Facticity

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. 


Footnote:

(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.


PC: Photo by Michael Emono on Unsplash

Solicitude and Golgotha: A Good Friday Meditation

“Care, as a primordial structural totality, lies ‘before’ every factical ‘attitude’ and ‘situation’ of Dasein, and it does so existentially a priori; this means that it always lies in them.”

Martin Heidegger

In the Incarnation, we see the embodiment of God’s solicitude, which is at the center of Who He Is for others — and at the center of who we are, created in His image to be primarily relational beings.

Sin inevitably involves a falling away from this solicitude. So each man becomes an island, isolated and alienated, no longer concerned with the interests of others but only with his own. But to be turned in on one’s self is to slowly implode, spiraling downward into a deteriorating despair that limits vision and prevents awareness.

The man who has lost his solicitude has lost his sense of purpose. He cannot see the threads that unite him to others; he cannot understand the impact of his actions, how the environment is transformed by even the most miniscule of his decisions. He does not see the interconnectedness of the world around him, and his orientation becomes so inwardly turned that even the good he does is tainted with ultimately destructive self-absorption.

By taking upon Himself our nature, the Son demonstrated the fullness of His outward orientation, the fundamental constitution of humanity. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve: His focus outward, His eyes set to serve, His hands poised for the miracle needed to transform the lives of the broken and undone.

This solicitude is seen the most transparently on Good Friday. It is there, on Calvary, that solicitude is exemplified through action, most particularly through sacrifice. But this sacrifice is more than simply a giving up; it is a complete expenditure of self, accompanied by a bearing of an otherwise unbearable weight. What Christ pours out is His own life; what He takes upon Himself is the complete gravity of our transgressions, past, present, and future, borne through the agonizing hours until death steals the last breath from His lungs.

Beyond the atonement secured through His death, what do we learn from the crucifixion? We learn how to restore the fundamental orientation of personhood: solicitude. For Jesus Himself has done this, His own life both a model and the source of strength we require to enter into this state of concern, readily available to us when we ask in faith.

To walk in Golgothic solicitude is to spend ourselves for others. It is to orient our perception of every facet of reality towards the question of how we can utilize our energy, our volition, for the upbuilding of other persons. Solicitude teaches us that all of life is intention and movement, and we were created for that intention and movement to be primarily directed towards others and not ourselves.

Immediately we hear this, and thoughts of self-preservation enter in. We feel weak; we do not have the strength to sustain this kind of life, even if it gives us purpose and meaning. We are aware of the necessity, perhaps even as unredeemed persons: phenomenologically, our consciousness is always directed out from us (even our thoughts exist, in the structures of experience, separate from ourselves). Yet the awareness of our self’s deterioration compels us to retract, to deny the impulse of solicitude.

Yet Jesus tells us — “he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” To seek preservation is to, quite literally, cause the dissolution of self. Here is a universal paradox: that we only become more fully ourselves when we engage in solicitude. An isolated self begets entropy; it prevents growth, which must always be outward, and thus intentional.

This is what we learn on Good Friday. The truest self is that self which is constructed from concern, consistently oriented outward to bear the emotional, psychological, and spiritual weight of others. In so doing for us, the God-Man teaches us to do it for others. Only then is our existence restored to reflect His goodness and present His image in the world.


P.C. Joshua Eckstein

Intrigue and Belief

The epistemologies of intrigue and belief are starkly opposed to one another, even when they appear similar and, in some cases, nearly identical. Intrigue involves fascination, an almost-sensuous thrill when one considers the object or the Other. But this fascination is distant — it prevents the object/Other from laying any kind of claim upon the fascinated person. The thrill of the intrigue, the admiration, is enough; one cannot, or does not, go beyond that thrill. Indeed, the longer one persists in fascination, the more one becomes convinced that the fascination is a kind of devotion, a commitment to the object/Other.

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John 3.1-2: Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Nicodemus is seen here as an admirer, a fascinated person. He recognizes the divine mission of Jesus, sees the miracles performed by God the Son. The anticipation he experiences upon witnessing these miracles leads him to definite conclusions about the carpenter from Nazareth. “We know. There is no doubt that you have come from Above, and I am fascinated by that fact; I greatly admire you for it, and I will even show you with the praise of my words — no one could do what you do unless God is with him.”

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Fascination grows with knowledge. The more one learns about the object/Other of admiration, the starker that admiration grows, until it reaches, in some cases, a nearly feverish pitch. The desires of a person are stirred up within, thoughts of deep affection cloud the mind and block out other considerations, and the admirer grows in his fascination until, by sheer emotional display, he proclaims himself the most devoted to the object/Other. And those around him without knowledge of the distinction between intrigue and belief agree — that man, he is the most devoted, and he is the one we should strive to be like: for see how fascinated he is!

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John 3.3: Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus knows what is in man, so He cuts through Nicodemus’ admiration and exposes the necessity of the new birth, the first sign of which is not admiration, fascination, intrigue — but belief. Faith is the lynchpin upon which hangs all the thoughts and actions of the new creation, formed and sustained by God. For belief, true belief, does what fascination cannot, what it does not — it reposes its confidence upon the object/Other in the same moment that it recognizes the claim that the Other has upon it — indeed, this reposing of confidence is surrendering to that claim.

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How is it that fascination creates distance between the admirer and the object/Other? When I am fascinated with something, with someone, I must step back to engage in admiration. I must disengage from any form of solicitude, from relating with intentionality towards whatever is at hand. If I display my fascination while relating to the object/Other, there will be in inevitable reaction, and that reaction demands a response, which in turn will provoke another reaction, etc. But when I create distance, I can stand afar off and look on without needing to bother with such exchanges. This is also how I manage to persuade myself that my devotion for the object/Other is real, for I experience it, actually experience it, even if it is never directed towards that which I so greatly admire. But how can one be devoted to something or someone unless this devotion is actually displayed?

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“Passion and reflection,” says Kierkegaard, “are generally exclusive of one another.” And what is intrigue but a kind of reflection — since reflection is self-referential and cyclical, never expressed outwardly towards that upon which I reflect. Thus reflection produces a kind of objectivity, whereby all are made into objects, even the Other — for there is no real, subjective engagement between me and the Other when all I do is admire with a loving but distant gaze.

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And what is faith but passion? For passion is always projected out from the soul; it must find a home elsewhere or it dies, it must hit its mark or it evaporates. When I truly believe in something, or someone, I will repose upon that object/Other, and state with the same certainty as Nicodemus: “I know.” But I will be more certain than he, for I have tested the theory, so to speak, tested it through actually following my devotion to the point of crisis, to the point of surrendering to the Other’s claim. Thus will I dwell in true solicitude with the Other, and thus will I gain true knowledge, beyond the theoretical, for my admiration will be embedded in my experience of surrender.

Humans as Lovers II: The Formation of Desire

In Part One of our exploration of humans-as-lovers, we established that viewing personhood from an essentially cognitive standpoint is incomplete and faulty. While worldviews and presuppositions are important guiding factors in determining a person’s ontological make-up, it is in desire — or love — that we find at the core of our decision-making and, consequently, the ultimate trajectory of the lives we lead. We are desiring creatures before we are anything else.

“Well then,” you say. “I’ll accept the notion. How does this work, though? If humans are lovers, then how are we to understand desire, and what are we to make of the various parts that make up personhood and daily experience?”

I’m glad you asked. Smith talks of four “components” that constitute this identity of persons-as-lovers: intentionality, telos, habit, and practice. By intentionality, Smith means the “aim” of love; he argues that human nature is basically, constantly oriented towards someone/something. There is always a bent in our thoughts, a connotation in our contemplations. This intentionality, found in Augustine and carried on in Heidegger, is the starting place for Smith’s “liturgical” anthropology.

Because all humans intend towards persons, ideas, and objects, we naturally have a telos in sight — an end goal, an ultimate, a metaphysical principle that constitutes, for us, the good life. The telos is the completion of our desires, the life’s purpose for which we long. Smith says that our telos is often tied to a “picture,” a vision of the good life that we can hold before us like an icon. This is because we are primarily imaginative creatures; images captivate us more than written propositions.

In our intentional strivings for this telos, we as lovers naturally create habits that are often reflexive and subconscious, automatic courses of action we don’t even have to think about adopting. Smith argues that this is the natural way that we make our way through the world; we don’t stop to think of every decision we make, because to do so would result in a life paralyzed by constant analysis. We act, more often than not, out of habit, and these habits are tied to our desires and our telos.

But how are these habits formed? Practices. Sustained practices, says Smith, which then end up becoming habits. These practices are usually tied to institutions, that is, gathered bodies which are deliberately centered around a particular telos. The practices of that institution teach its members to form habits that will cause them to become persons who love in a particular way. It is not that they learn to have desire, but that their desires are formulated, and eventually become instinctive as habits and as “invisible” as deeply buried intentions.

While we can agree with Smith’s overall analysis, there are a few issues with the model he presents. The first is the notion that all habits and practices are tied to a telos. While it may be true, for the vast majority of cases, that most practices have an ultimate goal or end in sight, there are a handful of teloi in today’s society that consist of the practices attached to them. In other words, there is no ultimate goal for particular modern practices, because the practices themselves are the goal — they form a sort of closed system that prohibits a vision of the good life from ever emerging. We have in mind modern methods of entertainment, especially those tied to technology, which more often than not — due to our fallen natures — forms a self-referential, and thus closed, system of practice and thought.

A second objection we have to Smith’s analysis is his idea of a telos having to be visionary, imaginary, or image-based. There is no doubt that one’s telos should be concrete and embodiable — that is, that specific practices can be imagined which show that telos in action in one’s life. However, a vision-based telos seems to be part of what lured Eve to partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. (Genesis 3.6.)

Yes, God became man, and in doing so revealed Himself in a concrete, visual fashion. Yet faith is the assurance of things hoped for — and we, as Christians, are called to walk by faith, not by sight. Therefore, it follows that our telos cannot be too visually based, or else we may fall into the same trap as Eve.

Aside from these caveats, we assert that Smith’s anthropology is accurate and insightful in understanding what drives and motivates humans in both the mundaneness of their everyday existences and the ultimate, overarching goals of their lives. Put another way, all humans are fundamentally religious in that they worship someone or something — they devote themselves, often viscerally, to particular ideologies, causes, or ways of being that govern their thoughts, their goals, their actions and interactions.

Of particular importance to note is the notion of how one’s telos is reached and even, in some cases, transformed. Through concrete, consistent practices, routines eventually become habits. Desires are inevitably effected by repetition; one simply has to consider Jesus’ statement to His disciples, “if you obey My commandments, you will abide in My love,” to see that this is so. The more an action or series of actions are performed, the more that an individual’s desire is shaped after those actions and their results. Of course there are exceptions. But we are speaking here of what drives people, of what their ultimate goals are and how they reach them. The answer, in the end, is not presuppositions or systems of thought — beyond these notions lies the bedrock of desire, of love, and it is here we find what pushes humans forward in all of their behavior and points of focus as they make their way through the world.

Gillette: The Worst Materialism Yet

 

 

The recent Gillette ad, which focuses upon the concept of toxic masculinity, has generated the kind of fierce debate that is typical of our times. Many men who are more traditionally minded have kicked back against the ad’s message, arguing that Gillette is taking a more “politically correct” slant in order to reach and entice a particular demographic of males. Others find it insulting that the ad (supposedly) implies a majority of men buy into this toxic masculinity.

On the other hand, moderates and progressives have welcomed the message espoused by Gillette, saying that it is high time influential forces in our culture speak up against what seems to be a growing social epidemic. True, the company only sells razors for facial hair; but in so doing, they have a unique opportunity to address a certain stratum and pinpoint some of the flaws in thinking that have gone lamentably unchecked for years.

My purpose here is not to argue for or against the concept of toxic masculinity, how men should be perceived, or whether or not most current criticisms leveled at us are fair. Truthfully, none of these are the real problems behind the message. Instead, I want to explore a deeper, more sinister issue, one that is seen most explicitly here and has, indeed, become more explicit in advertisements in the past couple of years: the commodification of values.

In a culture fueled by consumerism, where personal identities are both shaped and seen by and through the acquisition of products, it is important for producers to attach a particular message to what they produce in order to draw potential consumers to loyalty. Through the attachment of ideology to product, the producers implicitly claim that they stand by this ideology, and by purchasing their products, consumers show themselves to be the kinds of people who espouse the ideology in question.

This is more than a clever marketing strategy or a form of rhetoric. This is Mammonism, the idolatrous worship of materialism.

But how so? By embedding the ideology in the product. In other words, any system of values, any belief can be hijacked for the sake of what is material. Other messages can be wielded as instruments to further consumption because, ultimately, consumption is what matters the most. The material, the product, is supposedly able to embody whatever ideology is espoused in the advertisement. So it is that consumption becomes the most important action we can take: to be a consumer is to be a responsible human being, to be truly human.

This is why the message of the Gillette ad is, ultimately, irrelevant. Whether or not we think it is guilty of generalizations, stereotypes, and inaccurate assumptions is not the issue. The issue is that any kind of message is espoused at all, one that tries to address a particular aspect of human identity as if products are capable of making statements about identity. Yet this is what consumerism is: a rather crude form of radical materialism that reduces people to nothing but consumers, that lures them into purchase through visceral appeals that are reduced in quality because they are made subservient to the act of consumption.

Values cannot be commodified. When they are, they cease to be ideologies and become mere instruments that further fuel consumerism. They are no longer driving forces that provide individuals with purpose and furnish legitimate social movement; they are reduced to rhetoric to form human identity as little more than a black hole, constantly devouring the products proffered to it, perpetually devolving into passivity.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to be faithful to the words of our Lord: “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be…you cannot serve God and Mammon.” We cannot be mindful of the prohibition against the worship of consumerism if we are ignorant of Mammon’s devices, ignorant of how this particular form of idolatry seeks to ensnare us — by stealing our ideologies, our values, and commodifying them so that we will buy into whatever is offered. Only as we become more mindful “purchasers” of products (is it even appropriate for Christians to refer to themselves as “consumers”?) will we be effective witnesses against the materialism of the culture in which we are called to bear witness to the liberating truth of the Gospel.


Additional Resources: If you would like to read more about the ideology of consumerism and appropriate Christian responses to material idolatry, please see the following:

Jacques Ellul — Money and Power

William Cavanaugh — Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire