One of the themes I have touched on in various blog posts is the way that we oscillate between knowing ourselves as individuals and as part of a group. I want to reflect on this further, particularly from a historical and cultural point of view. A heightened awareness of this contrast can help us to know ourselves better and resist the urge to become a part of an unthinking crowd when it is not in our interests to do so.
The Life of the Tribe
When we observe the life and patterns of traditional tribal communities we notice various things about them which are very different from our own culture. In the first place a tribal society will know only one form of education, that of being initiated into the customs and traditions of the tribe. This may include an acute sensitivity to the natural world and the ability to track animals, using clues that we would describe as subliminal. The tribal society will normally have its own language but this language will be by our standards probably very restricted. If you only have a 1000 words in your language it is going to severely restrict the ideas you can articulate. Abstract words probably don’t exist. This restricted vocabulary and the severe limitations on educational attainment are going to have the effect of meaning that every member of the tribe is going to find it difficult or impossible in our modern sense to become individuals. They are going to be in a cultural and psychological sense very similar to one another. They simply do not have the tools to enter what we would understand as a process of ‘individuation’. That would require an exposure to life beyond the tribe.
The first individuals – 6th Century BC
Living in such tribal groups is the way that human beings have existed for most of history. It is only in recorded history that we begin to read about individuals as we would understand them. Of the characters in the Old Testament, the first person who stands out as having a near modern self-consciousness is the prophet Jeremiah. He can be said to ‘exist’, a word that literally means stand out. We can read of his inner struggles that drove him away from the support and comfort of his fellow human beings in order to follow his call from Yahweh. The world of the 6th century BC also saw the simultaneous emergence in other parts of the world of personalities like the Buddha. Similar individuals are found in China in the same century with the emergence of Taoism and Confucianism, and we must not forget in Europe the early Greek philosophers. I do not want to say anything further about the events of this particular century except to say that it can be seen as a golden age for religious and cultural history. There was nothing universal and inevitable about this dawning of individual consciousness. For most of the next 2000 years the tribal pattern continued to exist and indeed it could be argued that it still affects a large swathe of humanity.
The rediscovery of the Individual in modern times
Tribal awareness, in contrast to individual awareness, could be said to have largely dominated the West after the collapse of the Roman empire right up to the Renaissance. This movement was when the values of the ancient world were rediscovered in the countries of Europe. This new education and learning only touched a relatively small elite of wealthy people but it is generally agreed that the years between 1450 – 1550 mark the beginning of the ‘modern’ period. ‘Renaissance man’ came to be a shorthand for describing a character having a fairly modern kind of awareness. Such a person was further refined into ‘Enlightenment man’, the 18th century manifestation of humanity. The shorthand motto of the Enlightenment was, as we have mentioned before, ‘dare to doubt’. Doubting was a mark of emancipation from the past and present traditions, so that new ideas could be thought and new discoveries made.
Western education for individuality
The values of western education have for some time encouraged the emergence of individuals who can think for themselves and take part in a democratic society, itself an Enlightenment idea. Whether our education system is successful in creating these values through education can be debated but there is a belief that the thoughts, conscience and awareness of the individual takes a prominent place in our Western societies. People who are arrested for criminal offences are assumed to be capable of making moral choices for themselves. As adults our choices in numerous areas of activity are honoured by the rest of society. The latest one to be so honoured is the biological sex of our partner.
Reflecting on individuality and group identity
This post has been written in order to provoke reflection by the reader as to whether the assumption we normally operate as separate individuals is always accurate. The patterns of consumption and the dedication to fashion would seem to be tribal behaviour. Also as I have suggested in an earlier blog, the gang culture of the inner city may simply be a living out of tribal behaviour. Tribal behaviour is also an evocation of the merger experience known to a small child. A baby or a toddler has little sense of being a separate being from the mother and in situations of stress even a normally differentiated adult may long for a similar merger to take place to alleviate the pain of isolation. It would seem, to repeat the point at the beginning, that all of us appear to oscillate between separateness and identification with others according to the situation. Perhaps what this blog post has helped to make clear that this swinging between the two extremes is built into our genes, our human history as well having been lived out in our experience of emerging from infancy into adulthood.
The ability to say ‘I am’ is something we have been given by our education, our place in human history and our experience of relationships. Perhaps we need to think about this awareness and at the same time ponder our share in a common history with countless others of being part of a tribal-type of existence when our thinking, feeling and experiencing was merged with that of countless others. That experience is not totally negative, indeed the Christian experience of worship often activates it in us. What is perhaps most important is not whether we have one or other of these experiences at a particular moment, but to see them as both part of our human condition. The self-awareness is the important thing so that, as in the subtle manipulation of ‘merger-needs’ by abusive churches, we have insight into what is going within our consciousness.
Conclusion and Summary
As a summary, and to draw this reflection into our main theme of abusive churches, I need to make my point clear. Everyone in the 21st century exists within a continuum between a desire for total merger with others and a strong sense of separateness. Churches understand this oscillation and can sometimes manipulate it to our disadvantage by convincing us that it is in our interest to remain at the dependent end of this continuum. While it is not wrong to enjoy this experience of dependency on others from time to time, it is also important to have a proper understanding and insight into the process so we are not so easily exploited. Let us rejoice in both ends of this spectrum that exist inside ourselves and not allow them to be a means to be taken advantage of by others.