Self, Society, and the Trinitarian Posture

During his presidential inauguration, President-elect John F. Kennedy called upon the nation to act according to this principle: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”[i] Fifty years later, Kennedy’s call for a more collaborative society appears to have been rendered moot by another zeitgeist, best encapsulated by Oprah Winfrey’s call to “only make decisions that support your self-image, self-esteem, and self-worth.”[ii]

These contrasting messages represent two opposing ideologies: collectivism and individualism. The polarization between the two often underlies the difference between political parties, government systems, and world cultures. But more fundamentally, collectivists and individualists seek to assert what is the best way to live. They can only do so, however, by assuming vastly different understandings of human nature.

There is no doubt that collectivism and individualism are portrayed as diametrically opposed, and many people claim to adhere to either individualist or collectivist values. In reality, most people tend to live as if they believed in an inconsistent amalgam of the two ideologies. For example, the collectivist may claim to uphold the community over his own well-being, but may hesitate when asked to give away all his wealth to the poor. Similarly, the individualist may support the idea of personal freedom, while in practice he may force his own opinions on those he disagrees with.

This detachment between theory and practice presents an interesting problem: if collectivism and individualism claim that their message is grounded in a correct understanding of human nature, why is it so difficult to adhere consistently to these labels? The answer is simple: both outlooks fail to acknowledge the complexity of human experience. Collectivism fails to recognize humanity’s selfish tendencies, while individualism fails to capture the human need for social interaction and collaboration. Christianity, on the other hand, rejects the assumption that collectivism and individualism are in conflict. The Christian understanding of human nature instead presents a picture that merges collectivism and individualism into one coherent whole. People who live in accordance to this Christian understanding are rewarded with the personal satisfaction that their desires can now be resolved in a coherent framework that effectively explains why these desires are present and what their ultimate purpose is.

Before undertaking this analysis, it is important to clearly define collectivism and individualism. For the purposes of this article, these ideologies will be defined as following:

Collectivism: a set of political, social, and cultural beliefs that emphasizes the moral worth of the community.

Individualism: a set of political, social, and cultural beliefs that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual.

The collectivist ideology calls individuals to orient their duties toward the community over self-centered personal fulfillment. The end goal of the collectivist is the good of the community or group unit. On the other hand, individualism encourages individuals to define their own goals and pursue their own happiness, preferences, and rights, valuing individual satisfaction over social norms and obligations. For the individualist, the ultimate end goal is self-actualization—maximizing one’s own potential.

Both ideologies arose to provide a framework for relating the individual to the state. One of the more prominent portraits of collectivism came from Plato, who believed in the organic theory of the state. This theory proposed that the state is a separate and distinct body from the individuals that make up the state, and that this state is the unit of ultimate value.[iii] He advocated that individuals have a political obligation to prioritize the goals of the state over individual happiness. 1,500 years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau built on Plato’s political theory by calling this political obligation an obligation to submit to the general will and noted that individuals should submit their own will to the will of the collective.[iv] Underpinning both of these philosophers’ works is a common understanding of mankind’s capacity and responsibility to work together for the good of the whole. Because of its emphasis on unity, the collectivist mindset is associated with stronger societal and family ties. It is therefore not surprising that lower rates of suicide, divorce, homicide, and drug abuse are reported among collectivist communities and cultures.[v]

In contrast, modern individualism rose to prominence in response to the great injustices committed by communist, fascist, and socialist governments in the mid-20th century. The West grew disillusioned with the idea that societies could achieve prosperity, harmony, and unity through a collectivist approach. Advocates of individualism instead aligned themselves with the viewpoints of political philosophers like John Locke. Locke championed the concept of natural rights—the inherent rights to life, liberty, and property that each individual possesses. He argued that individuals have the ability to consent to (or willingly join) a society but are not intrinsically obligated to society. Only by consenting to join a political society do they willingly take on obligations beyond themselves. He also believed that humans were fundamentally rational creatures, with each person possessing the faculties to pursue knowledge and understanding.[vi] In modern American culture, these ideals are often defined as calls for non-judgment and tolerance, underpinned by the belief that each person has the right to define their own values and morality, and that people should not impose their own beliefs on anyone. The individualist emphasis on “creativity, […] mastery, and achievement” is plausible and attractive, which is why those with individualistic mindsets highly value personal self-esteem and freedom.[vii]

Both the collectivist and individualist ideologies, however, fail to account for fundamental aspects of human nature; and thus they both fall short of providing a practical framework for living. Although collectivism emphasizes the benefits of humans in groups, it assumes that individuals ought to submit their own desires for the good of the group, which might be overly idealistic. Even Rousseau acknowledged that most societies would fail to have the collectivist political organization he proposed if individuals “refuse[d] to accept the restrictions on their own conduct which the collective interest requires.”[viii] It is clear from the disunity present within all states that individuals are never fully able to give up their individual desires over the collective’s. The selfish acts of government officials, business moguls, and ordinary citizens saturate our news cycle every day. However, there is also a practical concern to collectivism: because the needs of the individual are viewed as less important than the group’s as a whole, the unique needs and identities of individuals may be ignored. This may undermine self-esteem, which explains why the collectivist mindset is correlated with lower individual happiness levels as people feel the “burdens of doing one’s duty and the suppression of strivings toward self-actualization.”[ix]

Ironically, the most dramatic expressions of collectivism throughout history have limited the social aspect of human nature. Because collectivism is vague about what constitutes a group, some collectivist societies may foster exclusion and discrimination by creating distinctions between those inside the group and those outside the group. While the group itself contains strong bonds, it may inadvertently breed distrust against outside groups.[x] In a way, this is also a form of selfishness, because it limits one’s perceived group to a specific circle of people with whom the individual has more in common and looks only to the interests of that particular group. Thus, collectivism may express itself as nationalism, racism, or classism. Nazism is a striking example of how the collectivist mindset can be twisted in a way that leads to great atrocities. Nazism sought to unite Germans into a strong collective after World War I humiliated the country.[xi] However, the distinction between in-groups and out-groups led to one of the most tragic injustices that the world has known. Nazism serves as a stark reminder of how inherently unstable and vulnerable a collectivist society can be if it does not recognize the reality of human selfishness.

Individualism similarly fails to provide a full understanding of human nature. Humans are social creatures and cannot operate completely outside the influence of society and those around them. The social contexts of human life demand that individual desires inevitably conflict. In some situations an individualist mindset may motivate people to pursue their own ends in opposition to the wants and needs of others. However, the social nature of humans suggests that we need relationships, and being in a functional relationship ultimately calls for the sacrifice of at least some individual desires for the sake of other people. The effects of these practices may be seen in the higher divorce rates in more individualistic cultures, or the loneliness and poor social support that individualistic people are associated with.[xii] Psychologist Harry Triandis noted how an individualist mindset can “leave people vulnerable to feelings of alienation and narcissistic self-absorption and tempts them to pursue narrow self-interest.”[xiii] These psychological symptoms show that individualism fails to acknowledge individual interdependence and prevents us from fulfilling our need for caring, mutually beneficial relationships.

Viewing either individual happiness or the interests of a collective as an ultimate goal in a secular context is bound to fail. Most people operate under a blend of the two, choosing an arbitrary balance between the self and others, falling on a perceived spectrum between full individualism and full collectivism. However, the fullness of human nature is not addressed when the two are seen as a dichotomy, or in separate spheres of influence. Rather, a cohesive picture of human nature is provided in the Christian worldview, which unifies the individual and the collective. In the Christian framework, the integration of the individual and the collective is no surprise—it reflects God’s nature, expressed as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. While the full mystery of the Trinity cannot be adequately expressed in this article, Christianity claims that three persons—God the Father, the Son (Christ), and the Holy Spirit exist as one God. These three persons have existed for all time in perfect harmony and express a perfect relationship of love. Each person perfectly submits and serves the others and is in turn glorified and loved by the others in a perfect give-and-take that has no full analogy on earth. This is called perichoresis, or a “dance of God.”[xiv]

This dance, where the individual is loved personally and submits to others fully, is the relationship that Christians are called to participate in. And this life, where Christians seek out God’s agenda with love and service towards others, is only possible due to Christ’s sacrificial love. In other words, self-actualization is a gift of grace made possible through God’s love, which in turn empowers the individual to then turn that love outwards and show it to others. Each person in the Trinity remains unique and distinct while fully loving the other persons of the Trinity. Similarly, Christianity in practice exalts the individual and motivates individuals to use their own individual gifts for the collective while freeing people from futile self-centered strivings and from the pressure of fitting into society. The Christian worldview reframes the relationship between the self and the collective with greater clarity, balance, and joy by placing the triune God—not the self or the group—at the center of one’s life. With this God at the center, Christianity provides a worldview in which the core of reality is a relationship of love.

Because of the sacrifice of God on man’s behalf, believers are called to give up their own selfish desires to serve one another, in imitation of Christ, fulfilling the human need for interpersonal relationship and dependence. For instance, Paul asked the church in Philippi to imitate Christ, who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[xv]

At first glance, this affirms the collectivist teaching of prioritizing the group goals over individual needs. Some assume that Christianity teaches self-denial and stoicism, an ascetic way of giving up individual needs, goals, and desires in order to serve others. However, Christian collectivism does not advocate ascetic self-denial for the good of the whole, or that the interests of the group always take precedence over the needs of the individual. B. B. Warfield, an apologist and seminary professor, remarked that Christian collectivism calls us “not to unselfing ourselves, but to unselfishing ourselves,” which is a stark contrast to the homogenizing nature of collectivism.[xvi] By living for service to God and others, Christians do not give up their individual desires, needs, and personalities, but rather use the attributes of their individual God-given personalities to best serve others.

This frees us from the spiral of self-serving narcissism commonly caused by an individualist mindset. A helpful metaphor to illustrate this freedom is the image of the church as the body of Christ. Just as our bodies are made up of individual parts, each of which has its own unique purpose, the body of Christ consists of the individuals that make up the church, with each serving his or her God-given purpose. Furthermore, this purpose extends beyond the church. Christians are called to love and serve all people, regardless of whether they belong to the same socioeconomic, ethnic, or religious background. In fact, Christianity spread because of the indiscriminate charity and kindness of the early church. Early Christians were generous with their money, took in orphans, and cared for the sick.

Most importantly, Christianity acknowledges the reason for the ultimate failure of secular collectivism: the sinful and selfish nature of man. Christianity recognizes that people have a natural tendency to seek their own desires and fall short of the communitarian standards set by society. After all, any society made up of flawed individuals is bound to have conflict and cultivate unhealthy mentalities that harm human flourishing. Christianity lends itself to an inclusive community because all humans have worth and value bestowed upon them by being made in the image of God; and because, first and foremost, God has humbled himself to us.

With that in mind, Christianity also affirms the reality and intrinsic value of the individual because everyone is made in the image of God. For instance, King David in his Psalms describes himself as one who is “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.[xvii] Furthermore, the fact that each person is intrinsically valuable means that God cares intimately about each person. God, in his infinite love for his creation, calls individuals to a personal relationship with him. And there is no better example of this call than the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christian Scripture teaches that God took the form of a human, sacrificing himself through crucifixion in order to redeem a fallen humanity and reconcile mankind to a relationship with himself. This sacrifice is the epitome of love and encapsulates God’s desire for human salvation.

Like its posture towards collectivism, Christianity rejects individualism’s two fundamental assumptions: that the ultimate goal of life is to define one’s own happiness, and that this goal is clearly discernable. Christianity is clear that all humans have fallen short of God’s perfection. Because of human imperfection, there is no way to find deep and lasting joy by chasing after self-motivated desires. The ever-changing dynamic of human desire precludes it from being a reliable end goal of life.

Instead, Christianity points to something greater than mankind: a God that is infinite, unchanging, and good. True joy and fulfillment are offered through grace, because man has been lifted up through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Thus, real achievement is bestowed by God’s sacrifice rather than through merit. The individual, while intrinsically valuable, is not free to choose subjective values or moral codes because God replaces the selfish nature as the center of the human life. Counterintuitively, this actually liberates the self since it is no longer dominated by an imperfect human will. The burden of trying to formulate a framework for merit and worth is lifted because value is given by God through grace.

Without Christ, human nature prevents us from achieving satisfaction and happiness by seeking the interests of the group or the self. In many ways, it is a classic example of cognitive dissonance—we yearn for sacrificial communities but are unwilling to sacrifice so that those communities can emerge. Without the proper framework for understanding the relationship between the self and the collective, a secular individual may find it difficult to find lasting joy from selfish or communitarian pursuits.

Christianity offers a framework whereby each individual is united to Christ and his body, joining a diverse and unified community. Christians serve a God who is unchanging and faithful, anchoring joy in something greater than themselves. Christ empowers the believer with the strength and resilience to humbly serve others and grants the believer mercy during periods of failure. In doing so, the Christian perspective on the self and the group uniquely reconciles individualism and collectivism, offers a new path that makes self-sacrificial love possible, and aligns humans with the divine nature best understood by the Trinity.

i. “Inaugural Address,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, 20 January 1961, accessed 23 August 2016, <https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/ Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/JFK-Quotations/ Inaugural-Address.aspx>.
ii. “Oprah Winfrey Quotes,” Goodreads, accessed 1 September 2016, <https://www.goodreads.com/ author/quotes/3518.Oprah_Winfrey?page=2>.
iii. “Plato’s Political Philosophy: Collectivism and the Philosopher-King,” Ayn Rand Institute, accessed 22 July 2016, <https://campus.aynrand.org/campus/ globals/transcripts/platos-political-philosophy-collectivism-and-the-philosopher-king>.
iv. Christopher Bertram, “Jean Jacques Rousseau,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 December 2012, <http://plato.stanford. edu/entries/rousseau/#IdeGenWil>.
v. Harry C. Triandis, Individualism & Collectivism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 175.
vi. Alex Tuckness, “Locke’s Political Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 March 2016, <http://plato.stanford.edu/ entries/locke-political/>; William Uzgalis, “John Locke,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 March 2016, <http://plato. stanford.edu/entries/locke/>.
vii. Triandis, 178-179.
viii. Bertram, 3.2.
ix. Triandis, 175.
x. Triandis, 178.
xi. “Nazi Germany,” History Channel, accessed 15 August 2016, <http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-ww2/nazi-germany>.
xii. Triandis, 179.
xiii. Triandis, 180.
xiv. Timothy Keller, Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 224.
xv. Philippians 2:7-8 (ESV).
xvi. B. B. Warfield, “Imitating the Incarnation,” The Gospel Coalition, 22 July 2016, accessed 17 July 2016, <https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/ justintaylor/page/files/2010/09/Warfield-Imitating-the-Incarnation2.pdf>.
xvii. Psalm 139:1-3, 13 (ESV).

Amanda Wang ’18 is from Dallas, Texas. She is majoring in Geography modified with Economics.

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