Individual vs. person

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June 29, 2015

Sometimes I think the church struggles with the tension between its individual members and its task of being a communal body. In a socio-economic context such as ours, where individual choice is paramount, different branches of the Christian church have tried to address this tension in different ways.

Within the more evangelical traditions, the tendency is to make faith as specific to individuals as possible: it’s about Jesus as my personal saviour who died for me and a “brand” of Christianity that’s tailor-made for my individual lifestyle and needs.

Mega-churches are particularly prone to framing the Christian faith this way. In my view, though, this kind of Christianity risks simply catering to individualism and actually builds its theology on a capitalist framework (with members being reduced to individual consumers). This kind of Christianity shies away from challenging people, because it preaches a gospel of comfort or the “prosperity gospel” instead (in which God blesses/rewards people with monetary wealth). The kingdom of God within this theology is really right-side-up instead of resembling the upside-down one Jesus talked about.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the tendency to put the needs of the church as a community above the needs of individual members. The Mennonite tradition is prone to this kind of imbalance, since it has historically been so communitarian in emphasizing the church as the Body of Christ, whose members read and interpret the Bible, live out their faith as disciples, and hold one another accountable together, as a community united in Christ and the Holy Spirit (in theological terms, we have communitarian hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and pneumatology).

But this tendency, as recent discussions of sexuality and sexual abuse have so painfully highlighted, risks failing to take seriously the needs of individuals or minorities, simply because the majority is uncomfortable with hearing and addressing them; it can devolve into a kind of democracy which leaves the minority behind for the sake of the larger group, rather than working or struggling toward consensus and equality. It tends toward rigorous challenge and neglects the ministry of comfort, understood as mercy and compassion.

Now I’m not claiming to have any easy answers, but I came across a definition of personhood that seems to strike a helpful balance between people and communities. It’s from an article by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the founder of “mujerista” (Hispanic/Latina, women-centered) theology (a variation of feminist, womanist, and liberation theologies).[1] Interestingly, she makes a distinction between the individual and the person, and talks about how each impacts our definition of freedom.

Here’s how she explains it:

“…there is a difference between an individual and a person. A person knows herself and thinks about herself as a social being. An individual, in contrast, thinks himself to be unrestrained by social ties and believes that to be fully himself he does not need to take anyone else into consideration. The individual has a sense of totally unrestrained freedom. For the person, on the contrary, being herself carries a social mortgage: she knows her freedom is related to that of others.

“The problem with the liberal [i.e., rationalistic, individualistic, and capitalist] way of thinking about freedom is that personal freedom is not without limits precisely because, even if they do not recognize it, as human beings we need others and others need us. As human beings we owe ourselves to others; we are accountable to others for who we are and what we do. As social beings, our personal freedom is restricted, and we are not free to opt without taking others into consideration. Taking others into consideration when opting does not limit one’s freedom but rather helps us understand freedom in a realistic way, in a way that recognizes the sociality of human beings. To recognize that we have to take others into consideration when we choose is to accept the finitude of human beings, a finitude that is ever present to the oppressed in their cotidiano [or everyday experience and struggle].”

I would very much recommend reading the rest of Isasi-Diaz’s article (in which she talks about the need for the church to side unequivocally with the poor and oppressed), but for the purposes of this article, I think her definitions provide a new way of balancing our personhood with our “sociality.”

For the church, this means that we don’t share an understanding of individuals as isolated beings who are totally free to choose whatever they want without consequences for others, but neither do persons get lost within groups or communities without their needs being taken seriously. Isasi-Diaz gives us a way to overcome the individual-community dualism through balancing and connecting them: we cannot think of ourselves as individuals but rather as persons who are always already social, bound up with other people who help us be who we are and do what we are meant to do.

In short, persons are free within the context of community, which makes our identities and actions possible; Christians are free to live out their faith within the context of the church, but they also help shape that church through their own gifts and insights. The church cannot exist without its members, and members aren’t members except for the fact that there is a church!

What are your thoughts on this balance? Do you think this understanding of personhood contributes to the conversation?


[1] Taken from the book, Decolonizing Epistemologies, the article is entitled, “Mujerista Discourse: A Platform for Latinas’ Subjugated Knowledge.” Thanks to my friend Melanie Kampen for bringing this article to the attention of our monthly discussion group!

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I will share your blog with my social network and for future reference. I have a maxim "Beware of the individual without the church. Beware of the church without the individual." The meaning of "person," as different from "individual," as you have defined it, is helpful.

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