Eccentricity: A Spirituality of Difference. David is a good friend of mine. He was my Pastor for two of my four years as Youth Director at First Congregational Church. I've always known he was a sharp thinker and a good writer and in this book he didn't disappoint. He took on the ambitious objective of examining and exploring the concept of eccentricity and difference, engaging such heavyweight thinkers as Calvin, Caussade, Jung, and Derrida in only 115 pages or so (quite ambitious!). But I think he pulled it off quite well. His Yale education did him well.
David Auten says some things that need to be said. His perspective illuminates, perhaps, one side of the wonderful coin of human identity. If you're persuaded, as I am, by the primalness of relationships...
(Moltmann, in God in Creation says, "...in reality relationships are just as primal as the things themselves..." and Andrew Root writes, in The Relational Pastor, "...there is no humanity without relationship...we human beings, we upright walkers on the earth are fundamentally persons, given our very personhood...through being bound one to another...")
...then Auten will be a necessary and perhaps complementary challenge. Focusing his reflective energies toward the individual (rather than the communal) and toward difference (rather than solidarity and same-ness), Auten rounds out our understanding of human identity.
He asserts that "Community...is all well and good, and relationships are undoubtedly an essential aspect of life. But we must never lose sight of the inescapable starting place of our individuality, our distinction from all our material relations. Insofar as I am, I am a monad, as are you" (32). So even though he affirms the central place of the communal in human identity, he still addresses the individual as the "starting place" (which implies a direct affront to Moltmann's idea parenthetically quoted above). But at the same time he submits that "we are neither pure nature nor pure nurture. We are a complex combination of both, and so much more. There has never been, nor will there ever be, another you" (31).
In his reflection on the Imago Dei. He takes up a fairly apophatic doctrine of God, meaning, "definition of the divine must proceed by negation" (49). In other words, God is understood by what God is not. "Definition of God is rightly and wholly rooted in difference" (49). This explains why he also sees human identity in apophatic terms. "You are you..." Auten writes, "...by virtue of your difference from everything else around you. You are not your mother. You are not your friends. You are not the seat in which you sit..." (30). And even when he gets to the incarnation, he emphasizes the concealment of God as well as the revelation of God in the Son. Paradoxically perhaps, "both God's revelation and concealment are affirmed... Anything we know of God will invariably be by way of some kind of concealment, some make of a mask, otherwise we are surely speaking of something less than God. And yet, the other side...is that God the Son nevertheless has made God known to us" (103). This idea of concealment, for Auten, liberates us from feeling shame about the "masks" we wear in different relationships (i.e. wearing one mask with our family and another in a board meeting). These masks simultaneously reveal and conceal who we really are, and "authenticity" is no longer only the removing of masks, but the loving discernment of which mask is most appropriate and genuine for the situation. Auten writes, "A more authentic version of authenticity, one that honors our calling to love first and foremost, acknowledges the reality of the masquerade..."(94). Thus, Auten makes concrete theological connections between an apophatic doctrine of God and an apophatic theological anthropology.
Like I said, this is an ambitious project for 115 pages. But it's accessible, well-written, and important. David Auten's sustained reflection on the particularity of 'you' offers welcome nuance and challenge to the ongoing conversation concerning human identity and personhood. It's a wonderful book. Buy it and read it!