It is no news that Western societies are experiencing profound polarization. It often seems that each individual person is reduced to nothing more than a member of an identity group fighting for its own narrow interests against everyone else. As a result of this polarization, a key political question has become far too confused, and thus often goes unasked: how can we protect and assert our rights and freedoms as individuals while still promoting social solidarity?
A principal reason for the confusion is, I believe, that we in the West have discarded that which once gave us a solid, intellectually coherent ground for balancing the integrity of the individual with social solidarity: namely, the Christian view of the human person. In our militant secularism we refuse to acknowledge that our identity is rooted, not in ourselves, but in our Creator God: we are not autonomous beings, deciding for ourselves what is true, what is good, and who we are. Rather, we are creatures who bear the image of God, made to glorify him and to love him above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
So how are we in the West, as creatures subject to our Creator God, called to respond to the polarization we are experiencing in our public life? Allow me to outline the basics of an answer to that question.
Let me begin with some observations from Martin Luther, who argued, in his 1529 work, The Freedom of a Christian, that individual autonomy and social solidarity are not opposed but are instead complementary. Without using the terms ‘individuality’ and ‘solidarity,’ Luther argues that these two notions are foundational for the Christian life in society. Crucially, he grounds both in the equality of human beings’ status before God. He writes: “There is no basic difference in status … between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, religious and secular.” We all share equally in what the theologian John Witte Jr., commenting on Luther, calls a “doubly paradoxical nature. … First, each person [Editor’s note: remember, Luther is talking about Christians here] is at once a saint and a sinner, righteous and reprobate, saved and lost. Second, each person is at once a free lord who is subject to no one, and a dutiful servant who is subject to everyone.” Because salvation—and freedom from bondage to sin—is available to all who believe, all Christians are ‘saints.’ Regardless of social status, regardless of whether we are pope or pauper, we are free lords subject to no one. In modern parlance, we are ‘individuals’—recognized and loved by God as particular men or women. At the same time, we are all called to imitate Christ and serve the people created in his image. Thus, we are all dutiful servants subject to everyone—called to live in solidarity with those around us.
This is true individuality and true solidarity: We are all free lords subject to no one, yet also dutiful servants subject to everyone. Why? Because of the equal status of all human beings before God. We are all unworthy sinners, yet we are all worthy of salvation through trust in God. Thus, regardless of our earthly status, we all possess equal and inviolable dignity as individuals. And we are all called to solidarity in service to others.
Perhaps the most important point of all is that, in this view, our nature as individual persons called to community and solidarity with each other derives from our status as image bearers of God. Thus, it is utterly foundational to our humanness. As the International Theological Commission of the Catholic Church states in “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God,”
Human beings are created in the imago Dei precisely as persons capable of a knowledge and love that are personal and interpersonal. It is of the essence of the imago Dei in them that these personal beings are relational and social beings. … When one speaks of the person, one refers both to the irreducible identity and interiority that constitutes the particular individual being, and to the fundamental relationship to other persons that is the basis for human community. In the Christian perspective, this personal identity that is at once an orientation to the other is founded essentially on the Trinity of divine Persons. God is not a solitary being, but a communion of three Persons.
A Presbyterian pastor, immersed in the everyday pastoral task, explains it on his church website in a strikingly similar way:
From eternity past God has existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, three in one. God is, by definition, in constant, eternal relationship with Himself; each person in perfect union, loving, serving and giving honor to one another. … From the very foundation of who we are as human beings, made in God’s image and after His likeness, we were created for community. … “We are to ‘love God’ and ‘love our neighbor.’”
It is of utmost importance here to state the obvious: none of this makes sense without the Christian faith. I do not apologize for this, because I am convinced that the Christian faith is true. In this secularistic age in which the idea of God has disappeared from polite society, we must not forget that, if Christianity is true, it has profound implications for how we think, how we know, how we discuss, how we seek to persuade others.
If Christianity is true, then our knowledge cannot be true knowledge unless it is God-centered, not human-centered. Despite the hatred of religion all around us, we must dare to be Christians. We must witness to the fact that God’s purposes are at the center of everything, and that they give everything meaning. To know is to know that. Without knowing that, you can’t really know anything.
Now, this is an exclusive view of truth. It entails that Christianity is true, and other religions or worldviews are not true. Does this, therefore, mean that Christians should shut themselves off from the world and reject community and solidarity with nonbelievers?
The answer to that is a resounding “no.”
First—to echo Martin Luther—all human beings are equal before God, individuals of immeasurable dignity made in the image of God and sinners in need of a Savior. Christians and non-Christians all share the same human condition. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (All biblical quotes in this essay are taken from the New International Version.) We are all, believers and nonbelievers, limited and fallible. We all tend to pursue our own interests first and to resort to dishonest means to get what we want. And, despite our flaws, we all possess equal dignity—as individuals—as creatures made in God’s image.
Furthermore, Christians have no reason to think themselves better than others because of their faith. Why? Everything good comes from God’s grace and not from human merit. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Also, the Christian insight that truth is of God, and not of man, entails humility and love.
The fact that a God who moves in mysterious ways is at the center of that upon which we base our knowledge, compels us to acknowledge our profound limitedness. We understand only a small fraction of the reality, the universe that God has created and sustains according to his purposes for it. One cannot know truth without accepting that God alone knows and fully understands the whole truth. For the Christian, mystery–not knowing and understanding everything—rests at the very core of human knowledge.
And finally: “the greatest of these is love.” Love of everyone, including one’s enemies, is foundational to the gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ grounds our obligation to love even our enemies in the nature of God himself and his love for all of sinful humanity:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
To sum it up: God, and God only, grounds our individuality. He and he alone is at the center of all true community. It is a profound mystery: Living as individuals in solidarity with others is not primarily about us or about other people. Rather, it is about God. It is about trusting and loving him, it is about glorifying him and him alone. How do we foster individual rights and at the same time, solidarity in community with others? And how do we do so in an age in which most people have rejected God? We do so by clinging to the truth, and living out that truth as free lords subject to no one and dutiful servants subject to everyone—in humility and love serving all people, including those who do not accept Christian truth.