Individualism May 16, 2005

Scholars and theologians alike today like to bang the drum of individualism, and I’ve done the same myself. It is a big drum, and it sounds loud, and most fear its power.

Andrew Delbanco, for instance, in his happy little survey The Real American Dream, set out American history in three stages: an orientation to God, to Nation, and now to Self. Like others, he can quote the sorts of things that show up in Robert Bellah’s The Habits of the Heart and Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

In its place, many (including Emergents) are calling for a return to communitarianism — and a variety of terms are used: community, church, ecclesial center, etc..


First, we are individuals and we can’t get away from it. Sometimes I wonder if some admit even this. No one, my friends, can be anything other than an individual. (Which doesn’t make us individualists like Thoreau, but individuals for sure.) We have individual self-consciousness and self-identity and the like.

Second, very few people are at the extremes: either as Individualists or as Collectivists.

Third, most of us are somewhere in between.

Fourth, some groups are more Individualistic than we suspect. In other words, the less genuine diversity in our group the greater the likelihood that our group is our own preference than a real collection of God’s people, the greater likelihood that our group is our own Individualism writ “group.” When we find ourselves wanting to leave and be with people just like us, we are seeing the fruit of Western Individualism. When we find ourselves frustrated but sticking it out, we are seeing the fruit of genuine Christian community. To love others is to embrace others who are not like us.

It is easy to love those we like; it is hard to love those we don’t like. We don’t get to choose, and the challenge of Jesus is to embrace those we don’t like.

Now this is where it gets difficult.

The biblical vision is a perfect balance, and I see some pushing us to both extremes. The biblical message can be summarized like this:

Humans are not designed by God to be individualists, where meaning is determined by each person, or collectivists, where meaning is determined by the group. The former leads to self-idolatry and the latter to the tyranny of some dictator, some elites, or some majority. Humans are not designed to self-testify and they are not designed to get lost in someone else’s world. We are neither Individualists nor Collectivists.

Instead of Individualists, humans are designed to be Eikons.
Instead of Collectivists, humans are designed to be part of a Community.

For me, there is always this question, which shows whether or not I am leaning toward the Individualist side: What am I doing that is what my community calls me to do that I would rather not do? Or, what am I doing that I know is not God’s will that my community imposes on me?

Being Eikons in the Community of Jesus is a challenging road to walk.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Do you ever spend any time at Reba Place Fellowship with Greg and Heather? Sorry this has nothing to do with your latest blog (honestly, they are so long I’m have trouble keeping up)… but I thought I would ask. I think it would be interesting for you to come to a Monday night potluck sometime (they are the highlight of my week).

  • Are we ikons in community or is it that our primary identity can be found in being ikons of the Trinitarian community? The balanced relationship of collectivity and individuality is found in the Trinitarian model — seperate but the same — mystery — fuziness at times in definition — always a tension if you’re trying to get the definition to fit into a precise box. So we struggle.

  • Good connection to the Trinity as model of Eikons.

  • You ended with two paragraphs that I look quite individualistic to me (one more community minded to be sure!).If I may reframe (quite an arrogant role to assume on my first response to your blogging!). If I am a lover of others, then mySelf becomes secondary. If I find myself in a tyranical situation (to take this to its extreme), then fine. Tyrants do not and cannot stop me from loving. I think I see this often in the people of God in the Bible. Many times I see statements about continuing to love in the midst of overbearing oppresion.My point is this, Individual and Community as so cleanly defined come from individualism. When I love first, I become what Brad was pointing to (mysterious, fuzzy connection with someone).I am picturing a cell that is not quite finished dividing. Not as a metaphor (of self reproduction or whatever), just a picture. Two distinct cells without distinct separation. Where does one stop and the other start? Do these protiens belong to the left cell or the right cell? Answers unknown. Beautiful.If I care for you more than I care for me, then whose resources (a.k.a. my stuff) are these – mine or yours? Kind’of fuzzy!

  • Good thoughts, David.My final two paragraphs just might be too individualistic. I still don’t think we can ever get away from being individuals in a community. And I agree that love leads us to think of others (as we love ourselves). We need to be careful to protect the integrity of the individual; just as the persons of the Trinity maintain their own integrity (in community).

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think anyone can get away from individuality because that is what we are first. Just look at how many times the word “I” was used in talking about what “I” should do (love others or myself or whatever).My real question is this:”How much does the shift into community in pomo philosophy stems from a shift from western to eastern religion? Is it that modernity was individualistic (depending on what you mean by that term BTW) because it assimilated previous Christian/Biblically held ideas of individuality with its Descartian view of the ego, or was it only the latter? And are we really getting our ideas of diminutization of the individual from the Bible or from eastern concepts that there is no individual and all are really connected? These are questions to ponder that I often think about and am not sure.—Jerome

  • scot,Your thoughts here have helped me think through a question that was addressed to me by someone I know about the importance of being a “member” of a church. Your points about us being eikons a part of a community helps me out here. So I asked the person to think of a word that captures being a part of a community that is supposed to reflect the nature and character of the Father-Son-Holy Ghost.

  • » could you define what meaning you are ascribing to “eikon,” as different than the basic meaning of “image/likeness/form”? and,» could you draw the lines between collectivist and community?

  • Glenn,Thanks for your comments and questions.Eikon is the word I am using in my attempt to come to terms with what the Bible says about human nature. Image of God is the normal term.Collectivism is used for a body that controls individuals for the good of the collective; community shifts the emphasis from the group to value-laden participation and, in particular, it is used by Christians for what the church is called to be.