The Darkness of Individualism

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The Darkness of Individualism




The Darkness of Individualism


David B. Garner

The soul has eyes, and it’s always staring at something. Part of what it means to be made in the image of God means that we’re gazers. The question isn’t, “Is my heart staring at something?” It’s, “What is my heart staring at right now?” At the broadest level, there are really three basic directions for gazers. And each direction has an effect on the soul.

       First, we can stare up at the triune God—the Father of lights (James 1:17), the Son as the light and life of men (John 1:4), and the Spirit as the illuminator of our hearts and minds (Eph. 1:18; Rom. 12:2). Our God can fill our eyes with light because he radiates his own truth, love, and beauty into our mirroring world, which can do nothing but reflect God’s light back to him. God is, as John Calvin put it in the first chapter of his Institutes, an “endless flood of light.” When we stare at him, we grow brighter. (For more on God as light, see the recent article on Westminster Media).

       Second, we can turn our chins down and stare at ourselves. This is an ancient and secret form of idolatry that often eludes our culture. But the reason we have trouble seeing it is that it’s so pervasive. As the saying goes, a fish never sees the water in which it swims. But the water is there. Our culture is immersed with and addled by self-worship. As Matthew Roberts wrote in his book Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self, we have turned “the free self” into an idol. We think our desires define us. “To look inside our own hearts,” he wrote, “and ascribe to the desires that we find there the power to define our very being, is surely Pride in a most elevated sense” (p. 46). And this darkening pride leads to blindness—the absence of light.

       This is also bound up with the Western secular “virtue” of individualism, something which Robert Bellah and his colleagues feared (back in 1985!) was spreading like a cancer in American culture (Habits of the Heart, p. xlviii). Their fear was well-founded. We have put far too much weight on the individual. Bellah wrote nearly forty years ago, “The self must be maintained as the intuitive center of the wants and impulses that define right action, and as the unimpeachable evaluator of the good or bad feelings by which the utility of our acts can be calculated and the depth of their self-expression intuited” (p. 78). Individuals discerning their greatest wants? We hardly ever know what we truly want, let alone what we should want; we need God’s word to tell us. Individuals defining right actions and evaluating feelings? God does that for us in Scripture; what are we trying to do? Individuals hoping to figure out who they are in isolation from God? Have we not yet learned that this is doomed to futility? Individualism puts us at the center of the universe. The gravitational pull required for that position will crush us. Praise God that we live in a God-centered universe! When we leave behind our idolatrous individualism and stare at him, we grow brighter. When we stare at ourselves, we go dim.

       Third, we can stare horizontally out at the world and the things in it (Rom. 1:22–23). Scripture defines this sort of soul-gazing as idolatry, which leads to the darkening of the heart (Rom. 1:21). When we think of idolatry, we might first turn to physical images, such as those represented in the Hindu religion. The missiologist J.H. Bavinck ministered to many people from a Hindu background. He had a front row seat to the idolatry, just as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17). And just as Paul found uncertainty and confusion in Athens (in their altar dedication to an unknown God; Acts 17:23), Bavinck found uncertainty and confusion in Indian religion. He wrote, “The Indian people have been deeply impressed by what they consider the perpetual war between the powers of order and chaos. The gods, or devas, are the defenders of harmony and order; the demons are the creators of chaos. . . . There is not a very clear distinction between the gods and the demons. Some of the gods seem to possess the characteristics of both; they are creators of wealth and prosperity and at the same time demolishing powers. At times they destroy the world which they built” (p. 41). Can such gods do anything but cause fear and uncertainty to rise in darkened hearts? Maybe that’s what prompted Bavinck to write elsewhere, “man seems to flee from the same gods whose communion he seeks and whose blessing he craves” (p. 24). We run both towards and away from idols, as if our hearts can’t see clearly.

       But Eastern religions don’t hold exclusive rights to idols. In addition to the idol of self, the West has plenty of others: comfort, money, fame, and sex perhaps the most prominent. These are the temporary and ever-dying pleasures we gaze upon. But they don’t fill us with light and life. They don’t ever deliver on their promises. They disappoint because they are unable to offer what we most long for: the God of glory. When we stare at the idol of self, we dim. Likewise, when we stare at things in the world, all goes dark.

       And so we turn again in the first direction: not down (at ourselves) or out (at things in the world), but up. When we look up, we see the self-giving God of glory. When we look up, we find—with great relief—a God who shows us what we most long for and offers it by grace to those who seek him. When we look up, we see Christ on the cross, given for our reconciliation. But we also see Christ ascended, glorified for our eternal hope. It’s in him that we find our purpose and meaning, our sense of belonging and worth. The moments of our days are the measures of his majesty. His light always finds a way to us. It shines in our darkness, a darkness that cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

       My friends, God is worthy of our gazing. May we look up today, and find joy in knowing we are looking homeward, toward life and light everlasting. Yes, the Sovereign Lord of creation and our redemption—this “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5b).

Yours in the Faith,

David B. Garner

Chief Academic Officer, Vice President of Global Ministries, and Charles Krahe Professor of Systematic Theology

Westminster Theological Seminary

P.S. Some time ago, I had the blessing of delivering a message to Westminster students on Romans 6:11, which addresses our culture’s misunderstanding of the self and points us Godward: “Humility and Self Conception.”

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