In his book Moral Fragments and Moral Community, Larry Rasmussen argues that community is the antidote to the fractured moral landscape of the modern world, and that the church is uniquely poised to offer a corrective to moral relativism as it lives into its calling as the people of God. But only if we can resist the pull of modernism’s corrosive effects on community.
Rasmussen quotes Christopher Lasch, who—in his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics—observes the following: “To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness, not to put it more strongly, of our way of life; our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of ‘making it’; our addictive dependence on drugs, ‘entertainment,’ and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and family ties; our preference for ‘non-binding commitments’; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we ‘impose’ our morality on others and thus invite others to ‘impose’ their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude to the newcomers born in our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.”
Lasch presents, in that long sentence, a litany of vices that taint the modern mindset. Whether or not one agrees with every point—as Rasmussen observes—the list has resonance. Lasch is suggesting, and Rasmussen echoes the thought, that when our culture prejudices individualism over community, then individual gratification naturally bears this “unwholesome” fruit. We are—individually speaking—impatient with limits on our sovereign freedoms. Lasch and Rasmussen were writing at the close of the twentieth century, but I believe their observations may find even more traction here in the third decade of the twenty-first.
We still struggle with our obsessions, with our addictions to media, and our infatuation with a moral landscape that offers no limits to our individual freedoms. These, in turn, continue to cause us to rob from the future to assure our present—in terms both physical and emotional. When personal freedom and individual choice outweigh the good of the community, then we become mired in William Forster Lloyd’s “Tragedy of the Commons”—in which our individual desires lead us to impose on the common good, taking more than our fair share of what we hold as a community, whether it be pasture space as it was in Lloyd’s original example, or something more intangible—like the sense of security, harmony, and peace that we might share as a community.
The church does offer a way through this corrosive individualism. One of Paul’s favorite metaphors was the community of believers as a body—mutually dependent and mutually encouraging. When the church acts like a body, rather than a collection of individuals, then it can enter into a shared moral landscape—where we are not only influenced by the moral choices of our sisters and brothers, but we also have the calling to influence them. Again, this is not individuals “imposing” an individual morality on others—as if to say, “I believe this is right and that is wrong, and you need to accept what I believe because we are in fellowship.” It has more to do with a shift in thinking from what is good (or what seems to be good) for me—as an individual—to what is good for the body as a whole.
Thinking in “community” terms means our choices will be more in line with what is good for all, and not so much with what is good for me. This does not erase the individual, but grounds them in a greater reality. To borrow from Paul, the ear is still the ear, but since the ear is part of the whole, it cannot think only of what is good for the ear. Whether or not the church can provide a beacon to lead the culture away from the destructive and fragmented amorality of individualism, we can certainly practice a more community-centered morality ourselves. When Jesus commanded us to love each other, it was not an “add-on” to a dominant self-love. Loving each other—considering the common good of the whole body—is our primary calling, because we cannot truly love ourselves when we do not love the body.