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Mary shows how to do "expressive individualism"

Mary shows how to do "expressive individualism"

By Andrew Symes,
December 7, 2012

There is a view of history which sees human progress as a linear journey of improvement from backwardness and ignorance to enlightenment and global justice and peace. In this view, though there are brief periods of reversal, the 'arc of history' always heads in the same direction. Not only are conditions better now than they were 100 or 200 years ago, but according to this view, people are better.

So or example, we often hear that before the Reformation and the period of 'Enlightenment' -- huge flowering of exploration, knowledge and new technologies in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, people saw themselves, not as individuals with rights, but as part of a collective, members of a community who had no choice but to follow the customs of their time. It was only when Martin Luther said "Here I stand", Rene Descartes said "I think therefore I am", and Rousseau advocated breaking free from the prison of social convention, that the West cleverly invented the individual. Societies were patriarchal; women were seen and carried out their duties but were voiceless. It took the suffragettes and then the feminists to make us realise that women are actually quite important. So the argument goes.

But a cursory reading of the bible should tell us straight away that this reading of history is a narcissistic Western myth. Three thousand years ago David and other poets were composing songs focussed intensely on the individual, his feelings and his God. In the 6th century BC the prophet Ezekiel warned against taking refuge in communal responsibility, insisting "the soul who sins will die" (33:18-20). Even further back, as the Israelites were in the wilderness, the Daughters of Zelophehad were engaged in a test case for women's inheritance rights (Numbers 27:1-8). We have a number of other vignettes of women showing their individuality and speaking out (eg Joshua 15:16-19, 1 Samuel 2). So the very modern ideas of the expressive self and the platformed female voice were not invented in the enlightenment or the 20th century.

The difference is that in contemporary secular ideology, the individual and his/her feelings has become the centre of the universe, the ultimate arbiter of reality. As Carl Trueman has pointed out, once God was declared far away and irrelevant (the Deists), or even dead (Nietzsche), and the conventions of society and repression of sexual desire were seen as restrictive of individuality (Rousseau and Freud), the framework of reference which we as human beings need for identity and in order to function, in particular the cosmic and the social, disappears. For some this creates a blank canvas of exciting possibilities in which even the restraints of biology can be overthrown; for most it opens us up to psychological and mental crisis.

In the bible, the individual self, my inner thoughts and feelings is not autonomous, the centre of everything, worthy of pampering and worship. Rather the 'I' only exists because of the Creator and only finds meaning in relationship to him, who needs to be rediscovered as personal rescuer from sin (the tendency to self-worship), enemies bent on my destruction, and death. This is seen supremely in the short poem recorded near the beginning of Luke's gospel, known as the Magnificat or Mary's song.

In the 'progressive' view of history outlined above, a woman in the first century bc would never have referred to "my soul", let alone have this expression of individuality recorded for posterity. But it's the wrong view of history. People are the same, the issues we face are the same, and God is the same, even if the outward trappings of human life change. Here a peasant girl confidently expresses her identity just like any girl of a similar age today on social media. Except that for Mary, her standing comes in relationship to the Lord, whose character she understands, and expounds in her song of praise. She is an individual, but she didn't make up her truth or create her own identity. She is aware that she stands in a tradition controlled by Word and cycles of worship in community, though not a dead convention focussed on idols as the prophets warned, but a warm day to day relationship with the same divine Person as encountered by Abraham, Moses and David before her.

This God is not remote or tyrannical, but is "mindful" of the ordinary person. He is opposed to what our sinful selves love: human power, pride in our selves constructed without reference to him. He is in control of history. And he works through "generations". The system God has created of history as humanity propagating itself through having children is mentioned three times in the song (v49, 50, 55).

In contrast to Western society, whose cultural leaders consider past generations to be irrelevant and who assume or even despise the heteronormativity needed to produce future descendants. Who have replaced the "social justice" God of the Magnificat with the State as Saviour, redistributor of wealth and power, and punisher of today's 'sinners' -- those who have not got with the programme. And who, paradoxically, in seeking to free people from the chains of religion and tradition and encouraging an alphabet soup of individual identities based on feelings, actually make people more like cogs in a machine, an NHS number, an Amazon account, an Instagram post saying what everyone else is saying.

"My soul magnifies the Lord...he has done great things for me" said the empowered individual after hearing that she would have to endure the shame of a pregnancy as as unmarried woman. But today, the mantra is "My heart tries to magnify myself; my soul is broken; it's the fault of others".

Then, "his mercy endures to those who fear him"; today "I deserve more according to my rights".

Then, "he has scattered the proud"; today "be proud of who you are".

Then "he remembers Abraham and his descendants"; now "it's all about me in the present".

The Magnificat as a prophetic critique of the contemporary secular ideology of the self? That's surely too controversial!

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