Check out this column from the NY Times’ David Brooks on the US and China as examples of individualism and collectivism. He notes that the rise of China (and Japan) economically doesn’t just challenge the US on that front, but also on the issue of individualism and collectivism as prevailing cultural mentalities.
This blog being about theology, church, and mission, let’s just raise a question about the implications of this for our theology and practice of the Church.
We recognize that the cultural assumption of the biblical writings is of the collectivist mentaility. Given that, what sorts of tensions exist when we ponder the relative closeness culturally of the Chinese (among many, many others) and the cultures of the bible, in particular Hebrew Christians and the relative distance culturally of Americans (among other Westerners) and the cultures and cultural assumptions of the bible, especially those Hebrew Christians who wrote the New Testament and formed its early communities? How ought we learn, on the one hand, from the Chinese (and most of the world, by the way) about collectivist perspectives that would help us become more faithful to the biblical vision for Christ-centered community, and, on the other hand, from our Western tradition of rights for individuals and such?
8 thoughts on “individualism and collectivism article”
I think we’re challenged by the fact that both individualism and collectivism are modern constructs. The nationalistic collectivism in places like China has worked against the traditional forms of societal organization rooted in the family and clan. The ancient Mediterranean world was very much a family and clan based society. Jesus came into that world and caused trouble by challenging people to define themselves in relation to him instead of to their biological families. If they’d had the word for it, some of his contemporaries probably would have called it individualism, but with its push toward building an alternative family/society in the midst of the old, I don’t think that term fits very well, at least not with its modern overtones.
I have to disagree with Richard about the national collectivism working against the family organization. In China, especially, the family is still very strong when compared to the US (think in terms of care for our elders as an example). I think that the strength of the family is more opposed by the strength of the economy. Developed countries are less family oriented.
Otherwise, I like the rest of your comment, Richard, as it relates to the church being a new collective society. I think that this had to be a thought change in the times of the early church. In modern times it is equally tough in the Western world trying to get people seeing benefits collectively instead of individually.
Great post, Guy! I heard a guy say the other day that seeing those 2008 drummers in unison scared him. Reminded me of a couple of years ago when, at a UMW School of Christian Mission, I heard the cold-war-era “they’re just waiting to take us over” mantra about China brought back to life.
How do we learn something from the less individualistic cultures while maintaining the positive aspects of our own?
JAy, I’d still argue that Chinese nationalistic collectivism contends with the traditional centering on family – though in so doing I’m NOT saying it has been victorious. I consider the strong enforcement of the One Child policy as well as the “kids, tell on your parents” policy of the Cultural Revolution. On the One Child policy, I think the goal of the government has been collectivism (at the cost of the family), but with the hyper-focus on the success of THE CHILD, there could be an individualistic reverberation in the culture.
Now I understand your point much better. Looking at it this way, you are correct that the Chinese implementation of collectivism is anti-family, although I would say that the clan orientation is still fairly strong.
I also agree that with the pressure put on high-performing Chinese children, an individual backlash could occur (did you see the Yahoo Sports post about Yao relative to this?).
I didn’t see the Yao post, but I’ve seen others in the past few days.
Thanks all for the discussion here. I’ve been unable to get to respond for the last couple of days, but enjoyed listening.