This post is sparked by reading Douglas Campbell’s marvellous Pauline Dogmatics.
If asked to diagram social relations, very likely most of us would typically use a number of circles to represent individuals.
Each person is imagined as a self-contained ‘unit’, a discrete individual, separated off from other individuals by a social space.
This is a picture of the person as a self-sufficient person, with clear boundaries delineating them from other individuals. Others exist in their own spheres, perhaps bouncing off each other now and then, but essentially each of us are our own island.
Margaret Thatcher famously took this to its logical conclusion in stating that there is ‘no such thing as society’. Or, in Campbell’s words;
Personhood exists in isolation and society is a game of marblesp.50
But with even a little analysis we soon realise this is a myth. All of us are incomplete, indeed we are crippled, without a network of social relationships. Our very identity and sense of personhood depends on interaction with, and recognition of, others.
This simple diagram begins to hint at how who we are is bound up with with relationships. The self cannot exist in splendid isolation.
This is why the pandemic is so hard to bear – we are being forced to actually live like the isolated individuals of Western consumerism / capitalism. And it shrivels the soul and breaks the heart. There is something deeply alien to our humanity to be in enforced lockdown.
For those us locked away with family members that we actually like and get on with this is just about survivable! But we still miss 1001 things about everyday life – its vibrancy, life, and delicious complexity, not to mention hugs, food with friends, and endless fascination of meeting new people.
For those trapped in spaces characterised by toxic relationships, it is unimagineably difficult. For those living on their own it is a lonely wilderness experience, unsustainable in the long term.
Douglas Campbell wrote his book long before Covid-19 was known about. So his words have perhaps attained extra prophetic weight in the meantime. He speaks of the connection between our social identity and the nature of God – Father, Son and Spirit.
We must let this revelation concerning the true nature of personhood sink down into out theologial bones, since it will pervade all that follows. People are relational beings because the personal God that is the Trinity is a relational communion, and we are made in the image of God …
At the heart of all reality lies an interpersonal and hence fundamental familial God. We are involved with a divinity that is interpersonal in the most committed and relational fashion.p.52
Lockdown is necessary. But it comes at great cost – and I am NOT talking money here. It’s an issue of love. I say this because Christians believe, as Campbell says that
At the heart of the universe is a play of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit.p. 55
We are embodied beings, made by a relational God of love to be in relationships of love with him and with each other. Of course we can still love others we can only see on a computer screen, but it is a pale imitation of a fully functioning relationship.
And so, from a theological perspective, we long for the ending of lockdown, NOT so we can save the economy (although we need it to work in order to live) but so that we can love – for that is what we have been created to do.
And, even more remarkably, as God’s children love they ‘witness’ to the truth of who God is. God takes the ‘risk’ of choosing people like you and me to reveal or demonstrate his love to the world.
So in this pandemic, let us be asking ourselves, how can we as individuals and as church communities mediate something of the love of the triune God to a coronavirus world.
4 thoughts on “The pandemic is exposing the myths of Western individualism”
Pre covid 19, love was often expressed physically, in hugs and kisses. Now love is expressed in not hugging, kissing, hand shaking. As Solomon said, there’s a time to embrace and a time to refrain. We long for the day when social distancing is no more and our Lord wipes away every tear!
Just a few thoughts 🙂
Nice point – it is such an ironic reversal that love = staying distant. Yet it is still love in action.
A preacher I was listening to recently said ‘Let’s spread love, not the virus’. Spot on.
And in such contrast to the twisting of ‘religious freedom’ in some sections of the American church to equal ‘our rights’ to meet. This is the antithesis of love – acting in self-interest rather than the interests of others, especially the vulnerable.
I think this is very interesting. The thing my children have missed most and suffered from ( as well as too much screen!😒) is the loss of learning in community,: school and its socialising dimension. Digitised living and learning has shown both its benefits and it’s real limitations. I’ve see more of my scattered siblings than in a long time. But for young people the learning experience has been very mixed. It is not good for man to be alone has many layers to it.
Where I work we’re wrestling with exactly this question for the year ahead – how to best hold together learning in community with online delivery. I think it can be done reasonably well but will take a lot of thought and redesign around how the technology can serve learning rather than dominate it