(Note: The effects of strident individualism on theology generally and on biblical interpretation specifically deserves a more developed treatment. I hope this article will wet some readers appetite to go further. )
Herbert Hoover, that stalwart Republican champion of smaller and more efficient government, has been credited with coining the phrase “rugged individualism.” Hoover once described “rugged individualism” as “the American system,” and credited it for America’s supremacy in the world.
In 1922, seven years before his election as president of the United States, Hoover wrote a small book titled “American Individualism.” In it he acted as apologist-in-chief for an individualist worldview, which he defended against the competing philosophies of Communism, Socialism, Syndicalism, and Capitalism on both philosophic and spiritual grounds. Hoover, raised in the sometimes ruggedly individualist Friends (or Quaker) movement, argued that each person has an inner light, a divine inspiration that is not dependent upon religious hierarchies.
Citing Hoover in an election year is fraught with danger, since readers might get stuck in the debate, still associated with his name, over the size of government. But my concern is not with Hoover’s conception of efficient government, though his speeches are surprisingly apropos for our day. My concern is with the individualist worldview he celebrated, its influence on American thought and, particularly, its effect on biblical interpretation.
Hoover was right: America has been and is populated with rugged individualists. The people who crossed the Atlantic, whether for spiritual freedom or economic opportunity, were rugged individualists. Their descendants who made their way into the forests of Ohio, the vast planes of Kansas and the dangerous wilds of the Pacific Northwest were a tough people who relied on their own strength and wits.
When people like that read the Bible, they can’t help but do so through a lens of rugged individualism. But the Bible was written by and for people who believed in the fundamental connectedness of society, and especially of the church. Readers who fail to take that into account will have trouble understanding some biblical concepts. Take salvation, which Hoover rightly insisted is not the result of “mass or group action.” But neither is salvation, as the Bible reveals it, a reward for individual effort or piety.
The rugged individualist thinks of salvation as a personal relationship with Jesus that results in an individual’s entrance into heaven after death. Biblical teaching includes those components, but in a much larger framework. “Salvation belongs to our God,” cry the saved in the Book of Revelation, not to this or that individual. When a person experiences God’s salvation, he or she does so in the company of God’s people, not in the isolation of “a mansion, just over the hilltop.”
That God is calling to himself a people, not just individuals, may go unnoticed in an over-individualized approach to the Scriptures. When this happens the importance of the church is minimized, community is marginalized, and the unity for which Jesus prayed evades his people.
From the individualist’s perspective, people go to church to enjoy its benefits, “to get a word from the Lord” or to take Holy Communion. But early readers of the Bible didn’t go to church; they came together as a church (St. Paul’s wording). They did not attend services, they gathered as God’s special people.
And when they gathered, they shared the “Lord’s Supper,” as the Apostle Paul called it. This meal, which speaks of (among other things) the church’s unity, has divided Christians for centuries. The irony is that the apostle’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper was meant to stop divisions! The original problem had nothing to do with how Jesus was present in the bread and wine, and everything to do with how he was absent in the ugly divisions in the church. That reality, and many others, is likely to be overlooked in an individualist reading of Scripture.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/6/2016