The curse of pursuing individuality … avoiding formative relationships …

A retiring school Superintendent once told me, "You cannot overcome heredity and environment." He expressed frustration in attempting to work with young people whose parents and social context distracted them from learning. How could educators expect to impact students who spend more time in adverse conditions? Countless parents asserted the teachers failed their children when support for education came in a distant second to being sure "Johnny" or "Jane" could do as they pleased.

149268694_abdcbc43b4 Social networking gains attention with MySpace and Facebook, among others. I am Linkedin. People really do find out there is little originality in our attempts to play up our individuality. Bred to be independent we look for ways to unhook from any shackles keeping us from "being ourselves." We want few commitments lest they become some sort of tyrannical overlord sapping us of freedom of expression. Conversations with our daughters over the years attempted to help them see most attempts to be different simply cast them in the normal. Everyone wants to be themselves. We think we are who we are independent of others.

That is precisely what my Superintendent friend attempted to articulate. We  really cannot escape forming relationships. Young children do not get to choose those relationships. As we get older we hope to learn to forge relationships forming us in healthy ways. One of the battles we face in the Church is just how to play up the understanding of individual responsibility while at the same time giving proper space to communal relationships. Our American West heritage props up the need for a "corporate" identity (patriotism) and at the same time the self-determination necessary to achieve the American dream (individual success). We face ethical decisions in the process. Do we choose for the community or the individual? What are the formative consequences?

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote Resident Aliens. I have read quotes on others’ blogs, notably Jordon Cooper’s. I began reading my copy this morning and am more than halfway through. The following quote stirred me to thinking about ways in which we in the Church should work to undermine notions of hyper-individuality and help each other see the beautiful way we could not be without the "other."

    Modern people usually seek individuality through the severance of restraints and commitments. I’ve got to be  me. I must be true to myself. The more we can be free of parents, children, spouses, duties, the more free we will be to "be ourselves," to go with the flow, to lay hold of new and exciting possibilities. so goes the conventional agrument.
    Yet, what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life? Where is there some "self" which has not been communally created? By cutting back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows. So an important gift the church gives us is a far richer range of options, commitments, duties, and troubles than we would have if left to our own devices. Without Jesus, Peter might have been a good fisherman, perhaps even a very good one. But he would never have gotten anywhere, would never have learned what a coward he really was, what a confused, the confessing, courageous person he was, even a good preacher (Acts 2) when he needed to be. Peter stands out as a true individual, or better, a true character, not because he had become "free" or "his own person," but because he had become attached to the Messiah and messianic community, which enabled him to lay hold of his  life, to make so much more of his life than if he had been left to his own devices. (Resident Aliens,p.64-65)

More and more we want to unhook from the very communities designed to form us to be "the Church" in the world – including the trouble we experience there.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

7 comments on “The curse of pursuing individuality … avoiding formative relationships …

  1. says:

    I think that is why Bonhoeffer’s Life Together has been so influential for me. When you’re going through the things he was going through you probably don’t spend a lot of time pondering your own individuality, but the connections you have with your brothers and sisters, particularly those in Christ, begin to transcend a lot of the surface stuff that tends to bother us otherwise.

    That little book changed forever how I will look at the church.

  2. says:

    Bonhoefffer and the “Confessing Church” provides the framework for something of a third way between right and left for Hauerwas and Willimon.

    I agree that little book is worth more than you or I had to pay for it.

  3. says:


    This is good stuff.

  4. says:

    I am currently discovering that all my questioning and (re)discovering has little import without a community to work it out with/on! While I’ve got the freedom to work through things without restraint that same lack of restraint prevents real testing apart from a 1.5 hour meeting each week.

  5. says:

    Yeah, I think it’s also a bit more than that as well. Even agreement needs a context to work itself out in. There also needs to be something to change and be affected more than a single mind.

  6. says:

    Oh, and in a community there is a contrast that becomes more apparent than when one is alone. Whithout a social “norm” there’s nothing to stand out against. So we need to ‘belong’ to truly rebel?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I think Wade Hodge’s ( description of his blog is helpful when thinking about the ways community helps us work through life, “Without disagreement, nothing can be learned.”

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