Individualism vs. Person

Individualism vs. Person April 4, 2013

There is a radical difference between treating someone as an individual vs. treating someone as a person. That’s a strong claim, and there’s plenty of overlap — after all we’ve got an “I” and a “You” either way — but Andrew Root, in The Relational Pastor, sketches a thick description of the differences, and in this post we will look at six considerations.

What happens to family, work and ministry when personhood rises to the focus?

The problem we encounter all the time is that leaders — pastors in particular for this book and post — want to influence, but the mode of influencing others is the mode of individualism not personhood. “Personhood demands that I see the other as a mystery to encounter, and not as a will to mold through influence” (46).

1. You are your interests.  “Individualism is constructed around the core commitment of seeing people as fundamentally rational animals that are loyal to what enhances or fulfills their individual self-interest” (48). You are your interests; personalism says you are  your relationships. Individualism, either to the right or to the left, doesn’t want someone imposing or restricting the will.

2. Your interests are expressed in wants. Our wants are the tentacles of our interests. Pastoring too often become ministering to the wants (and interests) of others. The congregation becomes consumers — seeing itself as consumers and treated as consumers.

3. Interests and wants reshape people into objects. When interests and wants get framed into individualism then we treat humans as objects who help us meet our interests and wants.

4. Cooperation of mutual participation is the way of personhood. Individualism does not permit or encourage mutual indwelling, the heart of personhood.

5. There is no relationship with objects. We cannot indwell objects; we can only indwell other persons. We lose our humanity and create faux relationships when we treat others as objects and seek to have relationship with objects.

6. Idealism leads to the pursuit of individualism. It’s about an idea not a concrete person. “The personal, as opposed to individualism, holds not to an idea perspective but to the concrete life of the other before us” (56).

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  • J.L. Schafer

    I do appreciate these points and understand the need to focus on personhood. Lesslie Newbigin wrote eloquently about the difference between the western (Greek) view of persons as autonomous monads, versus the biblical (Hebrew) view of persons becoming persons only in the context of relationships.

    However, I’m growing weary of the tendency by so many authors (don’t know if this applies to Root, because I haven’t read his book yet) to point to western individualism as the main culprit. I was discipled in a Christian community that was rife with eastern (Asian) collectivism, which can be equally or even more damaging to people.

    “Idealism leads to the pursuit of individualism.” Yes, but it can also lead to oppressive collectivism.

  • RJS


    Interesting. Root seems to be trying to cast a positive of “personhood” – treating people like persons. He uses individualism as the counter example – which hits a note for many of us. How would you cast personhood vs collectivism?

  • J.L. Schafer

    Hi RJS,
    Collectivists are willing to sacrifice individual persons, their well being and their dignity, for the sake of the tribe. An understanding of the dignity and sanctity of individual life is Western Christianity’s most wonderful gift to the world, and I never want to lose it. Perhaps the culprit should be described not as individualism, but as selfishness.

  • J.L. Schafer

    And groupishness.

  • Jim

    I feel some of the discomfort of those above. I wonder whether it would be a helpful distinction to say that there is a difference between personhood and all that entails as something chosen and personhood and all that entails as something imposed.

    e.g. the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child…” sounds very positive on the face of it. How wonderful it would be if we all took a positive interest in all children, to recognize at that level that the well-being of children (ours and others) is a communal interest. However, it takes on a different tone when someone suggests that children ought not to be entrusted to their parents but ought to belong to the communal, or the ‘collective.’

  • Andy W.

    One of the best books I’ve read on this concept is “The Anotomy of Peace”. It’s put out by The Arbinger Group, which is a business/family/conflict consulting firm. No other book has influenced my personal faith more in the last 10 years. In fact, I think it’s time to read it again!

  • I agree with Andy W.: “The Anatomy of Peace” is a must-read. Also: Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” touches on the theme of this post.

  • Joel Schwartz

    Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) addresses a lot of these issues with his personalism while also making a point to safeguard against a reactionary swing to collectivism. The collection of his essays “Person and Community” is a great place to start looking at his personalism.

  • J.L. Schafer

    I’m amazed at the breadth of resources known to this online community. Thanks for the wonderful reading suggestions.

  • Marshall

    Are you defining “person” as “something (-body) you can have a relationship with? and is that necessarily an “individual”? Can I have a relationship with an object (the Bible), a collective (a congregation, a village, a college), or an abstraction (a theology/dogma, God in Three Persons)? I think you’ve got reductionism on one side and a can of worms on the other.

    “Treating objects like people is at least better than treating people like objects.” John D. MacDonald, I believe.

  • Jon G

    I’m loving the comments above. Thank you so much!

    On a slight tangent…I, personally, have noticed that I don’t just turn people from “persons” into “individuals”, but in my many years of time spent studying apologetics I turned God from a person into an individual. As a result, I believed philosophically in God while feeling farther and farther from Him relationally.

    I’ve since come to see how damaging that was to my faith and am focusing more now on experiencing God rather than analyzing God.


  • J.L. Schafer

    When you imagine God, do you actually think of him as one person or three persons? When I made the conscious effort to think of him trinitarianly, my understanding of scripture (especially John’s gospel) began to change a lot.

  • Jon G

    J.L. Schafer…that actually sounds like good advice. Unfortunately, me and the Doctrine of the Trinity aren’t on the best of terms. 😉

    Maybe I’ll just try giving God a last name…:-)

  • Dana Ames

    I wonder if Root has interacted with Orthodox/Patristic writings. Scot’s summary seems to indicate he might have, as I detect that “aroma”.

    I remember the late Richard Twiss, may his memory be eternal, saying, “God is one *because* God is three!” This also approaches the O. understanding.

    A very good book along the lines of Root’s discussion is “The Freedom of Morality” by Christos Yannaras. It’s a thick read, but well worth it.


  • Dana, I continue to be amazed at the breadth of Richard’s sphere of influence. I was blessed to be seen and known as a person by him and his family. I have been steeping myself in Dr. C. Baxter Kruger’s works at of late. It is worthwhile to know Father and Son and Spirit as the three whose interrelationship of cHesed makes them One. It is the way by which Jesus prays that we may experience this same oneness — with them and with all those who find their lives in them through Jesus. May that reality become more common…. Be blessed.

  • Mark E. Smith

    If it helps to create a false dichotomy, than go ahead. But it’s not helpful.