On the providential significance of individuality

(A Romanian version of this article is anticipated to appear soon in a separate publication.)

God created the human person in such a way that her existence is characterized by a universal-particular dynamic. All humans, insofar as they are human, share certain traits specific to humanity, in addition to animality and life in which other creatures on earth also have a share. We might also note those common loves on which lasting friendships are built. Noticing these points in common inspires solidarity and love among persons. On the other hand, throughout the course of a lifetime a person comes to discover her own individuality and particularity, especially when interacting with others, and the differences which appear among persons may sometimes give birth to antagonism and conflict, even hatred and war. Therefore we might pose the question: why did God create us as individuals? Without pretending to treat the matter exhaustively, I propose to relate a bit of the opinions of three Christian thinkers on this subject. 

Let’s begin in the Middle Ages. St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), in The Dialogue §7, discusses the problem of individuality in the light of the commandment to love our neighbor. God tells St. Catherine that He did not create all persons the same, even though it would have been easy for Him to do so, in order to give us a reason — more than that, to impose on us a necessity — to practice reciprocal love. Endowing each person with particular but incomplete gifts and charisms, both spiritual and earthly in nature, God in some way constrains us to depend on one another and to relate to one another in love. Moreover, seen from the opposite direction, each person’s particularity provides her with the opportunity to the serve the other as a “servant for Christ’s sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

Now, turning to the Church Fathers, I cite the great Origen (185-254). In Homily XVII on Joshua, the Alexandrian gives an allegorical interpretation of the differences of inheritance between the Levites and the other Hebrew tribes. The latter inherit land and properties, material blessings, whereas the Levites don’t receive any such goods, though they will depend materially on the gifts of the other tribes, because their inheritance is the Lord and the sacrifices offered to the Lord (Josh 13:14). The same is true among Christians: priests and teachers such as Origen, who, renouncing an earthly inheritance, have consecrated themselves to the study of the word of God, are materially supported by laymen, so that the latter, being taught, “can have a share through the help of others in the wisdom and knowledge of God, in his word and truth.” In this way, then, through the diversity of vocations, no one in God’s people is deprived of what he has need in any domain.

Finally, I mention the estimable Mr. Andrei Pleșu, who in Minima Moralia (București: Humanitas, 2008, p. 26) has proposed a very beautiful interpretation of the unique difficulties we all face in the effort towards perfection. He considers our particularities a sort of “question formulated by the Absolute before our conscience.” We are exhorted to integration as individuals in “the great dance of the universe” through an ethical life, becoming thus the salt which gives flavor to the cosmic recipe. This is to say that our individuality represents a challenge and a particularized invitation from God. But how will we respond to the exhortation of our received uniqueness?

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About Steven

I study theology and philosophy without ceasing. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University (2013), and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016). I am currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at Grand Canyon University and a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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