One’s Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
A hard truth about the Bible: it does not allow for being a “simple separate person” nor does it allow for “the word Democratic, the word En-masse.”
Singing about One’s Self is anathema in scripture, since that would be idolatry. God must always be the subject of the singing, and if there is any self, it only exists in reference to that God. Indeed focus on the self is described in Genesis as the source of the Fall, and as Satan’s tool of pride. The Bible wants a top-down, hierarchical system where leaders (and husbands) are called and appointed by God and the people (and wives) humbly submit. This is the way God gives us to control our selfish pride, to keep it in check.
There are people who have a separate individuality in the Bible. They are those leaders specially chosen by God, and everyone else is compared to sheep. These hero characters—Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jesus—are distinct individuals, but they are there as stand-ins for Israel, personifications of God, or as myth-hero-types exemplifying great faith and great deeds.
Most Christians today believe in both individualism and democracy. They own property, believe in individual agency, and reject slavery. They run their churches by voting on major decisions and issues. They would not wish to return to the feudal system of medieval Europe or the tribal system of ancient Palestine.
Yet the concept of the self and its rights, along with the concept of the democratic process, is a result not of the Bible or religion but of secular cultural movements begun during the Reformation and brought forward through the Enlightenment to the American Constitution. Both our sense of freedom of the self, and our sense of freedom to elect our own government, is completely alien to the consciousness of the Bible.
The “simple separate person” who is part of a democratic community that Whitman imagined simply does not exist in the Bible. This is why we need literature other than the Bible to draw from as a spring for our sense of self and purpose.
The Song of the Self was not sung to Americans by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but by Whitman, Emerson, and Twain. Leaves of Grass was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a defining work capturing the spirit of America. To let ourselves be influenced by other poetic and deeply spiritual work such as Leaves of Grass is therefore to discover new identity.
Take A GoodMinute
Where does my sense of self come from?
How would a rediscovery of Whitman help our country now?
What kind of balance needs to be struck between the individual and the community? Where do we go to find answers to that kind of question?