Oct 21

What is Expressive Individualism?

Article by Brett Landry
expressive individualism

When David Foster Wallace gave his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, he offered what he called a “didactic little parable-ish story.”1 He said, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”2 The point of Wallace’s didactic little parable-ish story is that the most obvious realities in life can often be the most difficult to discern and discuss. In context, the reality Wallace is chiefly aiming at is the inherent, unconscious self-centredness of human beings. 

I will argue that the issue of self-centredness, which Wallace admits is difficult to discern and discuss, is what many have called expressive individualism. Expressive individualism is the culturally formative water we are swimming in, but it is not the refreshing and renewing kind of plunge pool you dive into on a hot summer day after hiking to the base of a resplendent waterfall; it is the tepid cesspool that slowly poisons as the unhealth of the water seeps into your being as through osmosis. My intention is to, first, define expressive individualism; second, discuss its origins, both cultural and biblical; and then third, offer a provisional position on how the Church might swim in this cultural water without drinking it in. While many will bemoan the pervasiveness of expressive individualism, I think the ubiquitous nature of this obviously perilous cultural reality offers the Church an opportunity to tell the better story of true human nature and purpose, built on the foundation of the gospel.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor says ours is the “Age of Authenticity.”3 While this is not an entirely new conceptual framework for understanding secular anthropology, Taylor suggests it is primarily a post-war reality that came into the popular cultural-consciousness, or the “social imaginary,” in the 1960s.4 When Taylor speaks of the social imaginary, he is differentiating between the way cultural elites theorize the nature of the world and the way the broader population then imbibes and embodies such a theory. Taylor’s social imaginary is less like the peer-reviewed, philosophical academic paper found in an obscure journal, and more like the water we are swimming in. Carl Trueman, engaging Taylor’s work, writes, “the social imaginary is a somewhat amorphous concept precisely because it refers to the myriad beliefs, practices, normative expectations, and even implicit assumptions that members of a society share and that shape their daily lives.”5 Taylor’s social imaginary is how we imagine and assume the world to be, and it also reveals how we have been implicitly shaped by it. One might say social imaginary is caught more than taught; it is acquired from long-term immersion rather than one-off ingestion. The social imaginary of expressive individualism has generated the Age of Authenticity. “[The Age of Authenticity] is on one hand an individuating revolution, which may sound strange, because our modern age was already based on a certain individualism. But this has shifted on to a new axis, without deserting the others. As well as moral/spiritual and instrumental individualisms, we now have a widespread ‘expressive’ individualism.”6

Taylor further explains this in the slogans of the culture of authenticity and expressive individualism where “people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing’.”7 A plethora of expressive individualist slogans are commonplace today and are virtually assumed veritas, each standing alone as unquestioned cultural orthodoxy.8 “A simplified expressivism infiltrates everywhere. Therapies multiply which promise to help you find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self, and so on.”9 This is well summarized by Yuval Levin in, The Fractured Republic where he writes: 

“The ethic of our age has been aptly called expressive individualism. That term suggests not only a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are. The capacity of individuals to define the terms of their own existence by defining their personal identities is increasingly equated with liberty and with the meaning of some of our basic rights, and it is given pride of place in our self-understanding.”10

Again, in Taylor’s parlance, expressive individualism has formed our social imaginaries and has created the Age of Authenticity. The issue with this, for the purpose of this provisional position paper, is that expressive individualism is not morally neutral. It has shaped the moral landscape of a generation in something Taylor calls the “modern moral order of mutual benefit,” which says, “One shouldn’t criticise the others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do. The sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.”11 The Western Church has drunk deeply from this cultural well. “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.” 12

Expressive individualism is an understanding of life where the autonomy of the individual takes identifying precedence over the established community or institution, where the individual is elevated to the highest authority and has become the arbiter of one’s own truth, mediated through one’s own means of personal expression, which is the externalization of one’s interior identity. You be you. Be true to yourself. Live your truth. Follow your heart. “The key here is that the purpose of life is to find one’s deepest self and then express that to the world, forging that identity in ways that counter whatever family, friends, political affiliations, previous generations, or religious authorities might say.”13 The Age of Authenticity is where we find ourselves, but how did we get here? 

Like all modern ideas, expressive individualism has a genealogy. Trueman traces the origins of expressive individualism back to Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who has been called “the father of Romanticism.”14 Trueman quotes from Rousseau’s Confessions, “The particular object of my confessions is to make known my inner self, exactly as it was in every circumstance of my life. It is the history of my soul that I promised, and to relate to it faithfully I require no other memorandum; all I need to do, as I have done up until now, is to look inside myself.”15 Here we see not only individualism, in general, but expressive individualism, in particular. Both Taylor and Levin published their ideas about expressive individualism subsequent to the work of Robert Bellah and his coauthors in Habits of the Heart, wherein they wrote, “Expressive individualism is related to the phenomenon of romanticism in eighteenth and nineteenth-century European and American culture.”16 Taylor grounds his definition upon the same foundation and then draws it into the popular social imaginary of the Age of Authenticity when he writes, “Expressivism was the invention of the Romantic period in the late eighteenth century. Intellectual and artistic élites have been searching for the authentic way of living or expressing themselves throughout the nineteenth century. What is new is that this kind of self-orientation seems to have become a mass phenomenon.”17 In profound ways, our popular culture, now awash in a sea of expressive individualism, is simply catching up to the ideas of Rousseau. He may be considered the father of Romanticism, but Rousseau is now the haunting svengali of expressive individualism as well. This is the generative concept of authenticity, which Taylor, Trueman, and Bellah speak of when they define expressive individualism. Expressive individualism is not so much being your authentic self, as opposed to being a hypocrite, but rather, being your authentic self as defined in contrast to conformity with normative expectations.  

This is the historical unfolding of what we have come to call, narrowly, expressive individualism. However, like the origin story of a literary anti-hero you may have come to love, who at times might even comfort you, there is a macro-level background picture of expressive individualism that needs to come into focus. We find the entire concept of expressive individualism begins earlier than eighteenth-century Romanticism and has a much more pernicious origin story in what the Scripture broadly calls ἀνομία. (lawlessness) “Anomia is the rejection of God’s authority and the exaltation of the autonomy of the self.”18 Wherever we see lawlessness used in the Scriptures it “always refers to those who have resolutely turned away from God, to the point that they can no longer be regarded as his people but are in fact now his enemies.”19 To this end, lawlessness is not simply the momentary rejection of God in the life of a believer, where one succumbs to temptation, which is sin requiring repentance; rather, lawlessness is a double movement that rejects the authority of God, ultimately, while simultaneously exalting the authority of self. In 1 John 3:4-10, John utilizes this term in warning the faithful to differentiate themselves from those who are children of the devil. In Matthew 7:24, Jesus uses this term to disassociate from those who were never his. While we can trace the genealogy of expressive individualism back to Rousseau and the Romantics, we must also be aware that lawlessness has been at work in humanity since the beginning, when our first parents chose to follow the desires of their hearts. 20

How should we then live? Understood rightly, expressive individualism is merely the latest iteration of self-exaltation, grounded in the ancient truth of lawlessness. In this current cultural iteration, “What we are experiencing is not the eradication of God from the Western mind, but rather the enthroning of the self as the greatest authority.”21 How then may the Church swim in the cultural waters of expressive individualism in the Age of Authenticity without drinking them in? Jonathan Sacks says we must live as a creative minority.22 Iain Provan says we must reckon with what it means to live as exiles.23 Rod Dreher says we must reconsider the Rule of St. Benedict.24 James Davison Hunter calls it faithful presence.25 I would argue that we must consider, not withdrawal from society, but salt-and-light inspired counter-formational discipleship. Mark Sayers calls this gospel resilience.26 He says, “in a culture of self, the most countercultural act one can commit… is to break the only taboo: to commit self-disobedience.”27 Self-disobedience is relinquishing the illusion of autonomy gained in expressive individualism, while re-trusting our life to the Sovereignty of God through obedient submission to his will. It is, in effect, the reverse of expressive individualism; it is a double-move of dethroning self and enthroning God. Where expressive individualism is presently at work in the life of Jesus’ Church, it exists as syncretism; where the lawlessness of expressive individualism is the identifying feature of the unregenerate, it exists as its own way of being. The way out of both is the gospel. For the Christian, repentance for the sin of syncretism; for the unregenerate, newfound submission and obedience to the Christ who atoned for lawlessness. The kind of freedom the expressive individualist is truly looking for is found on the other side of surrender to the will of the One who lovingly wants us to be free. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” 28

We might swim in the same cultural waters as the rest of the world around us, but that doesn’t mean we need to drink them in. I have sought to develop a definition of expressive individualism, chronicle the origins of this social imaginary, and offer a way toward counter-formational discipleship in Christ. Lawlessness is substituting ourselves for God; the work of Jesus on the cross is God substituting himself for us. In Christ, we have a more beautiful, compelling story to tell than the boring old trope of expressive individualism. The water over here is just fine. 


1 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life (New York, NY: Hachette Digital, Inc., 2005), Kindle location 3-6.[1] Ibid., location 6.

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 473.

3 Ibid., 171ff.

4 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 37.

6 Taylor, A Secular Age, 473.

7 Taylor, A Secular Age, 299.

8 I would argue that gaining the status of “unquestioned cultural orthodoxy” is how you know something is part of the social imaginary.

9 Taylor, A Secular Age, 475-476.

10 Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Location 2399.
11 Taylor, A Secular Age, 484.

12 Taylor, A Secular Age, 486.

13 Trevin Wax, Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2020), Kindle Location 2140.

14 C. George Boeree, “Romanticism,” Romanticism, last modified 1999, accessed March 7, 2021, http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/romanticism.html.
15 Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 108.

16Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 334.

17Taylor, A Secular Age, 473.

18 Karen H. Jobes, 1, 2, And 3 John: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 143.

19 Robert W. Yarbrough, 1-3 John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 182.

20 Genesis 3:6

21 Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016), 11.

22 Jonathan Sacks, “On Creative Minorities,” First Things, last modified January 1, 2014, accessed March 7, 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/01/on-creative-minorities.

23 Iain Provan, Seeking What Is Right: The Old Testament and the Good Life (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2020).

24 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York, NY: Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018).

25 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 238ff.

26 Sayers, Disappearing Church, 12, 66ff.

27 Ibid., 76.

28 Matthew 10:39