12. No One Is an Island

Your relationship with God is obviously personal: no one can take your place in the history of the universe. And God’s love for you is personal. But personal doesn’t mean private. The culture in which we live makes much of “the individual.” That’s a word that says nothing about your relationship with others. Being a person, on the other hand, means being in relationship to others. The difference this makes is huge, so let’s think about it.

When everybody “minds their own business,” individuals are more vulnerable, more isolated, and more lonely than ever.

Our culture tends to talk about important things like truth and freedom in terms of the individual. For example, truth is often described as whatever the individual believes it is. It’s “true” for him or her. This reduces truth to mere opinion. Right and wrong are described in terms of “individual choice.” It is even claimed that “no one can judge”; no one else can say what is right or wrong for “the individual.” “Freedom” is described as the right to do whatever an individual chooses.

So where does that leave us when an individual thinks it is right to fly a plane into an office building, if “no one else can judge”? Or when lives are terminated through abortion or assisted suicide because “the individual has the right to choose”?

But do right and wrong, true and false, depend entirely on the individual? And do we really want a society in which individuals are accountable only to themselves?

If truth is ultimately only a matter of each individual’s opinion, and if right is whatever the individual chooses, then the very possibility of dialogue, public debate, and consensus is ruled out before it can start. Individualism ultimately puts us beyond each other’s reach. It cuts across our deep human need to belong to, and with, one another.

Individualism fails to recognise that we can only really be ourselves in relation to others, and through being for others. Promoting self independently of others is promoting a false self. This shows up in the fact that when everybody “minds their own business,” individuals are more vulnerable, more isolated, and more lonely than ever. People are suffering because of this. It is unnatural. Ultimately, it is unlivable.

This is probably why some people are now looking for ways to reconnect with everything, and often through nature. But nature religions, even those of a new age, cannot ultimately deliver what is needed (see chapter 6).

For Practice

Take notice of how prevalent individualism is in our culture today. You can observe this through the media as well as in your interactions with others. What are some of the ways that you can promote a more communal approach to life? Why would this be valuable today?

For Prayer

Trust in the Lord and do good
that you may dwell in the land and live secure.
Find your delight in the Lord
who will give you your heart’s desire.
Commit your life to the Lord;
trust in God and God will act.

Those whose steps are guided by the Lord,
whose way God approves,
may stumble, but they will never fall,
for the Lord holds their hand.
The salvation of the just is from the Lord,
their refuge in time of distress.
The Lord helps and rescues them
from the wicked,
for they take refuge in the Lord.

Psalm 37:3-5, 23-24, 39-40

Unless there is some objective basis for determining what is right and wrong, right and wrong end up being whatever the individual wants or believes. That objective basis is the meaning that belongs to things, rather than the meanings we give them.

Some actions mean what we want them to mean; for example, a handshake can mean greeting someone or sympathising or clinching a deal. But there are other things that already have a meaning that doesn’t depend on us, or on circumstances. Take the biological differences between male and female: these differences don’t tell us everything about the meaning of sexuality, but they do tell us something about its purpose and meaning. To fly in the face of meaning is to fly in the face of reality.

Whenever meaning is already written into nature, it is not our intentions that give meaning. That’s why a person might even do a right action for a wrong reason, or a wrong action with good intentions. Nor is it enough to claim that we are being “loving” or following our natural inclinations. People involved in fornication, adultery, or homosexuality could all claim they are being loving and following their natural inclinations. The point is: are their actions consistent with the meaning of sexuality and the meaning of marriage? Nor do right and wrong depend only on the consequences of our actions. Adultery is still wrong even if it isn’t found out and no one gets hurt in any obvious sense. Even good consequences aren’t enough to justify wrong actions; for example, the desire to have a healthy baby can’t justify every means of getting one, much less the “termination” of other embryos.

Of course, it is part of our calling as human beings to take responsibility for and shape our world and our lives. But does this mean we have unlimited dominion over our lives and the world, or do we have only a limited dominion? Do all things have only the meaning that we put on them, or do some things have a meaning that is independent of our choices? Is human nature whatever we can make it into, using new technology, with no pre-set limits to what is human? Or, does being human have a meaning already written into it that we need to respect?