It is the responsibility of every Christian to understand and actualize him/herself as an individual. One cannot properly serve God without understanding what it means to be, what a self actually is, biblically speaking; but we also have to “actualize” this information by putting it into practice. In other words, for all of our philosophizing, it does us no good if we cannot apply it to our lives. This is precisely why existentialism is the most necessary starting-place in philosophy, if I may be so bold; and we find the same emphasis in the Scriptures, when man is constantly “called out” of his context, his sin-saturated situation, to walk by faith. The primacy of individuality does not negate the call to community, but it is on the other side of the invitation’s divide that we come together; one cannot truly belong to the body without first having been separated from former binding ties.
One of the steps towards this necessary individualizing is recognizing the importance of facticity, in both a positive and negative sense: how it helps us make sense of God’s purposes, and how it can prevent us from obedience to Jesus Christ.
What is facticity? Simply put, it is the concept of an individual’s context. It is the sum total of the facts about myself, the situation I find myself “in the middle of” when I engage in self-examination. These facts are my race, my gender, my age, my family situation, my particular point in the timeline of my ancestors and descendents. Facticity is the “factualness” of my existence in the world. I cannot change its facets, cannot alter them except through some kind of violence to my body or mind.
We see facticity in the Scriptures when God approaches humans and speaks to them in their context. These details are always mentioned, sometimes to demonstrate God’s mercy, sometimes to show the faithfulness of the called. But they are unalterable realities in each case.
Facticity is heightened through the Incarnation. When God enters the world, He enters into a particular context, born to a certain family, taking on a particular occupation. Jesus was not a Chinese farmer or an American businessman, but a Jew living in the shadow of Rome’s occupation. It was as such that He lived and died.
We see facticity, too, in our everyday lives. So much of our context simultaneously liberates and limits us. Many decisions — our birth parents, our initial geographical locations, where and how we are educated — are outside of our control. Even when we enter into the relatively wider freedoms of adulthood, we still find ourselves confined: our race and gender, for instance, may preclude us from certain privileges, or our intelligence may limit us from comprehending particularly difficult concepts in certain academic fields.
It is worth noting that facticity is different from the concept of “intersectionality,” (1) which essentially reduces all socio-political interactions to degrees of oppression. Facticity is not inherently negative, as intersectionality is often perceived to be (and usually is): it is simply a “tallying up” of facts about myself that exist despite my decisions.
With all of that said: what of it? Facticity at first seems to be a fancy way of pointing out the fairly obvious, and hardly seems like a concept worthy of stealing our time. However, a more detailed examination will evidence how facticity has some powerful theological and philosophical implications for the understanding and actualizing of the self. Particularly, we need to look at how facticity interacts with freedom, God’s sovereignty, and our obedience to him.
Facticity and Freedom. The first important lesson of facticity is a negative one: it exposes to me the limits of my freedom. Despite the abilities of the human spirit to exist beneath incredible psychological and spiritual pressure, the lengths to which people have gone to grow and gain new abilities, facticity stands as a guard against the autonomy which would have man become a little god. There are certain doors that remain slammed shut and locked against my endeavors, no matter how hard I strive. I, for example, would never succeed as a nuclear physicist; my brain is wired to tackle more linguistic, literary, and philosophical matters, and I struggle with material that is (to me) excessively technical, mathematical, or scientific. This is because of facticity, the genetic make-up of my psychology that I cannot escape.
Of course, facticity must not be used to negate the power of choice. I always must choose: I have the responsibility to do so, before both God and people. What facticity does is establish the limits. There are not “boundless choices” in every moment, even if there are several, including those which I cannot properly perceive.
Facticity and Sovereignty. The relation of facticity to God’s Divine purpose is closely tied to its relation with freedom: it is because of His sovereignty that my freedom is limited. We could even say that facticity is the “human” side to God’s sovereignty: we are in our particular context because He has so decreed it, always without explanation to us, for we are owed no answer from Heaven. All of Scripture, as said above, points to this contextualization of existence: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman…”
Recognizing facticity, then, is recognizing His sovereignty. It helps me to see the context into which I have been placed as my context, in which God desires to use me for the furtherance of His kingdom. Rather than complaining and kicking against the limits of my existence, I accept them, even with gratitude, as the lines of demarcation which implicitly guide me through my life. Of course, in this sense, facticity is difficult to understand “in the moment.” One can never step outside his or her context, and can only review it from a healthy distance. What may seem like a limit established by my facticity at the time may simply be a missed opportunity which, if approached again, would yield different results.
What should also be recognized is that facticity does not equal fatalism, and should not lead to a state of infinite resignation. The person who takes facticity as a resounding cosmic “no” to his or her endeavors has misread the limitations of context. Humility should flow from us when we realize that God, in His wisdom and unalterable purpose, has fashioned the boundaries of our lives; but we should not take this as a sign to avoid action.
Facticity and Obedience. With all of that said, there is a negative side to facticity: if a proper attitude towards it is not cultivated, it can become an excuse to avoid obedience, to justify compromise and spiritual laziness. It can even lead to a loss of passion for life itself, a lack of drive, and contentment with that loss and lack that sediments and becomes integral to one’s personality.
Any good hermeneutics will demonstrate that all of the ethical demands of the Gospel are situated in a context. Of Paul’s thirteen letters, only two of them appear to be unprompted by a specific crisis with the believers to whom he was writing; in the Gospels, Jesus is always speaking to a particular audience, in a particular time and place. With all of that said, however, the moral imperatives of the New Testament are just as applicable to us as they were to the original readers because they are concerned with the kinds of people that God has called us to be, regardless of our circumstances. While the situation in which I am called to be patient, for instance, may be quite different from the situation of a first century believer in Thessaloniki, the characteristics of patience as a virtue will look remarkably similar because patience as an eternal quality of genuine faith has not shifted in its appearance or characteristics.
Therefore, facticity can never be wielded as a weapon to obedience. In fact, the call of Christ specifically transcends facticity, as we see in the Gospels when He calls the disciples and they leave their careers, their families, and their hometowns to follow Him. I must consider my context when I am considering obedience, because ethics always interacts with the environment. But the environment is not a true barrier to obedience. God always calls me in my context, often out of my context, in order to transform it. He who is Eternally Unfactical became facticity itself, that we may transcend the facts our existence, that which is merely earthly, and walk in the Spirit, undetermined by anything but the Divine will.
(1) This is not to say that there is no legitimacy to some ideas put forth by intersectionality. Societal oppression is a reality for many people. The Scriptures constantly address caring for those who are at a disadvantage. Intersectionality becomes problematic when it only wants to view a person in terms of how they are oppressed. It is, in that sense, a negative spin on facticity, and does not recognize the ability to obtain freedom despite one’s circumstances. Not everyone who argues for intersectionality takes this line of thinking, but it is a danger, and it does occur.