Religion and Identity in an Age of Individualization
Ted A. Smith

Excerpted from The End of Theological Education by Ted A. Smith (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Individualized Religion

Social theorists have sometimes described modernity as relegating religion to the private sphere. A range of legal and cultural disestablishments did unhook religion from formal connections to the state. But they also channeled religious energies into voluntary associations that have had extraordinary political impact, influencing debates about everything from slavery to the gold standard to the New Deal to civil rights. Just as religion did not become a private concern with the erosion of standing orders, it is not becoming purely private with the unraveling of voluntary associations. Religion keeps bursting into public significance today, and not only as a holdover from the age of voluntary associations. It is also public in its emerging forms.

A better description of the impact of individualization would stress not the confinement of religion to the private sphere, but the transformation of religion into an identity. The same reprogramming of liberalism that presses us to cultivate ourselves as human capital casts religion as a defining aspect of the selves we might create. In this it joins a select list of properties that acquire the special property of an identity.  Not all qualities function as identities. Left-handedness, for instance, might matter very much for a person’s daily life. But for most left-handed people it does not become an identity, except in the softest sense. Religion, on the other hand, joins a select group of other qualities that we collectively grant the potential to define the ways we think about ourselves, connect to others, and represent ourselves in public. 

Like any identity, religion is profoundly personal. But it is never merely private. When an identity matters to us—when it is part of who we understand ourselves to be—it is social, connecting us with others with whom we share the identity. It is public, for public expression and public recognition are as essential to identity as water and sunlight are to plants. These publicly expressed identities are only growing in their political significance. It’s not just that political parties are increasingly coalitions of identity groups, or even becoming identity groups themselves. It’s that political speech across the spectrum increasingly takes the form of expressions of identity, and political interests are increasingly defined in relation to identity. Identity gives both structure and content to the lived stuff of politics today.

As Vincent Lloyd argues, the transformation of realities like race and religion into identities is also a way of managing them—and the people who bear them and are defined by them. The promise of free expression of identity is the promise of great liberty. And the liberties it grants can be meaningful, even life-changing. But, Lloyd writes, together “with the rhetoric of freedom is the reality of management, the subtle technologies of control that create the horizons of possibility for both religious and racialized lives.” The physics of this age form religion as an identity, one of the elementary particles out of which individualized individuals might create ourselves.

Within this governing logic, identities define those parts of our lives in which individual autonomy is sheltered and secured. A state, a school, or other disciplinary institution might demand many things of us, but it cannot interfere with those ways of being defined as part of our identities. Even a prison is legally obliged to respect an inmate’s religious identity, at least at some levels, and the practices that are taken to be constitutive of that identity. 

But identity involves more than just the freedom from external coercion that philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty.” It also involves a “positive liberty,” not just freedom from coercion, but freedom for a particular kind of life. At the center of that life is a quality of authentic self-expression. As Charles Taylor described it, “The expressivist outlook takes [autonomy] a stage farther. The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” It’s not just that a person is free to choose whatever religious tradition they wish from a menu of denominational options, as in the age of voluntary associations. In what Taylor calls this present “age of authenticity,” what we choose needs to resonate with our deepest senses of who we are and who we long to be. It needs to express our identities. 

While the values associated with authentic self-expression have become more powerful in the last fifty years, as the powers of individualization have accelerated, they are not new. They were not conceived in the Summer of Love. Indeed, one reason individualization has gained such traction is its ability to tap into older flows of practices and ideals that weave in and out of Christian traditions across continents and centuries. Taylor traces expressive ideals at work in seven centuries of European history, from the Christocentric piety that flourished in the High Middle Ages through devotional movements like the Brethren of the Common life in the 15th century to the theologies and practices of reformers and counter-reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Running through all these movements, Taylor writes, are long, deep currents with “a steadily increasing emphasis on a religion of personal commitment and devotion, over against forms centered on collective ritual.” These currents bubbled up in North America most visibly in Puritan dissenters like Anne Hutchinson, but I would add that they were also present in everyday Puritan practices of reading, journaling, and private prayer. In the nineteenth century they ran through not only Transcendentalist groups, but also through abolitionist movements that insisted on the dignity of each individual person and revival movements that stressed what they saw as the authenticity of individual piety over the hypocrisy of institutional forms. They blended with African traditional practices to create the distinctively expressive forms of classic Black Church worship, what W.E.B. Du Bois described as “the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy.” They have continued in the expressive qualities not only of “new age” and “new thought” movements, but also of charismatic and Pentecostal renewal movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

The End of Theological Education (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2023).

Even a quick gesture towards this long, complex history of expressivist beliefs and practices can help us understand more clearly how they function today. In particular, it presses us past definitions of “spirituality”—whether from researchers or practitioners—that define it as nothing more than the ideological fog that surrounds the narcissism of younger generations. Knowledge of this richer history to spirituality as expressive identity also undoes attempts to define it by its opposition to organized religion. The expressive practices of spirituality have shaped both the inside of religious institutions and movements that set themselves against those institutions. That remains true today. Anxieties about institutional health have generated a lot of interest in people who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” This focus has led us to neglect the very large number of Americans who identify themselves as “spiritual and religious.” Thinking about spirituality as expressive practices of individuals can help us stay attuned to the full range of relationships between these practices and formal institutions. Some practices, like the Enneagram, might grow at the edges of orthodoxy. Others, like lectio divina, might have more clearly ecclesial pedigrees. Still others, like Hans Urs von Balthasar’s writing on tarot as a kind of Christian hermeticism, might prompt a double-take. What defines these practices is not their relation to institutions or orthodoxies, but their promises of intense individual experiences, authentic expressions, and heartfelt connections to God and to other people. In this they are signs of the times.  

Resistance and Kenosis

The practices of expressive identities have received sharp criticism from people invested in the church structures that consolidated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Historian, Christian Century columnist, and icon of the order of voluntary associations Martin Marty denounced “spirituality” as “misty, evanescent, wispy and, dare we say it, rich in appeal to narcissism.” He has hardly been alone in this criticism. Religious and secular critics from many different schools have tried to resist the effects of individualization. Communitarian thinkers have denounced the selfishness and anomie it can produce. Agrarians have lamented the countless costs of abstracting individuals from particular places. New traditionalists have argued that the epistemology of individualism dissolves rationality and reduces us to endless argument. Critical theorists have skewered the pretensions of authentic expression that occlude the loss of more meaningful kinds of individual freedom: a “Don’t Tread on Me” avatar is poor compensation for the loss of actual liberty that comes with integration into systems of surveillance capitalism

I have some real sympathy with all of these critiques. As one raised to believe that leading voluntary associations was the highest human calling, I carried these arguments in my bones even before I met scholars who articulated them with precision and power. But I have also collided—again and again—with the irony of trying to live out these critiques. Because processes of individualization are not just chosen but imposed, they cannot be evaded simply through critique. Many Christian social critics, for instance, have denounced individualization as a damaging lie. Our lives are not determined by us, they argue. They are given to us by God. And we begin to come alive—really alive—when we find ourselves in the story God has authored. All of this is surely true. But these critics obscure the individualizing choice that is forced upon us, even in their own critiques. They speak past the position that their rhetoric presumes for their hearers. For people asked to make a decision to find themselves in God’s story are just the kind of choosers individualization produces.

Even if we choose an identity that rejects the idea that we are responsible for making ourselves, we have still chosen that identity, and it is transformed by the fact of being chosen. It is one thing to find life in a Latin Mass when it saturates the world in which a person lives, when she did not choose it and could not really imagine life apart from it. That is: it is one thing to find life in a Latin Mass within a standing order centered on the Mass. It is a very different thing to find life in a Latin Mass today, when it can only be encountered as one of many options, and when our choosing of it defines our identity and transforms the Mass into a kind of expressive action. The inner quality of our relationship to it, and the identity it bestows, are transformed by this choosing. Of course we do not make ourselves. Some of the deepest features of our lives are given in tightly entangled divine and human powers. It’s just that what is given to us today, like it or not, is the identity of individualized chooser emancipated and constrained for self-expression.

Seeing that caught-ness suggests a shift in tone, from scolding to compassion and discernment. It is easy to slip into scolding “nones” when we imagine them as privileged people acting in selfish ways. But the realities—both of who the unaffiliated are and what their experiences are like—are very different. Moreover, scolding presumes a power to live otherwise that most unaffiliated people—even those with relative privilege—do not possess. Just as Lyman Beecher could not scold Connecticut back into the old Standing Order once the church was disestablished, we won’t be able to scold people back into Kiwanis Club, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or the United Methodist Church. Even if they do return, they’ll be making these organizations into something new. We’ll have to rebuild social connections from the pieces and with the people individualization shapes. 

This task presses us to feel for the ambivalent fissures that run through the not-so-solid social world of authentic individuals. I find one toehold in the paradoxes of my own mainline Protestant tradition, which arose in inextricable connection with the world of voluntary associations. My home tradition’s pieties have both provided ideological fuel for the individualization that now threatens all our core institutions and contributed to emancipations of people assigned by the powers of this age to subordinate, surrogate, constricted, or otherwise death-dealing roles because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness, or citizenship. Those emancipations, to the extent they have become real, are the great moral achievement of our times. If one could imagine many genealogies for them, as social facts these emancipations came tightly tangled with processes of individualization. And those processes of individualization, as I argued above, drew important substance and shelter from the practices and beliefs cultivated in voluntary associations. There were many other sources, to be sure. But we cannot pretend that this was an assault by utterly alien invaders. Thus in working towards the emancipations that are the highest goods it helped achieve, the world of voluntary associations also gave rise to the individualization that now unravels it. It amounts to a kind of kenosis, not entirely chosen, and with the potential to be faithful in spite of itself. ♦

Ted A. Smith is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Divinity and Associate Dean of Faculty at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, The End of Theological Education, from which this piece is excerpted.

Recommended Citation

Smith, Ted A. “Religion and Identity in an Age of Individualization.” Canopy Forum, September 26, 2023.