Yesterday the Fare Forward staff posted two articles, one by David Brooks and one by Mark Mitchell, on issues of rootedness and particularity. Here are three quick thoughts on the importance of particularity to Christianity.
First, Christianity cares about particularity because it cares about love. Mitchell quite rightly notes that it is much easier to love the world or humanity in general than it is to love a single, particular human being who embodies all the limitations of our species. And in quoting Dostoevsky he picks the right author in making his point. Dostoevsky’s remarks on love and particularity, as I have noted before, are a brilliant counterpoint to the facile ideology of global love, which is one of the most popular spiritual pathologies of our age. Christianity cares about love; God is love and we are called to love. But you cannot love an abstraction. Love, true love, must be concrete. It must be able to embrace particular people and communities who can be extraordinary difficult to love.
Second, Christianity upholds the particularity of love because Christ came in the particular. This past spring, I had a conversation with a former Catholic who had lost her faith in college. She told me something like, “I just think if God was real everyone would know him. He would just be obvious to all cultures and places.” It became clear as the conversation went on that she was not worried about the (one must say rare) presence of atheism in human cultures. She was worried about the fact that Christianity claimed a particular historical narrative for itself, that it held out truths that could not be discerned by the reflection of pure reason, a priori. People sometimes call this “the scandal of particularity”: the fact that God became a particular person, in a particular historical context, and interacted with particular people. Of course, God also transcends particularity, but in the Incarnation He nonetheless embraced it. And yet, like Brooks’ Springsteen example, His particularity has proven itself able to carry a universal appeal.
Third, Christianity cares about rootedness and particularity because it cares about the health of our nation. Our rootlessness has caused immeasurable damage to our spiritual, emotional, and material health. Wendell Berry’s ruminations on the importance of returning home in this essay are an excellent place to start in understanding this damage. Berry’s critique of endless mobility has been given sociological confirmation in Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart. Murray noted a widening cultural gap between poor and working class Americans and rich Americans, a gap that has been all to the detriment of the poor. A contributing factor to this gap has been the self-segregation of the elite away from centers of working-class life. If people from non-elite families or areas who have “made it” more often returned home to live, we might see some of the problems Murray chronicles ameliorated, as commentators have noted.