The Right Kind of Individualism
Sometimes it is suggested that attention to our gifts and unique interests is just “American individualism,” rather than a feature of biblical Christianity.
This is wrong-headed. There is a wrong kind of individualism, to be sure. But there is also a right, biblical kind of individualism that, while affirming the uniqueness and importance of each individual, also affirms this in relation to the value of community.
In fact, I would argue that “American individualism” actually arises from biblical values. Sometimes these values are perverted into a narcissistic, wrong kind of individualism. But they don’t have to be.
The biblical notion of individualism is best captured in the doctrine of vocation, which was a major emphasis of the Reformation. Here’s how Gene Veith summarizes it in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life:
The doctrine of vocation looms behind many of the Protestant influences on culture, though these are often misunderstood. If Protestantism resulted in an increase in individualism, this was not because the theology turned the individual into the supreme authority.
Rather, the doctrine of vocation encourages attention to each individual’s uniqueness, talents, and personality. These are valued as gifts of God, who creates and equips each person in a different way for the calling He has in mind for that person’s life.
The doctrine of vocation undermines conformity, recognizes the unique value of each person, and celebrates human differences; but it sets these individuals into a community with other individuals, avoiding the privatizing, self-centered narcissism of secular individualism.