The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood


In these pages James M. Houston, one of the greatest spiritual mentors of our time, offers a thoughtful and surprising examination of what it means to be a true disciple of Christ. The Mentored Life is a stirring call to the church to become a community of friends and mentors, following the ultimate Mentor, Jesus Christ, who alone can mentor us into full personhood.

"This challenging essay on being led to maturity in Christ is emphatically a book for chewing. Your readings, I promise you, will be time well spent,...

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In these pages James M. Houston, one of the greatest spiritual mentors of our time, offers a thoughtful and surprising examination of what it means to be a true disciple of Christ. The Mentored Life is a stirring call to the church to become a community of friends and mentors, following the ultimate Mentor, Jesus Christ, who alone can mentor us into full personhood.

"This challenging essay on being led to maturity in Christ is emphatically a book for chewing. Your readings, I promise you, will be time well spent, quite probably your most fruitful study time in years."- J. I. Packer

"The Mentored Life is a penetrating analysis of the psychological and moral failure of contemporary individualism, and a cogent demonstration that personhood demands Christian discipleship. If Christian people are to bring God into their own lives and the lives of others, it is along the lines presented in this book." - Dallas Willard

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573834476
  • Publisher: Regent College Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/1/2011
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

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From Individualism to Personhood


Copyright © 2002 James M. Houston
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57683-318-6

Chapter One

Overview: Modern Mentoring and Meta-Ethical Systems

Oneself as Another suggests from the outset that the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other. -Paul Ricoeur


Mentors have been around perhaps as long as the human race. Shamans and witch doctors, prophets and philosophers, leaders and teachers go back deep into our history. Moses and Joshua, Confucius and Mencius, Socrates and Plato, Hillel and the Pharisees, have all transmitted their ways of life from teacher to pupil, mentor to mentee. Thus the minds of great thinkers have been passed from generation to generation. Their efficacy as teachers also has been in being exemplars, providing a way of life that could be imitated in deed as well as thought.

However, modern rationalism eclipsed their significance with "grand rational narratives" that no longer narrate to us, as if "truth" and "life" were independent identities. Now disenchanted by such disembodied generalizations, our age is looking for the exemplars of truth as a way of life. When the architects of modern life have frequently been such poor samples of humanity, we become disenchanted with their inconsistencies.

Alienation in Modern Society

Thus the fact that mentors are now being prominently sought reflects first upon the alienation of our age. It also reveals an indifference to history and past traditions, for we forget today the long tradition of apprenticeship that was the basis of craftsmanship and of the role played by elders in many societies.

"Fixers," not Friends

Second, when we are looking for help from the right kind of people, "fixers" or even "teachers" are not enough. Living in a technological society, we tend to reduce everything to instrumental knowledge that "fixes" everything. But techniques cannot be a substitute for wise companionship. We miss "the presence of the Other" in a technical world. We also live in an information society where knowledge is readily confused with "thinking about things." We forget that the nurturing and caring relationship is inherent in effective teaching. Wisdom, after all, is much more than data processing. Activism that is devoted to a cause can also be a poor substitute for relationships, becoming too "busy" to cultivate friends. The Greek philosophers were wiser when they stated that "thought is not meaningful without action; and action is not meaningful without friendship." When a teacher acts kindly as a friend, the pupil is given much more encouragement and trust in the learning relationship. Wisdom, personified in a mentor, is thus the way of excellence (aretê). It is a friend who-not what-helps me to live life more fully and not to feel cheated personally in the process.

Out of Isolation

Third, the growing trend toward mentors today may reflect the increasing isolation of the self within our society. Certainly people are awakening to the need of mentors, as social dependence upon professions and institutions is weakening. Open, honest feedback is hard to obtain in the impersonal structures of society, where one's job may be at risk when there is too much personal vulnerability. Recognition, nurture, encouragement, attestation, and understanding-these are hard to find within a highly competitive, litigious, and politicized society such as ours. Also, when sexuality is adversarial, in a polarity of gender differences, again we become isolated, even within our gender differences. Mentoring as being "sexually complementary" may open more new horizons for us in our personal relationships than when we are only "politically correct."

To Walk the Talk

Fourth, in our day of tarnished leaders, fallen idols, and disenchanting heroes, we need moral exemplars who live as they talk, who integrate theory with practice, and whose unity of "head," "heart," and "arms" enables them to wholly make sense of their lives, public and private.

Perhaps coming from broken homes, or broken marriages, or other experiences of dysfunctional relationships, people are looking to mentors to make "a difference" in their lives. It may be a fatherly or motherly presence, a loyal friend who treats us differently, someone who exemplifies what is true and wise counsel, or one who helps to provide stable relationships. For all these reasons, the presence of loving mentors as traveling companions on life's journey may open the prospect of the Promised Land indeed.


Starting in the 1950s, with the rise of the self-actualization movement and its cult of self-fulfillment, a cultural sea change began occurring. Already in 1966 Philip Rieff could speak of "The Triumph of the Therapeutic," meaning that Psychological Man had displaced Rational Man, with subjectivism displacing objectivism. New paid "friendships" became available, with therapists hired specifically to "hear me" as my own family and friends had never "heard me" before, as long as the money lasted. Undoubtedly, the therapist has created an insatiable demand today for being heard by less expensive sympathizers. Perhaps the contemporary desire for mentors is thus also related to more awareness of differing forms of self-consciousness being experienced in place of conformities and conventional norms. These "life-worlds" we will critically explore.

In the business world, consultant services are analogous with institutionalized therapy, helping to restructure the ways business is organized. It is being called "shakedown." When leaders of industry need to make dramatic changes beyond the outside skills they may call upon, the inner support of wise friends still remains as a vital need. So the cry is everywhere, "I need a mentor!"

Functional Self-Identity

Perhaps most profoundly, the need today for mentors is, in light of the postmodern trend to redefine ourselves, no longer conventionally but inwardly so. We are not taking ourselves for granted as passively as in the past, either educationally, socially, sexually, or in other functions. Am I only a "thinking self" as the Aristotelian metaphysic has taught us to assume? Am I more than an "instrumental self," as Descartes has seduced us to think? Or am I merely the "doubting self," as followers of Nietzsche in their postmodern despair would tempt us to believe? All these various legacies have intensified a "functional" sense of self-identity today. But rebellious, reactionary choices of identity have become more possible than ever, all contributing to a new sense of the fragility of the self as it attempts to create its own identity. More needful than ever before, we are asking our mentors-not Descartes's famous phrase, "I think therefore I am," but rather-"Is it okay for me to have the identity 'I-think-I-have'?" For surely nothing is more basic to myself than my identity for everything I do or desire to be in life!


Perhaps our analogy of the forest network of roots mentioned in the Introduction does not go far enough. For we are also "environed." As fish swim in the sea and birds fly in the air, so human beings live within the historical and social environments of ideas, attitudes, and desires-shaped into forms of social consciousness inherited and further modified by us. That is to say, while we may individually be encouraged, reinforced, even inspired by other individuals, whose "roots" we may grow alongside as in a mentoring relationship, we are also conditioned socially by what the Germans call the zeitgeist or the "spirit of the age." These we may call "major systems of mentoring," or "meta-ethical systems," or even "life-situations" and "modes of consciousness."

The historical sweep of meta-ethical systems of mentoring that this book surveys is deliberately selective. It is not a historical survey. Rather it follows upon Søren Kierkegaard's three modes or levels of human existence: the Aesthetic, the Moral, and the Religious.

Heroic, Stoic, Therapeutic

In the first part of the book, we will look at the historic Heroic, Stoic, and Therapeutic models of mentoring. Briefly, the Heroic is a more bodily expression of consciousness, such as expressed in a warrior morality. The Stoic has a more deliberately moral code of behavior that is legislated and thought out deliberately. The Therapeutic has a more health-conscious behavior that involves individual as well as social health.

In researching these it struck me how close they are to Kierkegaard's three modes of consciousness or life-situations. However, they were developed independently before I began to pay attention to Kierkegaard's thought. This illustrates how a mentor can corroborate as well as guide us! Because these reflect on distinctive elements of our consciousness, they are more than passing historical models; they mark abiding influences that continue to intertwine and to distort the Christian interpretation of the self and of the wise mentoring needed.

It is significant that among theologians today there is a renaissance of Trinitarian scholarship. Interest in theological anthropology has risen, with a focus on persons, human and divine. Likewise, in the last three decades there has been renewed scholarly interest in studies on the thought of Kierkegaard. Curiously, the two movements have not been connected as they fruitfully could be. I have drawn upon both.

New Ways of Communication

There is also implied in this book that new ways of thinking will require new ways of communication. Mentoring has an indirectness of address that I shall try to cultivate in this text. It is maieutic, following the Socratic method of eliciting new ideas or insights from the other person. What is indirect and exemplary, rather than direct and informational, belongs to the more holistic communication among friends who care for each other. Thus, as we shall demonstrate in the following chapters, it is the eliciting style of the mentor, as well as the content of the message given, that communicates more effectively.


The second half of the book describes how the Christian is mentored by faith in the personal character of the triune God, by his Word, and by prayer, for the ultimate purpose of worship. Thus we contrast the Western identity of the self-enclosure of the "individual" with the Christian understanding of the "person" as one who is "open to God." The person has also an eschatological orientation toward the "new" that God beckons us to enter into, of love and fellowship with him and of our future destiny. For in this world, being an "individual" remains incomplete, leaving us with the restlessness that Augustine explored so deeply.

Implicit in the book is awareness of the modern distinction between sex and gender. Today "sex" denotes the biological difference of male and female, whereas since the 1970s, "gender" has become a psycho-social construct of differing emphases. Sex polarity has interpreted men and women differently from material bases, with a bias toward the superiority of the male, as in reaction some feminists now hold an inverse sexual polarity. Jacques Lacan has called the power games played by such polar attitudes "sexuation." Sex unity is defined by philosophers who interpret sexual equality in intelligence, so their focus is in the realm of reason. Sexual complement rarely has been sustained in history other than in Christianity, for it is based upon the relational or personal dimension, to which Christian faith gives unique understanding and interpretation. It is this viewpoint that is also basic to this book. When Christians themselves have had a low view of personhood, often because of Aristotelian or Roman influences, then generally speaking they have also had a low or confused view of womanhood. Individualism and sexual polarity tend to belong together, because both have substantial or materialistic biases. Thus it is only in sexual complement that personhood can truly flourish.

Professional Christians Versus "Friends of God"

The reader envisaged is the thoughtful Christian, perhaps one who is immersed in professional life and yet perceptive to see that a vital need today is to preserve the Christian life's "amateur status." For just as family life and friendship are where we live relationally, so is the Christian life. These are the realm of dilettantes, literally those taking "delight in" God, and as amateurs or "lovers" of each other. Our professional world scorns those in these categories as dabblers and unskilled hobbyists, which might suggest the Christian life cannot be taken with any seriousness in passionless professionalism!

Instead, however, of being awed and fascinated by "the professional way" of doing things, this book may help us rather to fear these distortions of Christian life as the contemporary cause for increasing unreality both of personal life and of faith. To reconsider and relive the Christian life as "befriended" in this homespun way is a passion behind this book. It is not written to advocate for a new mentoring market nor a new program of theological education. Its purpose is to get to know oneself before God more simply and genuinely as a "friend of God," who treats us transparently as we really are!

Therefore, there cannot be any stereotype for our unique identity before God. Every saint of God is a pattern, but no saint is the pattern. That is why we all need personal attention in discipleship and mentoring to guide us to "build our identity" righteously and socially to guard and guide us on our own journey of faith. This cannot ignore the Christian community nor the vital role church life should have. Local churches are simply composed of members whose qualities of individuation, or their lack of it, will affect the whole community. Real persons are needed to contribute and give shape to real communities.

Individuals do not make communities, only persons. This, I will argue, is a theological rather than anthropological category. Persons, not merely individuals, mentored to be open to the Other, are receiving a new identity in the triune God of grace.


Excerpted from THE MENTORED LIFE by JAMES M. HOUSTON Copyright © 2002 by James M. Houston. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1.An Overview: Modern Mentors and Meta-Ethic Systems
Part I The Natural Individual
2. The Heroic Myth of Mentor
3. The Stoic as the Autonomous Mentor
4. The Secular Psychotherapeutic Mentor
Part II The Christian Person
5. Mentored for Christian Living
6. Discipled to Be Persons in Christ
7. Discipled by the Word of God
8. Discipled for Worship and Community
For Further Reading
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2004

    read houston for spiritual formation

    once again, jim houston, has graced us with his passion for spiritual formation in christ. he's so good at cultural analysis and understanding the roots of matters. he applies his geography training once again to matters of the heart and soul and creates a geography of mentoring and friendship worthy of his teacher, c.s. lewis.

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