I learned some new terms this week: whatness and thisness.* These words (while seeming to belong in Alice in Wonderland) reflect a deep spiritual truth. Before the 13th century, philosophers had commonly spoken of the term “quiddity” (from the Latin word “quid” which means “what”). Quiddity refers the “whatness” of an object – the thing that makes that object what it is. For example, what makes a dog a dog is the essence of all dogs. All leaves will have the same “whatness.” Humans have the same make-up – the same “whatness.” (Bear with me here. This understanding is worth the struggle.)
In the 13th century John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan priest born in what is now Scotland, created the word haecceity from the Latin word haec which means “this.” Scotus believed that it was important to understand the individuality of each leaf or a dog or a person within the general make up (the whatness) of that leaf or dog or person. In other words we are all the same, but we are also all different. No two leaves are alike; no two persons are alike.
Now, philosophy usually boggles my mind; I hated philosophy class in college – although it could have been the prof! However, this idea of whatness/thisness strikes me as very useful as we travel the path of being an apprentice of Jesus. It is a way to cut through stereotypes and prejudice, which we desperately need to do if our civilization is to survive.
The key is this. If we look at each person as part of our “group,” sharing our “whatness,” and being identical in genetics to ourselves, we can no longer see a criminal, a person of a different religion, a person whose gender identification we cannot accept, a person of a different racial heritage – even the driver that prompts road rage – as “different” i.e. unacceptable.
On the flip side, if we see the “thisness” of a particular person, we can love the person and want the best for him or her because of the individuality of his or her personality, thought processes, character, and quirkiness. How do I dare dismiss or ignore, or cause harm to someone, if I value their “thisness” and the God who created them with that “thisness.”
It seems apparent that this vision of how we look at others is unlikely to come to pass for most of us. But we can come closer if we claim the Holy Spirit’s promised intervention “to will and to act in us in order to fulfill his good purpose”(Philippians 2:13). The idea that God can will us to act like Jesus is an encouraging reason to claim “whatness” and “thisness” as a life-long goal.
*For more explanation on this concept see “God Soaked Life” by Chris Webb (pages 106-113)