Human Identity and the Failure of Western Individualism 

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The opening chapters of Genesis are vital to the founding of any nation or community. They lay out the nature of God, the purposes of the community within the creation and factors that relate to the identity of humanity and the individual person. They do this in a rich poetic/ story narrative that is also historical anthropology. The section of Genesis 1-11 is among the most brilliant pieces of literature we have. 

When Israel came out of Egypt and received the Genesis text there were other pagan creation narratives known at that time. These would have included Egyptian, Hittite and ancient Sumerian records. These all had several factors in common, but quite distinct from the Genesis narrative. They all depicted creation as a violent battle between the gods, mixed in with stories of their sexual immorality. And they all depicted humanity as a slave, serving the gods’ selfish purposes. These gods sounded a lot like the human rulers, and the stories were crafted to suit the rulers’ exploitation of the world. 

To claim that humanity was made in the image of the one sovereign Creator, as the Genesis text does, lifts humanity to an entirely different level. The purpose isn’t to licence us to exploit the creation, misreading the “dominion commission.” The purpose is to denounce the exploitation of humans. It’s to check “Pharaoh” who enslaves the whole of “Egypt.” It’s to pave the way for a Jubilee economics of restoring the poor as equal people in the law of Moses. It’s the bridge between Israel’s experience in pagan Egypt and their treatment of others as a renewed people, reflecting God’s nature in the world. 

The Genesis record nullifies patriarchy, though we do our best to restore it to the text. Genesis 1-11 shows patriarchy as rife in a fallen and brutal world, but not as being part of God’s original creation. In the creation, the term “Adam” means mankind and is not gender specific. God then separated the mankind into two persons, male and female, and brought them together as one in “marriage.” “Adam” refers to both the male and the female gender, and both are made equally in the image of God. There is no other record in human possession that so well identifies the dignity of humanity, both of its genders, and shows the identity of the genders being found in each other, and not in themselves. 

This means that if we relegate the importance of the Genesis record, for the sake of our own personal wishes, we are putting at risk the safety of humanity in our communities and nations. Without the proper place of this Genesis narrative within our cultures and traditions, what we call “human rights” are completely compromised. Genesis is the only “constitution” we have in human society that gives a profound and solid foundation for human rights. There is no other basis for such rights in our nations, if Genesis is lost. Without a doubt, our societies would quickly revert to earlier forms of distortion and exploitation of humanity in the strongest forms. “Humanism” is totally lacking as a basis to define benevolent human existence. Benevolence can only come from the benevolence of God. 

Western society has become very confused on matters of human rights and personal identity. Human rights are championed in documents like Magna Carta, where the rule of laws begins to apply to leaders, and people have rights as individuals, not because they have personal power to enforce those rights. Our societies though don’t really follow this principle, especially when it comes to wealth distribution in the private sector. Rights apply far more often to those who can buy them at court. Even the democratic process is determined a lot more by those who have the power to buy influence. The poor don’t have rights.

Nevertheless, Western society is at least aware of the biblical mandate regarding the rights of the individual, but this is also where our confusion comes in. “Human rights” becomes individualism, the idea that our personal identity is founded in ourselves as individual persons. “I have a right to be who I am, how I define myself,” isn’t the biblical vision of human rights. The Genesis mandate protects the human rights of the least of us in society, but it does not endorse an “individualistic right” of self-identity. To affirm the latter is to erode the former. To affirm self is to destroy “the weakest of these.” We are created by God in love of the other and of the community. To rebel against this, to affirm the self, is the nature of the Fall. It’s our main illness as a society.

To affirm the self is to destroy the Genesis mandate that affirms the foundation of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is misconstrued if it is used to affirm our self-rights. It’s about protecting the rights of those who can’t protect themselves: to overcome the rational of military and economic empire that denies the image of God in those who can’t compete.

The Genesis mandate says two things about human identity, both of which are essential for human flourishing:

  1. We are each one made in the image of God. The rights of the individual to be protected and equally included in the human society are to be honoured, irrespective of one’s background, failure or success, sinfulness or otherwise, social position, educated or not. This is what the ministry of Jesus showed us. All individuals are to be treated as we would want to be treated our self. 

… This biblical concept of humankind from Genesis is routinely transgressed in our world. It has been through history and still is today. It is transgressed by all, including by Christians, especially by popular Christianity. You see this when we as Christians get someone we like into political power. We seek first from them the protection of our own rights, and not the rights of the poor and oppressed in the wider world. This isn’t Christlike, who on the cross sought the rights of others. 

  1. Our identity is found and established in the other, not in our self. Hebrews puts it this way, “That we may not be made complete in ourselves.” This is seen in the marriage story of Genesis. The humankind is genderless and alone. God divided the human person into a male and female and they two find their identity and their completeness in each other as one. We do not find identity in our self, but in how we complete the community. It was in their corresponding difference that they understood themselves and became one. Each one’s meaning was found in how they completed and served the other. And it was this committed, loving union that brought and nurtured life. 

… This dividing and pairing theme was prominent in the creation narrative, beginning with “heaven and earth,” and continues throughout the seven days, showing the interrelationships that sustain flourishing. Like night and day, sky and land, land and sea, plants and animals, trees and crops, these are all separated from each other, not for themselves. but to complement each other in ecosystem. 

… This coupling is a prominent theology throughout the scripture, with God married to Israel to renew the nations, and finally Christ married to the church as the relationship that spawns a renewed creation. “Life giving seed” is the theme that defines creational fruit bearing and our identity that is founded in our corresponding relationship to the other. A society that eats seedless grapes has become confused, wishing to replace the normal life mechanisms. 

… It’s all about our convenience and it’s the environment that takes the hit. When marriages break down it’s the children who suffer, especially the poorer ones. When farming becomes big business, with new techniques for selling product, the land and the market become corrupted and it’s the small, poorer family farmers and their communities that are hit the hardest. Society becomes consumerist, tailoring the environment to our personal whims and commercial demands. Distorted product replaces life. 

… We see the dividing and coupling theme as the man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to the woman. Life is nurtured in the new family home, and the intended poetic symmetry includes wholeness in corresponding relationships with the wider family and community. The point here is dividing and coupling, not dividing into an individualistic unit. 

… This is the creational context of our being and identity as an individual. Our identity is found in the life of the creation we are part of and which we nourish through our mutual participation with all others. We have this tension in all social experiments and this tension is the subject of many novels. Does our society protect the rights of the individual, or is the meaning of the individual found in the wellbeing of the society as a whole? Does the society perish in each person’s self-absorption, or perish in a dictatorship of the state? Each one is a dictatorship. Maybe the motto of the Three Musketeers gets it right: “All for one, and one for all.” Both must be true together. 

… We are not complete in our race or nation, without the others. We are not complete in our religious culture without the different others we can learn from. We are not complete without the poor. We find our self, we find fellowship with God, in all of these, together with all his image-bearers. 

… Creation shows us that God’s full glory is reflected in us all together, in that each one of us has some unique aspect to contribute to the whole. When we cut ourselves off from anyone else, anyone at all, we are denying something of our own completeness. This is where liberal democracy is so important. It brings us together in God’s multifaceted, beautiful creation. To deny this brings us into a social barrenness, which is ultimately destructive. 

We could say that the United Nations, in as far as it has Christian roots, protects and honours both aspects of the creation story. It seeks to protect the rights of the individual from the strong, and in doing this it enables us to come together to honour and enjoy each other. The problem is in the outworking of this: we typically seek our own protection by dominating the other, and these battles still rage, even ideologically within our local societies. 

There is a counter-intimidation at work in our cultures, each social perspective trying to enlist members to subdue the other. The Christian witness isn’t to overcome these others, the ones that threaten our freedom, but to establish that freedom by the giving of ourselves in a service that heals. Freedom involves losing our life, not gaining it at the expense of our adversary. This is the uniqueness of the cross and this is our identity: dominion means overcoming individualism with service.

In our former view, dominion means landing on the moon before our enemy does. In this view, dominion means healing the poor, reconciling our relationships and restoring our environment. Then maybe going to the moon together. 

Our calling is to lay down our life for others. This alone protects the Genesis creational purpose. In doing this, we honour the life of the other and we give of ourselves for the justice and restoration of the other. It affirms both the individual and the community. This is what Christ did. This is how we follow him. To do otherwise is not Christian.

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