From Individual to Harmony

I grew up with my grandma. I called her Ahma in Taiwanese. Ahma was my childhood companion. After school and on long summer days, I liked to sit with Ahma as she folded laundry or prepped for dinner. Whenever she made large batches of mochi as gifts for friends, she always handed me the ugly ones to eat.

My favorite moments with Ahma were when she told me stories. All of her stories had the same theme: kindness. She told me about the many friends and distant relatives that helped our family along the way. She made sure to remind me at the end of every story that our family wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the generosity and kindness of others. She told me these stories to instill in me that I am connected to a vast social network of family and friends. She told me these stories to remind me to pass on the kindness. I have an obligation to my community even if they are strangers to me.

Ahma’s stories were a vast contrast to what I learned in school. As I grew up in the US, the values of uniqueness and individual identity are a given. My American education taught me to become an independent thinker. The working world taught me to promote myself.

I am realizing these days, though, that making decisions with my self as priority isn’t actually a biblical value, it’s a Western cultural value.

Psychologist Richard Nisbett did a comparison of early childhood readers from the 1950s. In the U.S. he found that children read books like Dick and Jane. The sentences started like this…

See Dick. See Dick run.

See Jane. See Jane run. Run Jane run!

In mainland China, however, children during that same time period read books with sentences like this…

Big brother takes care of little brother.

Big brother loves little brother.

The West emphasized verbs and individual agency, while the East emphasized relationships and an obligation to those relationships. Asian cultures, as is true for many non-western cultures, have an inherent social instinct. It is a sixth sense for social obligations and social harmony. As a person in-between cultures I have constantly felt the pull between developing my individual uniqueness and taking responsibility for my place in the collective.

Independent Spirituality vs. Dependent Spirituality

A high value of individuality vs. a high value of social harmony naturally leads to different approaches to spirituality. Individualism created an independent spirituality in these ways:

  • Spiritual formation becomes a personal process for growth and rest.
  • We present faith as a personal and individual decision.
  • Sin becomes defined as individual choices to break the rules or laws.
  • If self is center, then the practice of community becomes a choice of events that happen once or twice a week, and being a neighbor becomes an outreach activity.

While all of these practices have merit, they are not the only way. A spirituality of independence has made highly self-sufficient people, but also lonely people. When we carry this independent spirituality into other cultures it creates an expression of church that is very unnatural and foreign for collective cultures. How might a spirituality of dependence look different?

  • The practice of community is not just events that happen during the week, rather community is a way of being. From my parents to unrelated aunties and uncles, to cousins and friends of friends, we are all bound by the practice of taking care of one another.
  • Being a neighbor is not an outreach, rather it is my identity.
  • The Western value of independence led to the evangelical obsession with individual sins, but left us completely blind to communal and societal sins. An alternative way to look at sin is social disharmony such as a break in our responsibilities to our immediate community and to the greater community. Sin as social disharmony is much more in line with the breaking of covenant that we see in the OT.
  • My friends in Asia inherently understand that a decision of faith is a decision that affects their whole community .

The opposite of an independent spirituality is dependent. I have found that in the west we are highly resistant to the word dependence. It rubs us the wrong way. It goes against the way the society has taught us to be. We assume others will take advantage of us and that we’ll lose our sense of self. We think we’ll appear weak. But dependence is actually the only way to receive grace.

Dependence is the recognition that we are always utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God. We also need the community around us. All I have is a gift. All I’ve accomplished is because of the privilege I’ve been given by those that have gone before me. I believe a spirituality of dependence is modeled for us in the trinity. The trinity shows a community dependent on one another. They share an identity; they share a love; they share a responsibility.

But we have only understood the trinity cerebrally. We have not actually embodied the inherent community modeled for us in the trinity.

I would like to be formed in dependence. I will start here…

  • Start each morning recognizing my utter dependence on the grace and mercy of God for today
  • Remember those that have helped me along the way
  • Receive help and give help; Receive hospitality and offer hospitality
  • My every interaction in community is part of my formation
  • My life with others is not determined by my schedule, but by my capacity to be present and authentic.

Works Cited:

  1. Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought. (New York: Free Press, 2003), 50.
  2. Melba Padilla Maggay, The Gospel in Culture: Contextualization Issues through Asian Eyes. (Manila: OMF Literature, Inc., 2013), 38.

Family meal photo credit: Steve Chen.

*This blog series is my own journey to de-westernize the ways that Western values have distorted my spirituality. This series is not a criticism of Western spiritual traditions. See series Introduction: This is my Un-Forming for more info.