In some recent discussions, both in the blogosphere and in my church, the question of essentialism and its key problems for Chrisian theology have recently been brought to the forefront of my thoughts. Now, just to be clear, when I refer to essentialism, I’m referring of the philosophical idea that there is a set of characteristics, all of which any entity of a specific kind cannot fail to have. Thus, to be human, I must posses ______, which constitutes me as human. This characteristic is the “essence” of what it means to be human. To be a human one must posses this “essence”.
Such an ontology, must be rejected for a number of reasons, one of which I want to take a look at here. A key problem with essentialism is that it is ‘essentially’ violent. Essentialism is violent precisely because it determines our ontological status as something that we posses in and of ourselves. If reason, for example makes me human (as has often been thought in Christian theology), then my possession of reason must be safeguarded at all costs in order for me to retain my personhood. On such an essentialist framework, no matter what the characteristic is asserted to be, my ontological status is something that I posses, and therefore can be dis-possessed of. Therefore anything that comes to me from outside myself, that is different is a threat. Who I am as a being is something that comes from within myself. Anything that comes from outside can only diminish or worse, destroy who I am.
An essentialist ontology ultimately wants to deny any ontological weight to difference. Within an essentialist framework, difference can only be violent, since my be-ing is self-enclosed because my ontological status exists by virtue of a given characteristic that I possess in and of myself. Thus, for an essentialist, it seems that difference would be the ultimate foe, to be feared and resisted. Despite its long pedigree in Christian theology, we have to call this whole ontological framework radically into question precisely on Chalcedonian grounds.
While there are ways in which the definition of Chalcedon can be read as affirming sameness against difference within the framework of essentialism, it also seems to radically undermine such an ontology because difference is presupposed throughout, i.e. Christ absolutely both divine and human. Thus, on a Chalcedonian framework all our knowledge of God is given precisely through the sheer difference of Christ from us, in that he is not merely “same” (human), but irreducibly “other” (divine). What the incarnation says is that essentialism is false because in Christ we see that sameness and difference coexist in perfect, noncompetitive harmony, and only in its light do we have knowledge of God. An incarnational ontology demands that we view difference, not as violent, but precisely as the area in which noncompetitive, salvific communion is established between humanity and God in Christ. What we are confronted with here is a gospel-ontology, a story of being that takes its shape fundamentally from the narrative of Christ. For a Christian, our story of being must be nothing other than the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. Soteriology is ontology.
In contrast to a gospel-ontology, an essentialist ontology corresponds to a theology of creation, particularly a doctrine of creation in which creation is seen as a cosmos. For the essentialist, what exists is fundamentally a “thing” which is what it is by virtue of its internal essence, which is ‘essentially’ timeless and universal. However, in the biblical understanding of creation, what the Triune God creates is not a cosmos, but rather a history. If creation were a cosmos constructed of a bunch of self-defined (and therefore self-enclosed) essences, communion would be impossible. All things would remain self-enclosed, self-defined objects that could never experience communion as something other than the violent intrusion of alien forces upon their being. But because creation is a history, namely the history of Jesus, communion is not only possible, it is actualized in the concrete history of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. If creation is a history, then the only way to formulate a gospel-ontology is to narrate the story of Jesus. In a history, what exists is not a given, rather what exists is what it is in virtue of what it is dynamically becoming in relation with the Future. In a history persons shape and form one another as they are drawn toward the End if the story, the dramatic denouement. And if history is ultimately understood correctly as the history of Jesus we can say that in history, persons find their identity, their dramatic coherence in the communion between the Triune God and the world that happens in the history of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Thus, in contrast to essentialism, we have our being, not because we possess some essence, but because we are included as characters in the dramatic history of Jesus Christ. For Christians, the narrative of Christ is our ontology. Our being exists ekstatically – outside ourselves — precisely in Christ’s concrete history. In Christ, ontology and history are not just united, they are one and the same thing, in perfect nonviolent, noncompetitive harmony. Our be-ing takes place insofar as the history of Christ incorporates us into its movement, that is into the story of Christ’s love which is just another way of saying ‘death and resurrection’. Insofar as we are drawn by the Spirit to participate in the history of Jesus, we come to be. We come to be precisely as participants in the Christ-history, which is the ultimate story of being, createdness, and salvation. The end of that history, the end of our story of being is thus, not violence or fear, but peace, feasting and joy. The other, the different, which to an essentialist could only be a source of fear and danger, is in the gospel-ontology, pure gift. “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Thus, in a gospel-ontology, we are driven to say the following when we tell our story of being: “To be is to be a part of the story of the love of God, which is identical with Jesus’ death and resurrection.”