Dr. Moran is associate professor of religious education at New York University.
This article appeared in the Christian Century Aug. 29-September 5, 1979, p. 817. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
There are two meanings in the word “unique.” 1. To be different from all others. 2. That which distinguishes a person from a thing (that is, the ontological meaning). Many statements in Christian history can be misunderstood if one misses the paradox in the meanings of this word.
The word “unique” has appeared with regularity in recent Christian theology, often as the most fundamental claim. For example, Jesus is said to be unique as the revelation of God or the way of salvation. It is therefore surprising that this complex and confusing word is seldom analyzed. The relation of the Christian church both to the contemporary world and to other religions might be clarified by looking at the meanings of unique.
The problem can be illustrated by citing a recent widely publicized book, The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick (Westminster, 1977). It has received negative reviews in this country, but the problem it explores does not go away. People are indeed bothered by the apparent provincialism and arrogance of the Christian church. The authors of the book seek to cure the problem by a dramatic elimination of the “myth” of incarnation. Since both myth and incarnation are used confusedly throughout the book, one could suspect that the cure will not work.
Before deciding to accept or reject anything, one has to know its meaning. Unfortunately, this statement is not an obvious truism; the simplest-looking terms are almost by definition the most complex in meaning. Earlier historical periods may not have engaged in linguistic analysis, but still they may have understood that important terms have complex and multidimensional meanings.
Uses of ‘Unique’
On the first page of The Myth of God Incarnate, Maurice Wiles acknowledges that the word incarnation has two meanings: a “looser” one referring to Christianity’s affirmation of the physical world, and a “stricter” one referring to God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth. The book proposes to eliminate the stricter and keep the looser; in fact, it suggests that the stricter is an obstacle to the looser. Surely this initial description of the problem should give us pause. Are the designations “stricter” and “looser’ an appropriate way to relate these two meanings? If the meanings are incompatible, how did it happen that the same word is used for both? How can we save a “looser” meaning by getting rid of the “stricter” one?
One way to get at these questions is through examining the word “unique.” This word, which runs as a refrain throughout the book, is never analyzed. Words often do have conflicting meanings, and that circumstance should be brought out into the open. Usually the conflict cannot be eliminated, but sometimes it is possible to shift the balance of meaning within a word. In religious matters one may wish to preserve conflict or tension -- though not contradiction.
The book’s thesis is stated by Frances Young on page 32: “A literal incarnation doctrine, expressed in however sophisticated a form, cannot avoid some element of docetism, and involves the believer in claims for uniqueness which seem straightforwardly incredible to the majority of our contemporaries.” The same writer says on page 38: “Jesus is the supreme disclosure which opens my eyes to God in the present, and while remaining a man who lived in a particular historical situation, he will always be the unique focus of my perception of and response to God.” The phrase “unique focus” is used here as a sort of personal testimony, although it appears in addition with reference to St. Paul (p. 22).
Toward the end of the essay (p. 40) Young writes: “Is it possible to safeguard the uniqueness and finality of Christ if we abandon a clear dogmatic stance? It should be clear from remarks made earlier that I doubt whether there is any necessity to safeguard this in an ‘ontological’ sense -- indeed it may be detrimental to do so.” She is giving up, or rather is opposing, an “ontological” meaning of uniqueness, but she never says what the other kind of uniqueness is.
The deficiency in this analysis suddenly appears in the next sentence: “Truth about the world is found nowadays not in unique particular exceptions but in statistical averages.” I cannot believe Young really means to say that, but she offers no other alternative to “unique.” If religious study issues in the conclusion that truth is found in statistical averages, I think one ought to go back and check one’s assumptions. Are the choices limited to “unique particular exceptions” and “statistical averages,” or might there be a meaning of unique clearly distinguishable from particular exceptions? Young’s own use of the word, as in the “personal testimony” passage cited from page 38, suggests another possibility.
The word unique has two distinct meanings. They are not contradictory because there is a common note that holds the two together. From that point, however, they go in opposite directions. When people use the word unique, sometimes they have one meaning clearly in mind -- and this is true of both past and present. More often than not, however, the conflicting meanings have not been sorted out. In this case “unique” is no more unusual than the words dependence, power, love, femininity and hundreds of others.
Young, as previously noted, calls one meaning of unique “ontological.” Although she doesn’t name the other, the word ontological leaves little room for the competition. My guess is that the other meaning has to be subjective or private (“my unique focus”), though I doubt that she wishes to drive such a wedge between the “real world” and her private beliefs. I would suggest that both meanings have a share in the “ontological” realm; in fact, the one which Young casually dismisses without naming may have richer ontological status.
The two meanings of “unique” are united in the denotation “to differ from all others.” In one case what is unique differs from all others by a process of exclusion; in the other, by a process of inclusion. The two cases can be illustrated by the following sequences:
(1) a, b, c, d
(2) a, ab, abc, abcd
In the first case, d is unique in the set of elements a, b, c, d. It shares no common notes with a, b, c. In the second case, abcd is unique in the set a, ab, abc, abcd. It is the only element which includes all of the individual components, a, b, c, d. It is uniquely different by being the only one which is like all of them.
An important aspect to note is that in both meanings we are dealing with cases of limits. That is, the cases approach indefinitely close to a point but never reach it. When we say that something is unique, we point in the direction of “different from all the others.”
In the first case, d is unique with respect to whatever a, b, c stand for. But to the extent, for example, that a, b, c, d are all letters, then d is not “entirely unique.” If we change the sequence to a, b, c, 9 then 9 is no longer sharing the attribute of “letter,” but it is still a written sign. There can never be a “unique thing” because it will share at least the attribute of “thingness” with other things. Things can approach uniqueness by the process of exclusion, but they don’t ever get there. The comparative “more unique” is not quite right. Unique is a limit that is never reached; something can only be “more nearly unique.” Commonly when we call some things unique, we have assumed a set of reference.
The second example is more obviously a limit case: a, ab, abc, abcd immediately suggests that there can be an abcde. That would mean abcd is not “entirely unique.” If novelty and history are allowed at all, then there is nothing which is truly unique by inclusion. The last possibility in history could conceivably be unique, but it would require a receptive or inclusionary character that we do not associate with things of our experience. Note, however, that we do experience this direction or process in the very existence of “person.” Not accidentally, common speech uses the word unique as descriptive of human individuality.
Uniqueness of Person
This second meaning of unique is not a less precise or “looser” meaning than the first. It is this second meaning which distinguishes person from thing. Things maintain their reality by excluding other things; persons individuate by going in the opposite direction. There is, of course, an astounding paradox to the human being which the word unique records, and unsophisticated folk as well as philosophers know that the paradox is real -- that is, ontological.
The drive inherent to the human is to become everything without ceasing to be oneself. No human being achieves that aim while on this earth, but the process is so distinctly human that common speech allows the word unique in this second sense to refer to every person.
Common speech also recognizes that some people are “more unique” than others. The more a person embodies his or her people or the historical era, the more readily the word unique comes to mind. What was said of Cromwell -- that he was the most typical Englishman of his time because he was the oddest -- makes the peculiar logic of uniqueness apparent. Erik Erikson’s description of Luther captures several elements in the lives of the “more unique”: “An individual is called upon (called by whom only the theologians claim to know, and by what only bad psychologists) to lift his individual patienthood to the level of a universal one and to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone” (Young Man Luther [Norton, 1958] p. 67).
The story of Luther would obviously be unthinkable before the story of Jesus. Western history, and to some extent all history, was changed by Jesus of Nazareth. Our meaning of person -- and the full meaning of uniqueness -- emerged with Jesus and subsequent reflection on him. I am not speaking here of what church people usually mean by faith; I am referring to the history of philosophical concepts and language. The reason why “unique” is so appropriately used of Jesus is that it was through his existence that the meaning of uniqueness was invented or, better yet, discovered. This fact does not mean that Jesus actually was “entirely unique” in the second sense; no human being could be. But in making human beings aware that this meaning does exist, the uniqueness of Jesus can be a key to the inclusive uniqueness of universal history itself.
Many statements in Christian history can be misunderstood if one misses the paradox in the word unique. For example, when it has been said that “Jesus is the unique relevation of God,” the statement may be a way of excluding everyone else or it may be a paradoxical way of including everyone else. It is unfair to the first, fourth or 13th century Christians to assume that they were ignorant of such paradox. Perhaps the paradox cannot be conveyed in the same language used in the past, but if we are to do better, we will have to appreciate the accomplishment of the past.
In Christian history, reflection on Jesus of Nazareth led to a distinction between nature and person. Far from being an esoteric shuffling of categories, these concepts were the very center of a creationist metaphysic that sharply contrasted person and nature. Thus it was that “person” began its long ascent to the head of philosophical concepts. In not being reducible to nature, a person is not a what but a who. Every person has dignity, individuality -- and uniqueness.
Rather than being in opposition, uniqueness and universality arose together. Anyone who wishes to reach out to universal history by doing away with uniqueness should reconsider their common origin. People today who appreciate the uniqueness of each human being also sense the relation of this unique. ness to a larger picture of history. For example, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes:
To be a therapist to a dying patient makes us aware of the uniqueness of each individual in this vast sea of humanity. . . . Few of us live beyond our three score and ten years and yet in that brief time most of us create and live a unique biography and weave ourselves into the fabric of human history [On Death and Dying (Macmillan, 1969), p. 276].
The dilemma I have posed is this: (1) We cannot give up the second meaning of unique. (2) The second meaning of unique is irretrievably tied to the first. (3) Any time that the church affirms the uniqueness of Jesus, that affirmation is easily misunderstood as an intolerant and provincial statement. There is no way to “solve” this dilemma. The risk of misunderstanding has always been with us and always will be. However, there are steps that we can take to enhance the second meaning of unique and lessen the chance of misunderstanding.
The meaning of a word or statement is not determined solely by isolated intention. Words and statements exist in a context of meaning. The proper context for statements about Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish community and Jewish history of which he is part. The Myth of God Incarnate, like so many books in Christian theology, has almost nothing to say about Jesus’ Jewish people. A person is unique by being receptive to his or her family, environment and social history. If one lifts Jesus out of a Jewish setting, then there is no longer any way for “unique” to refer to a person. Instead, we have a unique “Christ,” which is not a personal name, or we have a unique “Christian revelation,” which refers to texts. As soon as one eliminates Jewishness from Jesus, the assertion of uniqueness becomes arrogant and exclusivistic because, despite protest to the contrary, one is now talking of things, not a person.
Uniqueness with reference to person has both Greek and Jewish roots. Religiously, it is a development within the idea of “chosenness” and should never be separated from that context. In our enlightened age of statistical averages, Jews are often advised to give up the idea of having been “chosen.” But despite the risk of misunderstanding, they have stubbornly held on to (or been held by) the term “chosen.” At first glance the phrase may appear to be a pretentious claim to superiority, but anyone even slightly familiar with Jewish history knows it to be a paradoxical and ironic description of the Jews’ suffering and the Jewish relation to universal history.
“Chosen people,” like “unique person,” is something of a redundancy. To be chosen is to be a people; to be unique is to be a person. Peoplehood arose from a sense of chosenness. Judaism at its richest and best has always known that the real chosen people are simply people. Jews are the “chosen people’s people”; they stand in for humanity for the sake of humanity. Uniqueness is a further development within this religious notion. The Christian church at its best has been the affirming of every unique person in the chosen people.
Such an approach would not immediately reconcile Judaism and Christianity. It would, however, eliminate much of the intolerance toward Judaism that still typifies Christian language. The Jewish community of Jesus’ time and the Jewish people of today must be affirmed if the church is to speak a language both true to its past and addressed to all people today. For their part, Jews might find most of what is said of Jesus by the church to be a legitimate strand of development within Judaism. Jew and Christian would remain divided on the interpretation of history, but eventually there might be more that would unite them than would separate them.
An Interplay of Relations
A second step we can take starts with the realization that so long as Christian theology talks about “God and man” the second meaning of unique is obscured by the first. The process of growing inclusion cannot be explored with the word “man,” a high-level abstraction with a tendency toward the ideological. The critique of language on feminist and ecological grounds is at the heart of the second meaning of unique. “Man” inevitably becomes a static and exclusive concept. If one’s only building blocks are man and God, then nothing will be built except a shaky two-story structure. In contrast, if one begins with words closer to what exists (men, women, children, animals, trees . . .), one can explore the relations out of which uniqueness develops.
When the tools of analysis are man and God, then “man” retains its uniqueness by excluding the meaning of God. Hence, as the idea of God expands in meaning, one of two outcomes will result: (1) it will intrude on man, or (2) God will be placed on the other side of the conjunction “and,” which is patently inadequate, religiously and philosophically. The supposition that someone is both God and man is judged in this context to be absurd and unintelligible.
If one begins with the interplay of men, women, children and nonhumans, however, then it can be seen that persons discover their uniqueness as they take in the world around them, They discover that their lives are a gift that is there for the receiving; in this givenness they are not their own possessions. The creation of their being is not experienced as an alien force or a contiguous object. The relation between personal autonomy and the being of the world as a whole becomes apparent to most people as they recognize it in the lives of certain other people. In this context a relation between human person and divine creativity, although complex, becomes a meaningful question to consider. A language that unites divine and human does need to be carefully worked out, but the question is certainly not absurd or unintelligible.
The Reconstruction of Meaning
Traditional Christian language is in need of considerable reconstruction. The project may be beyond what all of us who are church people can manage at this time in history. Nonetheless, I think we can respect the past and begin working in the right direction. The reaction to books like The Myth of God Incarnate is often contemptuous: Don’t these authors know that the medieval rules for the predication of attributes have solved all the problems they are dealing with? The statements of Chalcedon or the Bible may be true in their cow texts, but we still have a crisis of meaning for Christian statements in our own context.
In the reconstruction of meaning a crucial decision is what comes first. As I have tried to show, the question of uniqueness has to be explored before one can speak of divine word or incarnation. There is still a long way to go beyond what I have written here, but the starting point and the direction seem to me the most important emphases. Reticence might well be a special virtue for our day. I have not denied any Christian doctrines, but I might not care to repeat some of them, unsure of what, if anything, they mean in today’s context. It is rash to reject the central propositions of past tradition, but it is also rash to utter many of them today, except perhaps in the context of liturgical prayer. We respect the past by understanding its formulations, not simply by repeating them.
Language analysis takes place in a social context, What we need today is a church that would know what “unique” means because the word describes what it is doing. Every reduction of anti-Semitism, every gain for women, children and ecology, makes the second meaning of unique more available. Every time the church or any of its people align themselves with the downtrodden, then the claim to uniqueness becomes more credible.
Jesus is the name of the one through whom uniqueness was first clearly grasped. Christ is the name that the church gives to the finally unique which can come only with the end of history. People who lay claim to the word Christian should be those who are affirming uniqueness in every human life so that all of us human beings may eventually discover that we are all chosen people.