“It’s All About me, Right?” by Peter Elliot

The European Renaissance was a wonderful time of educational, artistic, and philosophical fervor. The 14th-17th century “Rebirth” revived scholastic work, while also birthing a peculiar system of thinking, humanism. Humanism, which was a term given to Renaissance thinking by Georg Voigt, is a system of thought which shifted the focus of education from the traditional academic authority of the teacher to individual academic authority of the student.1 Humanism put the emphasis on the individual human and not on the communal doctrine that ruled in the universities and churches. This academic freedom gave students the ability to break free of the dogmatic teachings and thoughts which were thrust upon them by their traditional teachers. The humanists did not wish to destroy doctrine, rather, they wanted to individually arrive at truth without being told what truth was, they wanted emotion to be an essential part of their education, and this made individual authority necessary. Renaissance Humanism in giving individual authority to every student allowed for the increase and eventual over-emphasis of individualism in the Western world.

Individualism, which is essentially the core of Renaissance humanism, was, and still is, a by-product that advocates for an emphasis of personal and not communal learning. More than just personalizing education, it created an opportunity for subject truth to be the focus of education and eventually religion. Subjective truth is truth determined by an individual and is driven by his or hers emotions and personal response. This personalization of education shifted the focus of learning from the class to the student and from the collective group to the individual. This thought of personal authority did not remain in institutions of learning; rather it spread to the various institutions of life such as family, friends, and even religion.2  This educational paradigm shift from the communal to the individual was not a thought which sprouted in the Renaissance later to be dried out by the heat of tradition; rather it is a thought which has grown to give shade to many who find rest beneath its branches. Humanistic individualism may in fact be a thought so deeply rooted in the Western world that many modern American Christians are at heart individualistic. This American overemphasis of this individual liberty has created many negative consequence which affect all areas of our lives including education, relationships, and even our Christian fellowship.

Why does this matter? How does Renaissance humanism impact a modern American Christian? Once we answer how Renaissance humanism affects American culture then we can discuss the importance of its effects.

Renaissance Humanism had a secondary purpose in placing a value on the individual, that purpose was the protection of medieval serfs and servants from their lord’s cruelty. This secondary purpose would help create our modern American system of governmental justice.3 Medieval feudalism in Europe had created a horrible system of living that bred cruelty and oppression, and because society was unjust, humanism desired to give individual value to each person in order to create a sense of injustice when lords would act viciously toward their subjects. This idea progressed along with western society even to the shores of America, for when America was oppressed by the British government individual rights was at the forefront of the Revolution. After the Revolutionary war ended and America was established, our forefathers thought it necessary to promote this idea of individualism, which is good if not taken too far, in our justice system. This is why our Constitution states, “That all men are created equal;”4  they desired to create a republic that evaded the tyranny which they had just revolted against. Individualism works well in the defense of a republic and the upholding of freedom, but when it was applied to relationships and community one could then see a misstep in American culture.

Perhaps one of the greatest influences on western thought and individualism was Friedrich Schleiermacher. Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is often called the father of modern theology, was a German philosopher and one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 19th century.5  He is often regarded as the father of modern hermeneutics. Schleiermacher, a product of the Enlightenment which was a product of the Renaissance, is known for his emphasis on the individual responsibility in education, society, and even his hermeneutic. According to Schleiermacher, “Every approach to the world (or, say, to a text) involves a subjective interpretation or viewpoint.”6  According to Schleiermacher’s worldview, the individual stands in the gap between the phenomenal world constrained by individual sense experience and the transcendent realm of infinite unity. This means that emotions, personal experience, and inner thoughts are how we come to understand life, knowledge, teachings, and even what the Bible says. Known for his charismatic ability to charge the crowds, Schleiermacher was able to spread his individualistic views of education and society across Europe and eventually into America.7

As stated earlier, the overemphasis on the individualization of Renaissance humanism has become a negative consequence for the progression of American thought, but how does this individualization affect you in your daily life? That is the question! Individualism is rooted deeply into our American society; it touches every facet of our being, because it is a mindset or a preconception that we allow to impact every area of our lives. This mindset has spread so deeply into our culture that our education, relationships, and even our Christian unity have suffered from our own over-indulgence of narcissism.

Individualism has affected our educational system and hindered the increase of American learning. When receiving our education, we think merely of what we take from the professor and our fellow students. Very seldom do we approach a class and think, “What can I bring to this class?” “How can I help my classmates?” or even “Should I be at a university, if I am going to waste my parent’s or the government’s money with my lazy efforts?” Actions have consequences, not only on the person committing the action but also on the community in which he or she lives. It is our deeply rooted individualism which has created in our hearts a sense of entitlement. This thought of entitlement makes us believe that we inherently deserve happiness and the good life; it makes us believe that we are the center of the universe. Our current generation of American students has been infamously named the “most entitled” generation in American history, and according to psychologists and historians, there has never been a generation so narcissistic and demanding as the one which is currently going through the American educational system.8

Psychologist Jennifer Twenge runs an ongoing collegiate study that tracks the entitlement of college aged students. This study has been a continuous gathering of data over the past fifty years. Throughout the years there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence. Another interesting fact found in the study was the decrease of community. The study states, “In appraising the traits that are considered less individualistic—cooperativeness, understanding others, and spirituality—the numbers slightly decreased over time.”9  Twenge believes that the American mindset of individual success has driven students to promote their own well-being over the well-being of others. When taking a test concerning their academic placement, students feel the need to promote their skills as above average in order to impress their peers. This has two negative effects: first, students who fail in their academic pursuit often complain about teachers thinking themselves to be smart; and second, teachers often encourage the self-esteem of students by removing failure from classrooms. Basically, we have created an educational system where students desire to receive good grades without working for them, and where teachers give students acceptable grades as a means of appeasement. Individualization and entitlement have turned our once functioning system of education into a center of self-promotion and accommodation, and this affects the community.

America has dropped to seventeenth place in the Global education ranking. America, who was once number one, has since fallen from the premiere center of education in the world, to a rank of mere mediocrity. Again, this is a product of our individualism. The Department of Education believes that it is the right of every child to receive an education, even if the child does not want one. They think children are entitled to an education, even if the child does not desire to pursue knowledge. By placing these kids into the school system it lowers the scores of America’s standardized testing thus causing a fall in rank. Also these kids, who do not wish to learn, often distract and interrupt class lowering the amount of learning in a classroom. American high schools and middle schools have become a place where emotions run high, teachers are powerless, and education has become secondary to the day care services which schools now provide for parents.

Individualism has also begun to transform our relationships more into a love of self instead of a love for others. It is common in America and in our communities to seek relationships with people that are similar to us. We approach our friendships expecting a similar reciprocation of goods, for the goods we put into our friendships. Even our giving of gifts has been reduced to expecting to be given back to. We associate with friends that can bolster our popularity, and when finding our spouses we compare and contrast interests (i.e. E-harmony). M. E. Roloff has coined a term for American relationships called the “Social Exchange.” He brilliantly shows how modern Americans treat their relationships as investments. The social exchange metaphor conjures up images of costs, rewards, profit margin, mergers and acquisitions, where the relationship is viewed as something exterior to the individual.10 If profits are not high enough, restructure your portfolio, change your investment, file for bankruptcy, but save yourself. In this view, self-satisfaction is the prime value, not relationship enhancement.11 Emotion enters the theory when we feel the joy that flows from the reward. We feel a sense of completion and accomplishment. We also feel good, satisfied, relieved, excited. Throughout this process we create bonds. By this I mean we see each other as beneficial to each other and that makes our relationships in the end, the individual benefit and not the other person.12

Individualism has also allowed for the deconstruction of church unity. A simple example can be seen by inspecting our modern musical worship. In our church meetings we have made emotional fulfillment the primary focus of our music, and we have minimized the glorifying of God to a secondary effect. We have reduced the communal praise of God to an individual search for self-fulfillment. According to Colossians 3:16, singing psalms and spiritual songs is paired with fellowship with believers and not with emotional response. Emotional response is not wrong or a sin, but the over-emphasis of an individual emotional response removes the communal aspect of praising God as a body of believers. Instead of worshiping God and His character, we sing songs focused on our response to God, and almost no one has an identical reaction or response to God. Therefore it is the duty of our spiritual praises and songs to make God the subject and ourselves the objects of His actions and characteristics, for when we make ourselves the subject of praise we lose the foundation or bond which all worshipers share, God Almighty.

Individualization also affects church unity in the interpretation of God’s Holy Word. Church members interpret passages in a way that complements what they believe, and our Protestant heritage has taught us to interpret the texts of the Bible in a way that we see fit. During the Protestant Reformation, which was a consequence of the Renaissance, Martin Luther took the individual liberty to diverge from the traditional Catholic Church due to issues of salvation and grace. Whether Luther was wrong or right is not the point, rather the Reformation and the ensuing progression of individualism allowed for a personal authority on the Word of God. We have taken this principle to the extreme, exchanging the pursuit of truth, which Luther desired, for the desire of self-promotion. Many modern American Christians and pastors seek diverging interpretations of the Scriptures solely to be controversial, new, and progressive. Pastors desiring attention and fame have used this individual power of interpretation for wrong reasons and many times have hindered and not promoted the gospel.

Many local churches have also applied the American culture of completing tasks and individualism when planning their church services. Instead of encouraging communities of believers to sacrifice for the betterment of one another, many modern churches have created a society that feeds the individualism of modern American Christians. Members of church bodies can go to church, get a cup of coffee, shake a greeters hand, hear some great music, listen to a sermon, and leave without any fellowship. Church has become a safe place, a haven for our fear of vulnerability and love of self. Brothers and sisters in Christ seek a weekly spiritual fix and resist being transparent with each other. The individual person is afraid of being vulnerable but according to C.S. Lewis, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”13  People are afraid of being hurt, because they focus on how everything will affect them and not how they can act lovingly towards others.

Now that we have seen all of the problems we face as modern American Christians and students, what is the answer? How do we fix our preconception of self-promotion and individualization? Simply speaking, the answer is the cross. We are reminded throughout the New Testament that fellowship is a necessary ingredient for being a healthy Christian or Christ imitator. The question this now begs is how should we approach church, education, and Christian relationships, in a more communal way? The answer is found in making Christ’s act on the Cross the center of our interactions. The attribute of humility and the action of sacrifice were displayed perfectly in Christ Jesus on the cross, and it is therefore our God-given duty to approach every relationship we have with a sacrificial attitude. In doing this we shall imitate Christ.

Instead of thinking to oneself, “What can I gain from this?” ask “What can I give?” Instead of expecting a profit from our giving, give with liberality and a heart of grace. The body of Christ should remind us more of a potluck rather than a fast food drive-thru. The members of a body should bring and exchange spiritual “food” in order to nourish the body, instead of going through a fast food drive-thru to satisfy a craving. All Christians have varying gifts, strengths, and weaknesses, and by the grace of God, where one is weak another is strong. Therefore, we must constantly remember that Christian sacrifice flows from remembering the perfect, spotless, and sacrificial Lamb; that all of our relationships should find their relation through Christ; that the aroma of our friendships should be the humility of the cross. In doing this we will reject the individualistic ideology that grew from Renaissance humanism, and become Christians who imitate the perfect human, Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. This life is not about you, it’s about our Savior’s redemption of humanity and our imitation of His sacrificial act.

Endnotes

1. Paul F. Grendler, “Georg Voigt: Historian of Humanism”, in: Humanism and Creativity in the Renaissance: Essays in Honor of Ronald G. Witt, hrsg. von Christopher S. Celenza und Kenneth Gouvens, Leiden 2006, S. 295-326.

2. Ibid. 304

3. Ibid. 320

4. Constitution of the United States – Official. Web. 31 Mar. 2013. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html&gt;.

5. Zachhuber, Johannes. “Human Individuality in Scheiermacher’s Christology.” University of Oxford. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Twenge, Jean M. Generation Me :. NY: Free, 2006. Print.

9. Ibid. 38

10. Roloff, Michael E., and Charles R. Berger. Social Cognition and Communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1982. Print.

11. Ibid. 42.

12. Ibid. 44.

13. Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. Print.

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