My first year at Yale there were a series of incidents that sparked a campuswide reaction culminating in the change of Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College as well as other reforms. As the campus was reflecting together, expressing ourselves together through the March of Resilience, I felt something surge up within me that I had not recognized before, that I was part of something bigger, something meaningful.
That was the last time I saw this campus come together in any form. In the absence of common sports, common tradition and common values, it seems that little more connects us as a campus than “Psychology and the Good Life” and memes on Facebook. More often than not the censure has sounded true: We have cared more about our own self-promotion and our cover letters than the people around us. More often than not Yale seems to me no larger than my immediate group of friends, the people I see day to day in class and the myriad of strangers whom I pass by every day, whose names I do not know and faces I barely recognize.
But it hardly seems fair to attribute Yalies’ individual pursuit of extracurriculars to Protestantism, as some have pointed out recently. The real villain here is the all-corrupting spirit of consumerism, in which the accent lies on what I can get out of Yale (a euphemized version is: How I can make most of the resources here?), not what I can do for Yale. And this consumerism stems more from the lack of religion, the crumbling of ancient edifices which used to bind our society together, and the consequent need to find and create security for ourselves. It is everything that Protestantism stands against.
The spirit of Protestantism — the spirit of Christianity, for that matter — lies not in the self but in the other. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” — itself a citation from the Torah. The Apostle John continues this exhortation in his epistle: “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” — and aren’t we surrounded by brothers and sisters here at Yale? Kierkegaard has a wonderful explication of these passages in his “Works of Love.” When we love our friends and significant others, this is self-love in another name — after all, we get along precisely because she or he has something in common with us. Only when love is a command, only when it is an ethical duty, and no mere feeling of the heart, can we fully live out its meaning.
This is not to say that individuality is the antithesis of Protestant spirituality. Protestantism does indeed stress a personal knowledge and relationship with God, one that the psalmist of the Tanakh affirms: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” And vice versa: God promises through the prophet Jeremiah that “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Throughout Western history, the worth and value of the individual person has been fragile and negotiable. Where individuality is sacrificed, we see slavery, totalitarianism and an institutional oppression today that looks at numbers and statistics and not at the person behind the crime.
Yet the remarkable promise of Christianity is that the worth of the individual and her identity is not based on what she does at Yale, what internship she gets, to which race or socioeconomic status she is born — our worth, unearned, unmerited, is secure in the love of God displayed on the cross. This security allows us in turn to give up our own desires, to put others’ needs above ours. Our selfhood cannot be fragile because it is grounded in the fulfilled promise of God. Our personhood cannot be negotiable because it is rooted in the completed work of God.
The two — community and the individual — are not exclusive for me. I find my greatest joy when my community and I sing praises to my God. I find peace when I kneel before my bed at the end of the day and, all alone in quiet solitude, confess my sins and dwell in His presence.
Last year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In placing individual interpretation of scripture above the authority of the church, Luther sparked a decisive change in the way we look at the world that may well be called modernity. In this sense it is well noted that religion itself is different from the cultural baggage it leaves behind. These ingrained cultural assumptions benefit no one — least of all Protestants, for it is these kinds of misunderstandings that block the way for genuine conversation.
The process, however, of stripping Yale of its Protestant legacy is a task I cannot imagine will happen in the year and a half I have left on this campus. In the meantime, we are surrounded by our neighbors — let us look around and perhaps more importantly, look within.
Sam Lee is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.