The Christian faith at different times during its history has had to confront differing concepts of individuality, each of which deeply shapes how we do ministry and which presents the Church with unique challenges. The Church of the early medieval period ministered in a culture with a very different understanding of self. Our modern day sense of radical individuality would have seemed strange to medieval individuals. The early medieval individual saw themselves as part of a great chain of being.
Europe was Christianized not soul by soul, but rather by decree as rulers declared their kingdom’s Christian. This sounds unusual to us, but not so to a culture with a weak idea of personal freedom and individuality. The entire shape, structure and apparatus of the medieval Church was built around this collective idea of culture and faith.
Of course this view was sharply challenged and changed by one Martin Luther as he stood in front of Emperor Charles 5th at the Diet of Worms. Luther made a stand for his right to read and interpret the Bible under his own conscience. Luther did not just begin a new chapter in the history of the Western Church by birthing protestantism, Mark Noll notes in his book Turning Points that,
Luther also intimated a whole new sense of the self against…the settled wisdom of the ages.
The individuality that we live out in the West was born. This new understanding of the self would have a gigantic effect upon the Church in the coming centuries. Secularism would twist and restrict this understanding of individual faith, pushing it into the personal and the private realm. The tendency of modern life to separate our lives into compartments of work, play, family and so on, combined with a flood of information and pressures to self create has given birth what Kenneth Gergen has labelled the saturated self, a mosaic form of being human.
Thus while the medieval church faced the challenge of doing ministry in a culture which held a collectivist view of the self, and the late medieval to early modern Church was confronted with a culture which understood the self through a prism of radical individuality, the Church is now challenged with an emerging understanding of the self which is fragmented, diluted, and ethically contradictory. This form of the self, like multiple internet avatars, sees the individual spilt into multiple selves.
The key is for us to be proactive, to respond to this challenge by calling the citizens of the West back to an integrated, whole and holy understanding of what it is to be human. If we fail to do this, we will be shaped by this new understanding of the self, in which the individual is split into multiple selves. Those who go by the name Christian will be parts atheist, parts religious and parts pagan; and new reality will dawn where the Church will simply provide religious muzak for a secular culture. Instead we must live out a reality in which the gospel touches every part of our lives.