I was reading my friend’s notes about Philo of Alexandria, the first century C.E. Jewish philosopher. Philo viewed the Exodus as (in part) an allegory about the soul’s migration from material pre-occupation to the contemplation of virtue.
That’s very individualistic, in that it makes the Exodus about the journey of the individual soul. I was thinking about individualism today as I read Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Guide to Understanding the Bible. The book originally came out in the 1930’s, and the one I’m reading is a reprint from the 1950’s. Fosdick was a liberal Protestant and a critic of fundamentalism, but he was very thoughtful and spiritual. Desmond Ford’s evangelical publication, Good News Unlimited, loves to quote Fosdick.
Fosdick believes that there’s an evolution of religious thought within the Bible (though he doesn’t think that the later biblical writings are necessarily more progressive than the earlier ones, since he sees relapses in the Bible towards vengeance, or nationalistic xenophobia, or other primitive ideas). Here’s what Fosdick says about collectivism and individualism (on page 94):
…the ordinary man was submerged in the corporate mass of his tribe, without individual status, separate hopes, personal rights, or claim on divine care apart from the group. In the end, an immortal being, endowed with capacity for moral living and divine fellowship, man stood distinct from the mass, possessing in personality the supreme value, having separate status and individual rights of his own, and gifted alike with the privilege of sonship to God and the responsibility of an eternal destiny.
I think this is a good summary, albeit not absolute. Granted, we do see collective punishment in the Bible, as God often punishes an entire group of people for something that one of its members did. That may be because the ancients viewed things in collective terms. But to say that there was no individuality or “claim to divine care apart from the group”? That’s going a little too far, in my humble opinion, especially since one of the earliest legal collections in the Bible (even by Fosdick’s reckoning), the Covenant Code, protects individual rights and affirms that God hears the cry of widows, orphans, and poor people (Exodus 22:22-27). So I think that a collective mindset coexisted with individualism. And even Fosdick acknowledges that things were messier than he is presenting!
Fosdick treats the New Testament as a book about the individual’s spiritual journey—even though he acknowledges that individual Christians voluntarily joined a community, namely, the church. He almost acts as if communitarianism in the New Testament is a relapse from its usual high regard for the individual, a relapse prompted by persecution.
That differs from Christianity today, which emphasizes community, and sometimes even says that we shouldn’t regard Christ as our personal Savior. I remember reading something by Karl on Rachel Held Evans’ site (though I’m not in the mood right now to dig his comment up): that we should read old books as well as new ones. (Actually, Karl was quoting C.S. Lewis.) People in the past did not see everything the same way as people in the present.
In this case, why was Fosdick more individualistic than Christians today? Perhaps the reason was that he lived in a time when totalitarianism was a threat—whether that threat was from Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy, or Communist nations. Those systems elevated the community above the individual, and so Fosdick noticed in Christianity a regard for individual rights, and interpreted that as individualism.