In admiring spring’s hosts of golden daffodils we easily forget the significance of the sad tale of the mythological figure after whom they take their generic name. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pond, and spent his life, in Stephen Fry’s words, “with eyes only for himself, and consideration for no one and nothing but himself”.1 The gods eventually turned him into a daffodil with its head looking down.
Narcissism – or “individualism”, to give it the more common title – focusses on oneself and one’s interests, appearance, advancement and status, often to the exclusion of all others. It has almost become the purpose of life for many people in western society. It’s not just selfies and fast fashion for Instagram and Facebook. It’s also the me-first race for the lights or the checkout, and the bullying, ridiculing, trashing and trolling of people who think, look or live differently to ourselves.
It vaunts itself as the ultimate arbiter of taste and truth. It asserts its desires often disguised as “rights”. It ignores the wider context of the common good, hamstrings church life, hinders our relationship with God and hampers our prayers. It fosters the cynicism and factions that the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the February 2019 General Synod, urged the Church of England to give up. Above all, it reverses the thrust of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: it insists on “My will, not yours, be done.”
Contrast that with the love St Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 which doesn’t boast or envy, isn’t proud or self-seeking, and never dishonours others. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” he writes in Philippians 2:3-4. “Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”
Contemporary narcissism is often subtle, however, and it is important not to make sweeping judgements of others. Being judgemental can be an expression of narcissism because it asserts our own assumed superiority. The disastrous British Army recruitment drive in 2018 wrongly assumed a generational trait of “Me me me Millennials”. It failed to impress many of its target audience because, glued to screens as that generation might be, it is also highly critical of the “me me me” attitude of older generations, remote government and uncaring, profit-obsessed commerce that has led to environmental breakdown and growing poverty.
Freedom and responsibility
While Christians are freed from the many constraints of legalism, no-one is free to do as they please. Paul stressed this to the Roman church where, it seems, some were so rejoicing in their new-found freedom in Christ that they were indulging every personal desire (Romans 6:1-18). There are boundaries for conduct (both in the Ten Commandments and the teaching of the Apostles) that are intended to limit human excess and preserve corporate relationships.
To accept personal responsibility and restrain ones conduct is to make a positive commitment to community. (This is why Paul, who had long forsaken Jewish food restrictions, submitted to them for the sake of people whose consciences were more sensitive, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 10:23-33.) Individualism can adversely affect a wide pool of people. In Joshua 7 national defeat results from the wrong action of one person. To us, that may seem unfair; to ancient Israelites it was the natural outworking of what scholars call “corporate solidarity”. In biology, one deadly spore can infect a large group or area; in society, the effects of one person’s sins spread to others. (Which is what lies behind Paul’s teaching about “original sin” in Romans 5:12-19.)
The Bible outlaws the self-justifying blame culture, too. “The one who sins is the one who will die” was Ezekiel’s response to an ancient Israelite complaint that the current generation was paying for the errors of its forefathers. He had an equally curt message to the clergy and leaders of his day (called watchmen); if they failed to warn people of danger arising from their risky behaviour, the watchmen themselves would be held to account (Ezekiel 18:4; 33:6). Biblically, the common good takes precedence over personal preference or power and party prestige or policy.
It even suggests that corporate solidarity involves the innocent in the sins of the guilty. In Ezra 9 the eponymous teacher publicly confessed “we have sinned” when only 112 people out of several thousand had broken one of the laws of Moses – and Ezra was not one of them.
|Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection.|
Individualism is a barrier to community.
Both Old and New Testaments assume a personal commitment to one another in community. Jesus spoke of “the Kingdom of God”, which exists wherever the rule of God is applied in human relationships and activity. “It was the final expression of the distinctive Hebrew tenet that God is the proper head of human society,” according to one theologian.2 Christians belong to it by virtue of their commitment to King Jesus.
Paul described “the body of Christ”, the church, as such an integrated whole that when “one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Believers are not semi-detached, even if we behave as if we are. That makes the Christian song so poignant and necessary: “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, with cords that cannot be broken.”
The New Testament occasionally describes the church as a family or even a nation (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:9-10). In such groupings, disagreements are inevitable. So Paul pleaded with the early church to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), echoing one of Jesus’ two unanswered prayers, that “they may be one as we [the Trinity] are one” (John 17:11). How can it be otherwise, if “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)?
But it is otherwise, sadly. One of the natural outcomes of narcissism is fragmentation of communities and churches into cliques, and splinter or single-issue groups. According to one count, there are 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today. Splits can sometimes divide individual congregations as one sub-group prefers their way to that of others.
Indeed, our sense of belonging is often focussed on a specific sub-group rather than the whole of which the group is a part. Within towns churches usually work independently (and often competitively), and only occasionally pool resources to make a missional impact on the wider community before retreating back into their own comfort zones.
Narcissism can also diminish our prayers. “Prayer is the mirror image of individualism, even though it may appear to be a highly individual activity,” wrote theologian James Houston. “A relationship with God that does not relate to other people is unreal. … We pray to a God who loves the world, and so our prayers will be false if we do not respond by loving other people as well as loving God.”3
It was not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples to pray Our Father – not my Father. The whole of the Lord’s prayer is couched in communal terms: Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. And it’s chief missional petition – your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth – is really a prayer for the restoration of love, care, peace and mutual support in the diversity of the world and church.
Faith can become privatised instead of leading us into a model community reflecting the unity of the Trinity in a disordered and fragmented world. Here’s some practical steps to help us rebuild true community within church fellowships:
· Teach yourself to think we, us rather than me or them when considering any aspect of church life.
· Pray for all the sub-groups and activities in your church, not just those you are a part of.
· Before developing “your” group, ask how it can better dovetail into the wider church and what effects your development might have upon, and contribute to, the whole.
· Before undertaking a new initiative, ask what similar work is already being done that you could join with and further assist without taking over or competing for scarce financial and human resources.
· Consult widely and ask what the Holy Spirit might be leading us to do (or not do; good ideas sometimes arise from individuals’ agendas or experiences and are not always applicable everywhere).
· Find ways of ensuring that all the sub-groups can meet each other regularly and exchange news.
All it takes is some mutual trust and respect, with a sprinkling of patience and humility. Use the spring daffs as a reminder of the dangers of narcissism, and see the beauty of a clump of them as a reminder of the benefit of community over individualism.
Think and talk
1. Paul immersed himself in local cultures and so identified himself with others that he made himself “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). What principle might this suggest for mutual fellowship and mission?2. Jesus said “a house divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:17). While the context was not about the church, the principle applies. What steps can you take to strengthen the bonds in your church so that you may grow together?
3. Jesus also described the Kingdom of God in terms of equal treatment of unequal people (Matthew 20:1-16). How might this principle affect the way you welcome and integrate people into church life and activities?
4. Why do we find it so hard to think “we” rather than “me”? What can you do to change this mindset in yourself?
1. Stephen Fry, Mythos, Penguin Books 2018, p. 341-2.2. Charles Ryder Smith, The Bible doctrine of society, T & T Clark, 1920, p.255-6
3. James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.54
© Derek Williams 2019This material may be reproduced for local church use with full acknowledgement of its source.