Individualism on the run?
“Love your neighbour as yourself”. (Mark 12:31, NIV)
In his book A Better Story, Psychiatry professor Glynn Harrison shows how what’s often called the Sexual Revolution - a vast shift in attitudes to marriage which began in the 1960s and continues - is based on radical individualism. My body is mine; I’m free to be me; I alone have the right to define who I am. It is not for anyone outside me, least of all some authority, to tell me, who I am and how to live.
According to Harrison, the roots of this are multiple, and both ideological, cultural and economic. They include the growth of affluent consumerism and the rise of pop psychology. There seems little doubt that individualism has come to govern our attitude to sex: why bother with an out-of-date institution like marriage, when we could just cohabit? Who is to tell me not to do that?
But just while we see radical individualism gaining strength, have you noticed a tide running in the opposite direction? In our growing - and right - concern for the environment, we are learning that our individual actions have consequences far beyond us. My disposable plastic cup might end up on a reef or in fragments in the stomach of a fish; my use of excessive gas heating might contribute in a tiny way to a growing hazard of floods for someone else.
Covid has, to some extent, brought us the same message. What I do in the privacy of my house does make a difference to others. Even what I do with my body, in the wearing of a mask, might harm or help someone I don’t know.
In short, there is such a thing as society: we are all bound together. My actions affect others.
And is this not true, also, of sex? We say, “My body, my choice”. But after 60 years of experimentation we have an epidemic of family breakdown and mental health problems - and who knows what further consequences we may yet uncover. We aren’t islands, entire of ourselves. Sexual ethics are not a purely personal matter. It is noteworthy that the very first instructions about marriage in the Bible, back in Genesis 2:24, parents are involved; and in Genesis 1:28, children!
Might we one day have the sense to recognise that with sexual ethics, as with the environment and many other matters, our actions have profound implications for others?
Jesus was asked what the two greatest commandments are. The first is to love God, and the second, to love our neighbour as ourselves. Both commandments are profoundly relational, and both head in an entirely different direction from the selfishness of radical individualism.