wonder´, which speaks about the church as ‘community round the Word’, says: ‘The Word is the origin of the church, the ground under her feet, her greatest joy and firm hope for the future’.

In what follows, I would like to argue, that either when community seems to be taken for granted in church, or when everything is concentrated on the individual salvation or individual responsibility, one tends to forget what can happen with the individual, through the call of the Word and through the encounter with others in church. The secret of the church is that self-centred people, as we all by nature are, as individuals are opened for God and the neighbour. Not only human individuality, but as well the general inclination toward individualism and egocentrism can be seen as the presupposition, instead of the obstruction, of what happens in church.  The individual turned in on himself is the point of action for the Word which calls to community.

Charles Taylor

Individualizing tendencies sometimes are observed as per definition undermining community spirit. Charles Taylor, however, traced a striving for authenticity as the underlying motivation for the historical process of individualisation (I refer here mainly to the small book The malaise of modernity, republished as The ethics of authenticity, and to the famous Sources of the self). I will discuss only a small  part of Taylor´s tremendous work, and will do this very briefly stated. Therefore, I will not be able to do right to his wide scopus and its illuminative force, but I think that I am touching an essential point of Taylor´s thinking here.

Behind modern individualism Taylor sees the ideal of authenticity. According to Taylor, the Romantic notion of the authentic individual, of being true to yourself and your inner voice, is rooted in an Augustinian tradition of inwardness and reflexivity. But this ideal can go off the rails. Taylor interprets the inclination of present-day western people not only to depart authentically from oneself, but also to center on the self in social, moral and spiritual issues as the degrading of the ideal of individualisation. The inner search for authentic solidarity has produced the side effect that individuals break away from historical roots and social alliances and keep focussed on themselves in everything. Still, Taylor counts on the intrinsic community spirit of well-understood striving for self-fulfilment, and he sketches possibilities of restoring the true ideal of authenticity. ‘A work of retrieval is needed’, Taylor says.

A ‘Lutheran’ alternative for an ‘Augustinian’ approach

But what if man – in spite of, but also in his community spirit – is intrinsically inclined to lock himself up inside? Then the authentic striving for self-realization, no matter how much it happens in relation with fellow humans and communal values, does not release man from the leaning toward himself. Isn’t it, that the modern ideal of authenticity threatens to get stuck from the beginning, because of the self-centred nature of man? In line with Luther we could say that moral and spiritual closeness can not be merely a modern derailment, but a very human phenomenon, which can only be broken through by a Word which comes from outside.

Luther located the sin of man in the radical enclosure of the whole man for God. The notion of the closed self can be found as well in the work of Augustine (see Matt Jenson, The gravity of sin; Augustine, Luther and Barth). At the same time, however, Augustine promotes an inward turn to discover God and the good life inside. This makes Augustine’s concept of the inner man ambiguous (so Matt Jenson)  Taylor appeals to Augustine in his historical and actual elaboration on the inner search for the self ánd for religious, moral and social values and connections. In my view, the Lutheran concept of homo incurvatus in se could lead to an alternative for this promotion of an ‘Augustinian’ ideal of an inward turn. In an individualised society we might need to expect salvation more than ever from an appeal that comes to the individual from the outside.

What does this mean for the local church? The local church is the ek-klesia, the community of people who are called together,  not only out of the world, but also out of themselves. It is the community of those who are called to live excurvatus ex se (Matt Jenson). But this is as much an ideal as the ideal of authenticity and inward turn. If we take the deeply human tendency to ‘incurvation’ serious, the step from reality to an ideal of ‘excurvation’ must not be made to quick. If the persistency of egocentrism is neglected, an eccentric community easily becomes an ideal which will be frustrated by reality. Therefore, in the reflection on communities of faith in an individualized society, we should first face the selfish side of the human reality. Individualism can be explored as not only a cultural or social phenomenon, but an anthropological and theological reality. As such we can define individualism as: the human tendency to depart in everything from oneself and consequently to lock oneself up inside.  In a Lutheran perspective, this enclosure of the human ‘self’ is a presupposition of the biblical message, the ecclesial community an authentic inter-human connections. Not until an encounter with God and the other takes place, individualism is turned inside out to free love and responsibility.

3. The individual – Franz Rosenzweig on the double conversion of the closed self

The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig gives a startling insight in the closed self as presupposition of a real encounter with God and the neighbour. The heart of Rosenzweig’s theological and philosophical reflection lies in the personal experience of encounter with God, in which the ‘self’ is opened to become a living ‘soul’. Rosenzweig understands reality as consisting of relational events between God, man an world. This dynamic and relational concept of reality goes along with a clear distinction between God, human individuals and what happens in the world.  God, man an world are not approached by Rosenzweig as commutable aspects of an all-embracing whole, but as self-reliant elements of reality. The distance between God and man is not bridged by man, but by God. The free gift of Gods love initiates human love. God does not seek the perfect one, but the hardened heart (Rosenzweig, 2000, 45).

In words derived from the Bible and Jewish liturgy, Rosenzweig describes revelation as a dialogue in which the loving God speaks to the individual and asks for an answer (Idem., 205-213). God opens the talk with the question: ‘Where are you?’ De first reaction from man in the Torah is not a real answer to this question (Gen. 3). Adam admits that he has hid himself for God, but hides himself subsequently behind his wife. He blames her, and she blames the snake. In his answer there is no ‘I’, who takes responsibility. ‘She’, ‘he’, ‘it’, is wat we hear here. Man objectivises himself as the male person and objectivises his wife as ‘the woman you have given me’. Gods question ‘Where are you?’ is still avoided. Man stays proud and hardened. Only when God calls ones name, as with Abraham, Mozes and Samuel, the personal answer is heard: ‘Here I am’ (hinenni, Gen 22:11, Ex. 3:4, 1 Sam. 3:1-10). Now man is open for God.

As much as the openness of man – the result of being called by God – Rosenzweig stresses the enclosure of man as the presupposition of the biblical witness that God calls ones name and ask for ones own answer. In the encounter between God and man, Gods initiative calls on the human self-consciousness. To bring man in an authentic relation to God, the neighbour and the world, God breaks through the enclosure of the ‘self’.

This does not mean,  that the self is asked to surrender its singularity. On the contrary, in his call of love God evokes the very singularity of man. God’s self-revelation occurs at exactly that stubborn point that is me. Meeting God is for Rosenzweig an individuating event. A conversion takes place in which the self is not abandoned but transformed.

Rosenzweig makes a distinction between te human ‘character’ and ‘self’ on the one hand, and ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’ on the other. Only as incomparable and incommunicative self humans can be conversed into a state of being able to enter into real contact and real community with others. ‘Individuality’ and ‘personality’, often stressed as the highest qualities of man, are shown by Rosenzweig as only describing man in his belonging to a larger world and in the role he takes in this larger whole. Ideas of individuality and personality are insufficient to understand human life. One’s individual personality, as far as it can be recognized by oneself and others and can be compared with other personalities, is per definition not one’s own. And that’s why human personalities are unable to be called for responsibility and to found a community. Rosenzweig stresses that it is the hidden self, which is formed by an exclusive interplay of the own will and character, and which tends to meet only itself, is as such met by God.

‘Without self, no soul’, says Rosenzweig. The defiant pride of free will and the own character in their interplay make man to a mute self, turned in on himself. What happens now in the appeal of God’s love on the self, is that exactly this human pride emerges in a ‘converted’ quality. The arrogant pride of defiance (Trotz) is being reversed to humility (Demut). For humility is also a form of pride. In this way Rosenzweig characterises the love-in-return of man, who is loved by God, in terms of steady faithfulness. The strength for endurable human faithfulness to God springs from the proud, closed self of man. ‘Without the dark enclosure of the self, no luminous Revelation of the soul; without defiance, no faithfulness.’

But how can such an individual, given that she is loved by God, love others? True love for one’s neighbour lives according to Rosenzweig not only by the precondition of being loved by God first, but also by the same precondition of the closed self as revelation does. Where the love for God is the steady result of conversed pride, love for the neighbour is the momentary result of the conversed free will. This  is brought about by the command ‘love your neighbour’. Not once and for all, but every moment anew the human will needs to be liberated from the fixed orientation towards the own character. God commands love to the neighbour, the nearest, the one who is literary ‘next’ to  you. Every time when one obeys the command to go out to who comes in one’s way, the will that is looking for oneself ‘dies’ and is being re-directed towards the other. This makes the will free from the bondage to the own character. But the character is not set aside in the love for the neighbour, which is as well as self-love an interplay of will and character. Instead of getting stuck in self-assurance, there is   a moment of self-denial in the encounter with the neighbour, after which the own character appears in a renewed, un-selfish quality. One is not asked here to renounce oneself, but to approach the other as a singular self, like oneself. Rosenzweig chooses to translate the command as: ‘Love the neighbour, he is like you’, and he adds: ‘Like you’, so not ‘you’. You remain ‘you’ and you have to remain so’.

So, the love command does not does not address the benevolent one, who naturally feels committed to others, but selfish one: ‘the deaf  I, buried in its own I-hood, the I nothing can be presupposed from than that it loves itself’. Only after the Word of neighbour love has opened one’s ears, one recognizes the neighbour as one who is like yourself and to whom can happen the same encounter with God you have experienced.

On the basis of Rosenzweigs analysis of the encounter with God and the neighbour, we can conclude that not an inner feeling of connection, but a word which addresses the egocentric self from the outside founds authentic community.

4. Saved for society – The local church as place of calling and salvation

In the local church, which appears where the liberating call of Gods Word is heard, also the call of fellow humans begins to have its salutary effect on the individual. This I would like to explore somewhat further, by extrapolating Rosenzweig’s approach to the Christian church.

The Word that opens the closed self for God and the neighbour is for Rosenzweig concentrated in the love command. In a broader sense, all of the Scriptures of the Old Testament are for him the spoken Word of God, meant to be read aloud, so that listeners can be addressed in the here and now. God uses human speech. Gods Word comes to us in human words.

The Dutch reformed theologian K.H. Miskotte was inspired by Rosenzweig’s at the same time existential, linguistic and biblical account of what happens in the actual encounter of God and man. Miskotte concentrates his work on the weekly sermon as the central moment of encounter with God in human life. Here Gods Word is heard,  in human words and in actual contexts. Here it happens that God speaks to individuals in the actual preaching of the biblical witness of Jesus Christ.

This concentration on Gods Word in preaching needs to go along with attention for the community which comes into being around Word and Table. At the Lord’s Supper individuals meet each other as hearers of the same liberating Word and guests of the same calling Lord. This communal experience can ‘convert’ egocentric individuals to each other and call them to the local  as well as the universal community of faith, which begins  with the calling of Israël.

Still, the Christian church remains – in Rosenzweigs view – a gathering of individuals.  This is according to Rosenzweig implied with the greek word ekklesia. Also in Pauls picture of the church as the body of Christ, the communal service of the local church presupposes the individuality and freedom of her members. The same concludes Rosenzweigs from Luthers portrait of the freedom of a Christian, who is lord of all things, and at the same time everybody’s servant.  This observation can be supported, I guess, with the observation that Paul addresses the readers of his letters alternately as community with ekklesia and as individuals within the community, e.g. with klètois hagiois (called saints – 1 Kor 1:2; Rom 1:7).

The appeal of the neighbour is finally getting through to me in the encounter with God in his Word. And at the same time God finally breaks open my closeness where His command to love becomes concrete in the community round the Word, where others wake me up to serve the neighbour and society. The local church forms an important junction in the journey of the individual ‘into life’ (‘into life’, these are the last words of Rosenzweig’s book The star of redemption).

The local church is a place where people can meet each other in all possible diversity, as individuals who one by one in Jesus Christ are addressed by the one God of Israël. The local, often social-cultural diverse church-gathering hides salutary, liberating powers for modern indiduals. It is the place where one turns up again and again for a liberating appeal on a closed self and to exercise oneself in being there for the neighbour, who is met in church as well as in all contexts of life.  In the community round the Word individuals are saved for society.