Negotiating collective and individual in religious traditions

From time to time I come across these types of simplistic oppositions:

Judaism is collective, whereas Christianity is individualistic.

‘Eastern’ Orthodoxy is collective, while ‘Western’ Christianity is individualistic.

Roman Catholicism is collective, while Protestantism is individualistic.

Obviously, something is not working here. Apart from the religious fallacy (attributing religious causes to issues for which religion is a secondary matter), they suffer from a curiously slipping opposition, all for the sake of identifying the bogeyman, individualism.

Instead, I suggest that each mediates the relationship between collective and individual in different ways. Thus, for Judaism, the individual relates to a community that is as much ethnic as it is religious. In ‘Eastern’ Orthodoxy, sobornost, the spiritual community of people living together, is that with which individuals engage. Initially, it appears that the community is primary, to which the individual must subordinate his or her wishes for the greater good. I have much time for contributions from this approach. Thus, the individual appears as the one who must submit to the community and the individual thereby gains from the communal situation – as long as that is properly collective. However, it has distinct traps, for the community in question is conceived as a hierarchical, if not an autocratic one. Thus, being part of the community is actually being subject to the one who directs the community – priest, patriarch and then emperor. One submits one’s will for the sake of community, ethnic group and state. The good of the whole becomes the good of the autocrat. Here the Slavophilic origins of the term sobornost show up, as also the tendency to Caesaro-papism.

Roman Catholicism recalibrates this slightly. Now the church is supposed to be primary, so much so that is claimed by some to be the only true church. No salvation is found outside the church, so what happens to the individual? The relationship with God is mediated by another individual, the priest, and ultimately by the pope, who represents the mythical line from Peter. Once again, while I have much admiration for the Roman Catholic approach, the danger is submission for the sake of maintaining a smoothly functioning hierarchy.

Some forms of Protestantism come quite close to the Roman Catholic approach, such as the high forms of the Anglican Church. But other types of Protestantism seem initially to be the real culprits here. As the caricature would have it, they remove any mediation and encourage the individual’s relationship to God as primary (although, as we saw above, this is also said of Roman Catholicism and Christianity as a whole). No community is needed any more, and it is each for him or herself. However, a closer look at Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley and others shows quite quickly that they saw the church as absolutely vital. But we can go a step further. Let me take the example of the Reformed and especially Congregationalist traditions. In these cases, any hierarchy has been completely removed – no priests, bishops, patriarchs or popes. Instead, the congregation plays a crucial role. In that congregation, the minister is first among equals in a way that is deeply democratic and collective in its principles – although not often in practice. Perhaps we can put it terms of a dialectic (with debts to Rosa Luxemburg): not only does the collective determine the individual, but the autonomy and self-determination of the individual leads to a greater and voluntary collectivity. To my mind, this is what the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers seeks to express.


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