1998-1-23 Discipleship and the Individual

Eric Paul Lemonholm

January 23, 1998

Dr. Richard K. Fenn and Dr. Donald Capps

CS 364: Religion, Self, and Society

The Church, Discipleship, and the Individual


Ain’t No End

Pick up the pieces and pack up your mind

You don’t ask for what you have to find

Many people rolling out to sea

Let loose those floodgates that have held you back so long

Oh Lord, there ain’t no end left in one thing he tried to kill

Now there’s a station not so far away

I listen in most every single night

Wide is that valley that I can’t cross

This soul has been misplaced, in the desert it was lost

Oh Lord, there ain’t no end left in one thing he tried to kill

(Mark Olson, Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, “Ain’t No End,” from The Jayhawks’ album Blue Earth, Twin/Tone Records, 1989.)


This paper is an exploration of individualism, the self, and the Christian life.  What is individualism, and how did it get such a bad name in the Church?  Must the Church murder selves?  Is discipleship identical with soul loss, or soul murder?  Must the Church, as the body of Christ, destroy the individuality of its members?  The above are the negative questions guiding this inquiry.  Positively, I hope to move toward an understanding of Christian discipleship and disciple making which respects the integrity of the individual.  How can the Church nurture disciples who are strong selves, individuals created in the image of God, who are thoroughly equipped to serve, challenge, and nurture their sisters and brothers?  Can self-denial, the emptying (kenosis) of the self that Jesus demands of any who would be his followers, paradoxically lead to the true self-development of the disciple?  Can Christians redeem individualism?

I shall first search out an understanding of individualism and the status of the individual self in society.  Then, I will develop an understanding of discipleship that is neither communitarian nor individualistic, but which places a high value on the individual disciple.  While the disciple is oriented toward love for God and love for others, self-love is neither disregarded nor destroyed.

In his book Deadly Sins and Saving Virtues, Donald Capps correlates the eight deadly sins of the early Christian tradition with Erikson’s eight virtues in the human life cycle.[1]  In examining this topic for a recent paper, it occurred to me that often when individualism is criticized (or scapegoated), it is tacitly linked with the deadly sins.  Individualism is seen as the set of beliefs, the way of life, which fosters gluttony, anger, greed, envy, pride, lust, apathy, and melancholy!  Individualism becomes synonymous with selfishness, self-absorption, materialistic greed, arrogance, and disdainful isolation from one’s community and the world.  In short, individualism is the very opposite of virtue, understood (in Capps’ formulation) as cultivated dispositions toward “world engagement,” “continuity and constancy,” and “vitality.”[2]  Where the virtuous person is engaged, constant, and vital, the individualist, it might be said, is withdrawn, inconstant, and dead to the world. 

Is individualism that bad?  Can it take on itself all that we consider evil?  If individualism is synonymous with sin, why not use the word “sin”?  It is short and concise.  If individualism is depraved, one might further suppose, its opposite, communitarianism, must be virtuous.  To focus on the individual, therefore, is sin, while to focus on the wider community is virtue. 

The virtuous life, however, deserves a closer look.  The virtues are not reducible to communitarianism.  In fact, the virtuous person must be a vital (strong, lively), constant, and engaged individualIndividuals have hope, will (and courage), purpose (and dedication), competence (and discipline), fidelity, love, care, and wisdom.  There are no virtuous communities without virtuous individuals.  A virtuous person, moreover, does not love and care merely for a community.  We love and care, are faithful to and share our wisdom with, concrete others, individuals, with whom we are in community.  In fact, one who claims to care for a community, without caring for anyone in it, is a liar.  The community is an abstract term that summarizes any number of concrete relationships.  The wise do care for the community, for history, for the whole world.  Even wisdom, however, must be incarnated in the individual; wisdom must be appropriated by a unique center of experience, knowledge, and vitality.  There is no virtue of self-hate or self-negation.  Rather, the virtues are centered in a self, and develop only as the self grows through the life cycle. 

The community and the individual, therefore, are mutually interdependent.  Strong, healthy communities need strong, healthy individuals.  Healthy individuals grow in healthy communities, and thrive in them by serving, leading, teaching, and caring for others.  One cannot be pro-community and anti-individual at the same time, because both community and individual need each other.  The deadly sins are deadly precisely because they are destructive of both the self and its relationships.  Negative anger, for example, is not only sinful when it directly affects others; it can also be internalized as self-directed rage.  Healing an angry self is not a matter of exhortation—thou shalt not be angry—for exhortation may simply create more self-directed anger.  Rather, one needs to develop the virtues that defuse the anger and redirect the self: will and courage.  Will is “the unbroken determination to exercise free choice as well as self-restraint, in spite of the unavoidable experience of shame and doubt in infancy.”[3]  Shame and doubt are inevitable—the question is how will you react to them?  Will and courage together, argues Capps, help the self to remain engaged in the world despite disappointments, frustrations, and roadblocks.  Where anger withdraws in self-hate or lashes out at another, will and courage empower the self to keep struggling, to keep engaged in relationship with others and the world—and oneself—despite one’s own, and one’s environments’, inevitable shortcomings. 

The point is that, for anger versus will and courage and for all the deadly sins and saving virtues, the nature and character of sin and virtue are both relational (or communal) and individual.  For better or worse, all are centered in, formative of, and flow from the individual self.  For better or worse, all (at least potentially) affect the community.  The person of virtue will have the necessary world engagement, continuity, constancy, and vitality to help the community grow in virtue.  The person dominated by the deadly sins, on the other hand, may negatively affect the community by his or her lack of engagement, lack of consistent virtuous living, or lack of vital energy to love, care, and share wisdom.  Alternatively, one with a predominantly sinful disposition may hurt the community by an overabundance of sinful engagement, consistency, and vitality, if his or her sin habits are more willful and directed at others.  Thus, to rail against the individual as the locus of all that is sinful is foolish and dangerous.  Sin (and sins) can just as easily be communal.  Moreover, both the individual and the community need to be celebrated and strengthened, not further depleted.

However one evaluates ‘individualism,’ therefore, the individual self is a precious, fragile entity—and the foundation, life, and future of any community of individuals.  If we Christians are concerned about communities, we must nurture strong, virtuous selves.  Recognizing that the virtues ultimately flow from the fountain of the gracious God, we will pray that each person will grow in the virtues, while the deadly sins slowly lose their hold.  In other words, we must pray and work for stronger, more unified and integrated, healthier selves, for our neighbors and ourselves.  We must defend the individual from external and internal threats, from corporate and individual sin.

If one is going to criticize individualism, one must start from a basis of respect and support for the individual.  Robert N. Bellah, et al., seem to do so in their chapter, “Individualism.”  They write,

We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual.  Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our own lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious.[4]

This is a clear statement in support of the individual.  To violate the “dignity and autonomy of the individual”[5] is morally and divinely prohibited.  I am tempted to use this statement as a definition of individualism, and conclude that Bellah et al. support individualism.  However, they go on to oppose individualism to “the civic and biblical traditions,” which do not, apparently, uphold the dignity of the individual.  They then link individualism to the major problems of our society, such as “conformism,” materialism, consumerism, isolation, and the bureaucratic and therapeutic establishments.  The last element on the list, the therapeutic ethos, sits uneasily at the end, because therapy is clearly a societal necessity given the first five elements.  If, for example, middle class culture is characterized by “an empty self and empty relationships,” then therapeuein, the healing of both the self and its relationships, is necessary.[6]  Why blame the specter of individualism for all these empty, isolated selves?[7]

If a fair and accurate description of individualism is to uphold the dignity of the individual, what is the relation between the troubling elements of modern society and individualism?  Are the conformity, the materialism, the isolation, and the career-centered, bureaucracy-dominated life styles that our consumer-culture demands the fault of individualism?  Are not those elements of modernity anti-individualistic?  For example, the advertising industry clearly upholds materialism, conspicuous consumption, gluttony, greed, envy, and any number of sins.  Does it uphold the individual? 

Individualism is being scapegoated.  I could just as easily say that these elements of modernity are a pernicious development of communitarianism, because they are so clearly anti-individual.  When, for example, adolescents ‘rebel’ by dressing and acting like the musicians (and advertisements) they watch on MTV, they are conforming to an image seen by millions of teenagers on a cable station owned by a multibillion dollar multinational corporation.  Why call that individualism, when it clearly is not?  At the same time, it is not communitarianism, because MTV is neither community based nor community focused.  Such self-chosen conformity to media images may play an important role in the adolescent struggle for an identity, but it is not individualism.

Bellah, et al., explicitly distinguish the tradition of “modern individualism” from ”classical republicanism and biblical religion.”  They seem to contradict themselves.  On the one hand, they assert that all three traditions, “in the forms commonest in America, stressed the dignity and autonomy of the individual.”[8]  One would think, therefore, that all three embrace individualism; and Bellah and friends do indeed accept the viability of “civic and biblical forms of individualism.”  On the other hand, they admit that modern individualism (which they tend to personify as an autonomous agent in itself) confronted and opposed “those aspects of biblical and republican thought that accepted, even enshrined, unequal rights and obligations.”  They continue, “As the absolute commitment to individual dignity”—is that not individualism?—“has condemned those inequalities, it also seemed to invalidate the biblical and republican traditions.”[9]  These two traditions, it seems, both accepted the dignity and autonomy of the individual, and opposed them.

Some of the confusion of the Habits of the Heart troupe is based on an ambiguity, already hinted at, in their understanding of individualism.  They appear to uphold the autonomy and dignity of the individual, but then their definition of individualism tacitly shifts.

The question is whether an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can really be sustained.  What is at stake is not simply whether self-contained individuals might withdraw from the public sphere to pursue purely private ends, but whether such individuals are capable of sustaining either a public or a private life.[10]

One would think that, if one accepts the dignity and autonomy of the individual, one would accept that the self is a, if not the, “main form of reality.”  Their position is incoherent: one cannot simultaneously assert the dignity and sacredness of the individual and deny “the ontological priority of the individual to the institution.”[11]  Either the individual has dignity and worth apart from her or his membership in a collective or not.  The definition of individualism, however, has shifted.  Individualism now means to isolate “self-contained individuals” from private and public social life—and to advocate all the negatives of modern society outlined earlier (consumerism, bureaucracy, etc.).

Since the demon of modern individualism is wreaking havoc on our society, Bellah, et al., ask, “The question, then, is whether the older civic and biblical traditions have the capacity to reformulate themselves while simultaneously remaining faithful to their own deepest insights.”[12]  If these traditions had really “stressed the dignity and autonomy of the individual” all along, if they had not “enshrine[d] unequal rights and obligations,” there would be no need for such reformulation.  Rather than demonizing individualism, they ought to work to formulate and nurture a true individualism that is “capable of sustaining genuine individuality and nurturing both public and private life.”[13]

Barry Alan Shain clarifies this debate by demonstrating that the “biblical” (better Reformed Protestant) and republican traditions, as well as modern rationalism (among other streams of thought), were all firmly communal and anti-individualistic in the early years of the United States.  Shain makes a strong case that the idea that the Protestant and republican traditions were pro-individual is a myth.  On the contrary, early Americans were extremely anti-self.  The author cites Philip Greven approvingly:

The common men and women of America whom Greven describes as predominantly reformed Protestant and who today would be characterized as lower-middle class were even more hostile to the demands of the self than the republican-influenced elite.  Greven describes them as “engaged in a constant battle not only against the flesh but even more encompassingly against everything within themselves that gave them a sense of self and self-worth.  Self-denial meant nothing less than the denial of the self.”  For them, he continues, “life was nothing less than a constant battle with pride and self, and a constant seeking after humility, abasement, and impotency.”[14]

The biblical and republican traditions in America, far from supporting the dignity and autonomy of the individual, as Bellah, et al., assumed, were historically firmly anti-individual.  Thus, their recognition of the need to reformulate those traditions, i.e., to make them more individualistic, is correct.  In an age that daily assaults the self, through bureaucracy, consumerism, and capitalistic greed (for example), any tradition that advocates battling against “a sense of self and self-worth” is serving the Enemy.

The criticism of Bellah et al., therefore, is misplaced.  As Capps and Fenn note,

[I]ndividualism has been effectively screened out and excluded from American institutions.  Thus, where social institutions are concerned, individualism, as Emerson said, is an experiment that has never been tried.  Not only that, it has been systematically excluded.[15]

From church, university, and corporation, individualism has been excluded.  The importance of the individual is anything but emphasized in our era of downsizing and cubicle life.  Capps and Fenn stress the concept of individualism as scapegoat, as a screen “distracting our attention from the real villains in American society, those that are well-institutionalized, such as corporate greed, political corruption, bureaucratic organizations that no longer serve human needs, technologies that dehumanize, and the like.”[16]  It is precisely individualism’s lack of institutional backing and acceptance that makes it a convenient scapegoat for our society’s troubles.  At a time when individual autonomy and dignity are increasingly threatened by multinational corporations, for example, what better way to increase their power and influence than by attaching the blame for our problems on a potential opponent—individualism? 

In The Depleted Self, Capps defends expressive individualism from the attacks of thinkers such as Bellah.  Capps outlines the development of the narcissistic self in modern society.  In terms of the life cycle, one might say that the narcissistic self is especially concerned with overcoming the “pre-Oedipal”[17] conflicts of infancy and early childhood: the establishment of basic trust and autonomy.  Narcissism, which is often confused with individualism, can be understood (broadly, and simplistically, perhaps) as a lack of the development of the virtues of hope, will and courage in early childhood.  Such a person is dominated by mistrust, shame and doubt, and tends toward both withdrawal in mistrust of others and self, and compulsion, which is a lack of self-will and courage to engage the world from a strong, centered self.  The characteristic sins of the first two stages are gluttony and anger.  Both sins are especially characteristic of our age, which highlights the prevalence of narcissism.  All sins exist in all people, if only in a kernel of potentiality, but the prevalence of obesity, eating disorders, and addiction, as well as violence and abuse, testify to our narcissism.

Criticism of “individualism” and “narcissism,” however, tend to focus on later sinful dispositions, such as greed, envy, pride, and lust.  While these sins are deadly, to criticize someone for being prideful or lustful, when he or she is a fragile narcissistic self, consumed by mistrust, shame, and doubt, is missing the mark.  The deeper deadly dispositions are the anger and gluttony that consume and isolate the unstable self.  Efforts to motivate individuals to overcome their narcissism (such as instilling guilt, or exhorting them to be dedicated, or caring, or more loving) miss the mark, because they do not deal with the core problem.  Such efforts are destined to create more shame, doubt, and internalized anger (self-hate).  The pastoral imperative in this situation is to realize that one is dealing with a depleted self, and by no means deplete it further; rather, one must care for the fragile self, nurture and strengthen it.  Therapeuein is a necessity, if the individual is to grow in virtue and, eventually, to have the vitality, consistency, and engagement necessary to contribute to the community.

In a society of depleted, fragile selves, therefore, discipleship should consist of the development of strong, centered selves.  To be Christ-centered is to be neither self-absorbed nor absorbed into a collective other.  Rather, it is to be in an immediate relationship, by grace, with the God who loves us infinitely and bears our shame, our sin, and our rejection.[18]  God also creates the virtues in us that bring us closer to our true selves, the selves our Creator meant us to be.  By grace through the Spirit, we can hope for the sanctification that will bring us closer to Christ, the image (icon) of God, the image of true humanity.  As our selves are healed (a process that does not end), also healed (one hopes) is the dividing wall between us and our neighbors.  As God forms the virtues in the self, the individual is empowered to be Christ to the world, especially to one’s community.  The Christian life demands suffering and self-sacrifice, but not willful self-hatred or self-murder. 

The person of virtue has no need or desire to be self-centered, and can serve others from a stable, vital core of identity in Christ.  He or she can truly exist and act in reality, the reality that Christ has redeemed the entire world.[19]  The practice of the Christian life consists, essentially, of “prayer and righteous action” in the world.[20]  This is what is correct about the communitarian perspective: prayer righteous action are desperately needed in our communities.  But communitarians ought not conclude from that fact that the individual self is expendable.  On the contrary, the self must be nurtured even more.  To heal broken selves is to do Christ’s work in the world.



Pray For Me

Pray for me that I may keep

Faithful to you in my time

Beloved it is morn

Deeper yellow on the corn

Lovers work as children play

Beloved it is morn

One fine day I’ll walk the town

No love like yours to be found

Autumn days, autumn days

Heart and soul are full of light

Heart and soul, I’m tired always

Beloved it is morn…

Deeper red on the thorn

May God keep you in his sight

Beloved it is morn

Unknown steps before me fall

No love like yours to be found

Autumn days, autumn days…

Pray for me that I may keep

Faithful to you in my time

Beloved it is morn


(Mark Olson, Gary Louris, “Pray For Me,” from The Jayhawks’ album Tomorrow the Green Grass, American Recordings, 1995.)

Appendix: The Deadly Sins and Saving Virtues in the Life Cycle        
Stages Psychoso- cial Crises Saving Virtues Deadly Sins Disposition Maladaptive


Syntonic Element Adaptive Strength vs. Deadly Sin Dystonic Element Malignant Tendency
Mature Adulthood 65-100 Integrity vs. Despair Wisdom Melancholy   Presumption Integrity Wisdom vs. Melancholy Despair Disdain
Adulthood 40-65 Generativity vs. Stagnation Care Apathy   Over- extension Genera-tivity Care vs. Apathy Stagnation Rejectivity
Young Adulthood 18-40 Intimacy vs. Isolation Love Lust   Promiscuity Intimacy Love vs. Lust Isolation Exclusivity
Adolescence 12-18 Identity vs. Identity Confusion Fidelity Pride   Fanaticism Identity Cohesion Fidelity vs. Pride Role Confusion Repudiation
School Age 5-12 Industry vs. Inferiority Compe-tence (and discipline) Envy   Narrow Virtuosity Industrious-ness Competence (and discipline) vs. Envy Inferiority Inertia
Play Age 3-5 Initiative vs. Guilt Purpose (and dedication) Greed   Ruthlessness Initiative Purpose (and dedication) vs. Greed Guilt Inhibition
Early Childhood  1-3 Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt Will (and courage) Anger   Shameless Willfulness Autonomy Will (and courage) vs. Anger Shame and Doubt Compulsion
Infancy 0-1 Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust Hope Gluttony   Sensory Maladjust-ment Trust Hope vs. Gluttony Mistrust Withdrawal

Sources: Deadly Sins and Saving Virtues, pp. 24, 87; Erik H. Erikson, Joan M. Erikson, and Helen Q. Kivnick, Vital Involvement in Old Age, New York: Norton, 1986 (from class handout).


[1] See the Appendix for a handy chart on the deadly sins and saving virtues—from a previous paper.

[2] Donald Capps, Deadly Sins and Saving Virtues, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, p. 115.

[3] Erik Erikson, Insight and Responsibility, New York: Norton, 1964, p. 119.

[4] In Individualism Reconsidered: Readings Bearing on the Endangered Self in Modern Society, ed. by Donald Capps and Richard K. Fenn, Center for Religion, Self, and Society, Princeton Theological Seminary, Monograph Series Number 1, p. 25.

[5] Ibid., p. 26.

[6] Ibid., p. 31.

[7] Similar points were made by Drs. Fenn and Capps in class.

[8] Ibid., p. 26.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The words of Capps and Fenn, Ibid., p. 8.

[12] Ibid., p. 26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism, Princeton : Princeton, 1994, p. 105.

[15] Individualism Reconsidered, p. 5.

[16] Ibid., p. 9.

[17] Donald Capps, The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, p. 19.

[18] These last paragraphs are inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, 1959; and Letters and Papers From Prison, New York: Touchstone, 1997 [1953].

[19] Letters and Papers From Prison, p. 281.

[20] Ibid., p. 300.

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