Beyond Essentialism and Complementarity: Toward a Theological Anthropology Rooted in Haecceitas

By Horan, Daniel P. | Theological Studies, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond Essentialism and Complementarity: Toward a Theological Anthropology Rooted in Haecceitas


Horan, Daniel P., Theological Studies


The quest to understand the human person from the perspective of the Christian theological tradition has resulted in several proposals that have come under serious critical assessment in recent decades. Grounded in the scriptural foundation for intrinsic human dignity classically summarized as humanity's creation as imago Dei (Gn 1:27), many attempts to provide a comprehensive theological anthropology have reduced the effort to understand better the meaning of imago Dei to an explication of so-called "human nature." (1) This focus on the nature of the human person, rooted as it is in the Christian appropriation of Hellenistic philosophical traditions, can rightly be described as essentialist. Over the centuries of Christian history, this focus has resulted in numerous expressions of theological reflection that emphasize the substantial quality of humanity over and against the dignity and inherent value of the particular, individual human person. (2) The primacy of substance from a hylomorphic metaphysical standpoint within the Christian anthropological tradition has reinscribed an implicit androcentrism and the privileging of a certain male normativity, which feminist theologians have raised to greater consciousness. (3) This particular iteration of tacit normativity has surfaced most explicitly in theological and philosophical anthropological projects that seek to make sense of embodiment and the imago Dei in terms of gender complementarity. (4) Additionally, there have been more nuanced yet comparably problematic attempts to respond to an increased awareness of the effects of demarcating human being into binary terms of gender categories, while also striving to uphold the apparent substantial grounding of both Scripture and the metaphysical Christian tradition. (5)

As Marc Cortez and others have rightly observed, the task of identifying what it means to understand and talk about the "human person" continues to challenge other disciplines in addition to theology (e.g., sociology, psychology, biology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology, etc.). (6) Nevertheless, it remains the responsibility of the Christian community to strive for better understanding of what the idea of the human person means in terms of the Christian theological tradition.

My aim here is to propose a heuristic framework for theological anthropology in a postmodern setting. Contrary to the widely accepted presupposition that theology in our contemporary age must be nonfoundational (following Heidegger's critique of metaphysics and the subsequent rejection of so-called "ontotheology"), (7) I maintain that metaphysics in general is not entirely problematic, and that certain philosophical conceptions lend helpful insights to particular challenges in the construction of a sustainable theology. (8) Consequently, the possibility of identifying and engaging metaphysical insights should not be seen as impossible, inimical to, or in conflict with a postmodern constructive project in theological anthropology. On the contrary, I believe that John Duns Scotus (d. 1308), in his unique theory of the principle of individuation popularly known as haecceitas, offers us an often-overlooked resource for theological anthropology. (9) For reasons that I identify below, Scotus's approach, while of an ontological and metaphysical quality, nevertheless offers fecund possibilities for contemporary retrieval and critical engagement. His concerns were not those of contemporary theologians. I therefore do not suggest that the medieval Franciscan anticipated what we have come to recognize as problematic about essentialism and complementarity in light of feminist theory and postmodern philosophy. Nevertheless, the unique theory posited by the Subtle Doctor for understanding the particularity and individuation of "singulars" in his time might very well in our time provide a foundational principle and model from which to develop a theological anthropology that moves beyond many of the problems of essentialism and complementarity that have perennially arisen in previous theologies. …

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