I recently heard David Brooks, author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, say “we need to move from an ethos of individualism to an ethos of commitment making.” He then said that the four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community, have been minimized by our overwhelming focus on the self. He suggested a correction to this trend would be a tremendous boon to our public life.
A shift from individualism to commitment making would, I think, also result in a necessary and corresponding movement toward an other-centered ethic over and against a self-centered ethic (Tim Keller makes this distinction here). Individualism is not altogether evil; its virtues should be remembered and certainly not abandoned. For a person to have a sense of uniqueness, to form convictions, to assert independence, to value freedom, to champion liberty, and to become self reliant are good things.
However, an understanding of self largely framed by the pursuit of self-determination and self-gratification can lead to narcissism. An ethos of commitment making, conversely, continues to hold fast to the value of the individual, but the higher commitment is defined by service to others. An ethos of commitment making retains individuality but leads to a healthy form of self-renunciation, not self-abnegation. This is a form of collectivism, not sheer tribalism.
To start a family, to pursue a vocation (which differs from a career or job), to live deeply into a philosophical or religious tradition, and to participate in a community for the sake of the public good requires sacrifice. It requires putting aside the self and thinking first of those around us. The self remains. But it is the commitment to others, to something outside of ourselves, that guides us.
There must also be the creation and cultivation of liminal or transitional spaces, times and places when one passes through a defined middle stage, a moment of leaving behind one way of experiencing life and moving on to another, newfound state of being. What would that look like? What does it look like now?
Between spouses, there is often the middle stage of engagement, a preparation for the commitment of marriage. For prospective parents, there is the waiting involved in pregnancy. Vocation is more challenging. It is most definitely not the moment one declares a college major. It is also not always the case that one’s job or career is identical with one’s calling. But the moment one sees their role as an educator, businessperson, bricklayer, or architect, this not only has value for the self, but for the community. Vocation, in whatever field, has implications for more than just the person who has determined their calling.
A commitment to a philosophy or faith is clarified when it is distinguished by a public profession or identification with the particular convictions or beliefs of a system. A person may also choose to blend together a unique confluence of ideas. Whatever the commitment, there is then the next step, which is the challenging work of further developing and working out ideas in both theory and practice. Many of these kinds of decisions occurred, for me, during my college and graduate school programs, places where I was exposed to different ideas and became cognizant of distinctions between traditions. I made choices, at times with intention, while at other times I was drawn.
Grounding oneself in a broader tradition is a lifelong work that involves the embodiment of the best of that tradition, as well as using the internal resources of that tradition to critique, improve, and refine the contribution said tradition makes, broadly speaking, to humanity as a whole. It involves thinking, feeling, and action. It also involves failure and growth.
And as for a commitment to a community, there is a need for stability, active neighboring, and time. Communities are built on shared resources, trust, and history. Communities depend on a “we.” They are not just a collection of individuals.
I resonate with Brooks because I have received, by virtue of my heritage, an ethic that is other-centered. I have been formed and raised as a Christian. While the gospel message preached in the United States, particularly in revivalist traditions like I experienced in Baptist life, has been highly focused on personal, individual decisions to place faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, that is not all there is to the Christian gospel.
A historically well-rounded and theologically robust account of the Christian faith easily leads to both self-renunciation and service to the world, a way of life that is not only about me and God, but me, God, and my life. This is the calling of the disciple. Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, lose their life in order to find it, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The Christian tradition, as time has passed, has become my own. First, it came to me by way of a profession of faith, a public declaration that I did have faith in Christ, testified to publicly through the act of baptism. I was converted. Once I was not a Christian, then, by faith, I was. From that one commitment, others have followed. I became a Christian, but then I continued the process of becoming more like Christ. That commitment has influenced and shaped every other commitment. My commitment to Jesus, and my broader commitment to Christianity, has informed and enriched my commitment to my spouse, family, and community, and has been a source of strength and direction for my vocation as a Christian educator, pastor, and writer.
Consider again the four areas of commitment named by Brooks: marriage and family, vocation, philosophy or faith, and community. In which of these areas have you set down firm anchor points, ties that bind you to others? What are your commitments? In what ways do these commitments require you to put your self aside and sacrifice for those around you? What resources are you drawing upon to ensure that you remain faithful to your commitments?
How, in other words, are you being spiritually formed?
Remaining true to our commitments is contingent, in part, on how the narratives, practices, and communities we participate in contribute to the formation of our character. Make commitments. Then, situate your life within an environment that will feed, fuel, and foster those commitments not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of the world and to the glory of God.