Tuesday, November 24, 2009

is is

It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.


-- President William Jefferson Clinton



My morning apple is green, but Clark Kent is Superman, Barack Obama is the President, Marlon Brando is Stanley Kowalski and God is Love. And this morning it is time to get up and it is raining or rather, there is rain here. Some people say that one politician is just like another or rather, there is no difference between them. Under the table these two letters, is, are operated by many different actors doing different kinds of things. And so, while the president drew scorn for his motives, he was voicing one of the most intractable and complicated controversies in the history of civilization. Much depends on the meaning of the word “is.”


Philosophers throw chairs at each other over the dilemmas of Essence and Existence, Being and Becoming. Plato the Essentialist tells me that my chair is only a chair because it participates in the eternal and invariable idea of chairness, and that all the details we most care about, the size and shape, grain of the wood, pattern of upholstery, comfort of its padding to the small of the back, are so much insignificant detail. David Hume the Empiricist tells me that my chair is only a chair by supporting my butt, reflecting light in a certain way, squeaking when I sit down it, feeling soft or hard, warm or cool to the hand, and any thought about its essence or the nature of its chairness is an idea that I make up by fusing those primary realities. Jean-Paul Sartre the Existentialist would go further, and say that talk of essence is dishonest metaphysical claptrap – bad faith – and the chair is nothing but how it exists, maybe not even that.


There’s no pure language for the asking of such questions, no way to ask that does not presuppose one of the answers. But we can’t avoid the questions. I am what I am and I am becoming what I am becoming, but which aspect is “real?” Do you know me when I do exactly what you thought I would do? Or do you come to know me when I do the miraculous thing you never expected? It matters whether you say, “You’re not the person I took you for” or “You’ve become a different person.” Both statements claim new knowledge, but one of them privileges essence and being, while the other privileges existence and becoming. Orthodox theology says God is what He is, “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Process theology says God is becoming what She is becoming, is “emotionally affected” and “suffers with the world.”* The priest wants us to be something, but the prophet wants us to become something. Perhaps salvation is our becoming what we are.


There is a chair and there is a Hollis sitting in it; there is also a Harvard and, depending on what language game I play as I say it, there might be a God. But there is no Harvard in the sense that there is a chair: Harvard is not a collection of objects. And there is no God in the sense that there is a Harvard: God is not a closed relationship of persons. But all these kinds of things exist – they exist when we talk about them in the proper way.


And if we speak improperly about them, they don’t exist. If I cannot name the chair, and take it for a hairbrush, then it’s just an object. If the people of Harvard forget to address each other by their callings, if they take themselves for a political party or a sociology experiment, then it’s just another aimless club. And if I forget how to use the word God, naming an object or a datum or a person instead, then God will be proven not to exist.


When Kitty taught me how to pray,** the Holy Spirit came a-visiting, and it surprised me. There wasn’t another person in the room. The thermostat was not affected. There was no extra rush of oxygen. These are the facts. There was just me and Kitty, holding each other’s hands, and saying certain words. There are no facts about God. But I knew the visitor had come because I felt it leave when we were done. Kitty said the Lord was with us, and I won’t argue with her.


*David Ray Griffin, “Process Theology,” A New Handbook of Christian Theology, eds. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), pp. 386-7.


**”First Client,” November 17, 2008

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