2013-09-02

We greet God in the Face of "The Other"



Over the past couple of years I have been thinking about how to integrate some of the major themes of postmodern ethical theory into a genuinely Trinitarian, Incarnational worldview. Although I know whole forests of trees have been cut down to make books which (over)analyze these concepts, I would like to put forward some short and sweet recommendations about how to integrate these concepts into a Classically Christian spirituality.

My meditation will center around concepts of welcome, embrace, inclusion, tolerance, difference, "other"-ness (le autre), and "the face of the other" as popularized by thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Jack Caputo, and Emmanuel Lévinas, and expanded and critiqued by theorists like Slavoj Žižek.
I do not claim this to be ANYTHING like a comprehensive review of these concepts, nor an exact agreement with, or re-presentation of, these views as they are held by these thinkers. Rather, I am taking the broad strokes of these ideas and applying them in a certain way to a kind of Christian "moral spirituality". For a good summary of these concepts in short form, I would recommend:

Derrida, difference and The Other:
http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Other

The Other in Literature:
http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/other.html

The Face of the Other in Levinas:
http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/levinas/face.pdf

So, on the basis of our Biblical inheritance and the inheritance of postmodern philosophy, I offer the following proposition:

We greet God in the Face of "The Other"

Now let me briefly explore this statement:

WE GREET GOD IN: A relationship starts with welcoming, and welcoming begins with greeting. If we are to Love someone, we must first welcome, first greet, them. We must accept them with all their difference and otherness, in order to begin to know them and share in life with them. In welcoming others, we welcome God Himself. One of the core values of following Jesus as Lord is to welcome others, greeting them with God's peace, with radical hospitality, and genuine inclusion.

This is not a bland tolerance or jib niceness, but authentically giving of self to embody Christ to others made in his image. Thus, the practice of greeting and welcoming others forms in us the practice of hospitality. And hospitality, in turn, is the Christ-like answer to the questions raised by postmodern concepts of inclusion and tolerance (as will be detailed below).

Hospitality can thus be understood as "welcoming with a view to challenging each other to become the most Christlike version of ourselves, while never ceasing to embrace one another in healing love". This is in contrast with inauthentic visions of inclusion, in which we blandly tolerate each other without caring whether the other person is healed and made whole.

As for our Biblical inheritance, I would offer the following passages as a start in exploring these ideas:

  • Genesis 18 Abraham welcomes the three visitors as YHWH
  • Hebrews 13.2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
  • Rom. 12:13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. [cf. Isa 58:6-7; Jn 13:12-15; Ro 12:13; 1Pe 4:9]
  • Titus 1:8 [An elder] must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. [1Ti 3:2; 1Ti 5:9-10]
  • Luke 10.5–6 [5] Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ [6] And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 
  • Matthew 5.43–48 [43] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [44] But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [45] so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. [46] For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [47] And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [48] Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [cf. Luke 6:32]


THE OTHER: God is holy, and therefore wholly different than any being that can be imagined. Thus, God is the ultimate "other", the absolute stranger, outsider, and alien to the created universe. Furthermore, the Divine Life is eternally made up of three "Others" who participate in each other as the Triune God, as they receive and give their difference to one another in a mutually interpenetrating dance of Love.

Thus, otherness is a core dimension of God's essence when viewed from both outside and inside of God's Triune Life. In addition, when God became incarnate in Jesus, God submitted Godself to complete otherness, difference, ostracism, persecution and murder at the hands of "insiders". And therefore, to participate in the difference of those who are other than, and different from, us is a participation in the Divine Nature, as well as a participation in Christ's sufferings. It seems that it is upon this basis that God commands (or rather following Jesus naturally entails) that we love and welcome and embrace "the other": The alien, the stranger, the outsider, and even the enemy.

As a ramification for postmodern life, while holding a "pluralist worldview" is not entailed in following Jesus as Lord and Christ, practicing hospitality and inclusion to all regardless of worldview IS entailed. Although this stress on "the other" first came to me in postmodern theorists such as Derrida, Levinas, and Caputo, it is the transposition of a Biblical heuristic into a postmodern key. The stress on loving and welcoming "the other" allows the Christ follower to be MORE inclusive than the metaphysically de-tethered postmodern precisely because the Christ-follower is tethered to the Ultimate Other by narrative, faith, and sacrament.

As for our Biblical inheritance, I would offer the following passages as a start in exploring these ideas:

  • Rom. 13.8   Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves "the other" has fulfilled the law. [cf. Mat 22.37-40; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8]
  • Matthew 5.43–48 [43] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [44] But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [45] so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. [46] For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [47] And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [48] Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [cf. Luke 6:32]
  • Lev. 19:33-34 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. [also Ex 22:21; 23:9]
  • Mat 25.31-46 What you have done for the least of these you have done also for me. [also Lk 14:12-14; Jas 2:2-4]


THE FACE OF THE OTHER: The face is the nexus of encountering the person, as well as participating in the Divine Life of the God who the person mirrors as "the image of God". The face of "the other" carries with it an absolute moral responsibility to treat them with absolute dignity as bearers of God's very life. The face as the nexus of moral responsibility was first brought to my attention by the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, but once pointed out it becomes a heuristic that draws several Biblical themes together.

The Biblical tradition stresses that we encounter God's pleasure and God's judgment as God "shines his face upon us" or "turns his face against us". Furthermore, our final destination is to encounter God "face to face". This eschatological face to face encounter is brought forward in time when the unseen God deigns to be seen in the face of Jesus. Just as the face of Jesus makes God immediately present to us (for those who have seen him have seen the Father), so also the incarnate face of "the other" makes Jesus present to us.

To abstract or conceptualize "the face of the other" into yet another proposition that can be consumed and systematized would be to deny the personhood of the person we are seeking to know. It would be making a kind of idol. Just as the Beatific Vision of God can be pointed to, yet not contained, by linguistic symbols, so also this is true of the face-to-face encounter with any of God's image bearers.

In addition, as the gaze on the body is so often the site of objectification of "the other" (as underpaid labor, as sexual object, as target of violence, etc.), so also the face is the site and sight of the other as a person, possessing infinite worth and worthy of absolute dignity. This makes the face not only a conceptual focus for moral theory, but a very practical site of continual moral action, as we strive to focus on the faces (and hence reactions, needs, identities) of those we encounter daily, instead of focusing on their bodies as means of utility to us.

As for our Biblical inheritance, I would offer the following passages as a start in exploring these ideas:

  • Gen. 1.26    Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness..."
  • John 14.9 Jesus said "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?"
  • 2 Corinthians 4.6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. [cf.  2Cor. 3:18, 4:4; Eph. 4:24; Col. 1:15, 3:10; James 3:7-9]
  • Mat 25.31-46 What you have done for the least of these you have done also for me. [also Lk 14:12-14; Jas 2:2-4]
  • Matt. 10.40   “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. [cf. Mat 18.5; 18.18-20; 25.40; 25.45; 28.20]


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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.