The Scandal of the Particular

Thisness

The Scandal of the Particular
Monday, March 19, 2018

That Christ’s incarnation occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place, is referred to—with great sincerity even among believers—as “the scandal of particularity.” Well, the “scandal of particularity” is the only world that I, in particular, know. What use has eternity for light? We’re all up to our necks in this particular scandal. —Annie Dillard [1]

Theologians call the principle of concrete-to-universal knowing “the scandal of particularity.” John Duns Scotus asserted that God only created particulars and individuals, a quality he named “thisness” (haecceity). Thisness grounds the principle of incarnation in the concrete and the specific. You can’t really love universals. It’s hard to love concepts, forces, or ideas. Ideology is just the ego wrapping itself around such abstractions.

Love—God incarnate—always begins with particulars: this woman, this dog, this beetle, this Moses, this Virgin Mary, this Jesus of Nazareth. It is the individual and the concrete that opens the heart space to an I-Thou encounter. Without it there is no true devotion or faith, but only argumentative theories.

Why is “thisness” so good and important? To begin with, such thinking was a breakthrough in the hierarchical Middle Ages, when the top and the center were considered most important. Any writing about a commoner’s life was very rare at that time. The concept of the individual apart from the group had not yet been born, despite Jesus’ talk of leaving the ninety-nine to search for the one (Luke 15:4). Kings and queens, the papacy, the office of the bishop, and nationhood were far more important than anything small, local, immediate, concrete, or specific. “My king is better than your king” and “my religion is the only true one” substituted for personal transformation or the sense that God was engaged with the individual and ordinary soul (which is precisely mysticism). The corporate, collective identity was preferred to a person’s own soul. Without truly seeing and valuing individual lives, war and violence become almost inevitable. Unless we can see and honor “thisness,” religion and politics are up in the head, and the heart and body will remain untouched.

Duns Scotus fully and happily live inside the communal Body of Christ, while still preserving and honoring the importance of the individual. He is an amazing example of bridging the gap. I find it most rare in our postmodern society on both the Left and the Right. He held onto the individual end of the continuum so strongly (almost unheard of in the 13th century) that some churchmen have accused him of actually fathering Western individualism! In truth, Duns Scotus held the entire continuum together—both part and whole—with such refined consciousness that he was very early dubbed “The Subtle Doctor” of the Church. We could use such subtlety today.

References:
[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press: 1974), 80.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 176, 180, 287; and
Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 4 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

You can only know anything by meeting it in its precise and irreplaceable thisness and honoring it there. Each individual act of creation is a once-in-eternity choice on God’s part. —Richard Rohr

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