Individualism is an atheist lie

“I am the vine and you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

We meditated on this quotation from Jesus yesterday at our Virginia Methodist provisional clergy mentor covenant group retreat. On the side, I have been reading Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’ Being and Communion, which has caused me to see the implications of Jesus’ statement in a completely new light. Zizioulas writes that God is the only authentic person in the universe because God is the source of His own being. As creatures, we are completely contingent upon God for our being.

If we really believe that God is the source of every instant of our consciousness, then Jesus’ statement is a lot more all-encompassing than we might have previously thought. He is not simply talking about the relationship that followers have to their leader or students have to their teacher. He is not just talking about any kind of lifestyle or community we choose to enter into. He is talking about the relationship He has as Creator to all of His creatures who are branches on His vine whether we accept this reality or not. Nothing in the universe exists independent from Christ, who is not solely the man Jesus who walked the Earth 2000 years ago but also the very Word of God, the creative agency which articulates and implements the Father’s will as John 1:3 describes: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

On the vine of our creator Christ, those whose hearts are opened to communion and intimacy with their Creator “bear fruit.” Those who pretend to “be like gods” themselves (Gen 3:5) and cling to the delusion of their own self-sufficiency are “like a branch that is thrown away and withers… [before it is] picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6). Individualism describes the atheist delusion that we are the source of our own being, which is having the naivete of a branch that thinks it does not need God’s vine to be fed and survive. You can be an individualist and talk about God all day, but God is not truly God to you if you think you’re a self-made person. Unfortunately, individualism is the default perspective with which people in our age view life, including many who never stop blabbering about Jesus.

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. Written by Rene Descartes in 1637, this is perhaps the most definitive declaration of independence from God in the course of Western history. It is the origin of secular thinking, because it sets as a foundational premise that our minds in effect “create” our existence, i.e. we are the source of our own identity (rather than God). Descartes’ premise is a choice to view the world with the assumption that the boundaries of reality are determined by our perception of it. “I think; therefore I am” applied to the world outside my brain becomes “I see it; therefore it is,” which is the foundational premise of modern science.

Truth becomes that which has been observed and measured by multiple persons coming to the same conclusions instead of what our ancestors tell us that God told their ancestors to pass down to us. Rather than being a tribe in which our identity is given to us by our family, humanity is redefined by the Western secular tradition of Descartes and Enlightenment thinkers as a race of individuals who are the source of their own identity and subsequently form families and societies through social contracts with other individuals.

To view the world in this “I-centered” way which is ubiquitous to Western culture means living as if God doesn’t exist, at least not the God who Christians for centuries considered to be the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Rather than being understood as the source of our being, God becomes just another infinitely bigger and more powerful being who’s a constant threat to our freedom. God is the one who started the world, who intervenes occasionally in certain spectacular supernatural moments, and who will ultimately end the world, instead of being the One from whom creation is constantly emanating. God is seen as Someone outside of everything to whom we call to intervene rather than Someone inside of everything to whom we seek a purer connection. Paul’s declaration that “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17) sounds like pious poetry to us, but we don’t take this at all seriously as an ontological claim, because what we really believe in modernity is that “in science nature holds together” and, most problematically, “in our theological system God holds together.”

I understand that there are many positives to the legacy of Descartes and the Enlightenment. I just think it’s completely wrong to say Cogito ergo sum when we should be saying Cogitat Deus ergo sum (God thinks; therefore I am). Cogito ergo sum isn’t just Descartes’ delusion; it’s the delusion of all in our society who are taught to see themselves as self-made individuals. People don’t make themselves. Individualism is an atheist lie. Christ is our Creator. In Him all things hold together. All things are created through Him and for Him. He is the vine and we are the branches.

6 thoughts on “Individualism is an atheist lie

  1. I, too, appreciate your thoughts, Morgan. I would however take them in two other directions. First, the message of the Bible is not only about remaining in the vine…that is, connected to Christ. It’s also about remaining in community with each other. Too many Christians remain in a slightly-redeemed form of individualism where they believe that as long as they individually “abide in the vine” they have no need for the earthly incarnation of Jesus’ body, the small-c church.

    Secondly, I don’t know that Descarte’s cogito ergo sum is necessarily false. From a point of view of ontology, certainly, Deus cogitat ergo sum has real meaning (as opposed, I guess, to the secular anthropologist who might suggest cogitatis ergo Deus est LOL). However might it not also mean something a little more epistemological, “I think, therefore I realize or can know that I am?” I’m not totally up on Descarte’s history, and I believe he *was* atheist, but I think the famous quote has more to do with epistemology than ontology. Or maybe I’m full of it…

    • Very good points, Dan. I may have pulled this piece out of the oven a little prematurely. I think where I’m fuzzy is that it seems like our ontology is very much grounded in this fundamental delusion of autonomous self-hood (because I have a consciousness, I’m the center of my own universe). It seems that what may have been epistemology to Descartes has become ontology in Western discourse. I don’t know the historical development so I grasped at a big straw. Whatever Descartes meant by his phrase, we think that we’re self-made. I think that in other ages, this delusion was less pronounced than today.

      I guess I’m just floored at the way that “individual responsibility” has become a Christian virtue when the whole point of Christianity is to unlearn that way of thinking. 500 years ago, people really did believe that God ordered everything whereas today to say “I have been so blessed” is often a pious additive to an otherwise Pelagian self-image.

      • This is definitely worth further dialog, Morgan. The funny thing is, “individual responsibility” as used in conservative circles today appears (to my way of thinking) to be code for “don’t you dare ask me for help unless you’re richer than me.” I have, for example, suggested in the past that we ought to think *more* about individual responsibility in the context of our individual moral accountability for actions done by our nation or party or group but done in our name (e.g. financial swindles, wars, etc.) and I have even suggested that personal moral accountability ought to be a consideration for the soldier b/c (again in my interpretation) the soldier’s accountability for the rightness and justice (or not) of his actions is in no way absolved or waived due to the status of war or the orders he’s received.

        Your point that we are under the illusion we’re self-made is absolutely at the root of the various “fair tax” claims and other arguments against progressiveness in income tax. People are actually under the illusion that if they’re successful, it’s primarily the result of their own hard work and creativity, and are unwilling to see the contributions of society, government, and just dumb luck of birth. They also are laughably unable to see the truth that many (maybe even most) of the working poor work much harder and with much less sense of entitlement than do those with six-figure and up incomes.

        I agree with you that whatever Descartes and other enlightenment figures might have thought, the mythos of the self-made individual has taken on a life of its own in American culture…a mythos which I believe to be unique (at least in magnitude) to the United States. Jefferson’s ideal of meritocracy is presumed by the powerful and influential (and those with dreams of becoming such) to have in fact been incarnated in American reality…much to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary IMO. The extent to which America has in fact exchanged the nobility for other equally-hereditary–and closed– forms of influence-persistence/succession is not well recognized.

        To all of this I believe the antidote is in fact two-pronged…your point of remaining in the vine being the one prong and mine of the fellowship of a body of believers in community being the other (and the two being so inseparable it’s probably more accurate to say two-faceted rather than two-pronged.

        Worth MUCH more discussion!

  2. I probably went for edginess at the expense of my integrity and sensitivity with the phrase “atheist lie.” It serves a purely pejorative purpose in an intra-Christian conversation, which I guess is unfair to atheists. It’s interesting because there are atheists who get Christian truths better than Christians who say all the right things but live as functional atheists because of their individualism. I have more beef with functional atheists who wrap themselves in the trappings of Christianity than with people who say “I couldn’t believe in the God who those self-righteous jerks are worshiping” and then live out of gratitude for what they just haven’t learned to call God’s grace. Many people who say they’re atheists are just disgusted by things they should be disgusted by.

    • *there are atheists who get Christian truths better than Christians who say all the right things but live as functional atheists because of their individualism. I have more beef with functional atheists who wrap themselves in the trappings of Christianity than with people who say “I couldn’t believe in the God who those self-righteous jerks are worshiping” and then live out of gratitude for what they just haven’t learned to call God’s grace*

      I totally agree. I often think here about Christ’s words about the difference between the person who says, “I won’t work in the field” but then goes and does it anyway and the person who says, “Sure, I’ll work” but then doesn’t do it. It seems that compares to the atheist who says, “I don’t believe in God” but actually embraces the things God embraces, and so-called Christians who say, “This is what I believe” but who fail to embrace those things in the way he/she lives.

  3. Another brilliant one, Morgan. I would qualify this only by saying that I’m totally on board when you use the term “delusion” but not so much on board with the term “lie.” Lie implies a level of intentionality in deceiving self and/or others. Atheists are often very intelligent, sincere people who are committed to finding truth, but this delusion keeps them from being open to anything beyond self. But I guess it could be called an “atheist lie” in the sense that it is an untruth that atheists embrace and believe.

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