In Essence

At the end of our conversation, Josh asked a question that I’ll try to paraphrase: “While you’re saying that people aren’t evil, are you also saying that there is something intrinsic to people that makes them do evil things?” I think that was the gist of it. I don’t think I adequately answered the question, but it gets at something that is certainly in the background of what I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks. Part of what I’m doing is launching an assault on metaphysics and essentialism.

I’ve talked about “strong theology,” Caputo’s term for a theology influenced by Neo-Platonic metaphysics. In short, God is the perfect hyper-being, situated above and the sustaining power for all things. God is the Essence of all things and each of us has an essence that is less perfect, less God, but still constitutive of who we are. So, a table is a table because it has the essence of tableness and a human is a human because it has the essence of humanness. Each of these essences is a part of the great chain of being that descends from God, the perfect Essence.

This can be a helpful way of thinking. Because it is teleological, oriented toward an end or purpose, it give us a direction. We can, as they say in some traditions, “move on to Perfection.” Thus, it gives us a framework for participating in the Divine. It’s also a handy justification for human rights. We all deserve rights because we are human beings, regardless of what differences we see on the outside. This is one of the stronger arguments for the pro-life movement. It also gives us comfort when we die because our eternal soul rejoins the Divine Essence. This is where our notions of heaven and hell come from. Sometimes, we speak this way about more negative things. When people do bad things, we say it’s “human nature.” But, while helpful in some ways, there are some problems.

First, there are empirical problems. No one can say what “essence” is. It can’t really be said to be real. This is turned into a positive by its purveyors, saying it is more real than real. Think of how people talk about “the real me.” Sure, I did all those bad things, but “that’s not the real me, that’s not who I really am.” We talk of this life as but a brief interlude for the real life beyond. The world of flesh and blood and bone is a deception, a distraction for what really is. This causes us to distrust and deemphasize the material world.

Second, any deviation from perfection, which is everything, is seen as a problem. Everything that is, the entirety of our existence, is seen as a diminution of God, a little leak of not-God seeping into God’s perfection. Again, this is framed as a positive, God’s love reaching down into the void. That leaves us with a dilemma as to how God’s perfection, especially God’s perfect power, encounters and engages the nothingness. As Caputo puts it: “Omnipotence leaves God holding the bag and forces us to offer lame excuses for God to the effect that evil is a little nothing that has leaked into being and that God is only responsible for the being, not the leak, while we, wicked things that we are, are almost all leak, so that a flood is a fitting way to end it all.” You can see how such a setup requires a cosmic magic trick, blood spilled and bodies broken, to restore all things to perfection.

Just as essentialism is in the background of “strong theology,” Caputo’s “weak theology” has phenomenology lurking in the shadows. Phenomenology takes our experiences in this world seriously. Rather than looking at an abstraction that is supposed to be beyond or behind our perceptions, it asks what we see and then considers how we think and talk about it. What are the consequences of thinking and talking that way? How does that thinking and talking order our world?

You can see how this is playing out in weak theology. Caputo is more concerned with God as a call than as a causal entity. He is more concerned with how that call shapes the meaning of our lives than the metaphysics behind our lives. And for people, rather than being victims of a nature we did not choose and cannot control, we have choices to make. Those choices involve risk, but they also hold promise.

So, to (finally) get back to Josh’s question, we are souls making our way through the world. It is a finite world and those limitations create real stresses, real fears. That world puts us to choices all the time about who we will be, about how we will answer God’s call. If we answer in fear, those fears build. Eventually, we identify with those fears so much that our identity is dominated by our delusions, doubts, and desires. We no longer know who we might be if we lived into hope and faith and love. That is definitely sin, sin from which we need to be saved and redeemed, but it is a matter of experience felt in flesh and blood, not some evil nature that defines us as human beings.

For me, Neo-Platonic metaphysics has always been a stumbling block and Caputo’s weak theology is a welcome remedy. It makes better sense of my experience of myself, of my own behavior. I also think it is more biblical. Whether we’re talking about the creation narrative in Genesis 1 or Paul’s own struggles to be the person he would like to be described in Romans 7, notions of essence don’t add much to the party. Most importantly, they are a clear infusion of the social location of New Testament authors into their writing. With some critical reading, we have a great opportunity to decouple metaphysics from our faith in a way that definitively restores our agency, God’s goodness, and hope for change.

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