Individuality in Community: The Lesson of Mutuality

“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character” (White, Education, 1903, p. 17).

Individuality is a powerhouse for change. Helping people find and exercise their individuality–their voice– is a crucial aspect of education and human development. Societies who figure this out are healthier, holier and more generative. They create more music and art, diversify their economy and generate lots of good ideas, discussions and great books.

So that is it. End of blog. Go out and do your individuality…..


Men and women who think for themselves and develop their voices not only lead industries, run churches, invent new markets, and become great presidents, they also become excellent dictators, rogue terrorists, and mental hospital patients!

There is something more needed. The creative power of individuality operates within the context of community.

“let US make man in OUR Image” (Gen 1:26).

Community created Individuality. Individuality IS NEVER THE WHOLE STORY. Community helps support that individuality and in my experience keeps it from being distorted, going rogue, destructive, and becoming more harm than good.

Lesson Learned

There have been several periods of painful learning in my life. Eventually, I am thankful for these….eventually.

One period stands out. It was a period of deep social conflict, self-abusive behavior, and long hours of work. Under the strain , I ended up in a mental hospital.

Facing my mental illness was especially hard for me. I make a living using my mind. I guess we all do. But as a university professor, I especially needed clear thinking to teach classes, answer questions, give academic guidance and write journal articles.

So, when I found myself looking up at the hospital ceiling listening to the incoherent shrieking next door, I suddenly became more teachable. “God, how did I end up here?” I wasn’t raising my hand to ask a cute little classroom question. This was a deep, soulful question…a prayer for learning.

I thank God and my loved ones and good professionals they didn’t leave me alone to my own thinking.

Over the next 10 years–it took longer than I had thought–the chaos slowly turned to deeper learning, hope turned into joy, and my “understanding returned to me” (to use King Neb’s great line).

So when I hear the song of individuality, I look to see if behind that solo there is a choir. If not, I get concerned. I figure someone might be headed toward mental illness or worse, success that might end up hurting community and devastating the individuality of others.

Oddly, when I look back on my own difficult learning, I realize my main problem was a distorted view of BOTH individuality and community. I had not developed a deep understanding of my own inadequacy and fallenness. Oddly, counter-intuitively, I also hadn’t simultaneously developed a deep understanding of my infinite value.

I hadn’t figured out my place in community and my value to it. I needed a deeper appreciation and experience of the gospel–God saves me, that is not my job but His. He can’t do that without my permission. That is my job not his. (He doesn’t open the door from the outside, but does give it a vigorous knock -Revelation 3).

I needed a deeper realization I couldn’t please everyone and didn’t need to try to, even as I needed to developed a deep desire to know their needs and even fulfill some of their wishes.

I needed them and they needed me. We were called to a mutual development. We could be reconciled, all up and down the ladder of humanity and divinity.

Oddly, the West gets the power of individuality and the East gets the power of community, but they can’t seem to get the truth they need both those ingredients to be a great society.

The failure of most systems–minds, families, denominations, politics, international relations–is a failure to bring these two together through practices of mutuality.

What I needed was an ability to submit to community–my faith community, my wife, my family, my work– and an equal ability to assert my individuality and frame my expectations of what I needed from community

Mutual respect, mutual dialogue, mutual codependency, and mutual accountability.

Those who think that is impossible or idealistic are rejecting the very NAME of God, the synergy of divinity.

The Trinity–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit– are creative precisely because they are all fully individual and fully unified.

They have their own “kingdom.” We can pray “their will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our earthly state is fragmented. Whenever community is used to “trump” individuality or individuality “trump” community we don’t see divine mutuality. In fact, “trumping” is the antithesis to mutuality. God the Father never “trumps” the Son. The Father makes knownHis will and the Son chooses to submit to it.

“For God so loved the world he gave…..”

This is initiation. This is individuality. But in and for community.

Can we figure this out?

Can the church lead the way to a better place? Can we catch a vision of this divine dynamic and let God bring it into our homes and churches?

Can we be a light to the world on how this works in a healthy way?

I hope so….

And hope is a powerful thing.

Ask anyone who used to be in a mental hospital just how important hope really is!!!!



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