For God and country
Individualism has come under attack in recent years. It is often seen as self-serving and contrary to the common good. This runs contrary to America’s founding documents, which were designed to protect the individual from those who would usurp rights which cannot be usurped, rights bestowed on man not by man but by God. What God gives, only God can take away, and it was this sentiment the Founding Fathers, steeped in Judeo-Christian wisdom, had in mind when they shaped the founding documents.
Freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, the rational and the irrational, is a central focus of Western tradition. Stripped of this freedom, Adam and Eve would be reduced to automatons incapable of sin. But sin they did. They did not have to. Choosing to love God or reject Him is necessarily an individual endeavor. Congregations gather in church to worship, but it is the individual who elects to attend services. Attempts to absorb the individual into group identity, be it political, ethnic, religious, or otherwise, threatens both the Church and our nation.
There is, however, truth to the accusation that individualism can be self-serving and contrary to the common good. The radical individualism of the German philosopher Nietzsche, for example, advanced the notion that there is no absolute Truth. The impassioned heat of Nietzsche’s style germinated the seed of relativism that was planted before him, and the seed took root and then flourished in the twentieth century. Now it is in full bloom. The fragrance of this flower is anything but pleasant. Nietzsche was a dangerous thinker, boldly blasphemous. Take this infamous example:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
Of course, God, by definition, is immortal and cannot be killed. That the absolute is not subject to the slings and arrows of man’s outrageous (and relative) desires is a valid criticism as well. Pointing out such flaws in Nietzsche’s logic, however, misses the point.
The real problem surfaces with the “we” to which Nietzsche refers. The question as to the existence or nonexistence of God requires an individual response. If a group says in unison “We don’t believe in God,” does the collective decision relieve the individual of responsibility? When it comes to divine judgement will it suffice for the individual to claim, “It was a group decision, a consensus. I was outvoted. I am innocent.”
With this mindset, one could go further and posit Charlie Manson was unjustly imprisoned for the actions of his followers. After all, Manson didn’t murder anybody. Or perhaps the charges against the murderers should have been dropped because they weren’t thinking for themselves? Who is to held accountable? When individuals are not held responsible for their actions, on whom is justice to be served? On political, ethnic, or religious groups? Does the individual exist outside the group that they have chosen, been born into, or assigned?
Nietzsche understood the consequences of his proclamation. Though numerous others had denied the existence of God before him, Nietzsche’s pronouncement was unique. It was his alone. Too weak to bear the consequences of his claims, he transposed the “I” to “we” so others might share the dark burden of his vision. A single madman yelling, “God is dead,” in the street is not analogous to a mob chanting the same. For example, as little as ten years ago slogans such as “Defund the police,” were fringe at best and for the most part ignored. A mob of BLM protestors chanting the same slogan today summons fear in many a law-abiding citizen. When mob rule becomes mainstream, rumors of revolution brew.
Like Lucifer, who rebelled against God in the attempt to become God, Nietzsche sought revenge on the Almighty to claim the title for himself. “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it [killing God]?” The blasphemous claim that men might will themselves to god-status flung open the floodgates to relativism. In Nietzsche’s realm men create themselves. There, man is truth, not God.
Transhumanism, posthumanism, transgenderism, sex-change, and abortions become normative terms. Creating oneself, however, is an extreme form of idolatry. Individualism gone wild invites hell to earth. And this is why, for many well-intentioned people, it must be stomped out, even if this means sacrificing the individual to the state. This is exactly what the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect each citizen against.
Individuality and the Whole
Long before Nietzsche, the Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) forwarded the concept of haecceity, or thisness, that which distinguishes the individual from the species or group. Socrates, for example, belongs to the species homo sapiens, but what distinguishes him as Socrates, a unique individual? For Scotus, the uniqueness of each individual is a testament to the infinite capacity of God’s creative freedom. For humans, who are created in God’s image, this allows the individual to reflect the inexhaustible creativity of God.
In Nietzsche’s vision, each man has the potential to become an artist who creates truth for himself. Ironically, here truth is a muddle because each version of the “truth” is potentially trumped by the “truth” of the next individual. If, for instance, a confused woman claims she is actually a man trapped in a woman’s body, and the next person says the woman suffers from a psychological disorder, and yet another person insists that the concepts of “man” and “woman” are social constructs and therefore fictions, where is truth? Is it to be found in each of the individual claims? Group consensus? A mob’s chant as they commence to riot in the name of a nebulous justice?
When all men are artists, there is no art. Where all men consider themselves as gods, God is forgotten and rationality is eclipsed into madness. Nietzsche spent the last years of his life in a catatonic state. It may have been, as many claim, a consequence of syphilis. Or it may have been related to his years of ingesting metal-based pain killers. It is possible, too, that the absurdity of Nietzsche’s claims caused him to climb the walls in the prison of his own mind.
In Scotus’ depiction, we find the healthy individual who is rational and free. This gels with the vision the Founding Fathers. They envisioned a nation where all men are created equal in that they are made in the image of God and therefore require equal justice under the law. Diversity in this scenario is located in the uniqueness of the individual and no two are alike. This uniqueness reflects God’s infinite capacity to create and the divine freedom required to do so.
The distinctiveness of the individual is inescapable. Even identical twins are identical only in a biological sense. One may be extroverted, the other an introvert. One might be athletic, the other bookish. They hold different perspectives and have singular reactions to shared experiences. Each is unique. There can be no equity, no equal outcomes, where no two people are alike. Rewarding all participants blue ribbons at a track meet strips the event of significance. Imposing the equity of equal outcomes on a diversity of individuals defies natural law and leads to disaster.
As Scotus well understood, we live in a fallen world. The best we can do is guard human dignity and celebrate the individual as a testament to God’s infinite creative capacity. In Scotus’ vision, each individual plays a significant part in an unfathomable whole created by God.
Pilgrims on the road
In the Franciscan way, individuals share something sacred: pilgrimage toward the divine. Here the individual is not imprisoned in a self-created solitary confinement of self-consciousness. Instead of being reduced to an ultimately impotent will-to-power, as Nietzsche would have it, individuals sojourn together toward a greater good. The shared experience of the pilgrimage allows each individual to aid others in the unfolding of God-given potential. This is love of God and neighbor at once.
Scotus’ conception of haecceity leads not to relativity but to a wholeness comprised of unique individuals governed by the Absolute. Dom Bruno Webb, a Benedictine monk, put it like this, “For man bears a twofold character: he is truly an individual, but he is no less truly a member of a higher unity.” Like art, this unity is beauty in the making. The Both/And approach of Webb is in opposition of Nietzsche’s All-or-Nothing. The Founding Fathers knew little, if any, of Nietzsche. They were, however, steeped in Judeo-Christian wisdom.
The claim, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” is saturated with Judeo-Christian wisdom. The framers did not seek to overthrow God but to allow the individual to glorify Him through the unfolding potential unique to each. This is human dignity and no man can take it away. It aims at excellence, not the mediocrity inherent in current notions of identity politics. The individual, made in the image of God, is beautiful. Without God, the individual is cast into the ugliness of the absurd where the only freedom is to conform.
Human dignity is born with the individual. We protect the individual by rejecting relativism. Freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, the rational and the irrational, is the essential inalienable right of the individual. It is also the heaviest of burdens. It is this freedom that makes us human.
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