For centuries now, life in the Western world has been becomingincreasingly individualistic. Some scholars trace the beginning of thisprocess back more than 400 years to the dawn of market capitalism inEurope. Up until that time, for better or worse, a person’s position in theworld was determined by his or her place in a comparatively rigid socialstructure. You inherited your status from your parents. Your meaning,purpose and function in life, and the rights and privileges you enjoyed,were bestowed upon you by society at the time of your birth. With theonset of capitalism, this began to change. Wealth and status began to bedetermined by success in the marketplace. It became increasingly likelythat the richest person in town was not an hereditary aristocrat, but abusiness savvy peasant. Now a person was to a great extent responsiblefor determining his or her own place in the world. The individual, notsociety or tradition, became the locus of meaning. You were who youdetermined yourself to be. Some have suggested that this new state ofaffairs prepared the ground for the Protestant Reformation. For thereformers, salvation had lost much of the communal dimension it enjoyedin Catholicism. Now salvation depended on a momentous, lonelyencounter between the individual and God.
The process of individualization carried on through the centuries ofsecularization of the Western world, and has continued to the point thatpeople today understand themselves to be engaged in an individualstruggle to invest their own lives with meaning, and to project thatmeaning on the world. In the modern phrase, “Everyone is their ownbrand.” Traditional group allegiances tend to be referred to ironically, ifat all.
Of course, this is all delusion. Radical individualism doesn’t reallyreflect reality. The point is sometimes made by asking, “What’s the onething you can know for sure if you see a turtle sitting on top of a fencepost?” The answer? The turtle didn’t get there by itself. And with amoment’s reflection we realize that it’s the same with us. Countlesspeople have been responsible for putting us where we are today.
The Feast we are celebrating, The Solemnity of the Most HolyTrinity, is for Christians the ultimate refutation of radical individualism.For us, God the one who said “I am” from the burning bush, is ‘being.’So, if we want to reflect on reality if we want to base our lives and makeour choices in light of the truth of things, we turn to God. When we do,we discover that even the one, eternal, self-sufficient God does not live insolitary individualism. Rather, God is a relationship of perfect love amongthree persons, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. The ultimate bottom line, then,is not isolation, but interrelation. And remember, we are made in God’simage! In a profound sense we are in loving relationship with God and ourneighbor, and can afford to affirm that our lives are centered not inourselves but in those others.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”