Individual/Corporate and other musings

From time to time I am told that I have fallen into error by absolutizing the ‘corporate’ and neglecting the ‘individual’. I consciously try to avoid thinking in terms of ‘individual’ and ‘corporate’. Whilst there are some who seem to be trying to oppose the individualism of our age with an alternative ‘corporatism’ — merely privileging the other element of the binary opposition — most people that I encounter seem to be attempting to do something far more radical, seeking to problematize any idea of a sharp distinction altogether.

The individual/corporate binary opposition is grossly simplistic and is related to a number of other modern binary oppositions. Internal/external and public/private are two examples. The public/private distinction, for example, is taken by some to be self-evident, but it is by no means self-evident which of the two categories certain activities fit into (e.g. abortion, homosexuality, etc.). It is worth remembering that these categories have a story. The public/private distinction, for instance, arises in part out of earlier distinctions such as the oikos/polis distinction.

If we begin to realize that such binary oppositions are the product of particular narratives, rather than self-evident categories that pre-exist such narratives, we will be more wary of the ease with which some people take them for granted. These categories are neither natural nor neutral but are heavily weighted.

Many of the uses of the individual/corporate opposition that one will encounter speak as if each category cannot be permeated by the other. It is always a case of either/or. Individuals exist outside of the ‘corporate’. The ‘corporate’ is then imposed on the individual by some means. The ‘corporate’, whether it is understood as a necessary evil or even as a positive good, somehow excludes the individual.

Once such a tension between the two categories has been established there will be a very uneasy relationship between them. One term of the relationship will generally be privileged over the other (usually the ‘individual’) and they will vie for control.

My belief is that ‘individual’ and ‘corporate’ are always mutually constitutive. There is no such thing as the ‘pure individual’, nor is there such a thing as the ‘pure corporate’. I must confess to a dislike for both terms and I generally attempt to exclude them both from my writing as unhelpful.

My approach is not to balance out the two poles of this opposition, but to suggest a new way of structuring our thought on this issue. The Scriptures present us with helpful images that enable us to move beyond simplistic oppositions between individual and corporate. The Bible teaches us that the Church is a body with many members and that we are each members of each other. The body is not something that exists independent of its members; the members constitute the body. The body does not destroy the ‘individuality’ of its members; the individuality of the members of the body has significance precisely because they are members of a body.

Such a way of understanding things does away with the need to posit any necessary tension between the ‘individual’ and the ‘corporate’ and demonstrates the manner in which they interpenetrate each other and are mutually constitutive. There is no place where the member exists in a pure form, independent of the body. To be a ‘member’ presupposes one’s relationship with a body, just as the existence of a body presupposes the existence of members.

Sorting such things out in principle is only the initial part of the task and by no means the easiest. However, the significance of such reconceptions should not be ignored. Giving ourselves a new picture to think within enables us to arrive at solutions to practical problems that would not be apparent in other ways of conceiving the problem.

One area in which I find this way of thinking to be of help is in the problem of human freedom. If we work within the individual/corporate model, it is most likely that freedom will be sought in autonomy. The individual and the corporate are only extrinsically related to each other and so the corporate will always seem to present a curtailing of individual freedom. The task is then that of limiting the corporate in order to give the individual as full an expression of its freedom as possible.

Working within the body and members picture, things look very different. The existence of the body is that which enables its members to be fulfilled in their freedom. Apart from the body the members would be incapable of functioning as members.

When we think of human freedom we need to beware of conceiving of freedom as some sort of possession of the detached individual. Rather, freedom is found in communion — in the Spirit. Freedom is interpersonal in character. The source of all genuine freedom is God Himself. Human beings find freedom as they participate in various ways in the freedom of God.

If freedom is an individual possession then the tendency will be to regard freedom as something that is gained at the expense of others. The individual/corporate distinction is often founded upon just such a way of thinking. Freedom is a zero-sum game: the more freedom I have, the less freedom you have.

However, true freedom is found in communion and is fundamentally participatory in character. Engaging with others and with the world outside of us brings freedom. The world and other people present us with the ‘possibilities’ of which freedom is made. The ‘pure individual’ would be a pure prisoner of himself, driven by his own untrained desires. Such things as the acquisition of language free us from ourselves to live in the possibilities of fellowship. It also frees us to be ourselves to a degree that is far fuller than we ever could know otherwise.

Freedom comes to us from the outside-in — as a gift, the Gift of the Other. Whilst we are inclined to think in terms of the ‘outside’ in terms of ‘Law’ and the ‘inside’ in terms of autonomous ‘freedom’, it seems to me that this thinking is backward. Law and freedom are not necessarily antithetical. Watch the gifted pianist and hear the freedom of his playing. Such freedom comes only by means of submission to laws. The person who would resist the imposition of law upon them from outside would never be able to attain to such freedom and would be locked up within themselves.

When a child is told ‘no!’ by its parent the child is given a new possibility. The child can either rebel and reject the parent’s authority or submit and learn obedience. Obedience and disobedience are things that are learnt over time. Forbidding you child to do something opens up the possibility of their learning obedience and disobedience and, over time, liberates them from their own capricious desires and dependence to be able to love in freedom. The child who has never heard the word ‘no!’ is manipulative, dependent and lacks the self-control necessary to delay their gratification and fulfil their desires. In this sense Law can be understood as a gift that offers freedom. However, if the gift is rejected it will only heighten the level of self-bondage.

The freedom of the Spirit that is given to us is given in a particular way. No single person is directly given all of the gifts of the Spirit. The Spirit is given to the Church. However, the body does not exist apart from its members and so the one Gift of the Spirit is given in the form of many gifts of the Spirit given to particular members. Each of these gifts is given to the Church through its members. All of these gifts (as the One Gift) are given to each and every member through all other members. A gift is not given to a member of the body to be treated as a possession, but so that each member may become a participant in God’s own Gift-giving.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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1 Response to Individual/Corporate and other musings

  1. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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